|By Zach Patterson||Monday, 2 Jul 2007|
From the moment this game came out, I knew it was something special. Unfortunately, knowing something is special and having time and money for it are two different things. So it wasn’t until a few months ago that I actually picked up Shadow of the Colossus. And while the game is far from perfect, it’s an experience that you won’t find on any other game console and ranks up there with the finest Playstation 2 games released since the system’s inception.
The basic premise of the game is very simple: there are 16 “boss” battles in the game. You must find each colossus and defeat it. That’s it. There’s no in between battles with other creatures or thugs or anything like that. While this sounds rather hollow to build a game concept upon, the presentation of the game makes all the difference in the world. Similar to Ico (as this is, in fact, a prequel), it is a fantasy world that feels a bit like a part of medieval Earth abandoned by settlers due to the Colossi (also, being known as the cursed land doesn’t inspire too many people to stay). As such, the land is full of wide green fields, windy desolate deserts, dark canyons, small forests, waterfalls, and beaches that are mostly untouched by man.
Curiously, though, there are man-made structures in nearly every area, signs that life had once been blossoming here before some great disaster. There are altars, towers, pillars, stairwells, bridges, and villages, all of them crumbling from neglect. This is one of the more interesting parts of the game, as no extended story is given for the world you are in, and no extra text is given to items that you can read. Instead it seems to just exist, and the player is made to draw their own conclusions as to what has happened.
And since this is a game with no enemies aside from the Colossi and falling to your own death, the world becomes a large part of the game. In fact, it often overshadows everything else in the game. In nearly every battle, the environment comes into play, be it through climbing to the top of a colosseum, hiding in underground ruins, or finding safe haven on a sinking bridge in flooded town. Additionally, since your character, Wander, is equipped with some modest but skillful climbing abilities, finding a way around areas provides half the fun. When you start finding hand holds and paths, you know you are getting close to another battle. Sometimes, an expedition will lead you to a dead end. Sure this is a bit annoying, but exploration in Shadow of the Colossus is a big point, and getting lost sometimes means finding cool areas of the map that you may never go to for a battle. The map was made to be a realistic world, and the space between battles is not just filler. It feels like a real world.
I think another point that sets this game apart from other games of the PS2 generation is that it doesn’t spoil you with powerups, maps, and combo moves, and excessive story. While these are not necessarily bad things (and one might say they have been around since the 8-bit era; they have, however, become much more prominent in the years and systems since then) it is interesting the philosophy the game takes. This characters is who he is. Yes, he does subtly gain better grip and strength as each battle passes, but there’s no Fire Summon Staff or machine gun or secret double jump move in the game. The same moves from the first battle are all you have at the last battle. The “map” in the game is a sword that acts like a divining rod of sorts (there’s also a largely unhelpful gigantic area map that seems like a paper Wander threw in his pocket…it marks where you killed a colossi, but other than that it’s worthless). You press a button and the sword, if daylight is visible, will direct you in the general vicinity of the next battle. This is often a frustrating task, as the sword occasionally points you in the wrong direction, or tries to take you through a wall. In this way, you are at the mercy of an unseen magical force to fulfill your quest. You can imagine the character’s frustration trying to find these monsters when you as the player cannot even simply look at an area map and see “oh that’s where he is” like most action-adventure games.Then the story itself is told in the opening cinema, through one or two brief interludes between battles, and at the end of the game. Even with little story being told, it is told very well and is very touching and heartbreaking.
Playing the game itself is something of a mixed bag. It’s obvious early on that Wander is not graceful, quiet, fast, powerful, or supernatural like his contemporaries Solid Snake, Kratos, or Dante, for example. Wander is, by and large, a normal young man. He trips over rocks, he runs a bit slow, he stumbles about when the earth shakes and loses his balance, his sword seems to drag him down a bit, he gets beat up and stays down to get his wind back, and he mainly relies on his horse for transportation. While controlling Wander still is pretty standard for most 3D games, being on Wander’s horse Agro provides some realistic yet often annoying control mechanics. Speaking from growing up with horses for years and riding them at several points in my life, I can safely say that riding and controlling horses is not an exact science. They have their own quirks and thoughts and while a trained horse will generally do what you ask, it is not a car that is controlled completely by the user. Agro faithfully represents this, for better or worse. At times, turning Agro is a chore, and often he will not respond to your prodding to make him go faster or in a certain direction. This was apparently intentional to give that bit of dealing with reality to the game. I can understand the decision, but damn if it isn’t annoying at points. Additionally, once you find a Colossi, defeating it is another set of mechanics all together. Considering the fact that you are defeating giants, stabbing their feet ain’t gonna cut it. You have to find ways to climbs these beasts (usually by looking for fur to hang on to). Climbing these guys is often a frustrating struggle. They will try to shake you off, and it is pretty easy to tire and lose your grip even without their help. Often times you will have to repeat the same tactics to get on the giant again. Then once you are on them, you need to find the stabbing points which can be hidden anywhere. There’s no set way to kill these guys unless you are looking at a strategy guide (and ruining all the fun), so sometimes a battle can draw out over a half hour to 45 minutes. Again, I can understand why they make you struggle. If you are killing something 30 times your size, its not going to be a cakewalk. This is going to be a vicious, grueling battle, and the game represents that very faithfully. Though again, sometimes you get pretty pissed at a concept as simple as holding on to the giant and stabbing them a few times, only to be tossed off by lack of opportunities to strike. So yeah, the controls can be a little bothersome, but they are meant to be, and the game would not be the same without them.
What truly sets the mood for battles, however, is the music. I have to tip my hat to the composer Kō Ōtani, this is an absolutely masterful orchestral soundtrack. Each battle feels just as it should: a tense, breathless, ominous battle with a creature of ungodly power and height. The pieces change from chasing the monster on the ground to actually riding the creature and makes the music even more prevalent and fitting. Also, music is sparse or non-existent when not fighting a Colossi, so the music really stands out when it does play. I would listen to this just because it is good. Fantastic, sweeping, atmospheric music.
The game certainly isn’t perfect, for everything it does right. There are times when the graphics look a bit ugly, even with all the beautiful and stylish filters used to give the game it bright, often sun-washed look. Some parts of the environment are low-poly rocks and grass that look unimpressive, and a lot of the game looks very jaggy. Additionally Wander’s moves sometimes don’t always work perfectly, and performing some more complex jumps can lead to frustration pretty easy. Then there is the camera, which is unnoticeable when it’s good (always the desired option), but at least once a battle will be in completely the wrong position and cause you to lose sight of the Colossi or a point you are trying to reach.
But these are small things to deal with in order to play one of the finest games the PS2 has to offer. It’s not a perfect game, but it certainly provides a gaming experience that is up there on par with the best games of the 3D generation. The small issues that detract from the game are forgotten once you get accustomed to the game’s controls, looks, and physics. If you have a PS2 and haven’t played Shadow of the Colossus, I wholeheartedly recommend you give it a try.