When you're the developer behind ICO, one of the most beloved PlayStation 2 games ever made, the pressure to achieve the same level of success in your follow-up game is tremendous. After a long wait and rumored sequel that never appeared (NICO), Fumito Ueda has released ICO's spiritual successor, (or is it a prequel?) Shadow of the Colossus. It's a beautiful game with a unique concept, but its deeply flawed execution and almost complete lack of a story make it far less appealing than ICO.
The game begins with a nameless young man on horseback traversing a vast, foreboding landscape. He crosses a massive bridge and enters a temple, where he places the body of a young woman upon an altar. A voice from above questions the warrior's intentions, and it is revealed that young man traveled to this land in hopes of reviving the girl. The voice then goes on to explain that the only way to bring the young woman back to life is to kill the large and powerful colossi that inhabit the surrounding area. It then gives a warning that there may be a great price to pay in doing so, but the young man chooses not to heed the warning and sets off on his adventure.
This is essentially the entire story. In fact, the next time the story is advanced in even the slightest fashion is when you're three quarters through the game. After that, there's no further storytelling until the game's ending, which leaves a lot open to interpretation in its own right, so you're never really 100 percent sure what happened. ICO was able to get away with this sort of minimalist story telling because you felt a connection with the two characters, in no small part because of how much Yorda, the young woman, relied on the boy. Other than the possible kinship you might feel with your horse, there is no such connection here, and the game suffers for it.
Shadow of the Colossus eschews the tried and true, if not played out, adventure formula of killing wave after wave of enemies, collecting random objects and powering up your character. Instead, your only tasks are to locate and slay the sixteen colossi that populate the land. It sounds easy, but there's a little more to this than meets the eye. The temple voice gives you a cryptic clue that describes the colossi's location and demeanor. These clues are worthless as they provide no real information on the whereabouts of the beast nor are they a good indication of how to defeat it. Armed with no real knowledge of where you're going, you mount your horse and gallop out of the temple into a large field. The warrior is equipped with nothing more than a sword, and a bow and arrow. When raised, the sword has the ability to focus sunlight in the direction of a colossus, giving you a general idea of where to go. Since there are mountains, cliffs, lakes, and other obstacles in the way, getting from the temple to your target isn't as easy as following your sword's ray of light. As you travel, the land you've crossed is unveiled on a rudimentary map. Other than showing your heading, pointing out passes through mountains, and where bridges lie, the map is almost completely worthless. There are no markings, so you don't know where the desert is or where the ruins of a city are, and since it's not in color it's tough to tell the difference between a desert and a lake. Unlike ICO, the journey from one point to the next is fairly simple. There's very little to the game outside of figuring out which path you need to take, some climbing, and where you need to be to trigger the colossus attack.
Clearly the colossi are the stars of the game, and though they never speak, they are almost able to convey a sense of personality. Some of them only attack when provoked, while others are relentless from first contact. A few of the colossi have scars, perhaps from previous battles, some have armor, and while most of them walk on land, a few of them fly, or attack from underwater. You really find yourself curious about the fate of these enormous beasts and why they are forced to roam the land.
The goal of every colossus battle is the same – climb onto it, find its weak spot(s), and then stab it repeatedly with your sword until it's dead. This is easier said than done. First off, you must figure out how to get on the creature. The first colossus can be climbed upon by simply hopping onto the back of his leg, stabbing it, which causes him to fall, and then quickly climbing up his back up to his head, where his weak point lies. You can only hang on to the colossus for a short time, which is indicated by a circular meter. The more the beast tries to shake you off, the faster the meter depletes, and the only way to replenish your strength is to find a relatively calm and level place to stand. As you get deeper into the game the process of getting on to the colossi gets more involved and more convoluted. Since these are the only enemies in the game it makes sense that some trial and error would be required to figure out how to climb aboard the creatures, but in some cases this concept goes a little far. You'll have to shoot them in certain places, stab almost unnoticeable weak points, get them to stand in a specific place, and search for vague clues in your surroundings to tell you what to do next. With a little patience, most of these tactics can be figured out (although many will have to consult a guide) but the real test lies in the execution.
You'll never hear the argument that ICO had excellent controls; in fact, its clunky combat was one of its most criticized aspects. Shadow of the Colossus has a similar control scheme, and though it's simple, it's just as unsuitable for fighting now as it has ever been. Jumps are imprecise, aiming the bow and arrow is a chore, and even something as simple as controlling your horse is made too difficult by the controls. What should be a majestic journey across a land bridge instead becomes a battle of getting your horse to not shake his head a whinny every time the path curves a little bit. The developers weren't even able to get something simple like mounting your horse right. Climbing on your steed is done by getting next to it and pressing triangle, which is also the jump button. Even if you're seemingly right where you need to be, it could take jumping in place two or three tries to trigger the mounting animation. Needless to say, this is incredibly frustrating during the heat of battle. Even when you get a handle on the game's controls there are still times where you're going to fall and/or die because you didn't grab a ledge you thought you did, jumped the wrong way for no apparent reason, or misjudged a jump because of poor camera angles. Missing jumps is terribly frustrating because it's often a five minute process of tedious climbing, running, and jumping before you're able to get back to where you were. When this happens two or three times a battle, which it sometimes does, it's very hard to enjoy the game.
There are also plenty of cheap deaths that are totally out of the player's hands. How long it takes to get up after getting hit depending on how hard you are hit, which occasionally leaves you susceptible to repeated and eventually deadly attacks without any chance of getting off the ground. I even had the distinct pleasure of dying during a cut-scene, because I was unable to navigate around a falling structure properly, because the camera was about two hundred yards away.
This all isn't to say that there aren't times when the action's fun, because when it works, it's almost sublime. When the controls do come together, taunting the great beasts by whistling, and then climbing, jumping from limb to limb, and then hanging on for dear life as you plunge your sword into the colossus one final time is a great experience. It's very rewarding to watch as the colossus falls to the ground with you atop it, even if it sometimes feels like more of a victory over the camera and controls than a hard fought win over a giant.
If you make it through the game, which can take 8-12 hours depending on your skill, not only are you treated to a long, rewarding ending, but you'll also unlock a harder difficulty and a time attack mode where you'll want to beat each colossus as fast as you can. Most people won't be interested in either of these options, but anyone who finished the game without sneaking a peak at a guide will probably be hardcore enough to enjoy them.
Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most gorgeous games ever made. A huge, expansive world has been painstakingly created, and it's truly a sight to behold. On your journey you'll often stop to marvel at a mountain vista, or stare across a green valley, wondering what lies between you and your destination. Mountains, cliffs, forests, deserts, and hidden waterfalls, are all waiting to be discovered, and finding them is one of the true joys of the game.
It's obvious that a tremendous amount of effort went into making each colossus a unique, life-like creature. It's hard not to just stand there in awe as the colossi reveal themselves; especially the larger ones. The way they react to you when you first see them, the incredible look of their fur, and the unique ways in which they attack are all impeccably done. Your horse, a black stallion is animated beautifully – you may even stop and admire him as he gallops towards you, mane flowing in the wind.
Shadow's beauty is marred only by a couple of technical issues, but most of them are easy to look past. The framerate, not usually a problem, dips occasionaly when riding your horse, but more noticeably during some colossi encounters. Most of the time these dips in the framerate don't affect gameplay, only becoming a problem when they cause you to fall off a colossus you worked so hard to climb. The main character's design isn't up to the same level of the colossi; he's very aliased looking, and while some of his animations are very nice, a few more variations would have gone a long way towards making him feel more life-like.
The game's camera constantly works to give you the most cinematic view of the action possible, which would be great, except for the fact that this is often the worst angle for actually playing the game. It often feels like you're expending just as much energy fighting the camera as you are the game's great beasts. Part of the problem may be due to the sheer size of the colossi, who range from the size of an elephant, to the size of a small skyscraper. Holding down the shoulder button shifts the cameras focus to the colossus, which helps some of the time, but when you're on your horse or running on foot it's hard to maneuver with the camera showing what's beside or behind you, rather than what's in front.
Much of beauty of Shadow of the Colossus' audio is simply found enjoying the sounds of your surroundings – birds chirping, waterfalls rushing, and your horse galloping across a dry plain. The minimal use of sound effects makes you feel like you're all alone in a huge world. There's very little music in the game, but the few songs that are here are some of the best you're likely to hear in a videogame. When an encounter with a colossus begins, a tense orchestrated theme kicks in, giving the struggle a more epic feel. The voice acting is all done in a fictitious language so it's hard to say whether it's good or bad, especially since there's so little of it.
Despite my harsh critiques of the game's problems, there's no doubt that some hardcore gamers will find Shadow of the Colossus a beautiful, original, and compelling game. For most, however, the lack of a story, poor controls, and miserable camera will be too much to look past. The scale of the creatures is amazing, and there are some tense and exciting moments, but frustration, be it from a terrible camera angle, a jump that went bad, or some other cheap death, always seems to snap you back to reality just as you become engrossed.