Shadow of the Colossus
Cutscenes are the bane of computer gaming, often spoiling otherwise good gameplay simply to make the game designer feel better about his failed Hollywood fantasies (see: Metal Gear Solid 2). Thankfully the days of the non-interactive cut scene are coming to an end, with titles finding ways to deliver story content without dragging you out of the proceedings.
Shadow of the Colossus begins with a fifteen minute long, non-interactive cutscene. Needless to say, I was a little concerned.
Other than the length, the opening is also remarkable for its subtlety, restraint and beautiful art design. Haunting orchestral music plays as we are introduced to the ethereal landscape while a lone horseman rides slowly across an immense bridge towards a huge castle. It’s almost enough to banish the lingering thought of “are we there yet?”
The horseman is a boy called Wander, tasked with hunting down and destroying sixteen ‘colossi’ in order to work a mystical spell and revive his dead girlfriend. Thus gameplay finds you riding about on your trusty steed for a few minutes before climbing up a colossus’ hairy backside in order to plunge your sword into its soft fleshy bits.
And that, as they say, is that. The game concept is drastically minimalist and focused, with no major plot twists or variations in the structure. It is simply find, kill, repeat. Holding the simple ideas together is some of the most advanced technology ever seen on the PS2.
Eschewing realism, Shadow of the Colossus opts for an idealised, over-exposed and highly atmospheric fantasy style that gives every vista, building and creature an instantly iconic and unique appearance. Light plays off surfaces, falls through dappled leaves and blooms through stone arches in a manner only seen with recent HDR-tech. Yet this is simulated on a lowly, wrinkled PS2.
Gameplay itself is similarly advanced. Whereas platformers such as Prince of Persia rely on clearly defined elements such as ledges, jumps, wall running etc, the acrobatics in Colossus are much more freeform, driven by an excellent use of physics. You are entirely free to move as you wish, grabbing and leaping for handholds wherever you can find them. This makes for a very non-linear platformer experience and results in some fantastic moments of vertigo-inducing terror while you scrabble to regain your balance.
This is made all the more exciting by the direct use of a ‘grab’ button – let go, and you’ll lose your grip. This makes climbing and holding onto the lumbering colossi a highly interactive and involved experience, putting you in direct control rather than requiring a vaguely connected series of button combos. It’s a system that has to be experienced to be truly appreciated.
All this technical excellence comes at a price, unfortunately. Framerates often drop drastically, which is never ideal at the best of times, let alone when you are holding onto a fluffy giant for dear life. Variable framerates are to be expected on PC titles, with differing machine configurations, but console users should really be able to expect more stability than is on offer here. It leaves you with a distinct regret that the game was not developed for a more powerful machine.
Moments that count
Where Colossus succeeds is in its ‘moments’. The moment you first see the temple. The moment you ride out into the vast landscape. The moment you encounter your first colossus, then bring it to its knees. Each is utterly breathtaking, almost immeasurably epic and delivers an unprecedented amount of the ‘wow’ factor.
Between each encounter you need to ride across the map to find your next target. Agro, your horse, is a triumph, behaving like a real, sentient animal rather than simply a World of Warcraft-style ‘fast movement’ device. Your control is indirect and you soon create a strong emotional bond with the galloping fellow. After the third or fourth colossi, however, problems arise.
All alone in the world
The environment you ride through is entirely empty, besides some incidental birds and lizards. There is nothing to interact with or discover, other than beautiful visuals. Some say this adds to the atmosphere of longing and loneliness, that it helps make Colossus a unique and memorable game, and gives it a sense of beauty to offset the violence of the creature battles.
For the first few hours of the game, that’s exactly what happens. However, after a short while beauty fatigue rears its ugly head. One landscape is much like another, no matter how pretty it is: we tend to remember places in the real world by what we do in them, not by their visual appearance alone, after all.
Once the awe of the graphical achievement wears off, the landscape becomes little more than an irritating obstacle between you and the next colossus. As such, the horse-riding half of the game becomes increasingly irrelevant and feels like a time-waster; a necessity rather than a joy.
Much of the time the disappointment of the world exploration is quickly forgotten once you encounter the colossi themselves. Battles are almost always thrilling and often inventive, taking place underwater, in shifting desert sands and even in the air. They never take full advantage of the landscape, unfortunately, always secluding themselves within convenient arenas – if only the flying colossi would soar over the entire map while you clung to its back!
There are problems with the battles as well, alas. They are largely very easy affairs, requiring relatively straightforward – but still thrilling – acrobatics followed by a couple of quick stabs with your sword. Oddly, one of the easiest colossi is the final one, requiring little more than a quick climb and a couple of jumps.
The only real difficulty comes from figuring out how to climb the colossi in the first place, often requiring a shot from your arrow to bring them lower to the ground. These mini-puzzles sometimes suffer from being overly-obscure, meaning that they are not so much challenging as irritating: they reminded me of the old ‘try everything’ tactic from the more abstract point-and-click games of yore.
I’m left with a very conflicted opinion of Colossus. On the one hand, it’s a technical marvel and a triumph of artistic design, in the process delivering incomparably epic moments of jaw-dropping wonder. On the other, it is a fairly basic, uneventful and unchallenging game with several missed opportunities. Too often it feels like a glorified tech demo instead of a complete game, the end result being a hugely memorable experience, but curiously unsatisfying as a game.
Gameplay: Thrilling if repetitive boss encounters, interspersed with atmospheric but lifeless exploration.
Graphics: Remarkable for the PS2 and possessing an iconic and entirely unique visual style coupled to awe-inspiring creature design and animation.
Sound: Minimalist sound complements the mood, with a beautiful musical score hitting exactly the right notes at all the right times.
Lifespan: A very short game consisting of 16 surprisingly easy colossi. There’s an unmistakable feeling of ‘is this it?’ throughout the game.
Final score: 7/10
Review by Simon 'Tarn' Jones © 2006