Shadow of the Colossus

There really isn’t much to say about Shadow of the Colossus that is all that different from what I said about Ico. The two games share many of the same strengths and weaknesses, and are clearly cut from the same stylistic cloth. If I were as disciplined as the game’s designer, I would just walk away now. But, I think there are some aspects of the game that current reviews have missed. And, there is the whole matter of the boss battles. I bet you thought I was going to try and squirm out of that one. No such luck. Less is More

Shadow of the Colossus, like Ico before it, is a minimalist game. It places the player in an overworld which is large and yet almost completely empty. The gameplay mechanics are spare:  running, climbing, jumping, hanging on to various surfaces, riding the horse, wielding the sword, and using the bow and arrow. You are tasked with finding and destroying a series of 16 creatures. You ride out to each one, figure out how to climb it, and then take it down. This is the entire game.

I feared that the game would turn out to be a repetitive slog from colossus to colossus, but this is not the case. What happens over and over again in this game is that the designers manage to provide hours of variety from what seems to be thin air. For example, even though the game has you traveling through this empty world over and over again, every trip is new and interesting. The various areas of the game all have their own sense of space and mood and you can always shoot geckos if you get bored. The strength of the game’s design is most apparent in the core of the game, the encounters with the colossi.

Puzzles, not Bosses

This game has been billed as consisting of “16 Boss Battles”, but I think that this is misleading. It is true that your goal in the game is to destroy a collection of 16 huge lumbering creatures. It is true that occasionally these lumbering creatures will seek to do you harm. But, the core problem to be solved in each of these encounters is not figuring out how to beat the colossus. You beat every one in exactly the same way. Nor is the problem avoiding death by colossus. In general, if you are careful and understand the rules of the game, the colossus cannot kill you no matter how many times you are hit. Therefore, I don’t think game consists of “battles.” In fact, there is almost no combat in the game. Instead the game presents you with a variation on the “move from point A to point B” theme in Ico. Rather than fighting the colossus, you have to figure out how to climb the thing and then navigate to it’s critical zone, and then hold on for dear life and hit it there until the creature falls. It is the climbing, navigation and holding on that are the hard problems. It’s as if the castle in Ico got up and started walking around.

Since figuring out what to do takes careful study and reflection, the game goes out of its away to make sure you always have as much time as you need to study the situation and work out the puzzle:

1. For the most part there are no cheap one hit kills. It is almost always possible to put yourself in a position where you can observe the situation without being damaged. In fact, as many of the reviews of the game have pointed out, some of the colossi won’t even pay attention to you unless you whack them once or twice. This puts you in the interesting position of occasionally feeling guilty for doing what the game told you to do.

2. If you rest, you heal automatically. This means that you can test strategies almost endlessly without worrying about restarting the fight because you died.

3. When you don’t understand the puzzle, the game will give you clues about what to do. In fact, the game explicitly tells you exactly where you need to go to dispatch the creature. It just doesn’t tell you how to get there.

4. In general you use the same mechanics and the same techniques to fight each each colossus. There is no special three eyed colossus that requires that you put a blue spike in each eye in order for a secret door on his body to open up so you can climb in and find the real colossus inside. The game designers only allow themselves to expand on things you have already seen, and they only do that once or twice.

Thus, Shadow of the Colossus presents the player with “boss fights” that have almost none of the hateful characteristics of a standard Boss fight. Where big fights in most games are a twitchy combat-based death-march, the encounters in this game are environmental puzzles that reward careful thinking and methodical execution. Once you solve the puzzle, the final result of the encounter is a given. You just have to proceed in a measured and patient manner to the eventual finish.

But the real brilliance of the game is the evolution of these puzzles into successively more intricate set pieces. These sequences do not necessarily become harder, but they do require you to combine elements of the game and its environments in more complicated ways. Again, the designers build great variety and depth from a minimal set of starting elements. The progression of the puzzles is paced perfectly, so that you are always ready to discover the next trick. The game’s best moments come when you have executed everything perfectly and can sit on top of a giant creature and contemplate your inevitable victory for a few seconds before you bring the colossus crashing down to earth.

Small Annoyances

Of course, the game is not perfect. The main character often acts in ways which make you question his mental acuity. It’s hard to make him run in a straight line, he likes to jump instead of getting on his horse, and he has an annoying habit of jumping off the ledge that he just reached after climbing for twenty minutes. This, combined with a sloppy camera makes some of the trickier platforming in the game harder and more punishing than it should be. Beware of Colossus Knee.

The horse is also something of a mixed blessing. While you can’t help but develop an emotional bond to the horse, it can be difficult to move where you want, much like Yorda in Ico. In this sense, I think the horse shares in the mental feebleness of his owner.

Finally, the game uses an even more minimal savepoint system than most. In general this did not bother me, but as the encounters became more complicated and time consuming, I would have taken the ability to do a mid-level save as a sign that the game designers didn’t hate me. Also, would it have killed them to give me save after I defeated the final colossus but before the final cut scene rolled?

The Rest

The rest of the main game consists of some extended cut scenes that set up the story, such as it is. These scenes add to the feeling of ambiguity about the tasks and goals put in front of the main character. After just a few of the early battles, one suspects that there is more going on than meets the eye. As the battles continue, this sense of doubt and foreboding builds, but you gain no additional insight until you get to the end of the game.

The end game presents you with the game’s most complicated battle, and another long cut scene that shows you the rest of the story. The ending is satisfying, if a bit predictable. It does a good job of tying together the explicit narrative of the game with the “implicit” narrative of the colossus battles. In the end though, the encounters with the colossi are the core of the game and the emotional core of the narrative, and this is how it should be.

Shadow of the Colossus stands as a testament to how much a video game can achieve by using a small number of elements in the most creative way possible. The game combines disciplined design with astounding presentation. The occasional technical problems are forgivable because when the game works, it is breathtaking in its character, scale and grandeur. If you own a PS2 and played Ico, you should play this game because it is a wondrous extension of that world. If you own a PS2 and didn’t play Ico, then you should buy both of these games and play them through.