Published on July 9th, 2012 | by jsdp4
ICO’s Emotional Successor: Overcoming Mountains in Shadow of the Colossus
Following up on the under-the-radar success of 2001′s ICO, Fumito Ueda and Team ICO once again came out bloody with a spiritual successor in 2005: Shadow of the Colossus, another game that, much like ICO, makes the player the epitome of representing the underdog.
Fumito Ueda established a unique aesthetic with ICO in terms of architecture, a fictional language, and the characters’ culture. Additionally, Ueda let silence, natural ambiance, and gameplay establish the mood and emotional landscape of the unknown world and castle ICO takes place. He also presented players with controlled camera angles and sweeping shots of the infrastructure to dramatically emphasize how small the character(s) you control are in relation to their settings and obstacles to overcome.
Shadow of the Colossus multiplies this scale–sixteen-fold, to be exact.
Shadow of the Colossus begins much the way its predecessor did with sweeping operatic shots of incredibly large and dangerous lands with minimal narrative. A boy rides his horse with a limp figure wrapped in robes between his arms. We watch them wander through cliffs and forests through rain and darkness until eventually coming upon a gargantuan bridge crossing a desert that leads to a bastion so huge it defies comprehension of how or why it was built and continues to exist. After crossing the bridge and descending the spiraling antechamber, the trio moves into the obscenely large main hall of the castle with a grand view of a land whose mountains are at the horizon’s edges.
The boy walks up stairs holding the mysterious and robed figure placing it on a central altar. Pulling the cloak away we see an almost translucent girl lying lifeless. Shadows appear behind but the boy’s unsheathed sword glows and dissipates the figures. The silence inevitably breaks as a collection of unified voices comes through an opening in the ceiling of (sun?) light. Our lead boy has apparently defied his culture’s precepts and fled with this dead girl of a “cursed fate” to the geographic end of the world under the assumption that she could be revived by the powerful collective godlike entity known as Dormin. Dormin makes no promises but states that an outside chance exists with the magical sword the boy has on his person. 16 stone statues–eight parallel to one another in the great hall–firmly stand. Dormin makes the condition that if all 16 are destroyed, then reviving the girl is (only) a possibility. Destroying them by human hands is impossible, but luckily for the boy for each of the 16 statues exist the living colossi counterparts wandering the land. With the sword, the boy is able to defeat them. “But heed this,” warns Dormin, “the price you pay may be heavy indeed.” The boy’s resolve is set, and he is off to slay mountains.
Now we play.
The opening scene is unsettling. We are given no promises and our task is impossibly difficult. This boy, though, is willing to make the ultimate risk to save this girl he has traveled far with and is given no guarantees. We know of no direct relation between the boy and girl, why she died, or much of anything else for that matter. Despite the minimalism by the end of the game players will have a rather affecting experience with emotional catharsis to boot.
Creating a game whose premise is strictly limited to 16 boss battles sounds like a game which would instantly fail in a general market. But Team ICO manages to pull off Shadow of the Colossus’‘ premise so well we have been privileged with a true gaming experience and classic. Following the opening scenes, players are granted almost continuous gameplay to defeat the biomechanical beasts wandering the landscape. To discover the whereabouts of the each colossus, our protagonist (aptly named, yet never revealed in-game, Wander) holds his powerful sword to the sunlight. Multiple beams shine off the blade. Maneuvering the sword in the right direction will focus the beams into a single point: Your next target. Time to get going.
As you set off with only your equine companion Agro, players immediately notice how they will have to negotiate the controls. Wander is somewhat unwieldy with his weapon; he swings like a novice sword user. Wander is at a slight disadvantage. He also is completely dependent on Agro for speedy transportation. Agro is a whole separate system of controls; he does not immediately respond to commands as we would expect a video game to regularly act. Instead we have to finesse and time our movements and work with Agro to navigate properly. In other words Agro behaves much like a horse would in real life–he will wander off, graze, and follow you as you explore. Agro is an exemplary example of a digitized animal made real.
Reaching a colossus usually involves platform jumping, ledge-hopping, and the occasional dip into water–sometimes all this to just fight a colossus. Once you locate a colossus, your job is to find their weak spots, stab them, and in the process take them down. Your sword doubles as a locator for the glowing targets. Your job is to then figure out how to climb onto the colossi and navigate their bodies, and ultimately slay them. This is no easy feat considering your size and that the colossi will constantly be stomping, stabbing, hacking, and doing anything they can to try and kill you. Once you finally figure just how to get onto them, staying there becomes a brand new game.
Unlike ICO, Shadow of the Colossus graces us with a user interface. The bar at the top represents the life of the colossi; depleting it is your primary goal. At the bottom we have our own red health meter and currently equipped weapon: barehanded, sword, and bow and arrow. The circle represents a grip meter, and also breath duration when underwater. Both health and grip meters grow as you progress and can be manually upgraded by shooting down and consuming fruits from trees and killing the lizards with white tails found at the many scattered save points respectively. Arrows are good at getting attention and are used for specific purposes, but the sword will be doing the majority of the grunt work. Keep an eye on that grip meter because you can be distracted just by hanging on for your life as the giants flail around to throw you off.
Some colossi will only engage when provoked, others will come at you right off the bat. More often than not most colossi require more footwork and puzzle solving skills to figure out how to make them fall–all while you feel Wander’s plight as he grasps at fur and makeshift ledges formed by the colossal bodies. Their earthy mechanical bodies shake and rage trying to fling you off. Watching the movements of the actual colossi bodies is a technological feat. As Wander gets thrown around on the back of a quadruped colossi as a spinal column has individual vertebrae shift and shake can be both disconcerting and beautiful. The colossi come in many sizes and forms and will keep you on edge all the way up until the emotionally gripping end.
Running around and simply locating the colossi is half the fun. With no music save for environmental ambiance, you travel this world with only Agro. This end of the world is devoid of life save for minimal flora and fauna. You will find varied settings with sprawling mountains, grassy fields, quiet patches of forests, desert expanses with sand swiping at your face, waterlogged ruins, oceanside bluffs, and good ol’ fashioned gray, decrepit, desolate miles of dirt earth. This sense of isolation not only effectively establishes the mood of the game and its themes but also brings you and Agro closer while traveling and taking down walking behemoths. The draw distance is especially impressive considering the Playstation 2 hardware, and you will spend quite a bit of time soaking in the cinematic and beautiful surroundings. Exploration is highly encouraged not only for the occasional easter egg but simply to take in the landscape.
The visuals beautifully render Wander and the world around him. Without any loading screens but the occasional landscape pop-in due to draw distance, this barren land is a gorgeous treat. You can witness the muscular movement of Agro as you ride around. The textures of the land come alive with each new location. Sweeping expanses of the land give you wonderful views allowing you to see off into the distance of where you came from and where you are attempting to go. As colossi stomp and stab into the ground, craters are violently formed as dirt and sand kick up and cut at your screen. The colossi themselves are a combination of natural earth and fur combined with unnatural and mechanical appendages; they are the physical manifestation of a literal deus ex machina. (Rather than save you, however, they will do all they can to stop and kill you.) Shadow of the Colossus shows what innovative graphic design can do with the Playstation 2 hardware. Instead of going for obscenely high resolution textures, Team ICO managed to create an emotionally evocative landscape so varied and lush that it takes hours to explore and soak in. Camera angles can become a bit of a pain as you traverse the colossi and particle effects can cause the frame rate to occasionally chug, but the overall package is greater than the sum of its few technological drawbacks.
The aural experience is another refresher in definitive video gaming quality. Kow Otani, a veteran in scoring anime and video games, goes all out with a fully equipped orchestral soundtrack appropriately titled Roar of the Earth. The soundtrack runs the gamut of slowly building ominous tension, frantic sequences of holding on for life and running a mad dash, victorious fanfare that crescendoes as you kill a colossus, and brooding contemplative ballads reminding you of your somber predicament. There is a track for every situation whether your slinking about avoiding a colossus or running and jumping for your life as towers and ruins fall. For those times when you are on your own exploring, the realistic sounds of the land refresh, haunt, and isolate you.
An emotional experience, a compelling classic, and a great video game, Shadow of the Colossus is one of those under appreciated gems of the gaming world. Make no mistake, Shadow… is linked to ICO in style, thematic approach, and even narrative continuity. But as a stand alone title Shadow… should be played regardless. If you have difficulty locating an original Playstation 2 copy, Sony was kind enough to release a high quality HD collection of both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. If you want a wonderful action-adventure experience with a plot that will get at your heart in ways you never imagined a video game could, then Shadow of the Colossus is most definitely for you.