Shadow of the Colossus isn’t actually a sequel to the wondrous Ico, but from the moment you set eyes upon the game, it’s clear that it’s cut from the same cloth. The way it sounds, the way it looks, and most importantly, the way it feels. And for anyone who’s taken the time to experience that uniquely beguiling game, it’s hard not to begin this new quest with huge excitement and anticipation.
Is it as good as Ico? Put simply, no it isn’t. But then it’s a totally different type of game. A more ambitious one in many ways, and it’s thanks to those lofty intentions that the reality can’t help but fall somewhere short. In Ico, you played a young boy trying to escape from a single, brilliantly realised castle, but the game is unforgettable because of the relationship you forge with the ethereal Yorda. You would have to leave her to complete a puzzle to access a new area, only to see her grabbed by spooky, shadowy figures, which rose from the ground like black smoke, trying to take her back with them. A strong sense of connection was formed, without any reliance on dialogue. Without doubt, it’s as emotional as videogames have ever got.
At the beginning of Colossus, whilst you also play the part of a (different, and older) boy, you have brought your motionless lover to a temple. Your companion this time is your horse, Agro. Within the temple resides an invisible wisdom, which explains that if you can defeat the 16 Colossi that roam the land, you may be able to bring your love back to life. And so begins your lonely quest.
Essentially, you ride out on your horse, find the next Colossus, defeat it, and return to the temple. You locate the creatures, which are neither machine, animal or mechanical, but a little bit of everything, by raising your sword to the sunlight. The rays focus in the direction you need to travel, and off you ride. Remember that bit from The Two Towers where Gandalf raises his staff, with Shadowfax galloping majestically across a sunlit plain, the camera chasing behind? Well it’s almost as if this entire game started by trying to capture this cinematic moment. Luckily the game creators have succeeded, because riding the horse really does feel powerful, generating a sense of freedom that is still rare to find in a post GTA world. The horse has a tangible personality too; it never feels like you’re simply ‘driving’ him, but instead you learn to work with him.
Sometimes you can ride directly to the next colossus, and at other times you have to traverse platforming sections along the route. In each case, the journey itself is a beautiful experience, where in Wind Waker, crossing the sea quickly became a chore. The world is so huge, and so notably empty, apart from the occasional bird, that the landscape becomes an additional character in itself. Compared to the latest Xbox 360 titles, it might look a little lo-res, but in this reviewers opinion this is far more aesthetically pleasing than anything seen so far on a ‘next-gen’ console. And that’s simply because, like Ico, the world is true unto itself. The stark sunlight that casts a blooming glow over everything, and the natural sense of light and shadow, everything combines to make you feel like you’re in a real place. Not one that’s shiny just because it can be. And there’s the sound, too. Rarely has the wind, or the distant cry of a bird been used so expertly to enhance the impact of a game. And whilst the music can get a little repetitive when you’re combating the colossi, on just about every other occasion it’s fantastic, further enveloping you in a totally original experience.
And so to the colossi themselves. When you find them, a short cut-scene follows, and you set about defeating them. They each have a number of vital points, which are revealed by holding your sword aloft to the sunlight. You then have to clamber over them, locating and stabbing the vital points until the behemoth is conquered. They don’t always attack you aggressively, which brings an interesting sense of amorality to your actions, but when you’re trying to kill them, they will thrash and moan, trying their utmost to shake you off. You have a grip button, but you can’t hold on indefinitely. So you need to seek refuge in the crevices and platforms on the beasts while your grip recovers, before attempting to climb again.
Luckily, you can fall from quite a height without dying, but each colossi feels like a genuinely physical challenge, and when you finally defeat them, you feel a huge sense of accomplishment, and relief. This is partly thanks to the controls being (deliberately) slightly on the sluggish side. You can’t just traverse the beings with a deft Prince of Persia, or Ninja Gaiden style manoeuvre. It really does feel like you’re ascending a moving rock face, and you sense the exhaustion your character must feel, clinging on to fur or rock for dear life.
Importantly, each colossi requires a different set of techniques to defeat it. The initial puzzle is how to mount them in the first place. Perhaps you have to entice them to attack you, or use the environment to your advantage. Where in Ico you were trying to negotiate the platforms and puzzles one huge castle, in Colossus you’re effectively battling with 16 smaller ones. That’s the similarity between the two games, even if at first it feels like they’re worlds apart. And even though the camera occasionally struggles to keep both you and the vast landscape and its creatures in full view, and the framerate can dip for the same reason, you really do need to experience this game.
It might be highly frustrating at times, when you’re thrown off the current Colossus for the umpteenth time because the controls didn’t quite help you enough, but it’s wholeheartedly refreshing to play a game so content to pursue its own ingenious design to the end. The central gameplay mechanic is repetitive, but it’s within this structure that the subtle differences inherent within each challenge can truly shine. When ever other game seems to be trying to do everything at once, fearing that if it doesn’t, the focus group is going to get bored, it’s enchanting to be able to play something that’s so direct and focused. And that’s what makes Shadow worth a thousand lazy GTA, Gran Turismo or Halo clones. It’s a beautiful, unforgettable game that, like Ico before it, is truly worth investing your time, money, and dare we say it, heart in.
Shadow of the Colossus (2006)