Shadow of the Colossus Review
I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that Shadow of the Colossus is an incredible game with tons of style, great art, intense action, and an excellent story. The bad news is that this game will most likely not sell well, so the creators of this truly innovative and imaginative game may never get the credit they deserve for their years' worth of work.
Shadow of the Colossus was created by the Sony-funded team that made another excellent PS2 game that few players ever even heard of: ICO. Some of the same elements remain, where the story unfolds slowly over the course of the game rather than the whole setup happening right upfront. But other than the developers' excellent eye for cinematography (if such a movie-oriented trait can be attributed to a game) and style, which both games share, the differences are many in Colossus.
The best way I can find to describe how Shadow of the Colossus plays is this: it takes the extremes of serenity and frantic action and pits them against each other. What I mean by this is that the game does few things, and it does them perfectly. Your character, a young warrior armed with a magic sword and a bow, is tasked with destroying sixteen Colossi. You've travelled to the end of the world to revive a girl who you've been carrying with you on your loyal horse Agro, and some mysterious gods have said it's possible - if you can take out all sixteen bosses.
With little fanfare, off you go to find the first Colossus. But it's not what you expect, as you will travel completely unmolested to your first battle. Sure, there are some Prince of Persia-style platform and jumping elements, but the game doesn't take these too seriously - because you're going to need these skills for much more than climbing cliffs later.
You see, Shadow of the Colossus has a total of sixteen fights in the whole game. There are no hordes of enemies to smash through on the way to the boss. Your trip from the game's central hub to each Colossus feels like it's part of an adventure game, one of exploration and experience rather than trudging through hundreds of identical monsters between bosses. I find it a wonder that literally no other game has done anything like this (at least, that I know of), and it really adds a level of tension and build-up to when your fight with a Colossus starts.
The trip towards each Colossus is usually an easy hop, skip, and jump on your fearless horse Agro (and this is easily the best-animated horse I've ever seen in any game, ever). He's literally no hassle at all, and will always survive longer than you. He'll make your trip easier because he's fast, and he can even help you out in some battles by allowing you to outrun a Colossus when needed or allow you to jump that much higher when necessary. He'll come when you call him, even in the middle of a fight with a Colossus, and will even find his way down winding paths without you having to direct him.
While the mysterious gods that gave you your quest will tell you about the next Colossus you must defeat, they won't tell you where to go. Your only guide will be your sword. Press a button and you can hold your sword up to the light, which will point you in the right direction. The developers have taken care to make sure that while the lands you travel through are interesting to see, they're not overly complex; it's really pretty hard to get lost in the land of the Colossi.
And each Colossus is truly a wonder to behold. Each one is very unique, is generally hundreds of feet tall, and so huge in scope and scale that after seeing these ones, you'll scoff at the bosses seen in most games. The way these things move, and how they regard the tiny little guy that has just rode up on his horse is perfect. The style of these monstrous creatures seems to take on a mix of classic epic tales combined with almost an Aztec style of construction (not all of the Colossi are 100% flesh and bone) - I know that sounds weird, but it really does work. Some of your massive opponents swim, some burrow, and others walk. Some are fast, some are slow, and each one has their own attacks which must be either dodged or exploited by your tiny form.
The fight with each Colossus is just as unique as their origins and looks; none of these fights are like most boss battles (where you usually just mash the fire button while dodging a few standard attack patterns). Instead, you'll have to find and pinpoint each Colossus' weak spots, then figure out a way to climb up onto the gargantuan monster to get to them. Sometimes, this is a matter of finding a way to temporarily weaken the monster, which will open it up for your main assault.
Once you open up the Colossus to a real attack, you'll need to grab and hold on tight while the Colossus tries to shake you off. All of them will have some sort of surface that you can cling to, like fur, or climb or walk on. Either way, you'll be working towards the glowing weak spots and stabbing them with all your might. This is made more difficult because your puny little warrior doesn't have infinite endurance - he can only hold on so long before he's got to let go. Sometimes, you'll get to stand on the monster's shoulder or back to get back your breath, but sometimes you'll be thrown free no matter what.
This creates a sort of tension in battle that most gamers have never experienced. Once you get onto the monster's back, he's not directly attacking you. Instead, he's trying to shake you off and you've got to find a way to hang on and maybe catch your breath before you're forced to let go. It will mix a bit of strategy with timing and watching the Colossus' movements if you really want to take down the beasts without being thrown to the ground.
These battles are intensely fun because you'll need to use the environment and the few tools at your disposal to find and then exploit each Colossus' weak spot. The weapons you get at the start do not improve throughout the game, and while your endurance for holding on will improve, that's about the only thing that really progresses as you go on. Each Colossus is as much of a puzzle as it is an intense battle, and with sixteen of them, each one will keep you guessing as to what the next major battle will entail. Some will have you fighting on a flat plain, others above a huge lake, and still others will be amongst ruins that crumble as the Colossus slowly lumbers towards you.
If you are still wondering what the big deal is about a game that's essentially a series of boss battles, well, I can say that it has to do with a certain intangible, yet vital part of any game: pacing. Most gamers don't even realize when a game deliberately puts a "calm before the storm" or why some otherwise great games become annoying with hours of intense combat and no breaks (or become too boring with a half-hour of dull cutscenes). But pacing is an extremely important part of today's story-driven games, and the developers of Shadow of the Colossus have shown true mastery in this sense. The serene, quiet moments of finding your way to a Colossus makes the actual battle that much more exciting, and the music and atmosphere only helps to build this in an extremely effective way. These slower, quieter parts, which generally last from five to fifteen minutes, are sure to bore some of the most attention-deficit gamers out there. These players won't last a half hour in this otherwise fantastic game. Still, though, I think that it's overall a price worth paying for such originality.
I've tried not to get too much into the story because most of it unfolds in the latter half of the game, and it just wouldn't be a good idea to spoil it for you. What I can say is that Shadow of the Colossus has one of the best endings I've seen in two decades of gaming. Yes, it's that good. And after you're done, there is still more to do: there are plenty of unlockable treats around the world, and there's even a time trial mode where the travel part is cut out and you must beat each of the Colossi as quickly as you can. While the single player game will last you somewhere around a modest eight hours, you almost certainly will want to experience some of these fights again. The best games are ones that compel you to play through them again immediately after you finish them, and with Colossus, that's exactly how I felt when I was done.
The presentation and visuals in Shadow of the Colossus are a true work of art. There are plenty of details here despite the otherwise barebones look in some places, but the developers have made sure to only put extensive detail in the places that the player really cares about. The end result is that no effort has been squandered in creating a unique experience. The excellent orchestral soundtrack augments both the adventure and action moments, and the sounds of both your character, Agro the horse, and each Colossus are unique and sometimes awe-inspiring.
We also get a nice bonus in that the game will take advantage of widescreen displays and the 480p progressive scan mode that's available on HDTVs - Xbox gamers are used to titles that do this, but this is something that the PS2 usually can't handle. It takes many months of optimization and plenty of technical skill to stuff a visually complex game like Colossus into the PS2 while still supporting 480p and widescreen modes, and the best part is that the quality of the game's art is good enough that using these modes doesn't bring out any glaring texture quality issues or the like. Colossus was designed with a wide screen in mind, and it's a phenomenal experience if you've got the hardware that can show this game off.
Shadow of the Colossus is not a game for everyone, even if it manages to elevate gaming to a level of art that most gamers have never seen. The tense and exhilarating action is broken up perfectly by moments of true serenity that really make the world feel more real, even if it is "emptier" than what most gamers are used to. Even if this game isn't set up for massive commercial success, I must still insist that any PS2 gamer out there needs to really give this one a try. Colossus is a near-masterpiece of a game that absolutely must be experienced.