Before I had experienced even a second of Shadow of the Colossus, I knew it would be an interesting game. After all, it's frequently a cornerstone of those "games are art" arguments that are cropping up more and more frequently.
Over the past few years, this game has been widely recommended to me. The strongest of said recommendations came from this very site:
"You love action/adventure games with good stories? ...go in knowing it's not your traditional third-person action game...and you'll have an absolute blast!"
-Crono Maniac (via the "game of the Decade ?Final Round" thread on the SnS forum)
Everything I'd been hearing about the game led me to believe that not only would I thoroughly enjoy it, but I would soon embrace it as an all-time favorite. Near the end of my 2011 summer, I made it a priority to acquire a copy and gave it a solid playthrough.
Did the game live up to my expectations? Well...Yes and no. In many regards, the game impressed me. However, in some regards I was surprisingly disappointed.
The gameplay of Shadow of the Colossus has a simple elegance that is hard to define. In the most basic terms, it's a "Search and destroy" game.
After your quest begins at a centrally-located temple, the hero (who is known as "Wander," though his name is never explicitly mentioned in-game) is commissioned with the slaying of 16 Colossi that are in different locations all across the game's world. You then set out across an open world on your first search for a Colossus. Fortunately, you carry a magical sword that you can hold up over your head and, if you're under sunlight, a beam of light radiating from the sword's tip will point the way towards your target. Travel becomes interesting because of the way the landscape is shaped. You can almost never travel in a straight path. There are mountains, valleys, cliffs, and caves that will impede your route. The trick is to get a feel for the geography and try to figure out how to get to your target. If you like exploration-based gameplay, it's a unique and interesting challenge.
During these search segments, there is no combat. There isn't even any real danger. It is possible to fall to your death during some platforming segments, and there are places where you can fall off of a cliff or over a waterfall, but these instances are rare. You'll be spending most of your time on horseback and your horse will not allow you to run off of cliff edges. Also, while you may take some damage from falling, Wander can survive some ridiculously high falls; only extremely high or "bottomless pit" falls will instantly kill him. In addition, Wander has a "grip" button that he can use to grab ledges and such while he's falling. Most potentially-damaging falls can be negated by holding the grip button and having him grab something on his way down.
Overall, any particular danger during these search segments is the exception. As a rule, everything in these sections is serene and peaceful. Other than the occasional lizard that crawls around or hawk flying overhead, there isn't a single living thing around except for than the main character and his horse. The most conflict that you will face is a struggle with the occasionally shoddy horse controls. The leaping/climbing controls are well-realized, but take some getting used to.
Once you find your target Colossus, it's time to destroy. Each Colossus is usually about the size of large whale compared to Wander, and each one is part puzzle/platformer and part boss-battle. While the first Colossus is a freebie (run up behind it without getting stepped on and jump on its leg), most of the Colossi require clever use of the bow and arrows and/or the environment just so that you can climb onto the creature.
Once you've managed to get onto a Colossus, you've got to find its weak spots, which take the form of glowing glyphs. It's possible to use your sword's light beam to point out the locations of the weak spots before/while climbing around, but some of the Colossi move too quickly or have dangerous projectile attacks, making this tactic impractical. For those, you'll just have to climb around and search. Once you've found a weak spot and begin stabbing, the Colossus begins to thrash about.
This is where the unique "grip" controls come into play. You have to hold down the grip button any time you're grabbing or climbing. Depending on the context of how hard it would be for Wander to "hold on" given his circumstances, your grip gauge depletes at an appropriate rate. For example, it depletes faster when your gripping the side of a thrashing Colossus as opposed to gripping the side of a Colossus that's just lumbering around. If the grip gauge runs out, Wander loses his grip and falls, and you have to start the climbing process all over again. Finding spots on a Colossus that allow you to stand/crouch without depleting you grip gauge and strategizing when to take breaks from gripping in order to refill your grip gauge is essential to overcoming the Colossi.
These battles are where the game truly shines. There is no video game combat that I've ever experienced that is any way comparable to these battles. The word "epic" gets thrown around on the internet to the point where it's probably lost all meaning, but I can't think of a better word to describe the Colossus battles. In particular, the flying sand leviathan in the desert, the giant Minotaur in the ruins of an ancient city, and the final Colossus strike me as something out of Greek mythology. The final battle in particular is how I imagine a fight between Heracles and a Titan would go down.
So the game alternates between the navigation/exploration segments and the epic Colossus battles as you systematically destroy them one by one, and yes, they must be fought in a specific order. And that's it. No. Really. That's all there is to this game. Like I said, simple elegance. The only other thing you can do is take time out from navigating to shoot lizards in rocky areas and shoot fruit out of trees. By eating white lizard tails and fruit, you gain permanent bonuses to your grip gauge and health meter respectively.
This was the first thing from this game that struck me as off-kilter. I suppose the fruit thing makes sense from traditional video game logic (food = health), but what does eating a specific color of lizard tail have to do with making one's grip stronger? I suppose "practicing with the bow increases arm strength" makes sense, but by that logic my strength should increase a ton more after I'm done gripping for dear life onto the grassy beard of a giant while he thrashes wildly trying to throw me off.
This may seem nit-picky, but the upgrade system stands out to me as poorly designed. For one, I was never actually TOLD in-game that lizard tails and fruit "leveled me up" (and don't bother telling me, "it's in the manual," because a lot of used games, such as the copy that I bought, don't come with a manual). I didn't even know about the fruit at all until I was digging through some Shadow of the Colossus materials on GameFAQs AFTER I finished the game; I ended up playing the entire game with the starting health level, which, fortunately, wasn't a major setback. On the other hand, it's a good thing that I had already seen a review for Shadow of the Colossus where the lizards were mentioned, because tackling some of the later Colossi with the starting grip level would have been a real headache.
Not only is this system of increasing stats really arbitrary, it also hurts the serene atmosphere of the exploration segments. It's more than a little jarring to be riding across a beautiful and peaceful landscape on horseback and then suddenly realize, "I see a lizard!" and go leaping off your horse to chase after and kill lizards for a while.
Since the game requires you to fight the Colossi in a particular order, there's no reason why they couldn't just give you set grip and health upgrades after each Colossus. This would have side-stepped the jarring "let's suddenly go hunting!" problem and it would have led to a tighter difficultly curve. Rather than the developers having to plan the Colossi difficulty around the upgrade system, they could've known exactly how much health/grip the player would have for each Colossus. The way that they did the upgrade system was just not very good.
Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most beautiful games I've ever played, hands down.
The environments are rich and well-developed, yet they have a minimalistic and realistic feel. It's only when you're in the beautifully-designed main temple or the outlying ruins that the setting feels distinctly "fantasy," and even those environments look like something that could exist in our world today. Not that I'm on board with the push towards realism in gaming, but in this game the minimalistic/realistic style works, and works well.
The Colossi are even more impressive. They're richly detailed and while some of them have similar traits to one another, each encounter is unique. In a gaming world littered with palette swaps and recycled enemy types, this is a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, the non-Colossi character models haven't aged well. Other than the ungraceful arm-flailing thing Wander does when he runs, the character animations for him and his horse are not bad, but after playing a game like Red Dead Redemption, it's hard to not see the flaws in the designs of the human and horse models. Are they good enough for their time? Sure. But now they just look washed out and lifeless compared to the beautifully rendered architecture and the amazing Colossi, both of which hold up from a present-day perspective.
And then there's the music...
I find myself at a certain loss for words.
The music in this game is just really, really good. Each time I booted up the game, I didn't want to press any buttons because I was compelled to the re-experience the intro cinematic music. I can't really do it justice; you'll just have to experience it yourself. Even if you've played the game, you may want to experience it again. I'll wait while you go give it a listen.
Finished? Enchanting, isn't it? I've listened to it at least four times during the writing of this review. Even more amazing is that I remember every other piece of music in the game being just as good. The intense pieces that play during each Colossus battle exemplify the scene at hand better than I could have anticipated.
In terms of voice and sound effects, it's a mixed bag between "Standard" and "really good." Outside of the longer cutscenes at the beginning and the end, there isn't a lot of spoken dialogue in this game. The minimal human dialogue is done well enough. Even though everyone is using a made-up spoken language, the voice actors do a solid job of emoting. Then there's the voice of the entrapped spirit that sends you off on each Colossus hunt, which is actually really good. The voice work pins down the character as eerie, yet alluring; something that you don't want to trust, but you wonder if you maybe you could. The horse noises and the grunts of the hero are fairly standard, but the sound of the sword as it plunges into the body of a Colossus is visceral and really stands out.
Listening again to that piece linked above, it feels...somehow wrong to lodge a complaint against the sound in this game, but I can't escape it. You see, this a game in which the music is excellent...but only when it's there.
During the navigation/exploration segments, there is no music. I understand why Team ICO decided to go this way. There is a strong juxtaposition between the serene navigation gameplay and the intense Colossus battle gameplay. It's apparent that they chose to further the juxtaposition by having no music during the navigation segments and intense battle music during the Colossus battles. While I can understand what they were going for, it didn't work for me.
Sometimes the lack of music is excellent. When you're in the main temple hub at the start of each Colossus hunt, the quiet gives a sense of solemn mystery. When you're in a gorge and you can hear the wind sweeping by, the lack of music highlights the serenity of the environment. When you're on the verge of finding a Colossus and all you can hear is your own footsteps, the quietness gives a strong sense of anticipation. However, these are all limited circumstances.
So much of the game time is spent traveling across vast expanses with no noise but the sound of the horse's hooves, and these parts of the navigation segments largely fell flat for me. If you wouldn't mind joining me in a little sensory experiment that will take about one minute, I can give you a better idea of where I'm coming from. Make sure your sound it turned up, watch this video up to 0:25, then pause it.
Okay, now set it back to 0:00, mute the sound, and watch it up to 0:25 again. This viewing was rather bland and lifeless compared to the first, wasn't it? That's what the game felt like for me during the bulk of the navigation segments, which make up huge segments of game time. During these segments I was left uninspired, and well, a little bored.
I know that this may make me sound thick-headed, but I'm going to come right out and say it: the story lost me.
The basic premise that is set up in the beginning of the game is incredibly solid. The hero brings a seemingly dead girl to a temple in a forbidden land. There he converses with a spirit of a questionable nature about the possibility of bringing the girl back to life. The spirit tells him that it may be possible if he finds and kills the 16 Colossi that are magically linked to the 16 idols in the temple. Destroy a Colossus and the idol associated with it is destroyed as well. When all 16 idols are gone, the hero might have what he desires.
While solid conceptually, the introduction doesn't give us any sense of what the relationship is between the hero and the girl and it only vaguely hints at what befell the girl that she should need such an extreme intervention. We can only speculate.
As the game progresses, the events surrounding the Colossi battles make us wonder about the nature of the spirit in the temple. Is the spirit is good or evil? Is it neither? Or maybe it's both? Also, the behavior and nature of the Colossi make us wonder the same things about them. Again, we can only speculate.
As the game concludes...well, I don't want to spoil it. Even if I wanted to, I don't know if I could. I will say that some other minor human characters are introduced and we're given minimal clues as to their relationships with the hero, the girl, and the spirit. I found this particularly frustrating because these minor characters factor so heavily into the events of the story's conclusion. Speaking of which, the events of the conclusion, in my mind, played out something like this: ...Who? ...What? ...How? ...Huh!?
I'm not against ambiguity in stories. Ambiguity, mystery, and abstraction are great for keeping a story interesting, but I keep coming back to my creative writing education and what my senior creative writing professor told me regarding abstraction. It was something along the lines of, "When you write a story, you have to give your readers enough concrete details to form a connection with your story, particularly your characters. If you're going to introduce abstract elements, they need to be grounded in something concrete that the reader can relate to."
There is a lot of room for subjectivity here. Other creative writing professors might praise ambiguity, arguing that the abstract approach is a better way to tell a story. After finishing the game and looking up some stuff, I learned that this is the storytelling approach of Team ICO's head designer, Fumito Ueda. He has said that he intentionally leaves details vague and open to individual interpretation because he wants the person experiencing the story to fill in the gaps for themselves.
I'm trying to avoid going into a full-on tangential literary discussion, so I'm going to oversimplify and generalize. The approach that my former professor advocated puts the burden of "making the story make sense" on the storyteller; when experiencing and analyzing the work, the focus is generally on the question, "What is the storyteller trying to say in this work?" On the other hand, the Ueda approach puts the burden of "making sense of the story" on the audience; when experiencing and analyzing the work, the focus is generally on the question, "What does this work mean to me?"
I agree more with my former professor's stance. Because I didn't know enough about the relationship between the hero and the girl and I didn't have an understanding of the supposedly unjust circumstances surrounding the girl's death, I wasn't strongly motivated to go on a Colossus killing spree to save her, I just did it because I had to in order to progress the game. As far as the story goes, this vague introduction wasn't a deal-breaker for me. However, being unable to understand or appreciate the game's ending because I didn't have a grasp on the relationships between the human characters WAS a deal-breaker. I finished the game without a sense of closure or appreciation for what occurred at the story's conclusion.
"Umm... Before I go, can we establish why this girl is so important to me?"
I don't think that the abstract approach is always bad. This approach works well in games likes Braid or Rez, where everything about the game is extremely abstract and it was seemingly designed with a stronger emphasis on gameplay and presentation. On the other hand, Shadow of the Colossus presents a firm grounding in reality. Also, based on what I've learned of Team ICO, this is definitely a game that strives to give gameplay, presentation, and story equal weight. As a result, its extremely ambiguous approach to storytelling just didn't QUITE work for me.
Overall, I liked Shadow of the Colossus. The presentation was beautiful. The Colossus battles were epic and compelling. It was a genre-defying unique experience, and in an industry where the latest Call of Duty game sells millions of copies on day one, unique experiences like this one should definitely be praised and encouraged. At the same time, Shadow of the Colossus may be one of the most disappointing games I've ever played. I don't know how much of my disappointment is based on legitimate complaints with the game and how much of it is based on the fact that, for me, the game just didn't live up to the hype, particularly where the story is concerned.
I was expecting to fall in love with this game in the way that I fell for Chrono Trigger, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, or Portal; one of those games that I didn't ever play until years after release that ended up taking a spot among my favorite games of all time. Instead, it took a spot alongside games like Final Fantasy IV, Metroid Prime 2, and Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast; games that I significantly enjoyed and I am unconditionally glad that I experienced them, but I have minimal desire to ever replay them and I wouldn't recommend them to others without qualifying the recommendation.
Maybe Shadow of the Colossus would have been a better game to me if I hadn't expected so much out of it. It's impossible to know now. The biggest thing I take away from the experience is a better perspective of how hype plays into the way I receive games; and what you should take away from this review is that Shadow of the Colossus is a beautiful and unique game experience. Despite the fact that it didn't live up to my expectations, I'd still argue that it's one of the most standout titles from last generation, because of its uniqueness if nothing else. The overall aesthetics and the Colossus battles are excellent, just don't expect too much else from it, or it will likely disappoint you.