It seems like there are two schools of game design these days: either do a few things really well or create a broad game that does a bit of everything. Shadow of the Colossus, like its predecessor ICO, tends towards the former. The game excels at narrowing down the gameplay to just a few core abilities – and as a result, Shadow remains a tight, focused and exciting adventure five years after its 2006 release.
Now in HD and sporting 3D compatibility and trophies, Shadow of the Colossus is the other half of the ICO/Shadow box-set re-release for PS3. This game on its own, like ICO, arguably would’ve warranted purchase – but as a package deal, this is right up there with The Orange Box (the Half-life 2 collection) for sheer dollar-for-dollar quality and value.
The Wanderer, yearning to bring his fallen love back to life, is tasked by mysterious voices to take down the great wandering Colossi one by one. Joined by Agro, his steed, and armed with bow and sword and wits alone, you set off. That’s as deep as the story goes – but like ICO before it, the philosophical questions raised run far deeper and will keep you pondering long after the dozen or so hours of gameplay have long since passed.
Shadow is, in essence, an open-world adventure game. There’s an enormous, sprawling overworld, roughly divided into regions and conditions – and there are more than a dozen staggeringly huge Colossi to take down. Like ICO, climbing is key – but Shadow once again moves the gameplay forward, bringing in a level of free-climbing that is only matched by Assassin’s Creed – and in some ways remains more flexible. To take down these behemoths, you need to climb them; grabbing at fur, clinging to ledges and reading the movements of each beast becomes critical. It’s truly ingenious gameplay.
The Wanderer is limited in his endurance; you can only cling to a ledge or tuft of fur for so long, after all. But with these limitations come a beautiful learning curve and a genuine need for strategy. Coupled with bow and arrow and a sword whose beam ensures you’re never lost in the rolling hills, Shadow feels denser and more flexible than it actually is.
While the re-release sports lovely widescreen support and a far cleaner view of the world, the game still suffers moderately from overly complex and occasionally unresponsive contextual controls. Mounting your horse, for instance, can be a maddening experience when trying to line The Wanderer up precisely with the side of his saddle in the heat of a Colossus encounter. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it remains a thorn.
Still, the real beauty and genius lies within Shadow of the Colossus’ single-mindedness. Your only task is to fell these mystical beasts. All the gameplay serves to help you do so. The world allows for a degree of exploration, certainly, but there’s often little to be found between the A-to-B trek. This is good and bad; like ICO, it’s a quiet and often reflective experience. To many though, it’ll just be too broad and boring.
Of course, those who ignore a game for its focus on riding and singular encounters would be missing another staggering gaming experience. Like ICO, this game influenced many titles across genres for years to come. The sense of scale and the awe it creates is still rarely matched – and each Colossus provides between 15 minutes and an hours’ gameplay purely through beautiful design work; they are levels and dungeons unto themselves.
Still gorgeous, though hampered slightly by pop-in and a control scheme that remains less intuitive than it should be, Shadow of the Colossus shows its age more than ICO. However, the gameplay and raw aesthetics point to the ambition, refinement and innovation that impressed so many gamers and critics years ago. It holds true today and more than deserves a replay by long-time fans.