Call it small geek’s complex, but for gamers, size actually does matter. We don’t dream of slaying a fierce munchkin or laying waste to a particularly nasty prairie dog; we want to take down a full-sized dragon, dammit, a Balrog, something big and scary and physically imposing. The bigger they are, the harder we fall for them.
So it’s a given that we’d fall for Shadow of the Colossus, a game filled almost exclusively with giant boss fights. It’s like ordering four desserts for dinner, the kind of insane plan most gamers would only consider after a few too many Mountain Dew and Vodkas. Someone was drunk enough to try this?
Yep, and they succeeded. Shadow of the Colossus is another understated action/adventure by the same quirky weirdos who served up the critically-acclaimed Ico, and although they’re quick to point out that this isn’t a sequel, it’s just as mesmerizing. Though it struggles with some nagging control issues, this monster’s sheer, captivating beauty and absolutely riveting battle sequences serve as a reminder that good art and good gaming don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Welcome to the sleeper hit of 2005.
You don’t get much of a welcome to the story, though, or what little there is of it. The game opens with you, a young man, slowly making your way on horseback through a desolate world with an unconscious girl on your lap. You arrive at a massive shrine, lay the girl on a slab, and proceed to take orders from a bodiless god in an effort to revive your fallen lady. Those orders are eerily simple: track down and slay sixteen monstrous colossi scattered about the land.
That, in a nutshell, is the extent of the gameplay experience. You find a monster, you kill a monster, and you do it again, sixteen times in a row. There are no middlemen, no grunts on which to sharpen your sword, and no kamikaze fodder to be found anywhere. While this might sound pretty droll to the action game fanatic, the developers have made it anything but by infusing their world with an artsy, spooky serenity and letting the incredible colossi speak for themselves.
Before you start tackling giants, you have to find them. Luckily, you wield the Ancient Sword of Colossi Finding, which, when held aloft in the sun, magically points the way to the next beast like a compass. It’s then a matter of hopping on Agro, your steed, and following the light.
Inevitably, this will lead you to some sort of basic puzzle, often of the platform variety. Though in previews this seemed like a core aspect of the gameplay, it really isn’t. Getting from the temple to the right spot usually takes a mere ten to fifteen minutes, a mercifully short amount of foreplay leading to the climactic battles between you and your charges.
And oh man, what charges they are. Each colossus is simply massive in size, towering over your wee warrior like an angry god. Their sizes tend to fluctuate a bit, with some merely huge and others absolutely, positively enormous, walking skyscrapers with their heads in the heavens. They’re also a bit different from one another. A few are bipedal humanoids, while others walk on all fours. A couple fly and one even swims. Some are passive, while others will try to swat you with tree-like hands or club you with schoolbus-sized clubs. These are without question the coolest bosses you have ever seen, God of War notwithstanding.
In fact, the only thing cooler than watching these behemoths move around is trying to get them to stop. Each beast is a puzzle in and of itself, and your task is to find its weak spot and introduce it to the pointy part of your sword. Getting there is the tricky part, requiring you to first figure out how to scale the thing, then doing so while it tries to shake you off. Though you also have a bow and arrow at your disposal, it’s never used to kill anything, instead functioning as a way to get the beast’s attention or to get it to move to a certain spot. Mostly you rely on your own two hands, leaping onto the colossus and hanging onto its body by holding down the R1 button. It won’t much enjoy this and will proceed to thrash about, especially after you’ve scurried up to its weak point and plunged you sword into, say, the top of its skull. Hanging on for dear life, you’ll often need a few stabs to take the beast down.
It might sound complicated, but there’s really very little to manage. Other than the sword, hands and bow, a health bar and stamina bar comprise your HUD. The former replenishes over time, so taking damage isn’t a huge deal (you can fall from enormous heights and lose merely half your health, no twisted ankles or anything). Stamina represents how long you can hold onto things before letting go and also replenishes. No power-ups, no collectables, no items – just you, your wits and the colossi.
When it all comes together, these battles are nothing short of breathtaking. The music swells, the colossus flails, you hold tight for all you’re worth and stick ’em with your sword as victory spouts from the wound in fountains of black blood. It’s almost as much fun to watch as it is to play, perhaps the most cinematic in-game action sequences of all time.
That being said, it doesn’t always play as smooth as it looks. The camera attempts to present the action in cinematic fashion by swinging about to capture the most visually pleasing angles, but those aren’t always the most playable. During some of the later battles, you’ll be fighting the camera as intently as the beast, vainly trying to keep it centered while it insists on floating off to the side. To remedy this, a colossus lock-on button keeps the monster in sight as you run about trying to figure out how to hop aboard. Unfortunately, it does little to solve the camera’s floaty predilection.
There are also some problems with the horseback riding. It feels quite authentic, but often Agro will sway back and forth rather than holding a nice, even path. Bumping into any object deemed too large will result in him grinding to a halt, which can be frustrating during certain battles. By and large, though, Agro is probably the coolest horse since Mr. Ed. He moves with astonishing, lifelike fluidity, mane and tail blowing in the wind as he charges across the terrain. His incidental movements are equine to the bone.
But that’s just scratching the surface of this graphical treat. At times, you will swear you’re playing through a deleted scene from The Lord of the Rings, galloping across a desert, sword held aloft as the bleak land rushes by. Shades of Ico are everywhere, from the great soft focus lighting effects to the fantastic character animations. The world oozes a particular style and sticks with it. It’s like playing through a painting, an aesthetic tour de force.
Such artistry comes at a cost, though, as Shadow of the Colossus shows some technical cracks. The framerate dips significantly from time to time, particularly during the battles. That’s excusable given the size of the colossi, but other clipping errors and some generally rough edges are harder to forgive. Clearly the game’s stars are too big for the waning power of the PS2.
The audio is equally praiseworthy, particularly in its minimalism. You don’t hear much at all romping about the land other than Agro’s pounding hooves and the wind howling through the canyons, which only adds to the lonely, morose backdrop. During colossi fights, a tense orchestral score reaches blistering crescendo once you start climbing about on its back, creating a truly dramatic uber battle scene.
And the drama really kicks in as the moral ambiguity of your quest becomes evident. You are trying to save your girlfriend, presumably a noble notion, but are systematically destroying these beautiful (and often innocent) natural artifacts. The rush of satisfaction after taking down a beast is almost immediately replaced by a rush of sympathy for the creature as it slowly comes crashing to the ground. Eventually you’ll get some answers, but I won’t spoil that here.
Rather, you’ll figure it out yourself in only about ten hours, after which you can play through on a significantly harder difficulty setting or try an unlocked Time Trial mode, which pleasantly just lets you hop into the boss fights without running all over the world again. Neither offers any real new material, though. Like Ico, it’s a relatively short game and doesn’t have much classic replay value, although you will most certainly want to show it off to your friends.
But be prepared to hold on tight to the controller. Shadow of the Colossus puts its money where its mouth is, providing unrivaled boss fights in an uncommonly realized world. You won’t find moments like these anywhere else, and its few mechanical problems do little to bring down this absolute goliath of a game. After all, size matters.