Review: Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus is a game that I’ve been told to play by so many people over the years, it isn’t even funny. In fact, I can’t think of any other game that has been so frequently and highly recommended to me.

As chance would have it, Bluepoint games have just re-built the entire game for PS4, and seeing as though I’m trying to cover as many PlayStation exclusives as possible, I feel like now is the perfect time to get on board.

The hype

Often cited as “one of the best games of all time”, I went in with pretty high expectations, especially after seeing the reviews coming out around release of this remake.

I’ll be honest, I went through most of the game thinking “is this it?, what is all the fuss about?”.  In fact, I wrote a lot of this before finishing the game, and I’ve had to re-write it all, because the last moments of the game really turned it around. 

I don’t think it’s one of the best ever, but I can see that in its day, it could easily be seen that way, and the nostalgia hit now must be incredible for those returning to this gorgeous re-build.

The premise

You are the hero of the story “Wander” and you’re desperate to restore the life of a girl named “Mono” (I had to Google these, because there’s very little in terms of narrative in-game, so if they were mentioned, I definitely forgot). 

You’ve travelled to a land where it is said to be possible for life to be restored, you get there, put Mono on a stone altar, and speak to a voice called Dormin.

Dormin tells you that you need to kill 16 colossi, and this will allow you to bring Mono back to life.

You and your trusty steed Agro are then pretty much left to it, heading out to hunt down one Colossus at a time.

Each colossus is unsurprisingly massive (colossal, if you will), and it’s up to you to work out how to get onto them, find their weak points, and just stab them to death.

That’s pretty much it, until the very end where the story actually comes into it’s own a little and you see how it all works.  You learn about Dormin, a little about your past, and you see the after-events of taking down the 16 colossi.

I went through most of the game feeling like it was quite a hollow experience, with little cause to care about anything that was going on.  It was, on occasion a struggle to be bothered to carry on.  Why should I care about Mono? I feel like I’m straight-up murdering these seemingly non-hostile colossi.  It really could have done to have fleshed things out a little more during the whole game.  However, then the ending wouldn’t have had quite so much impact.

The world

I can’t speak to the original game, but I can say that this place looks amazing.  Honestly, every thirty seconds is an opportunity for a screenshot, and I’ve never taken so many fantastic in-game snaps in any game ever (almost 100 in just over 8 hours of gameplay!).  Stunning.

It’s a vast place with areas ranging from desert to mountain and to woodland.  Massive lakes and caves, and huge fields in which to gallop through on Agro.  You have so much room to explore and get about, it’s amazing, the scale really helps understand the size of the colossi.  However, Shadow of the Colossus has very little in the way of wildlife, or anything filling this massive world.

A few birds and some lizards (more on those shortly), and there isn’t anything else out there to interact with, other than the colossi.  It’s…..erm…….”minimal” (see: empty).

Regardless of this, now I’ve finished the game, I have a strange sense of fulfillment.  The region is purposely devoid of life, it all makes sense.  I just wish it didn’t take so long for it to feel less shallow and empty.

Upgrading

As is seemingly the way with Shadow of the Colossus, you’re not given any information on how you can improve yourself whilst on your journey.  That might read as a negative, but I actually really liked that I had to explore and learn from the world myself.  This is how games used to be!  No hand-holding or mollycoddling.

Nothing is obvious or given to you, and well, that’s a refreshing change.

As Wander, you have two things to worry about.  Health and Stamina. 

Health is pretty self-explanatory.  You can only sustain so much damage before you die, increasing the bar gives you more health to play with, which is pretty standard in games.

Stamina is very important as it is the meter in which 

These two bars can be extended, but there is no indication of how, in fact I didn’t even realise it was possible until I did it by accident.

To improve your health bar, you must hunt and scavenge for fruits which grow on certain types of tree.  I was happily shooting a couple down and picking them up, and noticed that actually it was having an effect on my health.  Not particularly obvious after one or two fruits, but after 10 or so, you can see the difference.

The same goes for your stamina.  It can be improved upon, but not in an obvious way.  It turns out that the white tails of the skinks which populate certain areas are collectible, and required to increase your stamina.  I had toyed about shooting them when I saw them, and found that they always left theirs tails.  After picking a few up, I noticed my stamina meter was bigger too!

The best part about the skinks is that you can actually just shoot their tails off, and they run off tail-less after picking themselves back up off the ground.  It was a nice touch and made me feel like a master marksman when I did it by accident…..

Beyond health and stamina, that’s it, you only have the same sword and bow as you start the game with, and that’s fine.  No need for continual upgrade or change.  You have your tools and you use them.

The colossi

Shadow of the Colossus is a game focused on one thing, and that is the taking down of 16 unique colossi.  Each is a take on a different animal from snake to bird, to eel and bull.  All require a little effort to understand how you’re going to take them down, and every single one of them was a blast.

Each one is a boss battle, with a puzzle tied in.  You won’t kill them unless you work out how to get onto them, get under their armor or work out how to cling on for dear life.

Some were better than others.  I thought the two buffalo-sized colossi were a little disappointing in terms of scale.  But I actually quite enjoyed the change of pace.  They were quicker and more relentless in pursuing you (I got bullied by them both….).

Working out what you need to do, then actually doing it are two very different things.  There is a certain satisfaction in realising that you need to set off a specific sequence that would then allow for an opening.  Taking the opening and finishing the job was often harder than working out how to get to your target.

Stamina really comes into play here, you’re often climbing, clutching to the hairs of these colossi, physically scaling them to reach the sweet spot that you need to end them.

The stabbing and spurting blood was definitely a surprise, and it was a little rough to start with.  It seemed excessive!  I soldiered on though, and quickly came to realise that it isn’t so much about continually stabbing, as much as it is about clinging on for dear life and striking at the perfect moment. 

Gauging whether or not to wait that split second longer for a stronger strike, or getting a quick one in before your stamina runs out, is a realtime decision that you’re always assessing.  Sometimes it works, sometimes you fall off them and have to go about getting back up to where you need to be.

The variety of colossi, and the unique ways in which to approach each one is great.  I’d say though, that when you’ve been flung off a few times, and you’re going back through the motions of climbing back on, you start to see how strict and mechanical it all is.  If you don’t do “X” then you can’t do “Y”, so you’re forcing the same things over and over.

Joy from these fights comes from working out how to get to where you need to be, and then finishing the job.  If you find yourself having to repeat the on-boarding, it can feel a little tedious.  That’s arguably down to the player to not make mistakes, but it doesn’t make it less of a chore after a while.

Cameras!

This game has an amazing sense of scope and style, and you often find that the camera moves itself to give you the most stunning view it can.  This is great, you really take in the beauty of the world.

Unfortunately, Shadow of the Colossus has a really bad habit of forcing the view, a lot.  It even fights you when you’re trying to see what’s ahead or where you are.  Honestly, I got so frustrated with the forced perspectives that weren’t actually helpful, it really soured things for me on occasion.

I get that it wants to share the splendour and majesty of the world, and so it should, but for crying out loud, I need to see what’s going on, and function over style is preferred.

This is easily my biggest gripe with the game, it was at times so infuriating I thought about just giving up.  You can’t see, so you can’t react.  The game camera was arguably the hardest battle in the game.

Game perspectives aside, Shadow of the Colossus also offers a photo mode, by which you can pause the game at anytime and start to to screenshots.  Adding filters, changing depth of field and colouring. The tools available are easy to use and you get some great shots.

Having this ability to just stop everything and take it all in, it really works and makes for some of the best in-game shots I’ve ever taken.  This is an addition to the remade version of the game, and it’s like another game built-in.  So so good!

Soundtrack

The score for this game is excellent.  Simple.

It is masterfully heightens the drama when you’re clung onto a colossus by it’s hairs, being swung about, hoping to hang on.  The work here is great.

Similarly the audio cues for your stamina and health being minimal, work really well, and you always know exactly where you stand thanks to these subtle sounds.

General noises, like a horse trotting, arrows firing, a Colossus wailing in pain/anger.  It all just works really nicely.  I played with and without a stereo headset to see how much better it would be, and the difference is night and day.  The balancing and the positioning as you traverse the land is fantastic.

Audio in this game is almost perfect!

The end

It’s incredibly easy to see why Shadow of the Colossus is such a favourite by so many people, especially when re-made to look like this.  Bluepoint have done an incredible job indeed.

I’m just not sure that by today’s standards it’s a classic.  I understand how different it would have been back in the day, and I see how it has influenced modern games.  It’s definitely iconic and had an impact over the years. 

As it stands, though, to a new player, it felt like a glossy but empty world with a bloody awful camera.  Until the end, where everything ties together and completely changed my perspective…….

I was ready on my high horse, to announce it a shallow experience my modern day standards, but had to climb down and shut up.

This game is more than the objectives and stunning visuals.  It’s an experience, one made up of few parts, masterfully put together to work, presumably, exactly as it was intended.

If Shadow of the Colossus did a little more narratively throughout the game, especially at the beginning it wouldn’t have felt so hollow for the duration.  That and the constant battle with the camera mean I can’t say that it’s the best game ever made, however, I can say it’s a must play.

I don’t know how this has happened, because I was well ready to give it a standard “recommended”, but something has changed and with a little perspective-shift, I’m suddenly remembering it all very fondly.

Anyone with a PS4 should give this game their time.  I’ve not dived into time attacks or new game plus, but I know there’s plenty more to do should I choose.

It’s a modern remake of a classic icon, and honestly, it’s superb.

Now, I need to get back in there to take some more screenshots……..

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