Tag Archives: Team Ico

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.

 

9.0

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The Last Guardian Review

The Last Guardian

It’s almost shocking to think that – seven years after it was first unveiled, and nine years after its development began – The Last Guardian has actually been released. This long-awaited third installment in Team Ico’s nameless, loosely-connected series was becoming the stuff of gaming legend. Despite the artistic pedigree of its predecessors Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, it seemed like The Last Guardian would never be finished. But here it is, finally a reality. So how well does The Last Guardian stack up against its lofty expectations and ridiculous wait?

The answer to that question is a bit of a mixed bag. Because when The Last Guardian works, it’s not only great, but a thing of utter beauty. But when it doesn’t, it can feel a bit on the archaic and unpolished side.

The Last Guardian is set in the same mythical world of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, though it bears no direct narrative connections to them. Players take control of a young boy, who awakens as a prisoner in a faraway fortress known as “The Nest,” with no recollection as to how he got there. As soon as he wakes up in this forsaken place, he encounters a strange, mythical creature, called a Trico, a kind of giant half-bird/half-dog that has been impaled with spears and its wings damaged.

The Last GuardianIn the game’s tutorial segment, the boy helps relieve the creature of its pains, and soon enough the boy and the Trico form a special bond as they both work together to try and find a way to escape from the seemingly inescapable fortress, all while avoiding the clutches of the ghostly suits of armor that haunt the many chambers of the Nest.

The narrative, while simple, is one of the game’s biggest highlights, as it often turns into something quite emotional. The friendship between the boy and the creature is one of the most beautifully realized in all of gaming, and will definitely tug at the heart at numerous instances. Plus, the setup gives a good means to combine gameplay elements of its two predecessors, with the co-operation between the player and an NPC from Ico being merged with the scaling of large creatures of Colossus, making for some truly clever puzzle and level design.

On the downside of things, some of these gameplay elements still feel like they’re suffering from the same shortcomings of its predecessors, which is all the more noticeable considering the game had plenty of development time to work out the kinks.

The biggest of these issues is the Trico’s AI itself. The Last Guardian has a huge emphasis on having the boy give commands to the Trico, telling it which way to go, and what objects to interact with. But actually getting the Trico to follow through with these commands can often be something of an ordeal. While some of the game’s segments work well enough, other times Trico seems to be doing whatever it wants to. You’ll be riding atop Trico’s back, telling him to jump to the platforms in front of you, only for him to just sit there for a minute before going backwards. Sadly, these moments of inconsistent AI only seem to increase as the game goes on, and too often I felt frustrated at the game, and even at Trico himself. And I’m sure frustration is just about the last emotion The Last Guardian was intended to elicit.

If The Last Guardian has another major issue, it’s the camera. Admittedly, camerawork has been a persistent issue with Team Ico’s games from the beginning, but it may be at its most prominent here in The Last Guardian. The camera on its own leaves a lot to be desired, but combine it with a focus on a large creature in often small spaces, and it becomes all the more of an issue. Again, this is an especially pressing problem considering the lengthy development gave Team Ico plenty of time to learn from past mistakes.

The Last GuardianThe sad thing is, these problems are big enough to hold the overall experience back. But on the plus side of things, what an experience it is. The world of Team Ico’s titles remains one of the most enchanting in all of gaming, and the stories they tell are among the most beautiful and sensitive in the entire medium. That trend continues here, as the world and story of The Last Guardian is as mystifying and emotional as anything Team Ico has made.

The Last GuardianTrico himself is a stunning creation. His character design is reminiscent of the dragon from Spirited Away, and the emotion he conjures effectively echoes that which someone might have for their pet dog or cat. The setting and overall mood of the game is just as melancholy as Team Ico’s previous works, with the fairy tale trend of the studio still being prevalent (the characters still speak in a fictional language, and the story is narrated by the boy’s adult-self in the past tense). And the segments in which the boy and the Trico encounter the armors are genuinely frightening.

In terms of aesthetics, The Last Guardian is an absolute winner. The mystifying world that Team Ico has created has never looked more beautiful, with the graphics being some of the best on the Playstation 4. The music is similarly top notch, and at times even rivals the soundtrack of Shadow of the Colossus.

The Last GuardianIt’s nothing short of tragic that the technical issues that are present are frustrating and distracting enough to prevent The Last Guardian from reaching its full potential. The inconsistent AI and clunky camerawork are hindering, but this is still a beautiful gaming experience that kept me emotionally invested, and it left me wanting to see what Team Ico can dream up next (and praying that it doesn’t take nearly as long for them to complete). If Team Ico can create a title with as much polish in gameplay as there is beauty in their storytelling, they would rival the very best the industry has to offer. As it is, the flaws at hand are the price that needs to be paid for the unique experiences Team Ico brings to the table.

If the results are this rewarding, then in the end, I suppose that price is worth it.

 

8.0

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.

 

9.0

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.

 

8.0