Mega Man X8 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X8’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection 2*

Mega Man X8 is like a small miracle. In stark contrast to the original Mega Man series – which kept a consistent quality even in its weakest entries – the X sub-series provided diminishing quality with each subsequent installment. The first few entries were great, but by the time the series reached X7, it had completely lost its way. In 2004 – a decade after the release of the first Mega Man X – the series received its eighth and, as of this writing, final installment. Returning to the side-scrolling roots of the series while retaining 3D visuals, Mega Man X8 served as a fitting return to form for the series. It may hit a few snags, and some of its more aged elements prevent it from reaching true greatness, but X8 is probably the most inspired Mega Man X game since the first two.

In a lot of ways, X8 feels like a rectification of X7. Not only does it ditch the 3D segments, but also refines the promising ideas that its predecessor failed at in execution. Once again, players can take control of Mega Man X, Zero and Axl, with all three being available from the start this time. Zero once again uses a laser sword and possesses a double jump, but X and Axl have more differences from one another this time around. X retains the classic Mega Man playstyle, with stronger blasts and his charged shot intact, while Axl may not be as strong, but has rapid fire shots and can shoot in multiple directions (at the expense of being able to move when he shoots), and still has his hovering ability.

“Shine get! Star get! Weapon get!”

Each character has additional differences from one another as well. While X of course gains the powers of fallen bosses, and Zero once again gains additional moves, Axl now receives different guns from each boss. Perhaps most notably, since Axl lacks the punch of X and Zero, his special move allows him to turn an enemy into a capsule, which he can then use to transform into said enemy and gain its abilities (Mega Man X7 made it clear Axl could transform via cinematics, but this ability had no presence in gameplay before. That alone speaks volumes for the difference in effort between the two games).

Like X7, you can select two characters per stage, and can switch between them at any time. This time around, the feature actually feels worth it, as you’ll often require the special abilities of different characters to uncover a level’s secrets. As an additional bonus, both characters actually have to die in order for the player to lose a life this time (albeit falling into a pit or touching a spike still results in an instant loss). Weakened characters can even recover some health when swapped out, in what seems like a feature ripped out of one of Capcom’s own fighting games. You can now even perform a powerful team attack with both characters if you can build up its gauge by stringing together combos.

This time around, you can select one of three navigators to give you hints throughout the stages: the returning Alia, and newcomers Pallette and Layer (AKA best girl). Depending on who you select, your navigator will give you different information regarding stage hazards, hidden items, and boss weaknesses and strengths during different parts of a stage.

Mega Man X8 also boasts a myriad of secrets which, again, often require combinations of characters and their abilities to unlock, leading to a great sense of replay value. Gone are the Reploids that need saving and abilities that can be permanently missed. In their place are pieces of scrap metal strewn about the levels (think Mario’s coins), which are used as currency in between stages to purchase chips.

Here’s where things start going against the series’ formula. Recurring items  like life tanks now have to be purchased, and even extra lives are exclusively found in the game’s shop (by default, you have three lives, but can buy up to three more at any time). You can buy single-use items to prevent the aforementioned insta-kill from spikes (though the character will only retain one health). Besides the basics, you can also properly build up each individual character, granting them extra health, damage reduction, and other such bonuses. Additionally, secret ‘rare metals’ are hidden throughout levels that, when collected, add more items to the shop, including new weapons for Zero.

The only series’ collectible that remains in the levels themselves are X’s armor pieces, but even those have a fun new twist. X now gets the “Neutral Armor,” which can be (somewhat) customized with armor pieces from the Icarus and Hermes sets if you can unlock them (you can equip the Hermes helmet and boots while wearing the Icarus buster and chest armor, for example). So while Axl has the ability to transform, and Zero gains additional weapons, X being able to find and customize armor really makes each character distinct from one another.

Should you miss out on any of the items, you can restart your game in New Game Plus, where you can not only uncover the items you missed out on, but also gain access to even more unlockables, including the ability to play as the three navigator characters! Once again, it seems like everything that was good in concept about Mega Man X7 (secret characters, RPG-like progression for characters) was actually realized here in X8.

“How dare you call me an incredible scientist!”

Even the story is a refreshing change of pace for the series. Following the disasters that have befallen the world in the past few entries, humans have begun colonizing the moon, which they travel to via the Orbital Elevator. The director of the elevator is a new generation Reploid named Lumine, who soon becomes kidnapped by Vile (the series’ secondary villain returning for the first time since X3). Meanwhile, eight other new generation Reploids are seemingly becoming Mavericks, despite that their generation is supposedly immune to the Maverick Virus.

Naturally, X, Zero and Axl set out to rescue Lumine and fix the problems the eight Mavericks are causing, and suspect that Sigma is behind everything (why would they think otherwise at this point?). And while Sigma does serve as a major antagonist in the plot, the story does take a different direction as the game goes on. It may not be anything earth-shattering, but by this point, anything other than “surprise, it’s Sigma!” is very much appreciated.

With that said, not everything is great about X8. The music, while certainly not bad, isn’t particularly memorable. And while the visuals are nice enough, they lack the timeless quality of the 2D entries in the series.

“I prefer the sunflower from Conker’s Bad Fur Day.”

The stage design is mostly excellent and creative (including one level which plays with gravity, and another that’s almost entirely a descending obstacle course), but one stage sees the gameplay shift to a chase sequence in which the player hunts down the Maverick boss in flying vehicles through a city a la Attack of the Clones. This stage proves to be X8’s own little dose of ‘good in concept, not so much in execution,’ as it just isn’t particularly fun to play. Another level also changes the gameplay to motorcycling through snowy terrain (reminiscent of the polar bear stages from Crash Bandicoot 2), and though this level is actually a lot of fun, it does mean that two of the game’s stages remove the ability to use the benefits you work hard to unlock.

Thankfully, Capcom seemed to be aware of this, and made the opening stage of X8 repayable to uncover some additional items. Though one other frustrating level remains in the form of the game’s final stage, which ramps up the difficulty far beyond the rest of the game.

So Mega Man X8 isn’t a masterpiece, but when you consider how far the X sub-series had fallen by the time it got to X7, then X8 has to be one of the best turnarounds in video game history. On one hand, looking back at Mega Man X8, it feels like it was the right decision to end the series on a high note to redeem it after the decreasing quality of its predecessors. But on the other hand, with X8 getting so much right and feeling like a proper step forward, it would be nice to see the X series make a return and build on what X8 started.

It’s been over fourteen years since Mega Man X8’s release, and while the series has remained dormant in that time, the fact that X8 fixed so much about what went awry with the series has only made the heart grow fonder for the series in the years since. Who knows whether Mega Man X9 will ever happen or not, but the fact that the series actually managed to find its stride before it rode off into the sunset is an achievement in its own right.

 

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Mega Man X7 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X7’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection 2*

You have to give credit where it’s due, Mega Man X7 tried to change up the Mega Man X franchise. The 2003 PS2 title turned the series into a 3D third-person shooter, only on occasion going back to the side-scrolling roots of its six predecessors. But the good intentions of breaking convention amount to very little with how poor Mega Man X7’s execution is.

While Mega Man X7 does try changing the gameplay, the structure of the series remains the same: after the opening stage, beat the eight main stages in whatever order the player sees fit, beat the bosses and get their powers, then move onto the final few stages. As stated, the gameplay has switched gears to a 3D perspective for the most part, but there are other additions and changes as well, perhaps the most baffling of which being that you have to unlock Mega Man X!

That’s right, you can’t play Mega Man X7 as Mega Man X until you’ve rescued 64 Reploids (out of 128) from the eight main stages. Instead, you start the game with two characters: the returning Zero, and newcomer Axl. Zero once again uses a close-ranged laser sword and can perform a double jump, while Axl uses an arm canon like X’s and can glide for a short time.

Problems arise almost immediately. You start the opening stage as Axl, and quickly find out that he (along with X when you unlock him) automatically targets enemies. So you basically just have to spam the fire button to get past anything. A simple ‘lock-on’ button would have gone a long way in making Axl and X’s gameplay feel less mindless. Zero, meanwhile, has to be so close to enemies in order to hit them that he’ll almost always get hit himself in the process.

X7 does try its hand at doing something else original in that you can select two characters at a time, who can be switched at the press of a button. But even this is poorly executed. For starters, both characters you choose have their own health bar, but if only one of them dies, you lose a life. Then there’s the fact that there are only three characters – one of which having to be unlocked – meaning that you’ll just have the party of Zero and Axl for much of the game, and will probably just swap one of them for X once you gain access to him. And since you once again build up the characters with items gained from rescued Reploids, you’re best off just building up one of the starting characters and holding off on the other in favor of X, or just building up the two starters and ignoring X. Wouldn’t this system have been better if all three characters were there from the start? Or at the least if there were additional unlockable characters who you recruited sooner?

“I don’t want my name associated with this!”

Speaking of rescuing Reploids, Mega Man X7 somehow didn’t learn from the mistakes of X6. Like its predecessor, it’s possible to miss your opportunity at rescuing a Reploid, which would be forgivable if not for the fact that if you miss a Reploid you don’t get another chance to rescue them in the same playthrough of the entire game! This is somehow made even worse than it was in X6. At least the last time around, you had a few seconds to act before a ‘Nightmare Virus’ took hold of a Reploid, but here, they get killed by the smallest of touches by an enemy. I am sadly not exaggerating when I say there were multiple instances in the 2D segments where a Reploid was already dying as I made it to their screen. So once again you can easily miss out on getting every item and collectible in the game, unless you feel like reloading your last save over and over again until you have every fragment of a stage memorized.

“If you stand right at this spot, these enemies can’t hit you. But you can hit them. Without aiming.”

The game simply isn’t fun to play. On top of the aforementioned ability of the gun characters basically just walking through a stage and blindly shooting, and Zero’s inability to hit anything without getting hurt himself, the characters all just move way too slow. It’s a bit of irony how Mega Man X began as the more fast-paced, action-packed iteration of the Blue Bomber, but by X7, he’s reduced to moving at a snail’s pace.

“The Mavericks are the most forgettable yet. But at least they have an anteater, which is one of my favorite animals. So I guess that’s a bonus.”

Even the level design is sloppy, though I suppose in fairness, X7 at least has the excuse of the developers entering new territory and fumbling. I guess that’s more forgivable than X6 being a failure at things the developers had achieved successfully time and time again. But that still doesn’t mean the stages are any good. On the plus side, some of them are at least built around a single motif (the Ride Armor level, the motorcycle level, etc.),which helps them stand out, but once again X7’s good intentions are sullied in the ‘finished’ product. The platforming stages are unmemorable, the motorcycle level is insanely slow (?!), and the Ride Armor Stage just falls flat. There’s also a stage in which players ascend a spiraling tower, which is an interesting change of pace, but of course it has to be ruined by constantly falling buzzsaws that you can seldom avoid, and flying enemies that are just above what’s visible on screen that hit you mid-jump and send you back to a previous point of the stage. It’s a mess.

While most Mega Man games are difficult, the only challenges you’ll find out of Mega Man X7 come from the clunky controls combined with the sloppy level design and horrendous camera. I’d be more in favor of a polished game that’s a cakewalk to a game that’s tough solely out of incompetence.

“Read this dialogue in Cookie Monster’s voice, and you get the idea.”

Even the story aspects fall short of the already diminishing narratives of the series. The story is that X has retired from combat, as he’s “tired of fighting” (which seems contradictory to a character who was determined to protect humans from evil robots. But whatever, I guess the game needed some reason why you need to unlock the main character). With X retired, a new force rises to help the Maverick Hunters defeat evil, Red Alert. But a mysterious evil – who may or may not be Sigma (not-so-spoiler alert: it is) – has slowly corrupted eight members of Red Alert, who have become violent as a consequence. Because of their new behavior, Axl leaves Red Alert and eventually joins Zero, while the “mysterious evil” blackmails Red Alert’s leader – aptly named Red – into doing his bidding or he’ll destroy the eight members who are under his control. It’s…not very good. And it’s made all the worse by some truly awful voice acting (Axl is particularly insufferable).

The fact that Mega Man X7 is a Mega Man title with terrible soundwork might be its biggest crime. The music isn’t exactly horrible, but it’s bland and forgettable in every regard. But the sound effects… The sound effects are either non-existent (such as when collecting items, which are completely silent), or annoying soundbites that are repeated ad nauseam. The aforementioned voice acting is terrible in cinematics, but it reaches new lows during boss fights, in which your foe screams the same one or two sound clips every time they do, well, anything.

“BURN! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND!”

Anyone who has played Mega Man X7 knows the audial hell that is the boss fight against Flame Hyenard. This Maverick shrieks two lines: “Burn!” and “Burn to the ground!” every time he performs an action. And he makes two copies of himself which do the same. Suffice to say it’s an utter bombardment on the ears, with soundbites frequently overlapping each other. It’s so stressful that it may make Mega Man X7 the worst sounding game I’ve played since Dark Castle on the Sega Genesis.

Visually, the game of course looks dated, but considering X7 was released in the same year as such visually stunning games as The Wind Waker and Viewtiful Joe, it looked outdated even for its time. At the very least, the game boasts enough variety in colors that you can at least tell what everything is. I can’t imagine how the game would be playable if things blurred together on top of all its other issues.

Mega Man X7 is simply an appalling embarrassment on one of gaming’s most iconic franchises. Perhaps in its conception, its heart was in the right place, as it attempted to do something different for the series by doing something different. But it must have quickly fallen apart at the seams for it to end up this bad. Just about anything good you could say about it only applies in concept. Yes, Mega Man X7 tried something new, and that’s admirable. But it’s next to impossible to appreciate when the finished product feels, well, unfinished.

Or to put it another way…

BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN! BURN! BURN! “BURN TO THE GROUND!

 

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Shadow of the Colossus (Playstation 4) Review

There aren’t many modern video games that have left quite the indelible mark as Shadow of the Colossus. While gaming today is arguably better than it’s ever been as a whole, it seems that for whatever reason – whether it be outlandish hype, the “bigger is better” mentality, or a tendency to pander – the number of more contemporary games that feel like they have their own timeless identity are few. Half-Life 2, the Portal duo, the Souls-Borne series, the 3D Mario titles, Breath of the Wild, and select indie titles (namely Undertale) stand out. Shadow of the Colossus similarly stands tall alongside them and, although probably a more flawed game than any of the aforementioned titles, has perhaps left the biggest impression in terms of style and tone. As influential as it’s become, there’s never really been anything else quite like it.

This Playstation 4 remake by BluePoint Games is the title’s third release, all but enforcing Shadow of the Colossus’ status as one of the most iconic Playstation games ever. Similar to Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy last year, this PS4 rendition of Shadow of the Colossus is a faithful recreation of the PS2 classic, which means that, although the assets have been rebuilt from the ground-up and boast some absolutely stunning visuals, some of the game’s flaws still remain intact. For purists, the authenticity is commendable, though you may also wish that BluePoint Games had tweaked the rougher mechanics ever-so slightly, to give Shadow of the Colossus a level of fluidity to match its uniqueness.

Shadow of the Colossus has become something of the poster-child for the whole “video games as art” concept, and although there are plenty of other games that showcase the unique artistic merits of the video game medium, Colossus’s status isn’t undeserved. While many of the games released in its wake have felt confused as to how to implement their artistry within game design – usually being either AAA games that think replicating movies is the way to go, or self-righteous indie titles that think a somber tone and visual style make up for shallow gameplay – Shadow of the Colossus actually feels like a fully realized creative vision.

The core game is as it’s always been. You play as Wander, a young warrior whose love has died. Willing to do anything for her, Wander takes the girl’s lifeless body to an ancient temple in a forgotten land, in hopes that an ancient being called Dormin can resurrect his lost love. But Dormin cannot undo death without a cost, and the demon needs Wander’s help just as much as Wander needs Dormin’s. Wander is to scourge this forgotten land of the sixteen Colossi, magnificent giants who remain some of gaming’s greatest creatures. If Wander can slay the sixteen Colossi, Dormin can resurrect his fallen love.

It sounds like a simple setup, but its execution transcends it into one of gaming’s greatest stories. What starts off as a selfless quest built on love transforms into a selfish tragedy. The Colossi – despite their intimidating size and appearances – are never presented as monsters. Instead of the usual fanfare one would receive for conquering a boss fight, the slaying of a Colossus is always accompanied by grief and sadness.

One of the things that made Shadow of the Colossus so special is that – unlike the many games that try to be art by throwing in as many cinematics as possible – Shadow of the Colossus weaves its narrative and lore into something that could only work as a video game. Shadow of the Colossus, at its heart, is a giant boss rush. Every Colossus is a beautiful combination of boss fight, puzzle and stage design. Climb the Colossi, expose their weak points, slay them, return to Dormin, repeat. Again, it all sounds simple, but the creativity involved within each Colossus makes every encounter something special.

You can unlock Time Attacks for each Colossus, which then rewards upgrades to your weapons and grant new items. You can also find fruit and hunt down silver-tailed lizards to boost Wander’s health and stamina (respectively). All the while your trusted horse Agro helps you traverse the land.

It’s actually quite beautiful how it all comes together. As stated, the game is an extravagant boss rush on paper, but Shadow of the Colossus is one of the rare “art games” that understands how to meld its world and thematics into its gameplay as one cohesive whole. Save points, for example, were presented as shrines scattered across the land (though the shrines now merely restore health in the PS4 version, as saving is now done automatically or manually through the pause menu in a delightful bit of modernization). Even the aforementioned Time Attacks take the form of visions/memories that take place within Dormin’s temple. The game’s unique world always finds ways to mold into its gameplay.

So what’s new about Shadow of the Colossus’ third release? Along with the aforementioned streamlined save feature, some tweaks have been made to the control scheme for the better. The X button now serves as Wander’s jump button and to mount Agro, while the triangle button calls your stead and boosts Agro’s speed when mounted.

The most obvious change is found in the aesthetics, however. Unlike the PS3 release, this isn’t just the PS2 original with an HD makeover, but a from the ground-up recreation of the PS2 classic. This means that, although Shadow of the Colossus may be a PS2 title from 2005, you may never know it if this is your introduction to the game. The attention to detail on a Colossus’ fur, the individual blades of grass blowing in the wind, the ripples in every pool of water; Shadow of the Colossus, and indeed few games, have ever looked so beautiful. In terms of sheer realism in the environments, I’d say this PS4 remake is second only to Uncharted 4 as the best looking game I’ve seen. For a 2005 game to look this stunning is telling of just how much care and attention BluePoint Games put into this remake. Even the game’s iconic musical score sounds crisper than ever, and the added sounds that emanate from the environment and Colossi only add to the game’s atmosphere and sense of awe. Additionally, a new collectible can be found in the form of glowing “Enlightenments,” though finding them all and unlocking their questionably useful reward may only be worth the time for the most diehard of fans.

Another fun little addition is a new “photo” option, which allows you to take screenshots within the game and share them on social media. It may not sound like much, but with how utterly gorgeous this remake is, you’ll likely bask in the opportunity to take the best photos of the game’s unique world and its tragic giants.

If there is a downside to this remake, it’s that the original’s blemishes in control and camera largely remain. Thankfully, you no longer have to worry about drops in the framerate, and as stated, some of the controls have been wisely mapped to different buttons. But some of Wander’s movements and actions still feel a little clunky, and when wrestling with a Colossus, the camera can still get utterly chaotic at times, which may still lead to some frustration and swearing (emotional reactions that seem like the last responses the game wanted to create). Sure, you can praise the authenticity of the recreation, but you may also begin to question if such authenticity is the best option when the years since the game’s original release have revealed how it could be bettered.

I’m not asking for unnecessary, George Lucas-style additions here (no Dewbacks, please), and in terms of video game preservation, I get it. But a key difference between video games and other mediums that see remakes is that games feature interactive mechanics that, over time, can be bettered. If BluePoint Games were willing to change the way Shadow of the Colossus controls in terms of player input, you kind of wish they’d have done the same for the way Wander and his camera control. At the very least, an additional option would be nice.

So Shadow of the Colossus was never a perfect game, and that’s still true here. That’s a bit of a shame, because the uniqueness and execution of much of Shadow of the Colossus’ vision make it a gaming experience like no other. With the additional technical polish, Shadow of the Colossus might sit with some esteemed company at the very top of the mountain of gaming’s all-time greats. As it is, it’s still making the climb up that mountain. But Wander shouldn’t have any trouble in that department.

 

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Shadow of the Colossus Review

*Review based on the PS3 release as part of the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus Collection*

Shadow of the Colossus

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.

Shadow of the ColossusThe 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.

Shadow of the ColossusThe 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.

Shadow of the ColossusThe 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.

 

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Ico Review

*Review based on the PS3 release as part of the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus Collection*

Ico

Released nearly a decade and a half ago, Ico quietly became one of the most influential video games of the new millennium. There have been few games that have borrowed its gameplay, but its narrative, characters, world and tone raised the “video games as art” concept to new heights. It in turn inspired many of the artsy, minimalistic games we see today, particularly on the Indie scene. Though a good deal of the games it inspired have been more pretentious than artful, Ico remains one of the finer works of art in the medium, even if some of its mechanics are showing their age.

Ico is set in a strange, mythical world. A young boy – the titular Ico – was born with horns on his head. This is considered a dark omen by the people of his village, and so a group of warriors takes Ico to a mostly-abandoned castle, where he is locked away as a kind of sacrifice for the Queen that resides there.

Luckily for Ico, a tremor causes his chamber to collapse, setting him free. Shortly thereafter, he meets a girl named Yorda, who is also a prisoner of the castle, but for much different reasons. The two then set out together to escape the castle, its Queen, and the shadowy creatures that lurk within the castle’s walls.

The story isn’t all that complex, and the characters lack the moral ambiguity of its spiritual sequel, Shadow of the Colossus. But the experience ends up being far more than what the simple plot might suggest due to the beauty and subtlety it weaves into its world and narrative.

IcoAll the characters in the game speak fictional languages. But Ico and Yorda speak in different languages from one another (Ico’s subtitles are presented in English, while Yorda’s are made up of strange symbols). Their relationship is not one of stereotypical romance, but one built around friendship and empathy. Despite the characters’ inability to understand one another, their relationship is unique and treated delicately, making it one of the most earnest relationships in gaming.

As righteous and innocent as Ico and Yorda are, the Queen is equally sinister. It’s a classic good vs. evil story, one that creates one of gaming’s few real fairy tales.

The game itself is built around Ico and Yorda’s relationship. Though that means the game is largely a giant escort mission, it succeeds where many other such games fail due to the game’s minimalistic nature. It never bombards players with danger, and it focuses more on puzzle-solving and exploration than it does on stressful situations.

The game can be compared to Yoshi’s Island in that the player can only lose by two means: either falling from a great height (the only way Ico can actually die), or if Yorda is taken by the shadows. Though even if Yorda is taken, the game gives the player a fair amount of time to rescue her, relieving what might otherwise have been a frustrating element.

Ico is notable for lacking any in-game HUD. There is no health bar, nor do you have any inventory to keep track of. It really is just Ico, Yorda, and whatever weapon or item Ico is currently holding in his hands. It’s a unique change in presentation that still feels fresh today. Though the game may have benefitted from including a few button cues here and there (you may not realize that you can swing from chains until the moment comes when you need to, and even then there’s nothing that tells you to hold the “O” button in order to do so).

The shadows are the only enemies in the game outside of the final encounter with the Queen. They appear through shadowy portals on the ground, and usually come in packs. Some of the shadows are smaller, while others are bigger and can fly.

Admittedly, the combat is one of the game’s weaker elements. Ico fends off the shadows by picking up either a stick or a sword and swinging away. The combat amounts to little more than repeatedly hitting the attack button, which quickly begins to feel monotonous. The larger shadows, in particular, take a long time to kill, which just makes the action segments feel overly long. Combat can be made quicker by finding the game’s secret weapon (on a first playthrough, it’s a mace reminiscent of Sauron’s from Fellowship of the Ring, while in New Game Plus it’s replaced with something more akin to a lightsaber), but they still require the same button-mashing. Thankfully, many of the encounters with the shadows can be skipped over, but when action becomes necessary, you may find there’s not much to it.

The other gameplay mechanics include the ability to jump, grabbing on ledges, and climbing. In the times when Ico and Yorda need to separate, you can call Yorda back by tapping the R-1 button, while holding that same button when close to Yorda causes the characters to hold hands which, on top of being incredibly sweet, is necessary for much of the game.

There really isn’t much more to the core gameplay than that. It may seem a bit empty, and to a degree it kind of is, but gameplay depth is added to the experience through the game’s sense of exploration and puzzle-solving.

You may spend a good few minutes in any chamber of the castle before it becomes apparent what you need to do to progress. They aren’t puzzles in the traditional video game sense, but puzzles that ask the player to inspect every inch of the castle to look for a ledge or rope or ladder or anything that can help you find a way for Ico and Yorda to move on. It’s actually a very linear experience, but the presentation is so unique, and so full of eureka moments, that you probably won’t care.

Sadly, the game does have some mechanics that are succumbing to age. Besides the aforementioned combat, some of the controls can feel a little clunky, with Ico’s jumps in particular often feeling inaccurate. The camera, while not terrible, could have used some more polish, as it’s usually fixed at a certain angle in any given scenario, and whatever camera view the player can change is overly sensitive. And Yorda’s AI, while mostly reliable, has some frustrating moments. You will probably find it hard to imagine anyone could climb a ladder slower than she does, and she’ll often change her direction midway up (or down) a ladder for no reason. Similarly, sometimes when you call to her she’ll refuse to move or jump where needed, even when you’re calling her to the exact spot she needs to be.

In terms of aesthetics, the game still looks pleasing to the eyes (even if it is obvious it was an early PS2 title). The graphics may not wow players like they may have at one time, but the jump to HD in the PS3 version hasn’t damaged them. The art direction is wonderfully unique, and though the music is rarely present, it adds all the more beauty and atmosphere to the adventure.

Some may lament that Ico is pretty short, as it can be completed in only a few hours. But the short length works in favor of the storytelling. So many narratively-driven games also feel the need to provide a lengthy adventure, but only end up adding layers and layers of padding to the story, effectively drowning the narrative. Ico presents only what it needs to tell its story. And because of the short length, it feels like a complete story. You can unlock some new features in New Game Plus (along with the aforementioned lightsaber, you can also give Yorda English subtitles, and tweak the ending ever-so slightly). Though because the secrets adhere to the minimalistic nature of the game, only those who are truly captivated by Ico’s adventure will want to replay it to add the minor changes to the experience.

IcoIn a lot of ways, Ico remains one of gaming’s finest artistic achievements. It effectively creates a modern day fairy tale with complete and utter sincerity, and manages to tell a compelling narrative by doing very little. It succeeds with subtlety in a way that few games could hope to achieve (the castle itself becomes one of the great locations in gaming due to the atmosphere it exudes). But Ico is a bit less consistent as a game. It’s an enjoyable experience, but time has exposed a number of mechanics for their lack of polish. Yes, the puzzles are great, and the sense of exploration gives it depth, but you may find that controlling Ico himself is far from ideal.

This has become all the more apparent as its spiritual successor/prequel, Shadow of the Colossus, has an even greater sense of narrative artistry, while also providing a more complete game. With that said, Ico remains something that’s increasingly rare in the world of video games: a unique experience.

Shadow of the Colossus may have fulfilled the vision, but if Ico is a prototype, you probably couldn’t ask for a more beautiful one.

 

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