If you’ve been gaming for a while, I’m sure you’ve run into the argument that video games aren’t artistic in any way. Perhaps you’ve heard that from people ignorant in the visual strides made from the earlier days of Pong and Pac-Man. Well, if Sony has anything to say about it, their latest title will have these naysayers eating their words. The same team behind 2001’s visually arresting title Ico return four years later with their second masterpiece, an enigmatic game with a descriptive title: Shadow of the Colossus. Just like the title suggests, this is one of those games that’s going to tower over you with its control of scope and presentation.
Actually, let me back up a little bit to the story of the game, or the minimal amount of story that is expressly stated. You start out as a young unnamed hero crossing a vast wasteland on horseback towards a remote temple. As he winds his way down the narrow steps to the interior of the shrine, he nears a lone altar bearing the limp body of a young woman. It’s not immediately clear what’s wrong with her; you’re not really given information as to whether she’s in a coma or dead, or even what placed her in this state and initiated this desperate journey. Nor are you given any indication of what the hero’s relationship with the woman is, so you don’t know if she’s related to him in any way or merely an acquaintance. However, you are given a slight hint as to how you can potentially reverse her condition. As the bearer of a magical sword, you’re the only person in the world who can kill the 16 Colossi that roam the land. Armed with this sword, a bow and his trusty steed, it’s up to the hero to destroy these massive beasts.
Shadow hosts two main features that are both innovative and perceptually disarming from many other adventure titles out there. First of all, you’re not going to receive any other equipment in this title; your meager possessions are all you ever have throughout the entire game. You’ll be able to switch back and forth between your sword and your bow whenever you want. The arrows aren’t anything special; just your standard projectiles fired from a bow. However, your sword serves two purposes. First, it can be used as a pathfinder of your next objective, shining brighter and with a more focused beam of light from the sun as you move in the right direction of the Colossus. Secondly, it’s the only way that you can damage these massive creatures. Apart from the combat aspects, you’ll also be able to put your weapons away to grab more stable handholds when you’re climbing cliff faces, leaping for faraway ledges and scaling the monsters. Similarly, you’ll be able to swim faster if your hands are free through some of the bodies of water you’ll encounter. To cross the vast distance of the world, you can ride your horse Agro across the land.
The other principal difference is the lack of combat found in this title. You won’t confront minor enemies or even mini-bosses in this game at all. The 16 Colossi are the only opponents that you’ll fight. This might sound like an incredibly short and incredibly simple game at first, until you come face to face, or maybe I should say face to ankle with these massive beings. The Colossi in the game are easily 30 times the size of the hero, with large, powerful footsteps that shake the ground. Each one is radically different from each other as they move through their environments literally disregarding your existence until you blatantly place yourself in their way. For instance, some lope along the ground, others fly and some smash their way through objects and turf.
Once you’ve discovered the Colossus, the next trick comes in figuring out how to kill these monsters, finding ways to weaken them or reveal weak spots on their bodies that you can exploit. Most of the time, this will involve using the sword’s reflective properties to reveal the weak spots of the creature. Plunging your blade into these targets releases a large spray of black blood and energy, bringing you one step closer to fulfilling your goal. However, these creatures won’t simply let you kill them without a fight. They’ll do their best to shake you off their shoulders, heads and other body parts so they can step on you, fling you to the ground or cast you off of them. In fact, you’ll often find that you’ll need to abandon your assault on these beings to simply hang onto them for dear life.
I can already hear the grousing from those skeptical players out there who might say that this sounds boring, bereft of action and lacking substance. I actually fielded this response from someone who couldn’t understand the basic premise of the game. I put forth this simple response -- in this age of fast twitch gaming, massive online combat and (oftentimes) mindless gameplay, it’s extremely refreshing to find a title return to the basic roots of gaming. What I mean is simply this: you are provided a basic premise so you understand what you are supposed to do, and with a few tools and your wits alone, you are unleashed on the world in a “sink or swim” fashion. Indeed, the limitation of equipment feels somewhat like a Zen koan, where you are presented with everything you need to solve the puzzle, you merely need to find the puzzle itself and put its pieces together.
In fact, putting all of this together is part of the beauty of the game, especially when you realize that no two fights with a Colossus is the same. You are constantly forced to adapt and change your tactics to match the creature you’re up against, which requires a large amount of effort on your part. Shadow is much more than a basic puzzler. In fact, once you’ve become used to the flow of the game, you may find that it is tactically similar to real time strategy titles. Once you’re engaged in a fight, you’ll have to respond to the beast’s threats and counterattack when it’s advantageous for you, defending yourself when it isn’t. This becomes particularly important for the later monsters, when it will take you multiple minutes to simply scale the monster and prepare your assault. One false move can send you crashing back to earth, forcing you to start your hard work all over again from the beginning. This simple twist to play can really ratchet up your adrenaline. I found myself holding my breath numerous times when it looked like I was going to be flung off a Colossus only to barely hang on.
Perhaps what really drives this home is the sense of scale that Shadow imparts to the user. While you’re riding your horse, Agro, you’ll race across wide-open plains, trot along narrow pathways and rear up against cliffs. The environments of Shadow are as varied as its sixteen bosses, and your exploration of each surrounding is seamless without any load times. Animation of both the hero and Agro are extremely fluid; the horse responds as naturally as a real horse does, making the animal perhaps one of the most accurately captured in a video game. Your hero also comes across as a mix of both a capable warrior and an awkward child, which makes him more realistic. People aren’t always graceful or capable, and the subtle mix in the animation frames, such as the prepping for a jump and scrambling hand over foot are nice touches to draw you in.
But the true star of the graphics has to be the Colossi themselves. The first time you see these creatures, you’ll be awed by their sheer size. This is merely reinforced as you scale every inch of the creature with the camera zooming in and out to impart how high you climb or how much trouble you’re in as it tries to throw you off. Similar to Agro, the movement exhibited by these Colossi feels entirely appropriate to their mass, shaking the ground with steps or smashing things to bits. There are a few hiccups here and there – for instance, the frame rate can sometimes dip on certain movements by these monsters or during critical battle sequences, especially on powerful attacks. You’ll also notice that the camera can get placed in awkward areas during fights, although this can be easily corrected. And while this is a stunning game on this or any other current generation system, it isn’t the most detailed game.
The sound supports the exceptional play, with a grand orchestral score that is bolstered during fight sequences. In fact, the orchestra swells as you approach the monster, and you’ll find that it helps add to the tension of play during your attempt to slay the Colossus. Outside of these moments, you’ll enjoy plenty of environmental effects, including a great focus on water and the variance in pitch between shallow and deep water. While there isn’t a lot of dialogue that shows up in the game, the voiceovers that do appear are unique and distinctive enough to match this world that is obviously filled with some magical power.
I’ll throw out this lone caveat: Shadow of the Colossus may not be for everyone, and in fact I’m sure it won’t be because it won’t seem to have the same action that everyone expects from titles nowadays. This is unfortunate for those gamers, because they’re truly going to miss out on a masterpiece. Shadow proves that the PS2 has more than enough life left in it to captivate, challenge and engross players with a basic story, fascinating puzzle elements and boss fights on a scale never seen in games to date. I can’t stress how many risks needed to be taken to make a title like this, but it is extremely successful at every single one. If you own a PS2, you owe it to yourself to get this title.