Shadow of the Colossus is an epic third-person adventure game revolving around the premise of defeating gigantic monsters that roam the countryside as gods among ants. The token is a young journeyman who agrees to kill these monsters in return for the resurrection of his beloved. He roams around a lush landscape in search of sixteen towering foes, armed with only a bow, a sword, and a trusty steed. With these, he encounters the monsters and devises way to dispatch them, using wits and a very sharp blade.
There is surprisingly little backstory for something as grandiose as this game; the cutscene basically tells the player that a young man’s lover has died and in his attempt to revive her, he discovers a temple that houses an entity that claims to have the power to bring her back to life. However, the resurrection will only occur under the condition that the man rids the world of its monstrous colossi, inconceivably large creatures that dominate the world.
There is no tutorial, so the game forces the player to pick up a controller and experiment. The best way to describe the control scheme is with the word “wonky”. It is not entirely intuitive, but luckily, it can be totally altered to whatever preference the play has. The number of commands seems a bit confusing and superfluous; there are two buttons dedicated to different view types, but a button dedicated to holding the sword up to determine the location of the colossi. I found it quite strange that there was a button to make the horse move forward, whereas they could have just made the left analog stick have a dual purpose of moving forward as well as controlling the direction. There is the basic set of 3-D adventuring commands, such as jump, slice, climb, and roll. In addition, there are also more complicated combinations of buttons that allow the player to stand on the horse while it is moving, jump upward while climbing, or grasping onto something while downwardly stabbing. It just takes a bit of practice before the movements become second nature to you.
Finding the first colossus is pretty straightforward with the use of the sunlit blade. Climb a few rocks on the side of a mountain and there he is in all of his purple mountain majesty. The first time I saw this beast, the hair on my arms raised and a chill went down my spine. Standing in front of my token was an immense monster seemingly from a nightmare, composed of rock-like armor, grass-like hair, and soil-like skin. He stood at least fifty feet tall, holding a stone club that could decimate a small town with a single swing. It was my goal to mount this beast and somehow take him down by striking at his weak point, which was a glowing blue sigil. After some basic detective work, it became clear that I had to climb up certain portions of his body and grasp onto the area of the blue mark, where I would thrust my sword into his body and cause massive bleeding. After taking him down, a black energy engulfs the man and teleports him back to the temple from the beginning, where the statue of the defeated colossus is destroyed and the entity gives you some vague details about where the next colossus is.
When playing this game, I feel a very strong sense of familiarity when I think of Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Granted, there are many similarities between the two, but they are actually very starkly different. Zelda is a much more linear and story-based adventure, while Shadow of the Colossus is light on story and heavy on presentation.
After playing though three colossi, I have to say that I am hooked. The entire goal of the game is to track and take down these monsters, without having to fight any regular enemies in between. The colossi are the only goals, making the game much more straightforward. This is a unique style that I have never seen before in any other game, as regular enemies are used as filler to build up the hype for the boss fight. In this game, you know that each colossus will be amazing regardless, so adding in regular enemies would just detract from the effect. Each colossus is distinctive visually and behaviorally; some will tower over you in height, while other ones intimidate you with flight, aqueous mobility, energy blasts, etc. Every colossus will leave a stunning impression on you and the background at which you fight them also set a very appropriate mood.
These fights force you to observe the monsters’ attack patterns and behavior in order to figure out to how kill them. Sometimes you have to stun them before mounting them or trick them into moving into a position from which you can attack them. The use of the “colossus view” button is extremely important, which I found out after much pain. The L2 button fixes the camera on the colossus, regardless of which direction you run toward, making sure you can see the colossus’s actions even while your back is turned to him.
The best parts of the battles are the very beginning and end of each one. FMVs show the colossi erupting from their homes to do battle, along with a video of their defeat and death. These sequences capture the grandest displays of cinematic storytelling and triumph in the game. After each victory, I am left with a desire to face the next monster and the one after that.
The world has a very beautiful sandbox-style, with landscapes as far as the eye can see. In fact, as long as you can see it in the background, it is possible to venture to that area. Magnificent temples, aged castles and ancient bridges are only a few of the incredibly detailed pieces of backdrop in the game. Ambient lighting effects, wonderful cloud cover, and beaming sunlight with active shadow positioning really add to the experience quite dramatically.
There is very little reward in actually exploring, other than finding silver lizards that increase your life bar and fruits that increase your energy. The only real motivation for roaming the world is for the sake of seeing all the beautiful scenery rendered. Maybe if there was more story to be told in general, there would have been a better reward system, but this is not the case.
There is really nothing to say about the characters, as there is only one: the journeyman. He has no backstory, other than wanting to bring his dead love back to life. The only other characters are the entity that tasks you with killing the colossi, and the colossi themselves; therefore, any relationship between them is superficial. The only question I am left with so far is why the entity seems to be so intent on killing the colossi, besides the fact that they are seriously misappropriating the world.
The start menu is a gray map of the overworld, overlaid with a grid. The map is intentionally archaic in order to capture the spirit of the setting. A well-illustrated but non-specific map details the topography of the world, while keeping track of the colossi that you have killed with a symbol of a statue head. Rivers, mountains, and save point shrines are also illustrated to help the player recognize the placement for reference. The grid helps simplify portions of the world by dividing them into sections such as “B-7” or “D-4”. Although this seems to help, the map fails to capture the grand scale of the actual world; therefore, many nuances are left off the map, forcing the player to look at the world directly instead of relying on the map.
The horse animations are simply astounding. Never have I seen such a wonderfully realistic horse in a video game; the way it neighs, rides, changes direction, responds to a whistle, or simply shakes its head makes me wonder if they motion-captured a real horse and translated its motions onto a digital template. This horse named Agro is the best example of a video game horse I have ever beheld, even more so than Epona from the Zelda series.
The sound effects are very polished and realistic in the way that I would never have noticed them at all. They seem so natural and non-artificial that I get the impression that I am actually standing outside in a field while the wind is blowing through the trees. The sounds of Agro galloping on a dirt road are noticeably different from when he is trotting on a rocky path. The drawing of an arrow and the release are the exact sounds I would expect a flying arrow to have.
The HUD of the screen is incredibly simple. When fighting, an icon tells the player what weapon is being used at the moment, along with a life bar, and a circle graph indicating the amount of energy the player has left. When idling, the HUD fades away and does not return unless the player swings his sword or fires an arrow. This prevents screen clutter and simplifies gameplay in a very positive manner.
The motions of the token could use a bit of work, as they seem a tad bit glitchy when interacting with the environment. While his running is well animated, his jumping ability leaves much to the imagination. His swords swings have only a single animation, which means he can only swing from his upper right shoulder to his lower left thigh every time. When he stumbles, his feet seem to be moving without having any effect on the balance of his torso, which seems very unrealistic. Otherwise, I feel like he successfully imitates human body language.
The biggest flaw of this game is an unavoidable one: framerate. The framerate of this game is piss poor, hovering at around sixteen fps. Logically, with a game this graphic intensive on the PS2, it seems unavoidable. The animations of the colossi alone would bring most computers to a snail’s crawl. One would wonder how a company would release a game that operated at less than a standard of thirty fps. Fortunately, the slowdown is well hidden by the presentation of the game, which uses fogging, slow movement of the colossi, motion blur from the fast movement of the token and large scenery to overshadow this poor framerate. Midway through the game, you stop caring about how slowly the game runs as compared to how fun it is.
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