When Ico first launched in 2001, it was incredibly well received by players and critics alike, thanks largely to its unique setting, style and gameplay. An ambitious game in an era of big budget shooters and over the top action games, ICO was just as much arthouse film as it was blockbuster game. It was no surprise, then, that Team Ico had everybody’s attention when they announced Shadow of the Colossus, which was initially believed to be a direct sequel to Ico.
In the years since its initial 2005 release, Shadow of the Colossus has become something of a cult hit among the PlayStation loyal, for good reason. Much like the studio’s first game, Shadow of the Colossus chose experience over gameplay, proving once again that the horizons for gaming were broader than big guns and big boobs, that games could actually be about something. It was a radical idea for its time, and never quite sold as well as Sony had hoped. Thankfully, Japan Studio has revisited the title this year with a stellar update, built from the ground up for the PlayStation 4.
Like Mist on Green Mountains, Moving Eternally
Shadow of the Colossus tells the story of a young warrior named Wander, whose true love has died. He travels to a shrine in an isolated, sacred realm, having heard of a mysterious power that can bring the dead back to life. There he meets Dormin, a strange, disembodied voice that claims to have the power Wander seeks, but in exchange demands that Wander find and destroy 16 mighty beasts that roam the sacred lands. Wander accepts this proposition and sets out to find his first colossus.
One of the most notable aspects of Shadow of the Colossus is that the only enemies in this vast, open world are the giant colossuses (or colossi, for those readers on the other side of the pond) you are required to defeat. There are no regular enemies, and except for a few birds and lizards, no other wildlife at all. The land itself is lush and beautiful, even breathtaking, but the utter emptiness of it all creates a remarkable sense of isolation, a feeling almost like time itself has ceased to exist in this place.
With nothing but bosses to hunt down and kill, it would be easy to assume that Shadow of the Colossus is a straightforward, even linear affair. Maybe it is for some people, but it most certainly was not my experience, as the remarkable beauty of the world constantly led me off the beaten path, not in pursuit of better gear or interesting side quests (because this game offers neither), but just to see what lay around the corner, or on the other side of the mountain. More often than not, I was glad I made the trip, as Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best-looking games on the PS4 today.
Unlike previous remasters on PlayStation 3, or even some modern remasters on the PS4, Shadow of the Colossus is not just an upscaled version of the original. Instead, Bluepoint Games has completely rebuilt the graphics engine to utilize the power of the PS4, simultaneously honoring the aesthetic of the original while creating a world, and game, that feels completely new. Much like Horizon Zero Dawn and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I spent a not-insignificant amount of time in Shadow of the Colossus just wandering around, enjoying the vistas as I explored to my heart’s content. Also, I took pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.
Despite Our Weariness, We’ll Follow the Road
Eventually, you do have to pull yourself together and get on with the task at hand. Aiding you in that endeavor is your faithful horse, Agro. You’ll need him to get around the huge open world, but you’ll also frequently hate him for that, too. One of the biggest issues with the original PS2 version of the game was the shoddy controls, and while Bluepoint has managed to successfully address that for the most part, there are times when the horse AI simply fails, sometimes in spectacularly frustrating ways. Most of it comes down to simple pathfinding issues, with Agro getting caught up in places as if invisible walls were impeding his progress, but every now and then he just likes to take off in his own direction. At times his reluctance to obey your commands seems almost intentional, as if to remind you that he is a living animal with a mind of his own, and in those brief moments you can tolerate, and maybe even appreciate, Agro’s willfulness. That all goes out the window, though, when he decides on his own to take a hard left into a wall while you’re being chased by a hulking colossus that would like to pound you into dust. Despite the frustrations, Agro is your only companion, and the bond you eventually form with him lays a foundation for later story elements.
Once you are ready to tackle your next colossus, Wander can get a bead on their location by holding his sword up to the light, catching the rays of the sun. By adjusting the angle of the sword until all the rays of light converge on a single point, you can find the general direction you are supposed to travel to find your next fight. The system works wonderfully by ensuring you’re never completely lost without throwing waypoints all over the screen and holding your hand from one objective to the next.
Over Hills and Valleys
Of course, locating your enemy is just the first step towards taking down a colossus. Far more difficult, and usually the most challenging aspect of the game, is figuring out how to even get close enough to cause them any damage, as even the first target in the game is a good 100 feet taller than you. Shadow of the Colossus is a puzzle game, first and foremost; simply walking up and swinging your sword will only get you stomped on, and so you need to be creative in finding ways to climb up on the beast and attack his weak points.
Usually the environment is perfectly suited, in one way or another, for this task, and it is just a matter of paying attention to context clues and watching the colossus’s patterns to figure out your approach. If that’s not working for you, there is an option to have Dormin provide help in the form of cryptic clues, but they usually don’t provide much help. Once you do find your way up and engage in combat, the task becomes deducing how to navigate across the giant beasts’ bodies to their vital spots (huge glowing marks on their body) so that you can attack them with your sword. These are the only places where a colossus is vulnerable, and each weak spot typically only takes a few hits before disappearing, requiring you to find another to finish the job.
The basic concept may seem simplistic, but every colossus is expertly designed to require different approaches to overcome them, each one more complex than the last. Over the course of 16 different colossal boss fights, you’ll find yourself swimming underwater, shooting arrows while galloping on horseback, dodging artfully between columns and walls and underground passages, and even soaring through the skies as giant winged monsters try to shake you free.
To the End of the Journey
The story in Shadow of the Colossus is minimalism at its finest, told almost entirely without words, instead opting for simple visual cues and foreshadowing. As each colossus falls, their corresponding idol in the shrine crumbles and is replaced by a shadowy figure. Who are these spirits, and what do they want, if anything? The ultimate reveal, and the morality of it all, has been a matter of much debate over the years, but the fact that it still creates passionate discussion is all the proof one needs to acknowledge the profound impact it has on people, and how it alters their perceptions retroactively.
Over the past year, it seems like half the games I have reviewed have been remasters from previous generations. From Resident Evil Revelations to Final Fantasy XII, Okami, Sine Mora, Okami and now Shadow of the Colossus. It’s been interesting, revisiting these years old games to see how their developers have changed them, and what their priorities were when considering an overhaul. Some obviously fared better than others, but none have come near the level of 2018’s Shadow of the Colossus, in terms of overall improvements or just sheer quality. It isn’t just that the game looks much better, or that the controls were overhauled. It’s that Japan Studio and Bluepoint Games have taken a fundamentally different approach when remaking Shadow of the Colossus. This isn’t just a simple remaster; the entire game has been remade from scratch for the modern era.
Shadow of the Colossus isn’t just a successful remake of a beloved game. It has set a new bar for what a remake should be in the first place, and left me optimistic, for the first time ever, about the prospect of revisiting old games on new systems. This is how every remake should be.