Shadow of the Colossus Review

You remember the first time you met someone who hadn’t seen the Godfather, or read Harry Potter? That look of grim fascination you have them as you peppered them with questions? Questions like, “How have you existed so long without experiencing this thing?” It’s not necessarily a criticism of the person’s character, but you do find yourself looking at them like an overgrown, three-headed cricket.

I’ve been familiar with that particular look for years now, and the reason was Shadow of the Colossus. I never played it. What can I say? It was 2005, and I was busy learning that a college degree doesn’t necessarily equate to a life-changing career or a ticker tape parade on the streets of downtown Pittsburgh.

The years went by, and as my interest in video game history and culture increased, I learned a ton about the game. Let’s face it: you can’t examine modern video games without mentioning Colossus at least forty-seven times. I read about it, I watched footage, but I just never got around to actually experiencing it for myself. Until last week.

That’s because last week, a remastered version of the monster-climbing classic was released for Playstation 4, and I didn’t waste any time in picking up a copy and playing my way through every vertigo-inducing moment.

First and foremost, I will say that Shadow of the Colossus lives up to… well, everything. The grandiose scale of the world, the challenging monster fights, and the deeper message behind it all, all hold up beautifully: even thirteen years later. I think the most telling aspect of how deeply this game impacted some people is shown in a message I got from a friend of mine while I was sharing footage and screencaps on Twitter. He texted me to basically say that he felt odd: that the gameplay I was sharing was exactly how he remembered it in his head. Now anyone who compares the remaster to the original can see the differences immediately. The colossi are less draped in shadows, the textures are clearer, and the landscapes are made somehow even more majestic.

But I don’t think my friend was remembering his experience incorrectly. I think that the massive scale of Colossus, especially in 2005, ignited a spark of imagination and awe in its players that no matter how good the original game looks, our memories are painted in a way that makes it even more beautiful. I remember feeling the same way when I first went back to playing Knights of the Old Republic years after its initial release: the characters were more pixelated and funky than I had always seen them in my memories of the game. I wasn’t wrong so much as I was playing off my memories of one of my fondest gaming experiences ever.

So, I believe, even without having played the original version of Shadow of the Colossus in 2005, that aesthetically, the game has nailed the desires of most gamers out there.

Which brings us to the theme of the game. For many people out there, Shadow of the Colossus was one of the earliest games to introduce a truly gray moral area. And I’m not just talking about how often I wanted to push Agro into oncoming traffic.

…But I’ll get to that in a second.

No, there were a lot of games in that time period that attempted to do the whole “morality meter” thing, but the choices of those earliest days lacked… nuance. It’s the same problem we’ve been running to for years with the Bioware games, for example: you’re either a saint or a sadist. There just aren’t enough programmers out there to delve into that shades of gray in between.

But Shadow of the Colossus is very different. Rather than allowing you to feel like a righteous hero or a dark and brooding villain, Team Ico placed their protagonist Wander into a decidedly ambiguous place. You’re not a selfless hero who is backed by noble ambitions and pure morality, you’re a kid who’s trespassing in a forbidden land in order to murder the fuck out of 16 majestic creatures so you can have your girlfriend back. But you’re not a conniving monster, either: you’re a kid who lacks a ton of foresight to the actions you’re doing. All you know is what you want, and you’re fighting like crazy to achieve that.

By the end of the storyline the truth of the situation is revealed, and all I could feel for Wander and his tragic endgame was pity. That’s not exactly the attitude gamers were expecting to feel for their protagonists in 2005, and if I’m being honest: it still isn’t in 2018. Oh, don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of games out there that delve into the morally ambiguous these days. But when it comes to games that have such a grand, beautiful scale, the storyline is generally kept on the simpler side of things. In 2018, there’s still a lot we can retain and appreciate in Shadow of the Colossus.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the gameplay itself. And this is where Shadow of the Colossus truly shows its split personality. On one hand, when you’ve got a handle of the controls and an eye on the prize of your latest colossi, this game is flawless. The first time I caught the wing of the 5th Avion bird colossus and got carried into the air, I literally screamed I was so excited. These huge moments of scaling skyscraper-sized enemies and galloping through picturesque valleys and deserts: they’re what gaming was made for.

On the other hand, the controls… Oh jesus Christ the controls.

Shadow of the Colossus is guilty of some of the floatiest, least-responsive controls I’ve seen since… well, since 2005. Wander’s jumps feel like he’s a piece of tissue caught in a breeze, which can be terrific for certain long jumps, but aiming him to land properly, particularly onto a smaller surface is a consistently uphill battle. This is made all that much worse when you consider that often the camera view has a mind of its own, and takes lots of opportunities to completely obscure your vision by travelling into trees, mountainsides, and even the colossi themselves.

And Agro. Oh my god, Agro.

How many times was I in a life or death situation, trying to outrun certain death or avoid a club the size of a schoolbus, and this horse seems completely nonplussed. I’m kicking him and screaming at him, and that oversized pony is just gently trotting, as if this was just another day for grazing on ancient, forbidden grass. On the other hand, I sympathize with him: there’s no way Agro could be enthusiastic about joining you on your stupid quest to kill god fragments. Maybe he’s just trying to teach you a lesson. And I’ve even been told by a few friends that these remastered controls are an improvement over how they were in 2005. So, three cheers for button remapping, I guess.

But despite all that, Shadow of the Colossus was the best console experiences I’ve had since Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s breathtaking, it’s exciting, and even with its clunky controls, there’s no question that it’s a Game of the Year contender for me. After all these years, I’ve finally gotten a chance to play a historic brick in the foundation of modern gaming, and it did not disappoint.

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