Review: Shadow of the Colossus

(Note: This review originally appeared at Game-Vixen.com in 2006.)

One game loomed over the 2006 Game Developers Choice Awards, and it wasn’t one of the previous year’s commercial behemoths, God of War or Resident Evil 4. Shadow of the Colossus won not only Game of the Year, but also Best Visual Arts, Best Character Design, and Best Game Design. While it may not have sold as many copies as a couple of the other PS2 hits of last year, Shadow of the Colossus was simply too good to be ignored by the industry.

Story and Gameplay
You play as a young man named Wander (who had the misfortune of being named ‘Wanda’ in early stages of the game’s conversion from the Japanese version). Wander rides his horse to a forbidden temple and asks the spirits there to revive the body of a dead girl. When the spirits warn him that there’s a price, Wander says he’ll pay, no matter what.

Wander’s mission is to destroy 16 colossi that inhabit the forbidden lands. Apart from his faithful horse, Agro, Wander is completely alone during his travels. The sense of isolation is exaggerated by the openness of the lands. Most of the terrain is flat, occasionally punctuated by steep mountains. You can see forever, and there is nobody else around. It’s as beautiful as it is eerie.

There is no buildup to the clashes with the colossi, no practice enemies along the way. The game is, essentially, 16 boss fights. In between battles, the only things for Wander to attack with his sword and arrows are lizards and fruit, which increase the player’s stats when eaten.

Just about every colossus is, well, colossal. Seeing one is like looking up at a skyscraper from the sidewalk; it looks like it goes on forever, and you want to keep staring just so your eyes can make sense of it. Except if you stare too long in Shadow of the Colossus, the skyscraper might step on you.

Each colossus is impressive, and each is unique. They all look different, and many are loosely based on animals or human forms. Some lumber across the land, as you might expect, but others swim, burrow, or fly. Wander’s attack strategy changes depending on the way a colossus moves and what kind of environment it inhabits.

Once Wander finds a colossus, his sword reflects a beam of light toward the weak spots on the creature. Wander then must jump on the colossus, climb to the right areas, and stab away. Half of the challenge is simply hanging onto the giant beasts, who, like many of us, react poorly to being stabbed. The other half is figuring out how to get on the colossus in the first place. Wander may have to climb to higher ground to jump on, he may have to goad the colossus into approaching him, or he may have to trick the colossus into a vulnerable position.

During each battle, you may die or fall to the ground a few times, but even your missteps aren’t too frustrating. Each time you fail, you’ll usually have gotten a little closer to achieving your goal. The game quietly rewards you by making you a bit better (and making you feel a little smarter) as you progress. Only the last colossus has some arbitrarily punitive aspects that will drive you nuts, but I guess that’s to be expected. After that battle, you’ll feel you’ve earned your victory.

One of the best things that Shadow of the Colossus has going for it is the pace at which the game can be completed. Most of the colossi can be defeated in about 45 minutes (including travel time). Some take less, and a couple might take an hour or two. The battles are long enough to satisfy, but short enough that you always think you’ve got time for one more fight before shutting off your PS2 and catching some sleep.

On the first playthrough, the game can be won in 10-15 hours. While that might sound short, the game feels just about the right length–just like a good 90-minute movie would rarely be made better by adding an extra hour.

But if you want more gameplay, replay value is high. After winning the game, you can fight the giants in any order you wish. The colossi are still fun and challenging the second time around, and winning unlocks a hard mode and a time trial mode, in which you race the clock to fell each beast. Because each battle is a fully encapsulated experience, Shadow of the Colossus is a perfect game to pick up every now and then, even if you only want to play for an hour or so.

Graphics
Among the game’s many high points are its polished graphics. Details are fine enough that we can see individual hairs on a colossus blowing in the wind, and the colossi’s movements are so graceful that, while clinging to one of the creatures, you feel as if you yourself are moving.

The world, while finite, is gigantic, and the long range views of terrain are spectacular. The game’s designers left enough open space for players to appreciate the rolling hills, jagged cliffs, and ocean views, without distracting you with a million tiny rocks and shrubs. There are no loading screens to endure, and this seamless transition from location to location helps maintain the illusion of being inside the world.

Sound
Part of what makes the game so lonely is a very careful use of sound. Except for the clacking of Agro’s hooves on the ground, everything is quiet as you ride around the world. Music is reserved for battles and story sequences. It’s worth the wait, because the music is lush and gorgeous. In case you can’t find it locally, the game’s soundtrack, Roar of the Earth, is available on eBay.

Voice acting is also minimal, and what few words are spoken are in a fictional language. Most of the story is at the beginning and end of the game, forming a framework for the battles in between.

Conclusions
Shadow of the Colossus is worth all of the hype. It’s beautiful, fun, and totally accessible. Because the bulk of the story is saved for the end of the game, it’s easy to defeat one monster and call it a day without losing track of the narrative. It’s a game that works in extended chunks of time, or in the same period it takes to watch a TV show.

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