*Review based on the PS3 release as part of the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus Collection*
Shadow of the Colossus is a gaming experience quite unlike any other. When it was first released on the Playstation 2 in 2005, it instantly became one of the most acclaimed titles on the platform due to its unique gameplay and artistic approach to game design, which has proven incredibly influential in the years since. Though its flaws have become more apparent with time, Shadow of the Colossus remains a highlight in video game history, and my personal favorite game to come out of the Playstation 2.
Shadow of the Colossus follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, Ico, in that it utilizes similar subtleties in its gameplay and storytelling. Players take control of a man called Wander, who has travelled to a forbidden land with his horse Agro. The purpose for Wander’s venture is that his beloved has passed away, and he has brought her lifeless body to the shrine of an ancient being called Dormin.
Dormin has the power to resurrect Wander’s fallen love, but Wander must first perform a profaned ritual, and slay the sixteen Colossi that inhabit this forbidden realm. Dormin promises that completion of the ritual will return Wander’s love to life, but that it may have severe consequences on Wander himself. And that’s if he’s even able to survive against the Colossi.
The story is told with a beautiful sense of minimalism, leaving many elements to interpretation. What at first seems like a selfless adventure of heroism and sacrifice quickly unravels into a selfish tragedy. Never once does the game make players feel too triumphant for downing a Colossus, with every one of the beasts being presented as an innocent creature tragically caught up in Wander’s mission. And every one of Wander’s “victories” comes with a sense of sorrow for the felled creatures, and will have players second guessing the nature of their quest.
Suffice to say Shadow of the Colossus is quite an emotional game. It’s that sense of emotion and thematics that have helped Shadow of the Colossus become a classic that continues to influence game design today. Perhaps the best thing about Shadow of the Colossus is that it’s also a more than capable game.
It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to label Shadow of the Colossus as an extravagant boss rush, as there are no enemies for Wander to face aside from the titular beasts, and even the puzzle elements from Ico are largely relegated to the fights themselves. Wander is equipped with only a sword and a bow to do battle with the Colossi, with his horse Agro serving as a means to travel from one battle to the next.
Wander’s stats are comprised solely of a health bar and a stamina meter, with the latter serving as an indicator for how long Wander can hold onto a Colossus before being thrown from it. Wander’s stats improve after every battle, with his health also being increased by finding fruit throughout the game world, and stamina seeing additional increases by finding white-tailed lizards, and collecting said tails with a little help from your bow.
The real star of the show are the Colossi themselves. Each Colossus is a masterpiece in character design, and each one is just as creative in being a stage and puzzle in their own right. Each Colossus presents a unique challenge, with every creature being presented as its own platforming obstacle or puzzle that needs to be overcome in order to expose its weak point and bring it down. The variety of the Colossi keep the experience fresh, and also help make Shadow of the Colossus one of the very few games to evoke a genuine sense of majesty.
Unfortunately, as wonderful as the experience is, Shadow of the Colossus isn’t perfect. Age has revealed the camera controls to be far from ideal. Especially when a Colossus is trying to shake Wander from its shoulders, the camera can be particularly chaotic. Similarly, Wander himself can feel a little awkward to control when perched atop a Colossus, often fumbling even when a Colossus isn’t trying to remove him. The controls and camera can become a bit cumbersome, maybe even frustrating at times. Which is unfortunate given how, otherwise, Shadow of the Colossus only evokes deeper feelings than most games.
While it may not be mechanically perfect, Shadow of the Colossus can still easily be regarded as a classic. Its artistic approach, unique gameplay, and genuinely epic battles are entirely its own. And although the visuals may look dated (though the PS3 remaster gives a nice, updated sheen), the orchestrated score is one of the all-time greats in gaming, with the Colossi being given themes that equal their sense of grandeur and mystique.
The adventure is also an appropriately short one. Whereas many games may overstay their welcome with excessive amounts of padding, Shadow of the Colossus lets nothing get in the way of its story. But for those who may want a little something more out of the package, completion of the game unlocks both a Hard Mode and Time Attacks for each Colossus, with additional items being unlocked via the Time Attack battles (like a map that points out all the aforementioned fruit, or upgrades to Wander’s sword). So there are incentives to come back other than just to experience the adventure all over again (though that may be incentive enough for many).
Perhaps the greatest testament to Shadow of the Colossus’ brilliance is how it achieves so much by doing so little. Video games are continuously getting bigger and bigger, with developers seemingly cramming in as much content as possible in order to produce a classic. Shadow of the Colossus is defiant. It strips away the bells and whistles of the games of its day, and feels all the more rebellious today. It utilizes only the bare essentials, but it proves that with enough imagination and craftsmanship, those bare essentials can provide an adventure unlike any other.