Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Shadow of the Colossus

Post-Launch Review
Shadow of the Colossus (PS3 HD re-release)
Developer: Team Ico
Released: October 2005 (PS2) / September 2011 (PS3)


A young man named Wander enters a barren and forbidden land, hoping to find a way to restore a girl's life. A mysterious force tells him that that his wish will be granted should he manage to kill all sixteen of the land's colossi - massive and ancient creatures of flesh and stone. With a sacred sword and his horse Agro, Wander begins his search for the colossi.

At Launch

Shadow of the Colossus was very well received, earning average review scores of 91%. Reviews praised its visuals and the feeling of loneliness, the soundtrack, and the puzzle-like boss battles. Agro the horse was somewhat controversial, with some critics praising the realism of her movement and actions, and others stating that riding felt clumsy and unpredictable. The game's camera and frame rate were also criticized as being poor during battles with the colossi.

Post Launch

The re-release in the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection updates the visuals to a full 1080p with improved textures, rendering, and effects. The frame rate is fixed at 30 frames per second and does not drop. Support was added for stereoscopic 3D and 7.1 surround sound. There are also a few bonus features, including some videos and dynamic dashboard themes. The story and gameplay received no changes or updates.
The updated version was praised for its improvements, bumping up average review scores to 92%.

The Good

Nothing to Do
There's nothing to do between colossus fights. The gigantic world map is empty. So why the hell is this good? Because it reflects the single-minded quest of your character. He's not going to mess around and look for hidden caves with coins in them. He's told that if he kills the colossi his girlfriend comes back, and dammit, that's what he's going to do. I actually prefer this approach to, for example, mining for minerals when the entire galaxy is on the line. The lack of any sort of interaction with either the environment or characters also serves to reinforce the feeling of loneliness.
Note: I wrote that before I looked at the trophy list post-game. Turns out there are lizards and fruit which will increase your stamina and health, respectively. I noticed lizards while I played, but it didn't occur to me to kill them. Huh. And there are also some special unlocks that you can earn for beating colossi in time attack mode, which becomes available after you clear the game once.

The colossi look amazing. They're incredibly diverse in body form and movement, and yet they all have common features that clearly reveal them to be related. There's a horse colossus and a sea serpent colossus and a bird colossus and humanoid ones, but they all have the same eyes, and they all have  stone-like features overlaid onto fur (except for the turtle thing in the geyser field, which is almost all stone - I don't like the design of that one).
They also actually seem heavy. They move slowly, but due to the sheer scale they're actually pretty quick, requiring you to stay on your toes. And the way they all shake and buck to get you off is unique to each colossus, and also dependent on which part of its body you're on.
Long story short, these are some of the coolest creatures I've ever seen.

Thirteenth Colossus
This thing is HUGE - the biggest colossus by a long shot (although I guess that depends on how you're measuring). It's a sort of flat flying sand-snake thing with bouyancy sacs beneath its body. This was my favourite fight in the game due to the sheer scale of it.

Puzzle Fights
Each colossus requires you to find a unique way to grab on and climb, most making use of environmental effects or features in order to deceive a colossus or get a better vantage point. It's an odd but effective kind of pacing - fights aren't fast and intense like most action games. Much of the time the colossi have slow attacks or will even lose interest in you; but rather than make the fights feel easy, it makes you feel more tiny and insignificant. And not only do you have to deduce how to mount and damage the colossus, you also have limited stamina. You can't hold on forever as it tries to shake you off, so you have to be somewhat deliberate with your movement.

Music & Audio
Between colossus battles, there's no music at all. The only sounds are the wind and those produced by Wander and Agro (footsteps, shouts/whinnies, etc). Each battle features different music, often two tracks per fight - one when you're on the ground and one when you're climbing the colossus. The music is pretty great, but I especially love the early-game track that plays when you're on a colossus. It's heroic and epic in all the right ways.

Battle Damage
This is a detail I didn't notice at first, but is very apparent if you compare Wander's appearance at the start of the game and at the end. Over the course of his quest, Wander's outfit and skin get torn and dirtied, and he looks really worn out by the time the game ends.

The Neutral

Yep, it's HD - no hideous jagged lines or polygon people. Unfortunately, a lot of the textures are still pretty muddy, and there are places where you can really tell that it's an update of an older game and not something built for the PS3 from the ground up. Much of the world is just smooth textured terrain and can also look kind of outdated. On the other hand, the lighting is solid and occasionally fantastic, particularly in the forested areas as rays of light penetrate through the leaves and reflect off the streams. And as I mentioned above, the colossi are excellently designed and rendered.

Maybe Too Long
I like how the game doesn't really give you anything to do between colossi, and I like the long travel times and empty map. But it did start to drag eventually, particularly when I fought colossi very similar to previous ones. Sometimes the similarity is only visual and the fight goes very differently, but sometimes the mechanics are similar and it kind of feels like a rehash. I think the game might have been improved by dropping a handful of colossi, perhaps four.

When you clear the game you unlock hard mode and time attack mode. Beating colossi in time attack awards you with special unlockable items that do things like increase your damage or help you find the hidden lizards and fruit. I kind of want to go back and unlock some of these items and find lizards and things, but on the other hand I've already solved all the puzzles, so the game won't provide me with anything new the second time around.

The Bad

Normally in video games I love having a horse. In Shadow of the Colossus, I liked it at first - he's your only companion in the barren landscape. But the more I played the more I hated that stupid horse. The controls are awful. To mount up you hit the jump button when close enough, but you have to be very precise, so I often found myself jumping around the horse like an idiot. The horse will steer itself in some situations so you don't have to, which is nice because it will never run off a cliff and have you kill yourself. But it doesn't always move around stuff; sometimes it just stops dead. Most irritating of all, the horse slows down when you turn, no matter how much. Sometimes it even slows down for no apparent reason when you're going straight. I ended up just mashing X to go faster all the time whenever I was on the horse, which gets old fast.
I hear it's actually a pretty realistic simulation of how a horse moves and responds to changes in terrain, but I'm of the opinion that fun should override realism unless the game specifically calls for it (like a simulator).

If you get hit solidly by a colossus, or fall a long way, you get knocked to the ground. That's fair, those things pack a punch. However, when that happens, you lie on the ground completely motionless for a good five seconds, and it takes another two or three seconds to actually be able to move during the standing animation. Most of the time it's just kind of annoying that it takes so long to stand up, but there are a couple of colossi which will knock you down and then hammer you again as you're standing up but before you can move. And that hit knocks you down. When you stand up again, you get hit with another charge. And these ones can actually turn while charging, so it's not like you can simply dodge out of the way. It's so bad that even though it takes them a good five or six hits to kill you, you can still go from full to dead by getting hit only once, because they'll just keep hitting you before you can move. It feels completely unfair.

Secret Controls
There are actually controls to deal with the previous two complaints, as well as a few nifty features. Problem is the game nor the instruction manual tell you anything about these tricks. You can hold triangle to mount Agro, or hold grab while jumping to climb on. And rapidly pressing jump will help you stand up more quickly after being knocked down. You can also use R1 to go prone on or hang from Agro. I wish the game had actually given me a way to learn these tricks, since they would have saved me an awful lot of frustration.

I didn't really notice any issues early in the game, but late game, the camera often feels atrocious during battles. It'll re-centre itself behind Wander at the worst times, such as when you're trying to line up a difficult jump. Some segments allow you to move the camera, but will immediately re-centre as soon as you release the stick. 

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it.
Shadow of the Colossus is fantastic. While it can occasionally be an exercise in frustration, almost everything about it is excellent, from creature design to audio to the barrenness of the landscape. If it makes any sense, I didn't have fun moment to moment, but I really enjoyed the game and its design. Maybe that's part of what people mean when they cite Shadow of the Colossus as the game most deserving of being called art.


  1. I found the horse has a learning curve. I didn't get the hang of it until maybe my 3rd playthrough. You never have to mash the button ... Try to go through the horse tricks, like fast start, fast turn around, etc. Holding the 'x' button is enough, even while turning it shouldn't slow down.

    1. Yeah, I found out about that stuff after I finished the game. As I stated above, my problem is that neither the instruction manual nor the in-game control list told me I could do any of that stuff.