Over a decade and two generations late, I can finally tick Shadow of the Colossus off my list of games I should have played a long, long time ago. I tried to go into this with the same mindset I have when watching the original Star Trek: remembering that this was the blueprint for a lot of what has come since and that it was a product of a very different time.
If you have never played Shadow of the Colossus before, the premise and core of the game is about bringing a maiden back to life at any cost. In a forbidden land, you are completely alone except for your trusty horse. A disembodied voice tells you that if you kill all the colossi, it will grant your wish. Guided by a shining light from your sword, you make your way to a colossus, a massive lumbering figure. This is a game about boss fight after boss fight, punctuated by a lonely journey through a beautiful but empty land.
Rock climbing course
Armed with a sword and bow, fighting a colossus is more akin to a puzzle than anything else. You can use the magical light of your sword to find the weak points on an enemy before grabbing onto its amazing shaggy pelt and going mountain climbing. As you scale the creature you have to reach the weak points and stab your sword into the lumbering creature. After a few strikes, a weak point will disappear, meaning you have to hit all of them to defeat them. As you land the final blow a stream of energy (or soul or blood or evil!) hits your character and you wake up at the temple, given your next target by the mysterious voice. This loop repeats for the entire game, with each colossus requiring more effort to beat.
Armed with a sword and bow, fighting a colossus is more akin to a puzzle than anything else. You can use the magical light of your sword to find the weak points on an enemy before grabbing onto its amazing shaggy pelt and going mountain climbing.
Sometimes you need to use the environment to your advantage to even climb on a colossus and you will have to manage your stamina while on the creature, finding a safe place to rest until you can continue the climb. Finding the right way to solve a problem can take a while, at which point the mysterious voice will offer a hint (these can be turned off if you don’t want them nagging you). Ultimately you defeat the enemy, but it might take a few tries as you get used to the climbing system, working out where to go and where you can rest easily or the later colossi recovering from a stun, tossing you off until you stun them again. During some fights, this can get annoying as you might run out of stamina when the colossus has a shred of health left, or because your ‘climbing to a point’ was clumsy (and the climbing controls often feel clumsy) you miss the final strike on a weak point, making you go through the motions to be knocked off as soon as a weak point is destroyed.
I say this is more like a puzzle game than an adventure game because in general, you are not at risk when fighting a colossus. Almost all of them are slow, ponderous behemoths that are completely incapable of hurting you once you start using them for rock climbing practice. Even the ones with hands seem unable to pluck you off their shoulder instead, they try to shake you off, which fails thanks to your herculean grip.
A beautiful, barren world
The world is so beautiful but so empty. It feels a lot like a tech demo or a benchmark tool, without the trappings that you are used to in the game. I understand that it is done on purpose as an exercise in minimalism: when you ride Agro the amazing music of the game is silent, letting you listen to the sound of the wind, the rhythm of hoofbeats and your own thoughts are what you are left with as your travel around the world. Why am I really here? Who is the mysterious power that I am questing for? What are the colossi? My head throbs with questions that push me on, that push me towards my next goal. On the way though, I get distracted by the beauty.
If you want a place to get lost in, a world that is pretty, this is it right here.
Just like the original PS2 version pushed the console, Bluepoint Games has made a beautiful showcase of what the PS4 can do in this remake. Amazing screen-space reflections on the water will make you sit and enjoy a lake. Volumetric god rays make vistas breathtaking and moving foliage makes a forest a place to enjoy rather than an obstacle to overcome. Mist sprays from a distant waterfall as the sun breaks through the clouds, water lapping at my feet. If you want a place to get lost in, a world that is pretty, this is it right here. But then the extent of how barren it is comes back, as I realise there is nothing to find here, no optional boss, no enemies, just the odd sparse collectable. You can’t even encounter the colossi in any order except the order the game foists on you: if you go exploring and find a place that looks like it has a reason to exist, but can’t find the reason for it, you are probably in the fighting arena of a colossus but it magically isn’t there at the current time. For a game that looks so open, so inviting to explore, there is a dissonance in not being allowed to do things in any order, in not actually having any reward in exploring (beyond the reward of a nice screenshot and a postcard-perfect vista).
Just keep playing
Shadow of the Colossus isn’t the longest game. It took me 7 hours to finish, and apparently a whole 40 minutes to beat one of them because it was the first one that required the environment be used to progress. The game has a bevvy of options to keep you going if you enjoy the calming silence of exploring the forbidden lands: mirror mode, time attack and other difficulty settings will offer a challenge and are used to unlock special items as well as concept art and comparisons of areas from the PS2 to the PS4 version. Looking through some of them, the change is so vast that it makes you marvel at the effort that has been put into making this game look so good.
Maybe the issue was really the expectations that have been built up for me over the years. SOTC is often referred to as that game, the one that if you didn’t play, you were shunned. Now 13 years after it initially launched, with a decade of nostalgia, of fans going on about the transformative effect the game had on them, the lasting impact of the emotional story, the massive creatures, I find myself underwhelmed. It was an impossible ask, to have SOTC live up to the glowing peer reviews I have heard, the eyes getting a distant stare and a misty sparkle as tales are regaled. Too many games have borrowed elements that made SOTC catch hearts and attention so long ago and after only hearing the various cover bands for so long, the original song is too slow, too ponderous for my liking. Yes, this might have been the game that pushed the PS2 to its limits so many years ago, but without having been at that moment, my appreciation of the technical wizardry that went into it does not have the same reverent, hushed tones that many others have for the game. Maybe the biggest colossus that needs to be defeated is a decade of nostalgia and reverence, mixed in with how much games have changed since then.