Game Description: Shadow of the Colossus is a majestic journey through ancient lands to seek out and destroy gigantic mythical beasts. With your trusty horse at your side, explore the spacious lands and unearth each Colossi. Armed with your wits, a sword, and a bow, use cunning and strategy to topple each behemoth. From the original developers of the critically acclaimed ICO, comes a masterpiece of an adventure.
Shadow of the Colossus is a videogame for people who love videogames. To the casual player it may seem like nothing more than just another exceptionally beautiful third-person climbing and stabbing simulator, but to gamers who have been playing for their entire lives it's something grander and more significant. Shadow asks big questions about game design, and suggests changes to the way we approach videogames.
Question 1: Do we need to endlessly slaughter cannon fodder?
The worst serial killers in history killed far fewer people than the average video game hero. Shooting, slashing, or just beating people to death, it's rare for the body count in an action game to be under three digits, and not uncommon for them to be in the fours. Since game developers can't be expected to design five or six hundred individual enemies, action games usually boil down to killing the same handful of people over and over again. Unless the developers manage to make the specific methods of murder incredibly entertaining, this invariably leads to gameplay that gets tiresome before the game ends. Shadow of the Colossus forgoes this practice entirely.
Taking on the role of a nameless hero, players are asked to slay 16 Colossi, and absolutely nothing else. The game consists entirely of what would normally be called 'Boss Fights', although that title doesn't really apply since there aren't any regular monsters to compare them to. Fourteen of the sixteen Colossi are as much mountain as beast, and must be combated by scaling their bodies and finding sensitive areas to skewer with a magical blade.
The vast differences between the Colossi's designs and the environments they're fought in ensures that no two battles are the same. There's no hack and slash drudgery here, no blasting through armies of clones—Shadow offers sixteen epic conflicts between a tiny man and an overwhelming force, each one more intense than the last.
Question 2: Can getting there be half the fun?
In Shadow, a waterfall is just a waterfall. It's not a place to hide from pursuing helicopters, it's not concealing the entrance to the final dungeon. It's just water meeting gravity in one the world's most beautiful natural phenomena. Players are so used to searching every square inch of a game's world for treasure and enemies that they end up missing the forest for the trees. Shadow bucks this trend by giving players a huge world with nothing to do but ride across it on horseback.
This seemed a little peculiar at first, but I quickly grew accustomed to the long, quiet stretches of galloping across wide open plains and trotting down narrow cliffside pathways. Since there's nothing complex to do in the traveling, players are allowed to find their own pace. They can urge their horse to speed to the next Colossus in a manner of minutes, or they can take their time to appreciate the beautiful chasms and rock formations that make up the landscape.
Question 3: Are players willing to be sad for the vast majority of a game?
Shadow may be the least happy game I've played since Double Dragon 2 (arcade version). From the stunningly effective opening sequence, with the hero transporting the princess' body to the shrine which acts as the game's hub, all the way to the tone-perfect ending, the game maintains an air of deliberate melancholy for its entire running time. The game's story is fairly sparse, and it counts on the player's familiarity with the conventions of video game storytelling to flesh out its shorthand. When the game begins, the hero has already failed to save the princess once, and his determination to restore life to her, regardless of the cost, feels a little more like desperation than heroism.
This tragic theme is maintained even through the battles with the Colossi. The developers are expert at creating specific emotions in the player at specific times. Each battle begins with a brief cutscene that awes with the Colossus' size and ability. The fights themselves are difficult enough to create frustration, followed by a sense of triumph when the sword pierces the Colossus' skull for the final time. This satisfaction is quickly followed by sadness as the Colossus' demise plays. Perhaps it's the beautiful music that plays, or the artful use of slow motion and long shots, but despite the fact that they're depicted primarily as malevolent and predatory creatures, it's nearly impossible to view the death of the Colossi as anything but tragic.
Question 4: When you have art design, who needs processing power?
Recent games such as San Andreas, Killzone, and Metal Gear Solid 3 have caused me to question whether the PlayStation 2 has reached the end of its functional lifespan. Shadow of the Colossus led me to wonder whether there's any need for a PS3.
Shadow is perhaps the best-looking game I've ever played. While the characters may be a little blocky and angular, all of the animation is first rate-but the environments are the real accomplishment here. What ICO did for castle architecture, Shadow does for field design, providing a play area every bit as attractive as it is complex. The only limitations I could find were a few instances of slowdown during the battles, but even there it seems less like a flaw and more like appropriately dramatic slow motion. Even the game's camera is nearly perfect, only acting up when the Colossi try to violently shake the hero off of them, which again feels almost like an intended part of gameplay, with the sketchy camera simulating the disorienting effects of being shaken like a ragdoll.
Try as I might, I couldn't find anything to complain about in Shadow of the Colossus. My first time through the game was the best eight hours of gameplay I've experienced in years, and it's game's only gotten better with subsequent playthroughs. Just as ICO proved that an adventure game with no bosses and almost no combat could work, Shadow proves that a game with nothing but bosses works just as well. Everything Shadow attempts to do it excels at, whether it be telling a compelling story, offering a fantastic climbing mechanic, or making players pity giant, terrifying monsters. It's too bad that there are so few games this good, but that just makes it all the more important to appreciate them when they come along. Shadow of the Colossus is a treasure, and no one who loves video games has an excuse for missing it.
Parents: According to ESRB, this game contains blood, fantasy violence. You don't have anything to worry about. While there is violence in the game, it's neither graphic nor gratuitous, and comes with a heart-rending message attached to it.
Fans of ICO have no excuse to not purchase this game. Not only is it a wonderful prequel to that game, purchasing a fresh, deliciously shrink-wrapped copy will encourage the developers to continue making games like this.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers won't have any trouble at all with the game. There isn't much dialogue, but it's all subtitled and there aren't any important audio cues.
Videogames that aim to be more than just videogames are few and far between. The vast majority of titles out there aim to sell a million copies, and if they happen to have a message or morals thrown in, well that's just accidental icing on the cake. I suppose it's just easier to focus on entertaining mechanics and mass-market appeal than it is to somehow reach people through basic human feelings, expression and emotion—not to mention the requirement that it also be interactive and enagaging, and not just a passive, controlled experience like books or films.
Most games that manage to strike a chord with the heart do so briefly with one or two scenes, or a cinematic ending. Titles that strive to touch throughout the entire experience are the rarest of the rare. In my mind, the most notable title to ever achieve this extended emotive quality was the outstanding ICO. It comes as little surprise then that another game attempting to craft a similar grail would come from the same creators.
Like Dan, I was struck by the raw sincerity of the effort. The overwhelming visual communication of the graphics and artistic direction are impossible not to notice. Using muted shades of brown and grey, a somber tone in the eye and in the heart develop almost immediately. Such strong art direction reinforces the meditative quality that searching out foes throughout the vast land in Colossus generates.
Riding through the hills, deserts, and misty forests serves to both emphasize the significance of combat, and the very distance that must be traveled mirrors its scope. Without a doubt, each battle is an event and the feeling of besting an insurmountable force is significant. In the areas of atmosphere and spectacular awe, Colossus reigns supreme.
However, in contrast to Dan, I felt that in making so many bold design and structural choices, not all of them were successful. As much as I'd like to, I can't award the highest score.
It may sound strange, but the thing that was most detrimental to my experience was that the developers chose to break the game up into 16 parts. By being warped back to a central location and getting unnecessary hints from a disembodied voice, my feelings of solitude and immersion in the vast landscape were shattered time and time again. It may seem like a small thing to some, but more permanence and continuity would have magnified the scale of the hero's adventure.
Going further, I felt that although the game's ending sequence is strong, the impact of the revelations following the destruction of the 16th colossus would have been ten times as powerful if the developers would have simply expanded on the story prior to it and let me learn a bit more about the game's world. I can't go into detail without spoiling things, but I can say that it's hard to feel deep emotion when there is little context to fully appreciate the significance of the game's events.
In addition to my impressions of the story, Shadow of the Colossus needed expansion of the main character himself. In ICO, the young boy and ghostly girl come to life by interacting with each other. Excessive dialogue or lengthy cutscenes are not necessary because the bond between those characters and player is created by the journey they all take together. In Colossus, the necessary structure for nonverbal exposition is lacking because the play is so narrow and limited in scope. The battles are strikingly monumental and a perfect centerpiece upon which to build, yet with so little surrounding them, other necessary aspects like empathy and motivation are not nurtured. In fact, I would even say that by being so focused the game undercuts itself and does a disservice to the experience as a whole.
There are a few technical issues that needed polish, but none of them are key in discussing Shadow of the Colossus' hard to define nature. At the core it could be summed up as a boy on a quest to kill sixteen fearsome monsters and return a deceased girl to life. However, I think it's quite clear that the game is more than that—or at least, it tries to be. When all was said and done I was left feeling conflicted and confused. On one hand, I knew I had just experienced an incredible expression of genius. On the other, I was empty, hungry, and thinking that Shadow of the Colossus was an unfinished masterwork with much more to tell.
Much like Dan, I admire and respect Fumito Ueda & Co. for taking such bold strides in uncharted waters, and it goes without saying that I eagerly await their next effort. In my eyes, I recognize Colossus as a significant, slightly flawed achievement—but I would still strongly recommend it to anyone interested in exploring the potential for videogames to be more than mass-produced focus-group entertainment. The final product may have fallen a bit short of the mark, but it is absolutely aimed in the right direction.