(Again, this is based on the HD re-release , and again, they haven’t touched anything other than the graphics and the framerate… thankfully).
Alright, I had a couple of major gripes with ICO, but I still can’t find myself calling it anything other than a good game. Regardless, I was starting to get the feeling that these games had been overhyped and had been recommended to me by people who had nostalgia goggles permanently glued to the face. So I drastically lowered my expectations for Shadow of the Colossus before playing it, and I’m glad I did. Not because it turned out to be overrated, but because it blew me away far more than it would’ve if I hadn’t adjusted my anticipation. Let me put it this way: The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection has a retail price of 40$, so supposedly each game in it is worth 20$. As far as I’m concerned, they could’ve completely dropped ICO and charged me 40$ for Shadow of the Colossus alone, and I would’ve been perfectly content. Hell, they could’ve charged me 100$ for this 2005, PS2 game and I still wouldn’t have minded. But I’m getting somewhat ahead of myself, so let me drag myself back to Earth and explain.
The plot of the game is, at surface level, even more basic than that of ICO’s. A young man named Wander drags the corpse of a girl named Mono into a forbidden land, and makes a deal with some sort of spirit: if Wander manages to kill 16 Colossi spread across the land, the spirit will bring Mono back to life. That’s it. We’re never told anything about these characters; we don’t even know if they’re necessarily ‘good’ in the first place. We have no idea why the spirit wants those Colossi dead; there’s absolutely no one else in this land, and you always find the Colossi asleep; I had imagined them terrorizing villages, kidnapping maidens and blowing raspberries at the children. But nope, there’s nothing here and the Colossi don’t seem violent at all, at least not until you’re stuffing arrows into their faces. Normally I’d be all over this incredibly sloppy set-up, but while playing I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was deliberate, that we’re supposed to draw our own conclusions about the characters. We get a clue that what Wander is doing isn’t entirely ethical whenever he kills a Colossus; it releases some black vapor, which is immediately absorbed into Wander’s body. Every time this happens, Wander’s body becomes progressively darker and more evil-looking. You approach the end-game looking like a bloody Final Fantasy villain, and while there’s no way that the spirit dude didn’t know about these consequences, I can’t figure out whether or not Wander expected them. Most people immediately assume that Mono is Wander’s girlfriend or spouse; she could just as easily be an evil queen that was bent on world domination, who was righteously killed before her ambitions could be fulfilled. Everything in this game left to the player’s analysis, and quite a few characters have analyzed it. You can take a look at a few interesting theories here, though an understanding of ICO’s plot is necessary before reading all that gibberish.
A lot of games have presented moral dilemmas, ever since Mass Effect made moral choice systems popular. This game is on a whole other level, though. Firstly, you can’t actually refuse to kill the Colossi, unless you chuck the game in a bin, a decision I’d chuck you in a bin for. Secondly, every game that employs a moral choice system clearly states what’s evil and what’s good, while this game keeps everything ambiguous. It makes you consider every possibility, whether you’re really the good guy or just a Colossus killing asshole, killing them to uphold you’re end of a bargain with a potentially malevolent entity. And who knows what will happen when you do so, anyway? How are we supposed to know what killing the Colossi achieves for him, so what if he laughs at you when you’re done with your killing spree before destroying the world? Who knows? The land you travel in is completely empty, reinforcing the concept that you’re alone, you have no one you can consult for advice, and Wander’s decision is something completely of his own choosing. The land itself is incredibly atmospheric; there’s no music here, just you travelling through a grassy wasteland (that sounds a bit contradictory, doesn’t it), contemplating the plot and your most recent kill. The game employs the same soft color palette that ICO used, making everything look simultaneously beautiful and foreboding. It all comes to a head in the ending , which while answering a couple of question regarding the spirit, creates a bazillion other questions, and let me say, without spoiling anything, that the ending completely blew my mind and caused the game to remain at the forefront of my mind long after completing it. My last review’s definition of ‘Art’, when the term is applied to video games, was “Saying much with little”. I’d like to amend that definition with “Something that causes you to think of it long after leaving it”, because I think that’s what really turns a game into a classic, or indeed, anything into a classic.
But enough of the bloody story and atmosphere. ICO did those exceptionally well, but failed rather miserably in the game aspect of it, the arguably more important aspect. Shadow of the Colossus, on the other hand, pull both of them near flawlessly. The gameplay is divided into two major categories: Exploration and Colossi battles. There actually isn’t much to say about the exploration segments; you’re armed with a sword, which points you in the direction you need to go to find your next Colossus by raising it to reflect the sun’s rays. You have a horse that you can mount to get there, and unless you want to spend a couple of centuries running to the battle site, riding it is mandatory. I’ll admit, controlling the thing at first felt unintuitive, as you need to constantly pound the Triangle button to move at full speed, and trying to do so while consulting your sword for directions may permanently damage your thumbs. There’s no way to properly control your turns; I had a hard time trying to get it to gradually turn. As I progressed through the game, though, I realized there wasn’t any need for slow turns; the game world is huge and extremely spacious, save when you’re navigating through a canyon. Other than riding your horse to battle, that’s actually nothing else you can do in the hub; no battles, no puzzles. Alright, you can take out lizards with your bow and arrow to increase your grip gauge, a feature that I’ll explain later, but that’s optional and honestly, extremely arbitrary. How does shooting lizards affect how well I can grip something? No, the point of the hub-world is to A) provide time to contemplate the game’s plot, B) space out the Colossus battles, which simultaneously gives you a breather and builds up anticipation for your next battle, and C) Slack your jaw because of how huge and beautiful this world is. While it’s entirely possible to head directly to your next fight and ignore most of the map, you can spend hours exploring, finding landmarks and beautiful scenery. If you’re only here for the battles, though, because you have the attention span of, well, an American, than you’re never forced to be in the hub-world for longer than necessary.
The serenity and beauty of the hub-world actually provides a very welcome contrast to the intense and dramatic Colossi battles. When you find a Colossi, you first have to draw its attention, either by yelling at it or shooting arrows at it. When it sees you, that’s where you have to switch your brain on. See, I was incredibly wrong to think that these things might’ve been terrorizing villages, because no village that isn’t armed with nuclear weapons could stand up to these things for longer than a couple of nanoseconds. These guys are ENOURMOUS, and no amount of emphasis can be enough for that word. Your arrows don’t even register as dust to these things, and when I first encountered one, I was at a complete loss as to what to do. Turns out, these things are rather hairy, and they have a couple of glowing weak spots. Ergo, you have to climb their hair to their weak points. Getting onto them, however, is the question. The Colossi have identifiable patterns, and you have to find a way to exploit those patterns in order to get to where you can start climbing them. If their patterns don’t involve anything other than turning you into a pile of bones and strawberry jam, than the structure of your battlefield is the key to getting ahold of them. The solutions are never too obtuse that you can’t figure them out, while never being shoved in your face. The effort of trying to figure out how to stab the thing while having to avoid the lumbering giant’s effort into reducing you into ooze creates a nerve-wracking yet exhilarating sensation that I’ve never felt while playing a video game, or indeed felt, period. I wish I could go into more detail about how utterly brilliant these puzzles are set-up, but I don’t want to give away spoilers, so suffice it to say that figuring out how to grab onto these things and successfully grabbing their armpit hair gave me a feeling of accomplishment no amount of aced tests could ever give me.
Once you manage to get onto them, the gameplay shifts to climbing and platforming. This is where the grip gauge comes into play; you have to hold R1 to cling to the behemoth and try to climb up it. They quite often try to get you to stop tickling them by thrashing around, forcing you to stop and hold on for dear life; if your gauge becomes empty before you have to refill it (which is accomplished by standing on solid ground), you’ll fall and break your everything. Not really, though, because your life bar is rather generous and falling a skyscraper’s worth of heights doesn’t do as much of a number on your life bar as you might expect. Regardless, the point is to climb and stab the thing’s weak spot. Oft times, these things are so ridiculously huge that they have rock platforms attached to them, and this is where you do a bit of standard running and jumping. The enemy is constantly on the move, though, so you always have to be careful about your timing and accuracy. This standard platforming is often combined with the climbing so things never, ever feel repetitive or standard. Occasionally, you’re called to do some of this platforming as part of a puzzle, in which case it feels like ICO’s formula, except much more sped up and intuitive. Let me tell you this: wracking your brain and gaming abilities in order to beat a Colossus, and watching the thing collapse to the ground, shattering the earth underneath it, is a feeling of accomplishment and victory that is paralleled by absolutely nothing, provided you aren’t drafted in the army. This feeling is tempered, though, by the fact that these things actually seemed peaceful before you started shoving arrows up their asses, and that black vapor that their corpses release and your body absorbs brings the whole moral dilemma thing crashing back down, creating a feeling akin to sorrow or pity. Like I said before, I appreciate the hub so much because it gives you time to calm down and think about the whole deal.
Perhaps the most important part about this game when developing was trying to make the fights diverse and unique; there are sixteen of these fights throughout the entire game, and it’s incredibly important to make sure they don’t feel repetitive. Rest assured, they are not, and part of this is thanks to the Colossi’s designs. Some of them look phenomenal, and look so unique and have such varying attributes that you can never rely on the same tactic twice. Some fly, some swim, some fly and swim, and some travel through sand. They take on the apperance of birds, fish, snakes, and other things I won’t spoil. You have to constantly adapt to your enemies, and in the instance that a Colossus design is somewhat recycled, your arena is so different and its patterns so unfamiliar that it might as well be a fresh design. A couple of them let me down, though, on account of not being colossal. In a game called Shadow of the Colossus, that’s a pretty damning flaw. They’re only the size of an inflated bull, and the two look exactly alike. Like I said, your battlefield is completely different, but I don’t appreciate the fact that the blandest design in the game was the one they decided to use twice. Your first encounter with the thing is also pathetically simple and easy to figure out, too, so I can’t help but feel that this fight should’ve been cut altogether.
I can imagine most of the people reading this questioning my sanity. “How does a VIDEO GAME create a moral dilemma in your mind? It’s just a game!”, I see them sneering. Well, fool, video games have more potential to be philosophical than any book or movie, on account of being interactive. I doubt I’d have cared as much about the morality of the Wander’s motives if I hadn’t been the one fulfilling them. I wouldn’t have found the interaction between Yorda and Ico compelling if I hadn’t been the one holding her hand and fighting to protect her. This is why I despise the term ‘video game’, because unless the word ‘game’ is preceded by the world ‘drinking’, it’s always linked to something childish, something one dabbles with without a second thought. The two games in the ICO and Shadow of the Colossus prove that video game are a viable art form, but this is an issue I feel like dwelling on in a different article. As for Shadow of the Colossus, its easily the greatest PS2 I’ve ever played, the most compelling, well-balanced, and unique gaming experience I’ve been exposed to. I hesitate to call it the ‘best game ever’, but it certainly sits in my top five. It’s a game I recommend EVERYONE to play, by any *legal* means necessary. I know that the majority of ‘gamers’ prefer headshoting noobs in Call of Duty, but those people can screw right off. This game is something that needs to be played by everyone, as proof that video games can be so much more than bloody, online, brown, and pointless shooter messes. It’s great, amazing, spectacular, awesome, fantastic, wonderful, terrific, and I’m running out of synonyms for ‘good’, so I’ll stop now.