Shadow of the Colossus

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If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.--Isaac Newton

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Gamers and game developers alike appear obsessed with the notions of freedom and variety, to the point that no modern game appears complete without a handful of components ostensibly implemented to realize such qualities. As gamers, we want more weapons, more combos, more characters, more enemies, more vehicles, and more levels. And whether they deliver or not, an assortment of features such as "sandbox" level design, "moral" choices for the player to make, and emergent storylines with multiple endings seem like obligatory additions to almost every new title.

Shadow of the Colossus, then, at first glance appears to be woefully inadequate.

Boasting the barest suggestion of a storyline and a rigidly linear mission structure, it offers a single, repetitive goal for the player to accomplish: locate and kill sixteen giant creatures in order to restore the life of an unidentified young woman. It's common to hear the game described as a series of boss battles, and for most part, that's an accurate statement. The "boss" designation is somewhat misleading, however, as the Colossi themselves are the only enemies. To defeat them, the player must climb onto their bodies, find their vulnerable areas, then stab them with a sword until they die. Although each Colossus presents its own challenges, in every encounter, the general approach is the same.

As far as "features" are considered, Shadow of the Colossus's offerings are surprisingly sparse. The player begins and ends the game with a sword, a bow and arrows, and a horse. That's it. There are no items to obtain, no weapons to upgrade, and no keys to find. There's no need to master any combo attacks, because there are none. In fact, twenty minutes in, the player has been fully introduced to almost every item, ability, and gameplay concept that Shadow of the Colossus has to offer.

And forget about choices, moral or otherwise. Sure, you can explore the environment at will, but there's only one Colossus at a time to discover, and wandering aimlessly won't get you to the next. You'll kill the Colossi in the order and by the methods the game dictates, or not at all. Your nameless character's moral outlook is fixed, albeit ambiguous, and there's hardly even a hint of a backstory. With the exception of your horse, you won't interact with other characters. Your options are simple: find each Colossus without getting lost, and kill it or die in the attempt.

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Despite all of this, Shadow of the Colossus has managed to garner some of the most intriguing praise of any game to date. While recognizing its minor technical issues, like slow framerates and the occasional camera control problem, critics have almost universally praised it as "entirely unique," "profound," or even "brilliant." Eurogamer, in a common refrain among critics and gamers alike, proclaimed it "one of the most consistently compelling and memorable games we've ever played."

And that's not just hype. Despite its lack of bells and whistles, Shadow of the Colossus is something genuinely special, in large part because it eschews the various accouterments endemic to modern gaming in favor of an intense, narrow focus.

Shadow of the Colossus's development team clearly recognized the potential of the underlying premise. Instead of complimenting that premise with a score of features, however, they took their game in the opposite direction, developing only its most basic, elemental aspects with a richness and detail rarely seen in other games.

Take the horseback riding, for example. Essential for traversing the vast distances to each Colossus, the main character's horse, Agro is as much a living, breathing animal as any created for a video game. He's beautifully rendered, masterfully animated, and imbued with a genuine personality that, if you've ever been around horses, is immediately familiar. Agro's simple, elegant, control scheme mimics the actions of riding a real horse, and as the player spurs him forward and tugs on his reigns, there's a powerful sense that he's a living creature with a will of his own. It's hard not to form a sort of bond with Agro, and increasingly appreciate him as the game progresses.

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The landscape seems almost as alive, despite its lack of human presence. Crisscrossed by canyons and impenetrable mountain ranges, its massive features hide more inviting locations, like quiet, shadowed groves of trees or echoing caves into which waterfalls flow. Typically awash in sunlight or shrouded in fog, the entire world is rendered in subtle, muted tones. Seemingly insignificant details, like the bubbles churned up when the character swims across a lake, or the way Agro's hooves stir up leaves in a forest, are carefully depicted and lend an air of realism and intimacy to the surroundings.

The Colossi, however, are indisputably the game's most defining feature, and it's in their presentation that the game's visceral, immediate appeal reaches its most epic proportions. From a distance, their masterfully animated silhouettes can obscure the sky. Closer, their ancient, complex bodies of stone and muscle are landscapes in and of themselves. Some wander canyons, their footsteps shaking the earth, while others lurk underwater, or lie slumbering in caves or temples. While some are humanoid, others resemble animals, or even insects. In every case, they're possessed by spirit so lifelike and mysterious that just watching them in motion is a singular experience.

Much of the key to Shadow of the Colossus's appeal is in the potency of its presentation. Unimpaired by complex gameplay mechanics, it delivers a world in which the player can interact and explore undistracted. The initial challenge in approaching each Colossus is primarily cerebral, as in most cases their bodies aren't immediately climbable, and they must be lured into position or injured somehow. Once they're accessible, however, the act of locating and attacking their critical areas is an intimate exercise in planning and concentration. The controls are simple, and the means of attack are primitive, but the experience of navigating their complex, flailing anatomies is downright breathtaking.

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Nearly every aspect of Shadow of the Colossus is given careful attention, both in terms of craftsmanship and artistic vision. There's a sense that no detail is unimportant, from the thundering sounds of a Colossus's footsteps to the delicate scrape of Agro's hooves against stone. The superb musical score ranges from ethereal choral arrangements to dramatic symphonies, and perfectly compliments the mood of the game. As a whole, it's a study in carefully balanced contrasts, where the subtle, evocative aspects of the experience carry the same significance as its most dramatic moments.

Though the aging PS2 groans under the weight of the code that Shadow of the Colossus brings to bear on its tired components, there's no mistaking the fact that the game is a triumph of gaming technology. While not graphically advanced from a technical perspective, it manages to achieve something undeniably wondrous, within the limitations of a medium too often dismissed as unsuitable for meaningful artistic expression. In the wake of the awe it inspires, the nature of its technological underpinnings is almost irrelevant.

There's a lesson here for those who might assume that the value of games lies in their ability to grant players ever-increasing options and freedom of choice. Shadow of the Colossus creates a rich, compelling experience by providing exactly the opposite: a tightly constrained, minimalist vision uncluttered by elements that would distract from its allure. And it's just one of an infinite number of personal visions that, under better circumstances, the medium of gaming could offer players. Shadow of the Colossus is a welcome reminder that a game can be felt as much as played, provided that its impact remains undiluted.

[i]Shadow of the Colossus[/i]
Official Site
Release Date: October 2005 (PS2)
Developer: SCEI
Publisher: SCEA

Comments

First class review! Sounds genuinely intriguing and perhaps the last hoorah for the PS2, in the same mold as ICO. SCEI is making something of a reputation for itself, I hope this time commercial success follows the critical.

Now if only it weren't an exclusive, uniquely innovative games are so hard to find these days.

This is truly a model review, an exemplum for all time, and, in case anyone still harbored any doubts on the matter, overwhelming evidence that the invention of language was a good idea. The review is as much about the games industry as it is about this particular game -- and yet, owing to The Fly's skill as a writer, it never once loses its focus. This is a review which doesn't merely say things; it says important things, things that we would all do well to consider at length. If anyone would care to get drunk with me while discussing The Fly's closing paragraph, just take the next flight out to Portland, Maine, and I'll pick you up.

Bravo, The Fly. This is why we're all here.

what Lobo said

Terrific review.
Now, when does this come out for PAL PS2?

Damn, Fly, you make the rest of us look bad :).

Obviously this is a great review; it's made me want to take action and check out the game. Bonus: well written to boot. Good job

/rises.
/claps.
/sits back down.

Excellent review. I've been hearing murmers about this game for awhile now and have been intrigued. Based on your writings I'll probably be picking it up. It'll be the first console game I've bought in years.

Just like to add that there are Items that could be unlocked, and in some case a reason to explore the world looking for white tail lizards that give you more stamina and fruits that increase your health. The good thing about it is that it's all optional and just give you small edge on taking on the colossi but totally unnecessary. I've spent 8-10 hours just riding the horse around collection as many lizard tails as I could because I had an objective set to clime the tallest temple in the world to reach the secret garden. Although it was pointless to do but it gave me a sense of accomplishment, yet, looking back at it such a waste of time. Plus I manage to stumble upon few bugs, like falling through the ground, Agro getting stuck on small cliffs/rocks and when I try jumping of the horse I would get suspended in mid air... which prompts me to reset the console... not pleasant at all. Fortunately those bugs I only encountered when exploring the land... seems like if you stick to a given path to a colossus, you will never encounter them.
The great thing about the game though is that its pure fun... I never found it to be neither tedious nor aggravating and that would be a big plus in my book.

By the way that is great review, good job Fly!

It is contributions of people like The Fly that make GWJ as uniquie a place as it is.

As far as the subject at hand goes, I bought ol' Podunk's PS2 just to play this game with my kid.

Damn! I swore I'd never buy a console game. Well, in truth, my wife swore at me that I'd never by a console game. But this sounds like a great release.

Too bad it's not available for the PC.

Well done, Fly. Wonderful review.

http://www.ctrlaltdel-online.com/?t=...

Required reading for Colossus players.

Wonderful review.

Its not like I'm going to buy this game or anything. I don't even own a PS2. But damn Fly, that was perhaps the best review I have ever read.

But Fly, when you were climbing up the Collossus' ass, didn't you have the same thought that Certis had, which he admitted to in his last appearance in GWJ Radio? Well?

I was looking forward to hearing more about this game after Certis's comments on GWJ Radio. The Fly has expounded, very eloquently I must say, on the very things that made it sound interesting to me in the first place, namely, the simplicity of the mission, the artistry, the musical score, the fact that the Colossi really live up to their name, and the "realistic" horse interaction. It's a plus that I can explore the world at my leisure, and I'll probably spend a good amount of time doing that, wandering aimlessly on my horse and checking out the scenery. I'm convinced that I'm going to really love it. Thanks, Fly, I'm definitely getting this one.

One thing I'd like to add is that the music only plays during the intro and the colossi fights. If you planning to wonder aimlessly... pack an Ipod!
I don't mean to sound negative about the games soundtrack but I think the best part of it is the Intro (part 1, part 2) melody, everything else is a bit eh...

Thanks for the article! This game is on my Christmas list. I knew I had to have this game when I first heard it was being created.

In reference to the graphics and the aging PS2, I think this game exemplifies the philosophy that it's not what you've got but what you do with it.

I wouldn't be suprised if Sony has realised that they can easily afford to take their time in releasing the PS3 because they have a gold mine of developers, which is the strongest asset of a console. The teams making the hot properties for Sony right now are assuring Sony's comfortable lead in the console business. With developers like ones Sony has in their camp, I think the PS2 could outsell the 360 for another cycle, assuming the developing teams stuck with Sony.

A game like Shadow of the Colossus is released in the twilight of Sony's box because developers have cut their teeth on the PS2 and can handle it with the kind of expertise that comes on the heels of comfort and familiarity, like a family car that's been driven for several years.

A few years ago I used to be a pc gamer exclusively. I'm now heavily into console gaming. My conversion could be exemplified by a game like Shadow of the Colossus as the game makes an irrefutable case for the stability and endurance of a gaming console and the kind of game developement that can organically arise from it.

Lest we forget, SoC was developed at Sony internally. It's a 1st party product, with arguably higher level of developers' expertise, more elastic release plans, and cushier funding than most 3rd party devs can afford. In this context, taking SoC as a blanket example is a little bit of a stretch.

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

Lest we forget, SoC was developed at Sony internally. It's a 1st party product, with arguably higher level of developers' expertise, more elastic release plans, and cushier funding than most 3rd party devs can afford. In this context, taking SoC as a blanket example is a little bit of a stretch.

Hey 800, your right. It's a bit of a stretch but I use it to represent the power of the dynamic brought about by the nature of the relationship between developers and a console system. The development team is from Sony Japan. I'm not sure if you're referring to the game being great due to the advantages console developement offers or if you're referring to a large bankroll being the fodder for good developement. Either way, the end result is that consoles seem to have evolved into a successor to computers for a majority of games because the environment for great games to be developed on a console is more fertile. A larger market, large developers and specific hardware to develope for have coalesced to allow a game like Shadow of the Colossus to happen. I also think that since Japan is mainly a console country, anyone looking for games with japanese finesse (such as this one) would be hard pressed to find something like it on a pc.

Pc titles aren't falling under a unified user base (having identical hardware) and often aren't afforded an umbrella as large as Sony. Their ships aren't sailing in the same direction.

If Sega, Microsoft or Nintendo had Sony's game developers or Konami's Metal Gear, Square Enix's Final Fantasy franchise, several exclusive Namco and Capcom projects etc. for as long as they have been with the Playstation, the playing field would be more level or the opposite of what it is now.

Ten years ago I didn't think that the consoles would have risen to the level they now enjoy. After all, consoles are usually inferior to computers from a technological standpoint. However a game like this reminds me that I'm beholden to the console / developer environment and dynamic. They're the manure that allows these kinds of flowers to grow.

Ok...I've lurked here for quite a while, but never got an urge to post until this game came out. I'm afraid I don't understand all the hoo haa about this game. So...someone that I know is "dead?" and I'm supposed to go kill 16 other beings because she might revive? Why in the world would I go kill 16 beings because one being is dead? ....especially since (according to some reviews I've read) many of the colossi aren't aggressive toward me at all until I attack them. So I'm supposed to wander around and provoke fights with creatures so I can kill them....because *sob* someone I know is dead? Perhaps, after the fact, I'll find out that they colossi were really "bad guys", but I also don't know many people who would kill as a preemptive strike. They want proof first that someone is a "bad guy". How many people would head out on a killing mission just because they're told to do so...because someone they know is dead? (yeah..I know...it's just a game) Anyway....the gameplay might be awesome, but what's the rationale for doing any of it in the first place?

Anyway....the gameplay might be awesome, but what's the rationale for doing any of it in the first place?

I actually think the ambiguity is one of the game's strengths. I have a sort of creeping dread that builds up in me after every colossus is brought down, I don't know exactly WHY this has to happen or if this is the right thing to do, it keeps me playing because I want to find out if I'm a pawn in some evil god's scheme.

Oh...I guess I take games too seriously. If something is morally ambiguous to me, I don't do it until I have it confirmed that it's something I know I can live with having done. That's the way I am in real life, and apparently it afflicts me in what games I choose to play. Ah well......

Certis wrote:

I want to find out if I'm a pawn in some evil god's scheme.

Of course you are!

Oh wait, you were talking about the game. Well, you'll just have to wait for the ending.

I often felt genuinely guilty in bringing down the Colossi, which I'm sure was what the developer intended. It's another of the more elegant aspects of the game - there's a real moral uncertainly to the character's actions, but in order to further the game/story, you have to kill these creatures, regardless of how you feel.

Just like in Ico, which had you reluctantly dragging a timid, defenseless young girl all over the place, the game puts you in an awkward position and forces you to deal with the emotions that arise. I thought it was brilliant.

Hi, new member to this site. Like the format. Nice review as well.

Cecirdr, I completely understand what you mean when you question the killing of 16 seemingly innocent Colossi who have, up to this point, been minding their own business. But there are more than a few factors that make up for this, whether or not they justify it outright.

First of all we have to keep in mind that, like in ICO, this world is completely foreign to us. If it weren't for the two humans (or call them what you will), the horse, and the relatively recognizable building structures that may or may not be man-made, the world of SOTC would be almost indecipherable. Even as it is, the realm of the Colossi is very strange. A shrine is built to them and an ominous voice from above knows more than we do. Supernatural forces and powers abound.

Other than our previous experiences in ICO, we cannot assume much of the world from which our hero has travelled to reach this "forbidden" land. What powers drove him here and what it was that killed his love is uncertain (at least to me, I have not finished the game yet). Motivation is still, as I see it, your main concern. Perhaps it is the simple fact that our "hero" values the life of his one true love over those of 16 "innocent" Colossi. Perhaps there is more to it. In ICO, initially the only reason to save the princess was because she was being attacked, and I will admit that that is probably even more than we have to work with here. In the end the Queen was in fact "evil". It could just as easily have been the case that the very princess we were saving was the evil one, and that the spirits attacking her were actually trying to stop her from causing further harm (see, ICO shows us that we immediately associate dark/black ghosts with evil, whether or not it is certain to us).

In any case, when you kill a Colossus, and in fact while you are fighting it, you can't help but appreciate it's beauty and grandeur. The cutscenes after one falls are meant to be tributes in my opinion. Then the spirits standing beside you hint at souls being released from imprisonment. The shrines are destroyed and the great voice tells you to keep going. Somewhat repetitive, yes. Much more I don't know, except that it gets better and better as the game goes on.

Fly had a great quote: Just like in Ico, which had you reluctantly dragging a timid, defenseless young girl all over the place, the game puts you in an awkward position and forces you to deal with the emotions that arise. I thought it was brilliant.

Ok, sorry for the freaking 30-page essay.

But also, does anyone know whether or not you can fight the 17th Colossus if you use the glitch to get on the Tower before you beat the other 16?

jspouse wrote:

But also, does anyone know whether or not you can fight the 17th Colossus if you use the glitch to get on the Tower before you beat the other 16?

Nothing there, unless I've missed something!

Thanks for the "essay" jspouse. I understand better now. My conclusion is that I'm really crappy at true role playing. I'm unable to divorce myself from my present beliefs and understanding to just jump into another character with no assumptions. I'm glad that folks here didn't think I was judging them...I really was confused. Apparently even when I'm roleplaying...I'm not really. It's still just lil ole me just in a different suit. I never did the school play thing either. Apparently I keep imagining the rest of the world as having a variation of my own mindset and questioning how/why they do what they do. When the mindset is the key. I'm even foisting "my world view" onto games. Ah well....I may not be able to ever really get into character for a game, but at least I have a better idea why some folks play the games that they do.