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.