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October 27, 2005

Review: Shadow of the Colossus (Ps2) - Some mountains are climbed, others are slain...

VGP Score


You don't often come across the likes of Shadow of Colossus. There are many people and games before it that have tried to make 'art' with videogames. If you were privaleged enough to play Team ICO's seminal title ICO, you were treated to some great visuals. The entire game played out like an active, living painting. Every brush stroke mirrored by the input of the controller, and every colour change as transient as the artists pallette. The game was just beatiful. It unfortunately remained rather similar throughout the whole adventure. The game played intuitively, but it was a lot of the same. Team ICO now has their chance to continue on towards the goal they set out to accomplish with Shadow of the Colossus. The team has grabbed a hold of that beauty and artistry, and held onto it maternally throughout the development of Shadow. That thing is what the games industry has desperately needed, and in heavy doses. Shadow, being the spiritual successor to ICO, has retained the quality of looking like art, but also boasts the ability to play like art. The game takes the idea of sim, and truly immerses you in it. Perhaps not as traditional as Will Wright wrote it, but there's definitely art mimicking life, and life mimicking art here. The story begins quaintly: a lone man - a Wanderer - riding in by horseback to a barren land, devoid of significant life, and empty of civilized impedimenta. An impossibly high bridge, bare backing into a shrine where 16 colossal monuments watch, as the Wanderer - someone we lovingly call Wander - places the body of his deceased loved one Mononoke, on the alter. Wander's goal is to find a way to bring her back from the dead and return her soul - at any cost. The Dormin, the omnipotent voice from somewhere offers you the restoration of Mononoke's life in exchange for defeating the 16 colossi that roam freely in the cursed land. Using the sacred sword - which you stole away as you fled from your native kingdom - find and defeat them. No how, or why, just do it and you'll see the lungs of your loved one inflate with a breath of life. Love does crazy things to a man, and this time is no different. No reason necessary, no cost is too high, and no mountain too live...

The game starts the player off with a bow and enchanted sword, his trusty steed and impeccable ambition. The thing to note as the introduction reels through it's 10 odd minute cut-scene, is that the only way in or out of this barren landscape is the impossibly built bridge, which you ride in on. So any life roaming through the flora and fauna of the land, can only escape over this bridge, which is a feat in and of itself to reach. The feeling of isolation and desolation are emphasized, just by this point alone. That same point is reemphasized time and time again, as you head-to-head it with a colossus the realization dawns that it's only you, the colossi and your only friend, Agro the horse. Agro's place in this epic story is not fully realized until the final act plays through. There's great emotional attachment to the characters here, and it's done with so little effort. The idea that the player knows whats going on is tossed, right until the final chapter comes to a close. By the time the credits roll, you'll be taken a back by just how much punch was packed into about an hour of story in a 10 hour game. The emotions invoked here are deep and in some cases painful. During one or two moments this reviewer felt the urge to shed a tear (however, did not). The relationship between Wander and Agro will tug at your heart strings, and there's nary a game that can boast the same thing.

But how does it play? Really, the game is art in every sense of the word, but there's still a game beneath that canvased disposition. The entire premise of the game is to hunt down these colossi and take them down. Is that it, you ask? For the first playthrough, yes definitely. However I'm going to veto the negative connotation attched to that statement. There are games that impliment half finished ideas, and only those ideas. Shadow is far from a half finished idea. It's a fully honed and tweaked idea, that gives the game something most other one trick ponies don't have: focus. The game never loses track of what it wants you to do, and never distracts you with filler. The enemy is the colossus, and no one else. There are other things to do and collect, like find fruit tees and white tailed lizards to increase health and strength, but those are fairly secondary. The focus never shifts to those things. To cement the point I'm trying to make: the fact that all you do is fight colossi is not a slight against the game. It's 100% in it's favour.

In order to reach each colossus, there's some lengthy travel times and exploration that need to be done first. By holding your sword up in brightly lit areas you can reflect sunlight, which will narrow into a singular beam when you're pointing in the direction of your target colossus. Making your way there will require you to trot through some rough terrains of varying nature, such as scaling mountains, crossing barren deserts, navigating through forest thicket, and breast stroking across lakes of water. Truly sights to be seen. The sheer size of the land is enough to make any Grand Theft Auto or Spider Man 2 fan jealous. The sqaure mileage of this game equates to about twice as much as any of the aforementioned games. Draw distances and texturing (even some of the first vertex shading I've seen on the Playstation 2) are all of the highest calibre. Although, the land is the furthest thing from most impressive in this title. The most impressive features in Shadow are the colossi themselves. Tens to even a hundred times larger than our lonely hero, these beasts represent a technical marvel in videogame design and presentation.

This a great time to take a dive into the waters of ravenous graphics whores. The colossi are huge, the grand scale is immeasurably large, and the number of polygons and textures on these monstrosities number in the tens of thousands. There's no shortage of ambition on the visual front here. Suffice to say, Shadow boasts the best sculpted graphics engine ever seen on the Playstation 2, or even the rival power houses Gamecube and Xbox. That said, there are those who would piss and moan with framerate diatribe, and admittedly, it isn't always perfect. But we're not talking significant drops here. The game for the most part consistently runs at a smooth 30 FPS, and on occasion will drop to around 28. On very rare occassions, it will drop lower then that, but never during any crucial event and it's never detrimental to the experience. The framerte drops happen the least during the colossi fights, and given the ambitious architectural precedence here, these slight drops are more than forgivable. In fact, they're expected. The overwhelming beauty here is more than enough for any hardcore gamer. There's absolutely no disappointment from any angle.

Onwards and forwards as they say. Scaling the colossi require some quick thinking, and active puzzle solving. These monsters are walking, living, breathing puzzles, each with their own criteria for revealing crucial weak points, or places where a greivous wound can be inflicted to knock them over. These weak points can be located using the sunlight via enchanted sword, but getting to them and taking down the colossus is another story. Unlike most reviewers, I have no problem spoiling some of the game to exemplify this point. There are 16 colossi in total, and explaining the ins and outs of one or two won't ruin any of the experience. One colossus, about the size of a small mountain, covered from snout to claw in stone armour, needs to be tipped over with the pressure of a water geyser. Afterward, you climb the fur of it's belly, and up to the top of his shell. To do this the player must mount Agro, and lure him over the geyser and take out his ankles, to weaken his support. Another example, and my personal favourite being colossus 5 known as Avion, requires that you lure a flying colossus to swoop down at you, and as he rears into the final stretch of the attack, you jump and grab hold of his wing. From here you take out the tail and wings to bring the bird out of the sky. Some truly remarkable gameplay here. Rest assured that every colossus requires a new strategy. There's nothing reused from colossus to colossus, and that makes each and every new monster a fresh and inventive experience. I suppose there's even a bit of innovation that accompanies Shadow, as no game has ever come close to so much as attempt combat on a scale as large as there is here. The entire process is fun and inviting, and exhilerating to the very bittersweet end.

The epitome of grandiose arrangements are in the soundtrack that plays before, during and after each fight. When trying to mount the colossus, a thunderous and ominous ballad echoes over and over until you begin the colossal ascension, but when you begin scaling them and going on the offensive, the victorious fanfare begins pounding, and rhythmically gets the blood pumping. It's an equilibrium of both the fantastic soundtrack and epic gameplay that creates this feeling, this aura that you're not only playing the game, but living it. It's a fantastic thing to embrace, and a wonderful experience, because that's what this game ends up being, an experience. Not just a game, but something you explore, you breathe in and you become a part of. I've never experienced anything like this game before during my tenure as a gamer. On top of a 10 hour experience during the first playthrough, the game warrants at a minimum 4 playthroughs, as doing so and completing all modes unlocks a total of 16 items, weapons and armour,that enhance your successive playthroughs; daring and efficient explorers will find some fabulously rewarding secrets and easter eggs as well, especially for fans of ICO.

What it simply comes down to is this: no game touches Shadow of the Colossus. No game in existence has ever reached such a lofty height as this. While I don't expect everyone to resonate with the opinion that Shadow is the best game ever, I would expect that everyone acknowledge that it does many things so radically different, and does them so well, that it is easily a contender for the game of the year. It's by and large an adventure on par with Resident Evil 4, God of War, and Killer 7. Very rarely would I throw around the phrase: "among the best games ever", and even more rare, as in almost never, would I call a game the greatest ever made. This is one of those rare times. Expect great things from this title. When you can do so much with so little, it wets the pallette just to imagine what Team ICO will do with the power of the Playstation 3. While a direct sequel to Shadow would be utterly fantastic, it's all too obvious and not a likely project for Team ICO. I do however have great expectations for their next title, as this game has proven, it's not how much you have, but what you do with it. A masterpiece has been painted, and the regal colours of Shadow of the Colossus articulate a world of unparalleled beauty.


Blogger Erik said...

10 is an understatement IMO :P

I personally like the soft music that plays as the Colossus falls...it's so sad and beautiful. Right now I'm on the giant turtle(the one where you have to flip it with the geyser). And I must say, after I sent Avion(or whatever) to its watery grave... I started to feel kind of sorry for the monstrous creatures...

October 28, 2005 2:50 PM


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