This isn’t Shadow of the Colossus‘ first rodeo. The game has been around since 2005 when it debuted on the PlayStation 2. It was then re-mastered for the PlayStation 3, and now again for the PlayStation 4. What’s perhaps most unique about these iterations is that the game itself never changed. It was updated for newer technology, polished to support the higher resolutions, including 4K HDR on the PlayStation 4 Pro, but the core experience remained identical. For a lot of reviewers and gamers, this means that the nostalgia factor is extremely high. Not so for me, however, as this is my first experience with Shadow of the Colossus. Even without the rose-colored glasses of memories, this game is special.
Editor’s Note: All screenshots seen below were taken on a regular PlayStation 4 at 1080p resolution.
Simple, but Deeply Emotional
The premise of Shadow of the Colossus is very simple. Boy brings girl to temple to appeal to magical beings in the hopes of returning his love back to life. Horse comes along because… that’s what horses do. Wander, the protagonist and expert Colossus climber, is who you play as. He is tasked with defeating 16 Colossi in order to appease the magical beings and complete his quest.
Using the power of his sword, Wander seeks out each Colossus in order, without much explanation surrounding the affair. The process is the same each time: follow the light of your sword, find the Colossus, take a moment to gather your thoughts, and then observe it, looking for weak spots. Wander then has to climb the Colossus, using one of any number of imaginative ways, in order to reach those weak spots. This is really where the core of the game mechanics come into play. The camera automatically follows Wander as he scales each beast, grabbing onto pieces of fur, occasionally resting on the climb to its back, or arm, or weapon.
Of course, all this happens while the Colossus is trying to squish you like the little bug you are. Wander’s stamina meter plays a critical role in providing an ever increasing level of challenge. Stamina is used up as you grab onto the Colossus and when it runs out, well, you fall. The Colossus will shake wildly in its attempts to get you off of it, and every Colossus will have different mechanics associated with it. Some need to be teased into attacking you to even provide Wander a place to grab onto and begin the ascent. Some can be outsmarted, some require parts of their armor to be destroyed by your trusty bow first, but all provide a unique experience.
Having not played the original, I wasn’t always excited at the prospect of facing yet another giant Colossus. Each time you defeat one, the game automatically teleports you back to the temple and issues the next challenge. I found the way out to find my next target a bit dreadful. Sure, the environments are gorgeously rendered but Argo, your horse, is about as easy to steer as a wooden cart in a pit of a mud – more on that later – but I was never truly excited to get going. That always changed when I got to the Colossus, though. The sheer difference in size between Wander and its opponent, the moment of huzzah when I discovered how to climb onto it, and the joy of victory, were all very exhilarating. I kept waiting for that feeling to become less prevalent, but that never happened.
No other game has made me feel the way that Shadow of the Colossus does when you’re dangling off a Colossus’ forehead, desperately clinging on for dear life. The camera work has apparently been much approved, and while I’m not usually a fan of a fully automated camera systems that choose the best angles for you, the game generally did a good job of pointing me in the right direction. Considering the type of maneuvers I pulled on top of some of the Colossi, that is a pretty impressive task.
I played Shadow of the Colossus on a regular old PlayStation 4 at 1080p and I’m pretty sure that this is the first time I seriously considered upgrading to a PS4 Pro in order to experience what 4K would look like. But then I’d have to also upgrade my TV to one that supports HDR instead of merely standard 4K resolution. In other words, I nearly spent next month’s rent on new gear, all because I wanted to experience Shadow of the Colossus in all its glory.
Most of the Colossi are some variation of greys, so they don’t particularly stand out in the environment, but you do spend a fair bit of time traveling around the game’s map looking for your next opponent. There isn’t anything else around to worry about, so you get to take it all in while Argo does his best to not ride off a cliff. The game renders beautifully even at 1080p, and the motion blur while riding fast does leave you enjoying things so much that you may need to wipe away a bit of drool if you’re not careful.
At times I found myself less concerned with defeating a particular Colossus and more focused on the view from atop its giant head. Sure, you’re struggling to stay attached to its fur, but I do suggest that you take the occasional moment to smell the roses and enjoy the scenery. Do Colossi smell like roses? I suspect not…
Since Shadow of the Colossus is a single-player game, it stands to reason that it included a photo mode. Not only does the photo mode allow you to take some gorgeous screenshots to document your journey, but I also found it incredibly helpful as a way to pause the game in moments of stress. Like most photo modes, you are able to adjust the camera slightly, play with field of view and zoom settings, and apply filters. What I enjoyed the most about the various options is that it let me get as close, or as far away from the Colossus as I wanted, in order to convey the scale of the battle.
I said “Jump”, Damnit!
Let me confess that I’m not very comfortable with a game controller in general. I’m a PC gamer at heart, so using a controller to navigate games is not where I’m most happy. However, the controls in Shadow of the Colossus do leave a little bit to be desired, even for console veterans. While improvements have been made to how you control Argo, including smoother animations and mounting behavior, I did find some tasks to be a struggle.
Surprisingly, the most bothersome controls have little to do with the fighting, climbing, and crawling around on Colossi. In that area the game works quite well, though my fingers got pretty tired of having to hold a shoulder button to keep Wander gripping the Colossus. If you let go of that button, Wander will release his grip as well. There are brief moments when this is okay, but most of the time you’ll want to hold on, even though it drains your stamina. I found that long before Wander runs out of stamina, my fingers run out of grip strength. Perhaps I’ve just got weak hands, but I frequently used the photo mode to effectively pause the game, relax my hands, and then continue my mission.
Where I grew frustrated at times was the movement off the Colossus. In particular some jumping and swimming mechanics. There was one Colossus that required Wander to scale a lengthy path up to a platform where I was able to miss the final jump about four times, falling back down into the water, then having to swim back at an agonizingly slow speed to try again. Now, I’m willing to accept that half of those missed jumps were my fault, but it got so bad that I resorted to watching a YouTube video to ensure I was attempting something that was actually feasible. Eventually, I got past those issues, but I would have appreciated some improvements in this area.
Having not played Shadow of the Colossus in the past, I had relatively blank expectations of the game and was pleasantly surprised by how much enjoyment I found in it. The story, while basic, is thought provoking and emotional. The various Colossus fights might seem repetitive on the surface, but each encounter is unique enough to not become a bore. Perhaps the most standout emotion I experienced was the sense of accomplishment, immediately followed by a sliver of regret when felling a Colossus. There’s just something about a giant beast screaming in agony that touched a nerve with me. If you’re a fan of the game, you’re already playing this, and if you’re new, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. Shadow of the Colossus is a technical and emotional success, even thirteen years into its life.