Pinch me, I'm dreaming. I think I've just played the perfect videogame. Director Fumito Ueda's vision is extraordinary thus making Shadow of the Colossus one of the most unique experiences I have ever had the pleasure of undertaking. Much has been written about Ueda's Ico, the PS2 adventure game which tanked horrifically at the box office so to speak, but was fawned over by the gaming media who were transfixed by the games ethereal qualities. Ico was filled with dynamic imagery of fantastic towering architecture which had to be traversed by a solitary ten year old boy in his quest to save a girl whom he couldn't communicate with.At its heart Ico was a puzzle game with each internal or external environment requiring a solution and the same could be said for SotC to some extent.
On the other hand Shadow of the Colossus is hard to define because the experience is so absolutely pure that it almost defies categorization. It's you, your horse and 16 giants whom you must vanquish to save a girl who lies motionless on an altar. That's it. But it's those elements and only those elements that make Shadow so incredible captivating. There isn't a moment of wasted code in Shadow. You're either looking for the next Colossi or you're attempting to battle one. No useless dialogue to wade through; no towns to visit, no sidequests to muddle through, no conversations to read - it's simplicity at its finest in terms of scope, but it's far from a cakewalk.
The proverb "Each journey begins with a single step" exemplifies the magnitude of your quest in SotC. Your sole objective within this adventure is to slay the 16 walking behemoths for reasons quite vague and mysterious and which feels far beneath your capabilities the moment you lay eyes on the first one. Towering hundreds of feet into the air, you'll have to figure out a way to reach the epicenter of the beast, discover it's weakness and bring it to it's knees. In short, you'll have to climb the very thing you need to destroy, but first you'll have to explore the land by horseback to find it. Thus begins the journey within the journey.
Purveyors of the Legend of Zelda series will no doubt be familiar with the horseriding portion of SoTC, but that's where all similarities end. The rush of riding up to a discovered Colossi on Agro your trusty steed and trying to discern a way to climb the beast while avoiding it's thunderous blows, is pure videogame magic. The dramatic camera angles which magnify the enormity of your enemy while simultaneously casting you in a "puny less than" light, is magnicifent and sets the stage for incredible David vs. Goliath battles. Each Colossi is a enimga wrapped in a mystery and stuffed into a puzzle. You will have to figure out the best way to climb each one (all range in height, look and feel) while the beasts shudder and bulge attempting to shake you off while you are dangling hundreds of feet in the air. It's vertigo inducing madness and it's unlike anything I've seen to date.
Climbing the Colossi to reach their individual weakness is what comprises the entirety of the gameplay in SotC. Climbing and hanging on for dear life, more accurately. Jumping, climbing, hanging and using your weapons (bow and arrow, sword) will all come into play during the battles as you confront each unique Colossi. The threat of falling hundreds of feet is always present, but it's not the fear of dying that will engage you to succeed - falling doesn't cause much health damage - but rather the notion of having to climb all the way back up again. Defeating a Colossi returns the hero to the alter where the game is saved and the adventure begins anew - until the 16th one is defeated.
If it sounds like SotC is a collection of boss battles separated by periods of exploration, that's exactly right. All of the fat has been trimmed from previous games in the genre and the boss battles is what comprises the games most exciting moments. What makes this so utterly unique is that even though a wide variety of genre-trappings are missing in action - you won't power up, get a new weapon, collect anything with monetary value, talk to another person or battle an endless supply of underlings, Shadow of the Collosus is far better because of it. You'll be so darned busy trying to hang on for dear life, you won't miss any of that useless busywork.
SotC's dreamlike environments consisting of deserts, forests and lagoons harken back to Ico's esoteric yet minimalist visuals. A hazy blurring effect masks some of the games framedrops, but you'd be hard pressed to notice most of the time. Graceful and not so graceful animations of our hero illustrate the struggle and lengths he is going to save this mystery woman. The climbing and jumping animations are a sight to behold because they are so very human. Just as climbing in Ico looked like it was an extreme effort to do so, the sheer determination of our little guy as he struggles against gravity, scaling these skyscraper monsters is captured magnicifently. I've seen none better in a game to date. Equally as impressive is the lumbering movement of some of the slower Colossi who are wonders to behold. Not only are they the largest beasts ever to appear in a game, but you can feel their mass and hear their impact upon the ground. They are so impeccably monstrous, it's a shame that you're killing them. Why are you killing them anyway?
That's a good question.
You won't find many games today that impress upon you to investigate your motives. Most games are of the "kill or be killed' school of design. SotC has none of that. These Colossi aren't attacking you - but rather the other way around. You're attacking them because you were told it would save the girl. Who is the girl? Is she dead? Hurt? All these questions and more will be answered by the end of the game but it's very interesting to note that these questions inevitably will rise as you play the game. Even without a cutscene to spur you on to such notions.
While you mull over your moral compass, the original score will blow your mind. The lush soundtrack will only appear near the Colossi and so you will spend the exploration levels of the game riding in silence. The rush of the music once it appears will course through your veins as you head into another battle and stick with you - quickening the pace at opportune moments. The voices speak in a native tongue so you won't be able to understand what they are saying but it's just another way Fumito Ueda was able to bring this living breathing world to life. Even though you'll be in control over the events within the game, you'll feel like you're a visitor in a very strange land.
Shadow of the Colossus succeeds because it's true to itself. The restraint the design team exhibited by not allowing the usual videogame conventions to inhabit even a square inch of this game, speaks volumes to their dedication to this project. Ico was not a commercial success because it was very different - and the casual gamer doesn't usually like "very different". I doubt the casual gamer is any the wiser a few years later and I respect Sony and Fumito Ueda for having the vision to release this game in spite of what may turn out to be disappointing returns.
Shadow of the Colossus is a fantastic game, unlike anything you've played before and yes, it's far different than Ico as well. You casual gamers almost screwed us hardcore folk out of this game due to your penchant for buying Spongebob software. You owe it to us and the industry to buy this game and love it - which you will if you just give it the time it deserves. I know I'm not the only who enjoys videogame masterpieces like SotC and I'd like to continue to play them.
Do the right thing - you, your PS2, your controller, Sony and economy will thank you. Gaming doesn't get any more unique than this and you need to experience it for yourself. Buy this game today.