Format reviewed: PlayStation 2
Developer: Team Ico
The monstrous PS2 epic that pushed the console to breaking point
Like Ico before it, which started life on the PSone before mercifully jumping platforms, Shadow Of The Colossus spent a long time in the conceptual stages before release. Designer Fumito Ueda wanted to create a unique world so strange in its construction that it would defy any particular time or place. Likewise, the Colossi, arguably the stars of the game, were designed using both natural and mechanical source materials, so players would be unable to discern whether they were animals or machines.
Shadow Of The Colossus defies any specific genre but can be summed up in its structure as 16 boss fights, divided by long stretches of exploration around a desolate land. The game’s first public showing came in the form of ‘Nico’, presenting the game as a very different experience, involving multiple protagonists attacking a Colossus as a group – other aspects, such as the specifics of the hero, Wander, came later, yet the idea of a protagonist and his horse companion existed before the setting did.
Ueda aimed to make each Colossus more than a mere boss battle, however. While he perceived nothing wrong with this traditional design idea, Shadow Of The Colossus would be as much about the journey as the fight itself, with the environments designed to create a sense of foreboding as the players discover the Colossi for the first time. Ico had built a dedicated audience in the meantime. Shadow Of The Colossus was released to greater sales than its predecessor, not to mention a rightfully positive reception from critics.
Shadow Of The Colossus is about the guilt. The unbearable, crushing guilt. As Wander, a man seeking to bring his love back to life by slaying 16 mystical creatures, the entire story of the game is presented through the prism of the character’s selfishness – you, as a player, feel as though you’re doing something terrible by robbing this fascinating land of its mighty native creatures, and that theme is explored so cleverly and maturely through the narrative. This is a groundbreaking display of interactive storytelling; your experience, your struggle with each staggeringly impressive beast is the story, while the mythical journey to each battle is an undoubtedly effective and ominous plot device.
The atmosphere is a triumph of art and sound design – the world here is an unending, washed-out labyrinth of echoes, diverse yet almost entirely empty, save for the Colossi, lizards, birds, shrines and a few secret curios for the more ambitious players. There’s just something really unsettling about the world. You never quite feel alone – Agro, your trusty steed sees to that – but at the same time you feel lonely. It’s a captivating feeling. The expedition to each Colossus, guided by the light of Wander’s sword, is a perfect pacing mechanic, building up each reveal to fever pitch before you’re finally aware of the challenge that lies ahead of you.
Each Colossus is a carefully crafted puzzle, and it’s only through using the environment to his advantage that Wander is able to get the better of each one. The goal is to hunt out their weak spots, then find a way of safely approaching them in order to bring them down, yet it’s rarely a straightforward task. The appeal is in the way they look, move and interact with the environment, which varies unexpectedly throughout – highlights include Phalanx, the mighty sand snake that floats over the environment as you try to cling onto its wings; Hydra, the aggressive sea dragon that swims deep beneath a hauntingly dark lake; and Avion, the bird-like creature that instantly transforms your expectations of the game as you try to take it out of the sky in mid-flight.
It’s technically amazing, stretching the PS2 to its very limits, often at the expense of the frame rate. In an odd twist, however, the slowdown and overall jerkiness becomes part of the experience, particularly when you’re in close, dangerous quarters to the Colossi – it’ll certainly be interesting to see how the upcoming 60 frames-per-second HD remake will reshape this staple of the Shadow Of The Colossus experience.
Each time Wander jabs his sword into a creature, only for it to fall to the ground and Kow Otani’s astonishing score to kick in, elicits a genuine sadness and causes you to reflect upon the protagonist’s selfish merits. No other game packs the same emotional impact, or tries anything quite as thematically complex.
Why It’s A Future Classic
We love Shadow Of The Colossus because it makes us feel something. The art direction here is so accomplished and iconic that, no matter how much 3D graphics evolve over the coming years, the imagination on display here by Ueda and his team will endure. Each creature is an individual masterpiece, and, despite its spiralling difficulty towards the end, it’s a terrific journey into the unknown that only a videogame could provide.
Comparing this to the games released at the start of the PS2’s lifespan showed just how far the bestselling home console of all time came in terms of its capabilities, as its vast, seamless world was quite unlike anything in terms of technical achievement. Plus, regardless of what we may feel about destroying each of the Colossi, we all know it’s cool to kill big monsters. Shadow Of The Colossus is an all-round triumph.
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