Shadow of the Colossus is one game that I have been anticipating for a very, very long time. Ever since I finished Ico, I was waiting for another game from the team responsible. It was a long time coming, but Shadow definitely did not fall short of my expectations. It’s clear that the team lavished a lot of love and attention on getting this game right. It is an example of how far you can take a simple, somewhat quirky idea with a little creativity and excellent artistic direction.
In terms of plot, Shadow of the Colossus does a lot with very little. You begin the game with a voiceover explaining that the land is cursed and that no living thing may enter. A young man places a dead girl on a pedestal, and an entity named Dormin informs you that, by killing sixteen colossi that roam the land, you might be able to bring her back to life. You gain little bits and pieces of story as the game goes on, but it really doesn’t come together until the very end (which, incidentally, is spectacular). At some points I even felt rather guilty killing the colossi, because they aren’t all aggressive from the start, and killing the majestic creatures seems somehow wrong.
You are left to speculate as to why the land is cursed and how it became such a wasteland. Clearly, humans once lived there—you come across the occasional human-made structures, some of which are very elaborate—but the game never really explains what happened. The player is left to construct their own story, which I rather liked.
Basically, the game consists of the player locating the next colossus, figuring out how to get onto the colossus and stab away at the weak point(s). The first few are not very difficult, but the game definitely gets better as it goes on. Each colossus seems to outdo the one before it. I never got bored, even when I spent an hour trying to figure out how to get to one colossus’s weak spot. Each colossus is well-designed and beautifully animated. Some tower over the player, while others are much smaller and faster. Some require you to use the environment to defeat it, while others use the environment against you.
The controls are kept simple, and your means to defeat the colossi are also very limited. You have a bow and arrows, a special sword, and your trusty steed. Agro, the horse, is one of the best-executed horses in any game ever. He’s very good at finding his own path along windy trails, although he does occasionally get stuck in the woods. His animations and mannerisms are very lifelike, and since he is the only companion you have, you grow quite attached to him. He even spooks when a colossus gets too close, and if he gets hit, he’ll limp for a while. It’s clear that a lot of work was put into getting him just right.
As I’ve mentioned before, the animations of the colossi, the player, and Agro are all excellently done. The colossi, especially, are awe-inspiring. The large ones move with real gravity that befits their massive size. They appear partly organic, with hair covering parts of them, and partly mechanical or artificial. Some move like wild animals, others more mechanically. Everyone will have their favorite (mine was thirteen). In addition to the creatures in the game, the landscapes are also very well done. The textures are perhaps not as sharp as those of other PS2 games, but this game has a more epic, cinematic feel to it than any other title I can think of. As you ride across fields, wastelands, and through forests, you can’t help but feel a sense of solitude. At times, it almost feels like playing in a movie.
The camera definitely helps heighten the cinematic nature of the game. While riding across an open field, it will position itself so that the player and Agro are in the bottom corner, which allows you to see a larger field of view in front of you, and gives you the sense that you are riding somewhere important, even if you really don’t know where you are going. During battles, the camera emphasizes the size difference between the player and the giant colossi. Of course, you are able to manipulate the camera however you want, and during battles, one shoulder button centers it on your opponent.
I did have the occasional problem with camera angles, usually when I tried to move it around while near a colossus. It sometimes got stuck on things. Generally it is not difficult to remedy this, as you can simply press the button to re-center it on the colossus. It did annoy me a few times during battles when precision and timing were important. Overall, though, I had very few problems with the camera and I felt that it generally does what it is supposed to do quite well.
The soundtrack also helps to make this game feel epic. The sound effects—Agro’s hoofbeats, the sound of your feet scrabbling on rock, etc.—are all spot-on. The music is very subtle, and blends seamlessly between tones. While fighting a colossus, for example, the music might sound very sinister and dangerous—good for when you’re scrabbling around trying to figure out how to get onto the beast. Once you manage to get to the weak point and start stabbing, the music becomes triumphant. The change is subtle and the music always seems to match the tone of whatever is going on with the player.
All in all, Shadow of the Colossus only takes 8-10 hours to beat, depending on how thoroughly you explore the land (and how bad you are at navigation). However, once you finish it the first time through, you unlock the hard mode, as well as time attack mode for each of the colossi. In order to unlock everything the game has to offer, you will need to play through it more than once, since your stamina accumulates with each colossus you defeat, and you are not able to reach everything the first time through. The world itself is worth exploration, if only to see some of the beautiful vistas you may have missed the first time through while you were riding off to your next challenge.
Shadow of the Colossus is definitely one of my favorite games on any platform. While it’s short, it’s a very complete, satisfying game experience. While I don’t think it’s a game that everyone will really get into, I do feel that anyone who gives it a shot will be rewarded. It’s easy to pick up and play and it’s surprisingly addictive. You’re given so little plot at the start; you can’t help but want to know what is really going on. It draws you in from the beginning to a spectacular end, and all the while you’re wowed by what the game puts in front of you.