Reviewed: November 16, 2005
Released: October 18, 2005
Shadow of the Colossus is an enigma, both as a game and the way people are responding to it. I havenít seen this much gushing and praise for a game since Halo 2, and once again, I must have missed out on my payola check or free stuffed Colossi plush...or maybe I just canít see the hidden hologram beneath the surface of this piece of art.
Art is probably a good description of Shadow of the Colossus. The game is conceptually brilliant in design and presentation, but what else would you expect from the designers of cult-favorite, ICO. But donít expect any great revelation in storytelling or gameplay.
Do you like boss battles? Do you like jumping and climbing puzzles? If you answered yes to both of those questions then pony up your $40 and prepare for the ride of your life. Shadow of the Colossus is nothing more than 16 boss battles chained together with brief cinematic narrative and some minor exploration on horseback, usually interspersed with some sort of acrobatic puzzle to complete the journey to the next Colossi on the list.
Story definitely takes a backseat to gameplay. You enter the game with very little backstory, only a lone boy on horseback carrying a limp female body. You carry the girl into a gothic temple and lay her on the altar, obviously with the intent to resurrect her somehow. A disembodied voice tells you that if you are to travel the surrounding lands and defeat 16 giant Colossi then you ďmightĒ be able to get your girlfriend back.
The temple serves as your hub, a central point that leads to all of the 16 sections of the world, each with their own unique Colossi waiting for you. From here you will explore, both on horseback and on foot some impressively large landscapes, guided only by your magic sword that always points toward your next destination.
When you break down the game it quickly reveals just how shallow the experience can get. Itís no big deal traveling the countryside, as there are no encounters with either monsters or NPCís. Itís simply a means by which the designers artificially extend the life of the game. If I can magically teleport back to the temple after each battle why can I not appear at the location of each boss?
There is a bit of environmental navigation or what most will refer to as out-of-place jumping and climbing puzzles. The controls for moving about are easy enough to master but there are some odd quirks in your ability to stick a landing or grab and shimmy along ledges with consistent accuracy. Itís obvious these sequences are meant to prepare you for the similar tactics you will be using when you fight the Colossi, but they really donít. Because nothing can prepare you for the first time you lay your eyes on one of these epic creatures.
By now most of you have seen at least the first giant boss, either screens from E3 or the playable demo that was available prior to release. Impressive as he might be, that guy is only the tip of the colossal iceberg. Each boss battle gets bigger, longer, and more strategic the further you adventure into the game.
Strategies get more involved and require the mastery of both sword and bow. Sometimes youíll fight on foot, sometimes on horseback, but inevitably you will have to find a way to gain access to the Colossi itself, and clamber about looking for glowing points of vulnerability where you can stab your sword and inflict critical damage. Strategy here involves keeping a watchful eye on your grip meter and making sure you have a temporary place to rest when your grip is about to fail you.
But therein lies the rub. Shadow of the Colossus is nothing more than 16 epic boss battles strung together with minimal story and forced gameplay. Granted, each Colossi is an adventure, perhaps even an entire level by traditional game standards, but that doesnít detract from the fact that this is nothing more than finding and exploiting the weakness of 16 bosses that you might find at the end of a Final Fantasy game.
Iím doing this game a great kindness and scoring it based on my ability to run the game in progressive scan. Without it, this is one of the worst looking games I have played in several years, full of jaggies and shimmering to the point where I was about to not even play it.
Thankfully I dabbled into the options and found the progressive scan feature, which is not mentioned either on the box or the manual. I suppose a CRT will naturally blur these imperfections, but without progressive scan this game would not have scored higher than a 5 for graphics.
Once I had the game running at a level where I could stand to look at it I was able to appreciate some really impressive level design, not so much in world detail but in epic scale. All of the areas you will explore are part of the larger whole, all centered around the temple, some extensions off of former paths. In order to get to the third colossi you will take much of the path you took to arrive at the second one then branch off in some new direction.
Technically, the animation is excellent with probably the best horse animation ever, or at least a dead tie with the horses in GUN. Perhaps itís the visual style, but everything in this game looks hand drawn and cel animated. I was reminded of the ultra-smooth styling of Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell. Itís very clean animation that looks decisively different than typical CG.
The colossi are obviously the highlights of the game and received the most attention to detail. First and foremost, scale is captured brilliantly and nothing is more terrifying than being underfoot when these monsters are stomping around. Each beast has their own distinct features and animations along with a weight and physicality about them that I have never seen before. Combine that with creative art design and some of the best fur textures you can see outside an Xbox, you have some real magic going on here.
Sadly, the camera is unable to keep up with the action a lot of the time, especially when it starts to circle you, grabbing onto a colossi and move around while trying to animation such complex models and detailed textures. The framerate never hinders the gameplay, but it does show that the PS2 is nearing the end of its lifespan.
Shadow of the Colossus has an epic soundtrack that you would normally find on big-budget Hollywood movies or at least premier RPG games like Final Fantasy. There are multiple tunes, almost all of it orchestral, and it all blends together seamlessly and sets up the every-changing mood whether it be lonely desolation, frantic combat, or the awe and wonder the first time you see the massive colossi.
Sound effects arenít terribly imaginative. There are some impressive effects for the stomping footsteps and powerful roars from these beasts. You have the twang of your bow, the hoof beats of Agro as he gallops across the land, and the sickly thud as your sword sinks into critical strike zones sending up a geyser of blood.
Shadow of the Colossi is a relatively short game, but those who remember the 6-8 hour ICO probably wonít be too surprised. But at least that game had a story and an adventuresome style of gameplay that made you want to revisit it several times a year like a favorite movie.
And even though you can probably finish off this game in two or three sittings, I would recommend you do maybe one or two battles per session and spread the game out over several days. That should help hide the lack of any true narrative or substance. This game is like having 16 desserts and no entrťe.
This game does offer a few minor incentives to replay the game at least once more, possibly on the hard mode if you found the default challenge not all that challenging. There are a multitude of collectibles out there in the world for you to find and getting them all will require multiple passes through the game, but honestly, fighting the same bosses over and over doesnít seem like the best use of any gamerís time, especially for a few meager trinkets.
Shadow of the Colossus is a great experience but it almost seems like a niche title for those who really like boss fights. As for me, boss fights are generally the least enjoyable part of a title for me. I always like everything leading up to those final encounters, but usually bosses seem to be a checkpoint or measuring tool for the designers to test your character to make sure you are leveled-up and skillful enough to proceed.
Still, the game is highly original, both in artistic style and epic scale. Itís definitely worth checking out just as long as you know what to expect going in. And remember to turn on that progressive scan if your TV supports it, otherwise youíll think you are playing a PS One title.