Shadow of the Colossus is a single player action adventure game, originally released on the PlayStation 2. The game is by Team Ico, the same folk who produced The Last Guardian and Ico. However, this is very much unlike the others. It's a game of epic proportions... But to say this game is an epic is to miss out some extremely key details, as it doesn't entail what is epic about it. The visuals, the narrative, and most importantly the colossi themselves.
Shadow of the Colossus is a story about saving someone you love. A love story almost. Your character, Wander, has lost someone they love. And in this story of devotion, you would do anything you could to bring that person back. Even make a deal with a vanished deity... In order to do this you have traversed to the edge of the world in search of a god, Dormin, who, as legends tell it, can bring the dead back to this world. In exchange for this, this omnipotent being requests only one thing of you. Defeat the 16 colossi scattered across the land. No other instructions are given, and this is your only quest.
The game is set on a gargantuan map, littered with history, nature, and an ability to tell its own story. The only time your character actually communicates with anyone is when he's given instruction for the next colossus. Other than that, his only company is his horse, Agro - an integral part of the gameplay and essential for traversing the vast land. Shadow of the Colossus is set in a time before technology and before the world was ravaged with buildings and humans. In fact, the entire game takes place with you as a single person in quite an empty world. With only your horse, you traverse the land and extinguish what little life there is left across it, one colossus at a time.
There's something about the freedom that Shadow of the Colossus poses to you as a player. You get the initial cut scene to set up the story, a few words exchanged between Dormin and Wander, and then you are left to your own devices. You are equipped with a bow and a magic sword which, when held up in sunlight, directs you towards the next colossus. Other than that direction though, you are free to roam, explore, and investigate the history of this desolate land. Initially, this level of freedom can be quite intimidating. You are effectively dropped onto a map in the dead centre and told "Defeat colossi, or do what you want.". This isn't something many games actually do. There is no tutorial, and no explanation beyond the narrative. You are left to figure it all out yourself.
Wander can do many actions in the game. However, all of these centre around finding, scaling, and defeating the colossi. Your player has two stats: health and grip. Your health is exactly what you would anticipate health to be, how much life you have remaining before you die. And with so little in the world to do you harm, it reduces through player action or from being thrown 100ft by a huge stone beast. Neither of which are ideal. Your grip meter determines how long you can hold onto something for, and in such an vast and varied land is essential. Whether you're scaling part of a mountain to get to the colossus, or scaling the colossus itself, your grip reduces as you hold on. You'll need to rest to let it recharge.
To progress in Shadow of the Colossus, you need to find and defeat the colossi. It's your only objective. Dormin will always give some direction and hints as to the whereabouts of the next colossus. But these are often vague and more suggestive than direct. So, the first thing you need to do is find a colossus. You do this using your sword and travelling the land on horseback. Next, it's a good idea to get some understanding of what you're aiming for. The colossi all have a weak point, and you expose this using the sword in the same way you did to find the colossus. It gives you something to aim towards. Then you need to find a way to get to it, and this can quite often be the trickiest element. Some colossi require scaling, others are a little bit more technical.
Once you have scaled it and found the weak points using the sword, you can then take action. Every colossus has at least one weak spot on its body. This is the point you need to plunge your sword into to claim victory. As you can expect, they won't be happy about this. They will shake, move, jump, and grab in order to make you fall. It can take defeating a couple of colossi before you recognise what you actually need to do in the game.
The first colossus is arguably the easiest, with quite blatant points to stand on and an easy to understand pattern. Having a rest whilst scaling is often more hassle than it's worth, however your grip meter will thank you for it. After defeating a colossus, you get a short cutscene and appear back in the central tower. Dormin then tells about your next target. In the simplest terms, you find, climb, kill, repeat. But the game isn't so shallow...
How It Feels to Play
There's something about Shadow of the Colossus that makes you feel small. Now, I'm not just referring to the size of the colossi themselves. Everything about this game is on a massive scale. The land you are lost in, the colossi (obviously), the weight of your quest, and the mystery surrounding this clearly once thriving land... Where are the people? Why are there so many monuments? What could have caused such destruction? You'll have many questions... There are some details scattered across the land that give hints as to what may have happened. However the mystery holds more weight than the answers ever could. It's this stupendous depth that makes you feel tiny in the grander scheme of things. All you have is your quest and your goal.
For a game with such little communication, the narrative is strong throughout. You have your quest and the means to complete it. Beyond that, everything is within your control. Dormin will always chime in with vague hints as to where the colossus resides and what its mechanics will entail. Generally speaking, this can be quite helpful and doesn't often require much analysis. However, should you hit a roadblock in battle, Dormin will speak to you mid-combat to support you. (But don't expect too much help!)
Throughout your play through, the game conveys a lot of emotion using the setting, Wander's actions, the cutscenes, and that it always takes back to the altar (where your loved one lays) upon progression. It reminds you of why you're removing what little life remains here. And I can honestly say that I was blown away with the ending of the game - I didn't expect myself to feel such raw emotion for a game with so little in its world. You genuinely feel bad any time you defeat a colossus. There's nothing big about felling the beasts - you don't feel powerful, you feel cruel.
The colossi themselves are varied, interesting, and often tell the story of their own history in their visuals. It was when I encountered the third colossus that I recognised how monumentally small my character really was. That's not to say the first two weren't epic, but the scale of the third astounded me. The colossi all have different temperaments as well. Every single one has the potential to crush or kill you, however not all are so eager to do so. Some of the colossi are simply existing within their own area. They don't initiate combat and don't become aggressive when approached. Others are almost set to seek and destroy you. The fact that the colossi react differently to you adds more depth to the already rich world.
The land of Shadow of the Colossus is vibrant, detailed, and beautiful. It is genuinely astounding how much detail has gone into every single element of the visuals. The desert is vast and barren with sandstorms flooding in, the forest is dense and littered with trees and other wild plants, and the planes are hilly, cragged, and endless. As you travel, you encounter many broken structures and clues of a once rich civilisation. But all that's left now are the ruins and mysteries surrounding them. It's these unanswered questions and enigmas that drive you to continue to explore beyond your objectives. To say the world is beautiful is an understatement.
The soundtrack is, for the most part, absent. But you aren't in silence. Whilst travelling, you hear the sound of your horse, the wind, and the nature around you. The forest is rich with the music of nature, and the sounds of running water can be heard most places, too. There is no epic or subtle music to drive your cause whilst travelling. Only the sounds of the world.
Once you encounter a colossus however the big, impacting sounds kick in. Often the music will determine the temperament of the colossus - calm and subtle goes hand-in-hand with quite a passive giant, whereas music that gently says "run" tells another story. It's the music that quite often makes the battle something else. Climbing a behemoth to destroy it is awesome, doing so with an impacting and hard hitting orchestra at your back is something entirely different. The music does change once you are on the beast, often hinting that somewhat of a victory or a need to make haste. It narrates the battle for you, and does so incredibly. Very few games manage to manipulate their soundtrack the way that this game does.
The Controls and Mechanics
Shadow of the colossus expects a lot from players in terms of what they can do. You're in at the deep end immediately. And remembering you spend a lot of your time on horseback, it's important to remember horses cannot turn quickly. They aren't made to do so. You would think the developers named the horse with comedy in mind, as Agro is what you may feel when the horse says "no". I spent the majority of my first ever played through trying to master the horse. Agro does not enjoy turning quickly, as I can't imagine any horse would.
The colossi themselves make quite jerky movements whilst you're scaling them, and who can blame them? You're trying to defeat them, they aren't going to make it easy. Mastering the grip control and knowing how to best use Agro in certain situations will make the game much easier. The mechanics of each colossus are often easy to understand but hard to master.
The rule of thumb is that you climb the colossus and poke it with the sword. Sounds easy right? Well, it isn't. Each colossus will have weak points in specific places. It's your job to locate these, but also understand how to access them. And even when you've done that, you will need to time you're attack to get the best amount of damage out. Poor timing will result in you landing on the floor, often headfirst. By using a combination of observation, the bow, and well time jumps and grips, each colossus can be felled. How long it takes will be determined by your own patience.
Smaller things to note...
- If you defeat a colossus in an obscure location, Wander may be floating in the short cutscene
- There are collectibles scattered across the lands, but these require a keen eye and a lot of patience
- Agro is needed for some fights, so making sure you are comfortable using him is essential
In a Nutshell
Shadow of the Colossus is a game of epic proportions on a minimalistic scale. You fight stone giants, explore huge lands, and are yet still made to feel alone. The magnitude of the game is incredible and I feel the execution is fantastic. Something about defeating an enormous, stone fiend to an epic soundtrack will fill you with a sense of adventure and excitement. But the narrative and subtlety of the game may shock you even more. You'll be made to feel bad, knowing you must continue. A truly incredible narrative experience in an excellently unique game.