Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment
Based on the game by Team Ico
Available only on PlayStation 4
Rated T for Teen
A long long time ago when I was but a wee pre-teen still full of wonder and joy, Team Ico released their eponymous PS2 game Ico. It was a bit short-sighted in retrospect, kind of like how Square Enix is on its 15th main franchise Final Fantasy game. Ico is fondly remembered in the gaming community for having a hauntingly muted atmosphere, strange foreign architecture, touching storytelling without much dialogue, and being about as hard to find as the bottle of hand sanitizer in a lube factory. It was released with so little fanfare and in such short supply that you’d think they were embarrassed of it. I can count the amount of people I know that own the PS2 boxed copy on one hand.
As much as I pride myself on being an alpha nerd muckety muck up to speed on all the latest and greatest, I would never have even known about Ico had Shadow of the Colossus not existed. Yes, despite being named after their initial work, Team Ico are best known for their second title, Shadow of the Colossus. If you haven’t heard of Shadow of the Colossus, then I suggest walking up to anyone in their late twenties/early thirties with a beard and ask them what they thought. Praise for Shadow of the Colossus has become so ubiquitous in gaming culture that you could just take random words from all the various sentences spoken about it and still come out with a semi-coherent 9/10 review.
But as we have seen with so many iconic titles, time is especially unkind to the videogame industry. No child in their right mind seriously wants to play Super Mario Bros. over Super Mario Odyssey, and the new Doom is just way better. There’s an interesting (read interesting as, “interesting to the nerds of nerds”) discussion in the videogames as art community about if we’ve reached the point where any videogame can really be considered “timeless,” and I’ll go over that in another article. I certainly have rose colored glasses about Shadow of the Colossus, but with the recent commercial and critical shortcomings of The Last Guardian (Team Ico’s third and most recent game), now is the perfect time to revisit the Forbidden Lands and see if things hold up.
First off, the 2018 remake of Shadow of the Colossus does have some differences from its previous PS2/PS3 incarnations. While the core code is still the same in terms of colossus AI and mechanics, the assets have been rebuilt from the ground up. It shows, as the game looks significantly better than the previous counterparts. The landscapes particularly stand out, with the foliage bending and swaying in ways reminiscent to Horizon Zero Dawn. Other than that, the game is pretty much the same. There’s some improved pathing for the horse, a customizable UI, better bow aiming, and some other minor quality of life improvements. Other than that, you’re getting the same game as before, just shinier.
The real question is if the fundamental gameplay of crawling around 16 lumbering beasts and plunging your sword into their big glowing weak spots still holds up. It was a bold concept when it first came out, and outside of some indie titles like Titan Souls hasn’t really been replicated. It’s strange, since a wave of imitators usually follows culturally significant game. As I once again scale beasts in some cases the size of airport landing strips, I’m left wondering why.
At its core, Shadow of the Colossus is a puzzle game. The actual colossi themselves can be dangerous, but once you figure out the trick to beating them it’s more a question of just doing it than flawless execution. The game is often sloppy, flinging you from one limb to another on the whims of a capricious physics engine. More than once I tumbled along a monster’s backside, desperately trying to cling on to whatever jagged edge or furry patch I could, only to miraculously find myself right next to a new weak point. There’s the way you are SUPPOSED to kill the boss, and then there’s the way you inevitably stumble into it.
It sounds like poor design, but it adds to the sense of helplessness you feel when staring at these massive beasts. You aren’t the world’s greatest warrior, Kratosing down monstrosities with the power of your massive pectorals. You are just a dude sized dude with a sword, doing his best to hang on while these massive beasts try to keep their weak points un-stabbed. Even the smallest of the colossi is larger than an elephant. The sense of awe, wonder, and sheer terror you feel when you first gaze upon your towering foe has yet to be replicated.
It’s aided by the colossi’s unpredictable and varied personalities. You’ll spend vast swaths of time just figuring out how to get to where they are, and most of them are just minding their own business. They’re unaware that you even exist until you plonk an arrow into their side and try to shove a sword up their nose. The smaller ones are more aggressive, but the biggest colossus in the game doesn’t even fight back. It just screams and floats around while you kill it.
Now you can’t talk about Shadow of the Colossus without talking about the soundtrack. I’d wager that never has a game so properly used an orchestral score. Menacing rumbles and horns announce the colossus awakening. Craschendoes of brass and woodwinds accompany your successes. A flurry of strings and percussion mirror the colossi’s aggression. And a chorus of quiet sorrow harolds your victory. It’s as powerful now as it was when it first released. It really works for the game’s more focused design, never having the time to grow stale or predictable.
In terms of delivering the same great gameplay experience, Shadow of the Colossus (2018) is just as good as the experience I remember 13 years ago. It’s prettied up just enough to match the rose tint I remember it with. The few improvements are all welcome, and none alters the core of the game.
That said, I can’t levy the same level of 5/5 praise that I did with the original. With remakes comes the opportunity for reimagining, an opportunity that Bluepoint Games and SIE Japan Studio passed on. I’m always inclined to rate remakes below the original, as they lack the same creative spark and risk taking that made the original so special. For a remake to transcend, it has to do more than just look pretty. Capcom nailed this with the Resident Evil remake for the GameCube (and with none of their remakes since). There were 8 colossi left on the original game’s cutting room floor, and now would have been the perfect time to breath some more life into Shadow of the Colossus by bringing them back from the dead. Sure, it would have been a lot of work, but that’s what separates the good from the great.
As the game opened and I watched Wander carry Mono into the Forbidden Lands on Agro’s back, I couldn’t help but feel a swelling in my chest. I was back in my childhood. Though I knew what was ahead of me, meeting each challenge still filled me with the same sense of dread and wonder that it had the first time. The water snake was still spooky as hell, the giant flying fortress breathtaking, and the little angry dude a pain in the ass. None of the impact had diminished. Shadow of the Colossus is a must have for anyone that missed it before, and still a phenomenal experience for fans. I just wish they had taken the opportunity to make it something even more.
Though I knew what was ahead of me, meeting each challenge still filled me with the same sense of dread and wonder that it had the first time. The water snake was still spooky as hell, the giant flying fortress breathtaking, and the little angry dude a pain in the ass. None of the impact had diminished. Shadow of the Colossus is a must have for anyone that missed it before, and still a phenomenal experience for fans.