“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
Valus, Minotaurus colossus
Can video games be art, wield the necessary power of emotion and personality and expression? Can they not only make us feel the hard plastic and buttons of the controllers in our hands, but can they churn the flesh of our hearts, make to turn the wheels of our minds, or strike with all the overwhelming impact to the senses of any other sample of the visual arts, like film or photography or painting? Can video game storytelling match literature, adeptly handle subjects of controversy, language, culture, theology, ideology, aspiration, inspiration, or what it means to be human?
Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best answers to these questions, rising to the challenge and casting a shadow of influence over much of the gaming world with a silhouette as imposing and wonderful as the giants of its namesake. It is hard to fully describe the impact that this game has had not only upon the world but also upon me personally. Shadow of the Colossus was meticulously crafted (the word “perfectionism” is used) and it shows. The developers of Team Ico were responsible for the minimalist and obscure work, Ico, and they will finally release the long-awaited The Last Guardian this October, but Shadow of the Colossus may turn out to forever be their magnum opus, unsurpassed.
Quadratus, Taurus magnus
Shadow of the Colossus is considered to serve as a prequel of sorts to Ico. At the very least it is a spiritual successor to that earlier project, though s0 far as the director, Fumito Ueda, was concerned Colossus‘ relation to Ico isn’t necessarily “canon”.
Ico and Colossus do share many similarities, most obviously their appearance. Both games make heavy use of bloom lighting and desaturated colors. Both emphasize themes of loneliness, obsession, redemption, iniquity, and the need for companionship. Both contain vast settings of ancient architecture, shadowy enemies, fictional languages, and both games have sparse use of actual backstory, choosing instead to keep much of their world and characters and meaning shrouded in conjecture and hypothesis, and therefore mystery.
And finally, both games feature characters with horns and both games conclude with open endings. Exactly how Ico and Shadow of the Colossus tie together is one of the greatest things about the relationship between the two, because it’s never been fully explained. The imagination soars.
Gaius, Terrestris veritas
The game opens and closes with the same cinematic image: a single bird flying through a dark sky. The bird passes over a lone figure traversing a mountainous path on horseback, picking its way through darkened forest and glade toward a gate of ancient stone covered with forgotten, moss-covered carvings. We find that the figure is a man astride his horse. He crosses a narrow bridge into a vast and empty land filled with light. An imposing spire lies waiting dead ahead in the silence.Inside the spire is a spiral stair leading into a huge shrine. The young man places a body he had carried with him all this way on an altar at the end of the shrine. Casting off the shroud, it is revealed that the body is a woman, lying in repose.
We are then told by an unseen narrator that this land the young man has entered is forbidden. None may trespass in it. But therein is one with the ability to control beings created from light and it is said that if there you can wish back the souls of the dead…
In the shrine, the young man watches the wind stir the hair around the beautiful face of the dead woman. But before we can be told who she is, shadowy shapes like black ghosts appear behind the young man. He raises his sword, which radiates a bluish-green glow, and the shadows vanish like dust in the wind. That is when the voice of Dormin out of the light is heard, speaking with male and female tones, recognizing the possessor of the Ancient Sword.
“Are you Dormin?” the young man asks in a strange tongue, “I was told that in this place at the ends of the world there exists a being who can control the souls of the dead.”
“We are the one known as Dormin…” the godlike voice intones, but says: “Souls that are once lost cannot be reclaimed… Is that not the law of mortals? With that sword, however… it may not be impossible.” And then Dormin gives Wander (for that is the young man’s name) his task.
“Behold the idols that stand along the wall.. Thou art to destroy all of them. But those idols cannot be destroyed by the mere hands of a mortal. In this land, there exist colossi that are the incarnations of those idols. If thou defeat those colossi, the idols shall fall.”
Phaedra, Equus bellator apex
So began Wander’s hunt for the colossi to strike them down one by one. The Forbidden Land is a huge landscape with mountains, rivers, lakes, castles, shrines, caves, valleys and all kinds of topographical features, and each of sixteen colossi are lurking there awaiting the Ancient Sword, aka the Sword in the light. By raising the Sword, Wander can determine the direction of the next colossus he must defeat. The light will catch on the Sword and focus into a single radiant spear pointing out the right way. Wander has merely to follow the light on foot or on the back of his faithful steed, Agro.
The First Colossus is nearby (F5) and is characteristic of the battles to come. In Shadow of the Colossus, there are no enemies to defeat besides the colossi, the “bosses” of the game. This was a deliberate design choice, since no “normal” enemies means that the colossi are that much more imposing and the developers had that much more time to focus on each of them to make encountering them something truly memorable.
Avion, Avis praeda
When the colossi notice you, their eyes turn from a gentle blue to an angry orange. Now of course you can’t just run up and begin mindlessly hacking away at toes and ankles. The battles play out like action-puzzles. Wander’s objective is to maneuver his way to the weak points on the colossi, glowing sigils of magic (or vitals) somewhere on their gigantic bodies. Plunging the Sword into the sigils is the only way to bring down the behemoths. Some colossi later on will have multiple sigils, or sigils of varying size, which must be attacked separately or in a certain order. Wander can use the light catching off the Sword to see where the vitals are.
That’s where things get tricky. You’ll need to look out for ways to climb up a colossus’ body, which seems to be part-organic and part-inorganic, with hair and fur and flesh but also stone and metal armor fashioned almost like Gothic architecture. Wander has a grip-meter represented by a pink circle in the bottom right corner and whenever he’s holding on to hair or hanging from a precipice, the circle diminishes until it disappears. And then he lets go. Timing your assault between climbing, resting, climbing, attacking is crucial, and the colossus will try to shake you off of its back like a raging bull.
For example, with the First Colossus you have to jump onto its calf and stab a minor weakpoint and then time another jump when the monster reels from the pain, climb up the stony platforms on its back, crawl up the hair of its shoulders and neck, reach the head and stab the radiant symbol on its skull.
Barba, Belua maximus
One of the greatest things about Shadow of the Colossus, and clear evidence that the design team took full advantage of the energy and focus they could spend on the creatures, is how different and distinct each of the colossi are from one another. They’ve got their own personality to them. They don’t all fall into the category of “biped”.
Several of them are quadrupeds, like the ox-like Second Colossus or the Ninth, which is like a massive, armored, six-legged turtle. The Seventh is a sea-serpent while the Thirteenth is a flying worm and the Tenth is a sand-snake. There are even colossi which don’t match the description of a gigantic creature, like the Eleventh and Fourteenth Colossi which are both tiny in comparison, but still about as big as an elephant compared to Wander.
The different biology (if it can even be called that with the colossi) means that discovering the vitals can be extremely difficult on your first playthrough, or if you haven’t played in a while and forgot as was the case for me.
Hydrus, Draco marinus
When a colossus is killed, intriguing music plays. Majesty and sadness fills the air with the strange tune as the giant falls. Then black tendrils like shadowy tentacles protrude from the colossus’ body and run through Wander, bringing him to the ground and apparently killing him.
Wander sees a bright light. Then… he wakes back up in the central Shrine at the center of the Forbidden Land, ready to hunt down his next adversary. Over time, this process of death and resurrection begins to take a mysterious toll on the poor young man…
Kuromori, Praietinae umbra
It’s apparent that as the quest drags on and Dormin urges you to continue while Wander continues to deteriorate that not all things are as they seem. Worse, Wander is being pursued. A band of horsemen have followed him across the bridge, eager to rein in the trespasser of the Forbidden Land.
During the course of the story, as Wander’s hunt intensifies, there is a looming sense of dread and not merely because our hero’s appearance begins to diminish. There’s a sense in which what Wander is doing is illegal, unethical, wrong, however you want to slice it: truly forbidden.
Is it really worth the price Dormin warned of? Can you be sure that the entity will indeed hold up its end of the bargain? Would the woman be happy once revived if she knew the bloodshed that was accomplished? Should a human being be able to really tamper with powers of life and death beyond our control as a race? Is Wander’s quest a noble one or more akin to witchcraft? And what exactly is the nature of the colossi?
As Wander cuts them down one by one, a thematic paradox occurs. Despite the massive and terrifying forms of the colossi, it increasingly feels as if they are prey and Wander is their predator. It feels as if they are innocent creatures somehow, trapped within malignant appearances. Many of them seem like giant, gentle animals until provoked, and the more human ones can seem truly human. When wounded, some of them cry like whales, like living things experiencing an agony they don’t understand. They still seem helpless against Wander’s Ancient Sword, struggling to beat him back or shake him off. Who then is the real monster? Is this simply a task to complete or is it murder?
Not until the final, tragic scene of the game’s excellent and moving story comes around full circle is the truth finally revealed, and even then, its “poetic justice” is open to interpretation.
It’s absolutely worth experiencing yourself without having it explained by me (even with my magical powers of articulation), so if you’ve never played Shadow of the Colossus, what are you waiting for? Put down whatever game you’re playing and pick up this one. Mass critical consensus would say this sparse, deliberate, emotionally articulate game is the better choice, anyway.
The 8-Bit Review
Basaran, Nimbus recanto: 9/10
If a single complaint can be made its that the frame rate screws up on occasion, particularly if you’re close to a club swung into the earth by a colossus, causing clods of dirt and mud to fly through the air and slowing down the game’s speed. It’s never enough to cause frustration or ruin gameplay, and it was remedied with the HD Collection, but it is a minor stain that exists on an otherwise visually flawless PlayStation 2 game.
The heavy use of bloom lighting seems to be a conscious choice by the developers. Light is an integral element in Shadow of the Colossus with its infusion into the Ancient Sword, with the way the deceased colossi are marked by pillars of light, and light being the visual representation of the presence of Dormin in the central Shrine. The way it fills the Forbidden Land like water fills an ocean makes Light almost seem like a character in and of itself, ubiquitous and as incomprehensible as the strange tongue that Wander speaks. This is a beautiful realization where design plays into the themes of the finished product.
Shadow of the Colossus renders a sense of distance and direction better than any other game I’ve played on the PlayStation 2. No where is that more apparent than with the colossi themselves, the game’s greatest achievements. Each of them are so different from one another and yet they’re tied together by the innocence and grim beauty that defines them. Their individual designs are absolutely captivating and extremely creative. I imagine it would have been easy to simply craft over a dozen roughly ogre-shaped, bipedal monsters. Instead, they represent a whole range of physiology.
Their monolithic scale may be the most impressive thing about Shadow of the Colossus. Clambering up their spines and arms and legs, clutching to anything you can to hold on for dear life, is as gripping a feeling as if you were dangling from a tree branch in the air yourself.
Dirge, Harena tigris: 10/10
Shadow of the Colossus bears a fully orchestrated score. Through choice of instrument and arrangement, the music carries an ethnic quality, as if the setting actually lies in some distant land. This matches the timeless nature of the Forbidden Land, making it unable to be placed. Is it in Asia, in Europe, Africa, the Americas? It’s culturally enough like the real world and yet different enough that it resembles nothing short of a land you’d see in your dreams. And the music is the key to that idea.
Like the rest of the game, there’s an air of spirituality and religiosity about the soundtrack. It seemingly transcends the nature of a simple game as if it belongs to something much bigger and more significant. As if it carries with it into your living a whole realm of history and society and richness.
The music of Shadow of the Colossus is some of the best I’ve encountered in a video game. It’s powerful and when it swells it’s ripe with intensity and thematic melody. Rarely will you find a video game that is so well married to its soundtrack, where every song has purpose and accentuates the emotions brought to bear: fear, terror, tension, loss, hope, wonder, majesty, awe, humility.
And even perhaps most expertly of all, Shadow of the Colossus knows how to use silence as a part of its experience. The stillness of the vast Forbidden Land inflates suspense and accentuates the coming roar of the symphony that plays to the horrifying colossi.
Celosia, Ignis excubitor: 10/10
Shadow of the Colossus is essentially just sixteen boss fights, but these are far more than memorizing patterns, dodging attacks or button mashing your way to victory. They are action-platforming-puzzles unlike nearly anything else.
Merely getting on top of the colossus in order to find the chink in its fleshy armor can be quite a challenge, especially with the aerial variants. Finding the often hidden vital points when under attack by a ferocious and gigantic creature will test your cool-headedness. Making use of every last weapon in Wander’s arsenal and minding your surroundings will test your wit. A tiny figure rushing headlong toward a living mountain is the test of courage.
Without experience points to gain, Wander must increase his strength in another manner. He can hunt not only the colossi but also white-tailed lizards scattered throughout the Forbidden Land, generally located around the save shrines. If he can kill the lizard, he can eat the tail and raise his grip strength stamina. Similarly, fruit can be eaten off of trees, which will increase his maximum health. Both are invaluable for the coming encounters with the colossi and the presence of the fruit and lizards make exploring the Forbidden Land an important part of the game.
And finally there are the artifacts. Shadow of the Colossus is guarded with its garden of secrets, and these mystical items are unlockable only by completing battles in the Time Attack Mode, which in turn is unlocked by completing the regular game. A second Hard Time Attack Mode is unlocked upon completing the first Time Attack Mode. Essentially, you’ll have to replay the colossi fights but now with a time limit. If you can make it through these taxing tasks, an item materializes in the Shrine for you. Several of them are extremely helpful, like the Lizard Stone and Fruit Tree Map that will aid you in maxing out Wander’s strengths, while others are new weapons and gear that increase Wander’s attacking power. Even the Queen’s Sword from Ico makes an appearance.
Pelagia, Permagnus pistrix: 10/10
Shadow of the Colossus tips you off with its title: its nouns are singular. It’s not Shadow of the Colossi or Shadows of the Colossi. Yet there are sixteen such “monsters” in the game. How can we reconcile this? (Spoiler: highlight to reveal) The answer is in what takes place at the conclusion of the quest, when Wander’s corrupted body is possessed by the dark spirit of Dormin and transforms into a single giant figure: a Shadow of THE Colossus, Dormin’s essence which had been fractured and divided among the creatures you ruthlessly killed throughout the game, unknowingly (or perhaps quite knowingly) unleashing Dormin’s restraints as if unleashing Satan himself from the bottomless pit, becoming anathema in the process. It’s a Faustian legend if ever there was one.
The game succeeds with its lack of backstory. We may never know the relationship between the young man and the dead woman he carries into the Forbidden Land or what becomes the characters after the story closes. Really, it doesn’t matter. Wander’s obsession is the point. The game wields such gravity that the weight of its emotional power stands out among its peers. Real sadness over a sense of regret and loss isn’t something that’s just engineered in a factory: it must be deliberately crafted. And everything in Shadow of the Colossus is. And you’ll cry for it.
Phalanx, Aeris velivolus: 10/10
How many good games had their concept ruined by overly complicated and confusion controls? Not so with Shadow of the Colossus. First of all, there aren’t many controls, as Wander’s arsenal of weapons is limited to a primitive bow and arrows and the Ancient Sword. Beyond that there’s basic maneuverability (though the game is intense enough that you’ll likely press and vice-hold that button to hang on when climbing a colossus). Even Agro is seamlessly introduced into the game as a mode of travel, though she behaves much like a real horse: disobeying the occasional direction. The battles themselves are also straightforward with the clear goal in each one to find the vital point, the magic sigil, to take down the beasts. Shadow of the Colossus may feature lumbering monsters but it isn’t burdened by the weight of its own controls.
Cenobia, Clades candor: 10/10
The last few colossi can be real stumpers. There’s one or two that make me stop to scratch my head almost every time I return to the game. Some of the action-puzzles are extremely inventive and creative in that sense. But since there are more than a few visual cues and oddities about the colossi to clue you as to their weaknesses, the true measure of difficulty comes from the Time Attack Mode, particularly the counterpart on Hard.
Hard Time Attack Mode ought to be renamed Impossible Time Attack Mode. It represents to me the single platinum trophy I know I will never be able to get, and there’s a single colossi (the knight) that I absolutely cannot defeat on Hard Time Attack. And that’s not to say that any of the other Hard timed fights are a cakewalk, unless that cake is made of unpredictable AI, perfect timing requirements, an intimate knowledge of the game’s physics, impeccable hand-eye coordination, robotic-level precision, and the know-how and experience of plowing through the colossi a billion times each. Has anyone beaten Hard Time Attack? I’d like to know.
Argus, Praesidium vigilo: 10/10
This game makes the rest of the world of video games (most of it) seem like a realm of empty-headed cliches and rehashed, play-it-safe trends. As uniquely memorable as Shadow of the Colossus is, its become a modern day classic. 2005 was not a long time ago. I can’t think of a game that is any less divisive or that isn’t hailed with as wide-spread love and respect as it has been. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t adore this game. Even people who haven’t played it like it. How’d they swing that? Shadow of the Colossus is a jewel among coal and a gem in the crown of an entire art form.
Malus, Grandis supernus: 10/10
Can video games be art? Shadow of the Colossus answers with the roar of a choir that splits the sky open. I’m immensely pleased to give it one of the top ratings we’ve ever given to any game on this blog. I was able to enjoy this on the PS2 but it’s really the PS3’s The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection with HD revolution that made this a true delight, even on a second play through.
Earlier today I was thinking about what game I would recommend if human beings could only opt to play a single game in their entire life. I’m seriously considering Shadow of the Colossus. At all moments, it seems more than just a video game and that is a testament to the tireless toil and service the developers layered into this thing. It left me speechless, mind reeling, heart broken. I pleased to know it does the same for nearly everyone.
It took me forever to write this review, longer than it’s taken me to write any other article on this blog. Honestly I’m intimidated by the impact of this game. I can only hope that my nearly 4,000 word post can even come close to demonstrating the sweeping scale of this magnificent and iconic epic. Timeless and moving, it deserves being remembered as one of the greatest games of all time.
Aggregated Score: 9.9