Shadow of the Colossus PS2 Review

Usually when a console reaches the end of its lifespan and a glittery successor looms on the horizon, we begin to expect a gradual winding down in the quality of the games. Every game that sounds half-decent always seems to have mysteriously been pushed back “for the next-gen”, leaving you wondering exactly what you’re supposed to fill your time with until the day you slap a wad of your hard-earned cash onto GAME’s counter to acquire the next “must have”. Thankfully, it seems that Sony aren’t quite willing to let go of their cash-cow yet, and have given us yet another reason to rush out and buy a console that, lets face it, shouldn’t be flying off the shelves with the same vigour that it once did. That game is “Shadow of the Colossus”.

Gameplay

Once upon a time about ten people in the world bought a game called ICO and then never shut up about it again. The boundless enthusiasm these individuals exuded for this almost-unheard of title gradually began to pique the interest of others; but by then, the game had faded into relative obscurity and was almost impossible to locate (bar selling off an organ to buy an Ebay-copy). Those that would try to sample this divine slice of gaming glory would be forced to wander the realms of soulless, uninteresting remakes and rehashes, ever mourning what was never to be theirs…until they got another chance with “Colossus”. Joyful, the masses swarmed to their local gaming emporiums and bought up this soul-successor to the game that should have been theirs, and were at last granted the glimpse at gaming nirvana that they had always dreamed for.

Or at least, there in lies the theory. And it is a reasonable one; Colossus deserves to sell well, as did ICO before it. Like ICO, the game is immediately accessible. There are no lengthy tutorials to slog through, teaching you to use an intricate combination of buttons in order to make your character face the right direction; there is no complex, clichéd story to muddle through to get to the end. Right away you are given what you need – the ability to jump, to stab, to shoot your bow and to ride your horse, all at the tap of a button. There are no complexities here, and its this lack of fiddly details that makes the game such a joy to leap into and play.

The game takes place in a huge, continuous environment that encompasses vast deserts, murky forests and rolling sea shores – all accessible from the start, and all traversable to an extent. You can literally abandon your quest at any time and ride around (or run if you’re a glutton for punishment) the entire world and examine the minute detail that has been put into the environment, from tiny individual plants, blazing skies and soaring birds. Once you have been satisfied with your exploration – and if you’re keen enough, it will take many hours – there’s the true grit of the game to be conquered. You play a young man, who has brought the body of a girl to a distant forbidden temple in the hopes that she might be revived by an ancient force residing there. In order that the resurrection can be completed, you are commanded to destroy sixteen Colossi – ancient beasts that dwell in the forbidden lands and guard it from intruders.

Colossus doesn’t pull any punches; from the start, you will be expected to find the colossi by yourself (luckily your sword will show you the right way to go if you reflect the sunlight off the blade), and to take on creatures infinitely larger, stronger and more agile than yourself. The premise is easy; find a way to get to the creatures “weak spot” (marked by a glowing glyph) and then stab them until they are dead. Unfortunately, most creatures seem distinctly unwilling to die, and so will have their glyphs in extremely difficult-to-reach places; some will be on a body part hundreds of feet above the ground, whereas others will constantly twist and move meaning you only have a few seconds in which to attack before you are thrown to one side. Others yet will have glyphs that disappear and reappear someplace else on their bodies; stabbing a giant in the head is one thing, but hanging upside down on an airborne monster, simultaneously trying to kill it and not fall to your death is another.

Every colossus has been carefully designed and thought out, and while some do bear distinct resemblances to one another, you never feel as though you’re just doing the same thing over and over. Which is perhaps the most masterful aspect in the execution of the game as – essentially – you ARE doing the same thing over and over again. There are no smaller minions to battle in the forbidden lands; all that stands between you and your goal are the colossi. There are no dungeons to traverse here; the giant beasts ARE your dungeons, and as such there are rules that must be obeyed. Our hero cannot feasibly climb some surfaces, like smooth skin or rock; however, fur and ridged hide make great handholds. Similarly, he cannot stab an enemy while he is hanging upside down by one hand; in order to make a strong enough stab to really hurt a creature, he must be able to brace himself in place for several seconds. This, and the inclusion of the “grip meter” that determines how long our hero can hang precariously above certain doom, adds an element of strategy to the game; you will have to carefully time holding on to avoid being thrown to the ground, yet will need to find time to let go of your grip and rest during each encounter. While this is easy on some of the larger colossi that have large, flat backs or shoulders to rest on, some of the smaller beasts will give you a rough time if you try to let go. If at any time you lose your grip, or make a wrong step – back down to the ground you go, and, assuming you survive the fall, must make the climb again. This makes the game sound terribly difficult, but in all fairness, it never seems to ask more of the player than they can give. Every colossus seems perfectly gauged to match the players progress, and this ensures that frustration never rises too high.

The horse, Agro, plays an important part in all of this; some colossi will require close teamwork between the two of you, or at least make things infinitely easier for our hero – not to mention he cuts down the travel time from place to place. Control of Agro is awkward at best, since he must turn like a horse and so cannot make a sharp dodge to get out of the way quickly. While there are several actions that can be performed with the horse, such as mounted shooting and standing in the saddle, all are rather difficult to carry off with much accuracy; thankfully, you are never expected to do anything very complex with him, and so most of these actions seem to be purely for fun.

Graphics

It’s because of games like this that I sometimes think sadly to the coming of the new generation, and wonder how good graphics on the Xbox could have become had it been allowed a few more years to mature. Colossus is absolutely stunning, from the blazing sun on the horizon to the rows of fur on a colossus’ back. Everyone went crazy for the fur effects in Conker and Starfox – now the PS2 shows that it too can do fur. While it’s still not devoid of the renowned jaggies that everyone seems to love pointing out, it definitely looks a lot nicer than one would expect of a PS2 game, and will constantly surprise with its lack of loading times and sweeping draw distance. There is some slowdown, most noticeably while riding with a lot of environmental detail up ahead, but pop-ups and fogging are really at a minimum and the game certainly looks sublime. From the first colossus to the last, the game never fails to amaze with its detailed visuals and artistic style. I think this is the first game in which I was marvelling at the clods of dirt my horses hooves were throwing up. Marvellous.

Sound

As with ICO before it, Colossus never goes overboard in terms of sound. The majority of the game is relatively peaceful, with the sounds of nature your only tempo; the birds singing, the thudding of your horses hooves…all of which are lovingly captured and applied. However, once you encounter your quarry, the mood changes significantly; the game’s orchestral overture kicks in, almost moviesque in the way it ties into the action. This is perhaps one of the things that makes the game as immersive as it is; the music is completely dynamic, in that it changes to match whats happening. If you’re triumphantly stabbing a foe to death, it will hit a faster, more intense rhythm to accompany your moment; if you are anxiously awaiting for a foe to appear and spot you, it will simmer down to an occasional sustained note or two, as if waiting as well…it really is superb use of music, and extremely refreshing to find a developer that has paid as much attention to every aspect of his game rather than one or two.

Lifespan

Colossus is not a lengthy game, in spite of the sixteen giants that you will have to locate and destroy; the main game will probably last up to around 15 hours, with more time if you decide to explore the world more extensively. There are rewards for doing this; scattered about the land are fruit trees, whose fruits will increase your character’s stats incrementally (but aren’t essential to completing the game). There are also numerous small white-tailed lizards roaming the land, which can be killed and eaten to again boost stats.

In addition to this, a second play will allow you to take on Time Attack mode against any of the colossi you have beaten; besting this will grant you extra items to make the game easier, such as more powerful swords and invisible cloaks. Once again, thankfully, none of this is needed to complete the game; they are, however, nice bonuses for those that want to finish the game several times. Completing the game on various difficulties and getting all of the Time Attack items will also unlock new colours for your horse.

Finally, a neat extra can only be obtained by building up your grip meter extremely high and then scaling the Shrine walls…a nice little feature that will no doubt be of great interest to those that have completed the main game. These extras will no doubt add many more hours to the game’s lifespan, though whether or not the player will have the endurance to replay again will affect how much you will get out of this.

Overall

Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games that comes along once in a blue moon, usually completely out of nowhere, leaving it to gradually sift under other titles with bigger and bolder advertising. It really doesn’t deserve to be there. There are few other games that spring to mind that are as immediately involving, on as grand a scale or as devastating as the finale as Colossus. This isn’t just a game; it’s everything that you came to gaming for in the first place.

For anyone that ever wants to be someplace else, not just in a world that needs to explain itself to you every other moment, this is the game to buy.

9 out of 10
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