Game Review: Shadow of the Colossus (2018)
I just (almost) finished Shadow of the Colossus (2005) (2018). Shadow of the Colossus resembles an ancient technological artifact: beautiful for its ingenuity at the time but functionally obsolete compared to its contemporaries. Here is my review:
I was not able to finish Shadow of the Colossus. Why you may ask? The game broke in half for me at its 15th level: Argus. Here’s a brief explanation as to why. Each colossus is a multi-stage boss encounter. This colossus, like the others, had a very specific sequence of events the player had to follow in order to defeat it. Simple enough, one may assume. It was not. Shadow of the Colossus is typified by problems that plagued it back during its initial release in 2005: bugs, glitches, and logic failures. The latter is of vital importance. The colossus in the 15th level has been coded to follow a specific sequence of events and only those sequence of events. This is in stark contrast to many of modernity’s most acclaimed titles: The Witcher 3, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Shadow of the Colossus does not allow for any player freedom. There is a set procedure of functions you must execute, and you will reach your destination. This is not an anomaly in video games — many titles follow this linear structure. Often times the linearity will make perfect sense given the type of game (ex. the early Uncharted games) and other times, like this one, it will be perpendicular to the genre’s trappings (open boss battles). This is a digression. The more important point is that linear games will only follow a sequential pattern. X creates Y which creates Z. Y will not and cannot happen before X. Shadow of the Colossus does not follow this pattern. This does not, however, make it a non-linear game. Rest assured, that for Z to happen, Y must happen after X (or X must happen before Y). Why then does Shadow of the Colossus allow Y to happen before X? The only explanation I can find is gross incompetence and a departure from the most basic standard of care. That is what happened to me for the 15th colossus. Y (stripping him of his melee weapon) happened before X (destroying his head and shoulder sigil). So why exactly was I able to strip him of his melee weapon before destroying his shoulder sigil? Your guess is as good as mine. The consequence? Without his melee weapon, the colossus moves at a different pace and pattern than with it. This pace and pattern do not allow for X to happen (for the shoulder sigil to be destroyed). Thus, as you may have guessed, Z cannot happen, and you are trapped in a logical purgatory. The solution? Quit the game and return to your last save, or purposely die and respawn back at the beginning. I did not do this. I do not want to do this. I will not continue on an interactive charade and tolerate a developer’s failure to perform the most basic level of due diligence before releasing a game. So, with my frustration at a boiling point, and on principle, I turned the game off and deleted it from my PlayStation 4. Shadow of the Colossus left a bitter and sour taste in my mouth. Onto the rest of the review.
Shadow of the Colossus is a beautiful game. It is not, however, beautiful for any specific technical reasons. Bluepoint games have done a fine job at remaking all of the textures and assets. The resolution is impressive, the lighting is up to par, and the frame rate is durable. But there is nothing, on a technical level, to write home about for this title. What Shadow of the Colossus does offer is a one of a kind art direction. The muted colours immediately catch your eye. It is different. Games, especially nowadays, draw large emphasis on strong blacks and whites, high contrasts, a wide colour palette, and environmental effects that are bombastic and busy. Shadow of the Colossus takes an entirely different approach. The muted colours work in tandem with the calm environment to feed into a broader atmosphere of solitude and peace. This feeling is then, by design, replicated in your encounters with the colossi who, despite being grand and unpredictable, move with grace and a slow tempo. The orchestral sounds hum as you move through this sparse, gentle, and mysterious world, and reach a fever pitch as you fight the colossi. The mix of muted colours and a soothing soundtrack are complemented by the aesthetic. A suite of natural features interspersed with ancient architecture. Artistically, Shadow of the Colossus is a marvel, and Bluepoint meet the moment with a sufficient remaking of the world.
Shadow of the Colossus is brimming with risky and rewarding design choices but, at the time same, is burdened by its ambitions. The central premise of the game, to battle enormous colossi through a mix of platforming, combat, and puzzle solving, is a thing of beauty. The colossi become the levels. You traverse the environment, climb upon these majestic moving ornaments, and find their vital weaknesses. Often times the colossus themselves, and their unique mannerisms, are essential to defeating them. Each colossus offers a challenging yet satisfying puzzle to solve, and it all occurs in the backdrop of a grandiose score and beautiful visuals. The colossi all have a specific theme to them, whether it be through their specific species (a bird, a turtle, a snake) or their relation to the environment in which they are located (sandy dunes, geothermal fissures, lakes). The game’s use of elemental physics drew immediate, and welcome parallels to The Legend of Zelda games. Despite all of this, Shadow of the Colossus is held back by its ambitions. The controls simply do not work in execution. Jumps will fail to make their intended landing due to the misalignment between the level of precision offered by the controller and the level of precision expected by the game. Your player will often fail to respond to quick changes in direction, will fall off of ledges for unexplainable reasons, will be jerked around at an excruciating level of repetition each time a colossus takes a step. The camera is unforgivable, consistently unable to capture the player’s intended point of view. Many times, during my playthrough, certain bosses displayed poor programming. One colossus, designed as a bull, struck you to the ground at intervals. However, because you could not get back up in time to dodge the next charge, you were stuck in a loop, unable to escape. Other times, for a colossus that traversed the water, swimming on the surface — the intended way to alert the colossus to strike you — did not actually achieve that aim, leaving you wandering through the water for minutes at a time. Yet in another instance, a colossus, which flew through the air, forced you to follow a four-stage sequence of events in order to defeat it — even though it was possible to do so in two or three. In such an example, I would have appreciated the game let you capitalize on this possibility, or simply foreclosed it altogether. In this way, when playing Shadow of the Colossus, you very frequently get the sense that the game has already pre-written your exact sequence of events, and your agency is visibly eroded. There are, of course, other examples. You are provided with a sword that, supposedly, is to reveal the vital spots of each colossus, However, time and time again this function did not work as expected. The arrow controls feel awkward. The striking of the sword feels clumsy. The horse very frequently fails to respond to your request to mount on it. The list goes on and on. For such a beautiful game, for such lofty ambitions, it is nothing short of a tragedy that the game’s camera, controls, AI, and coding fail to keep up.
Shadow of the Colossus delivers its stories in small fragments. The story is quite simple. A young man looks to bring what is presumably his girlfriend or wife back from death. He is guided by a mysterious voice who orders him to destroy sixteen idols. Upon doing so, he will have his partner returned. From the first to the final colossus, this is as much as you know about the story. There is a certain charm to this ambiguity and opacity. Your mind begins to fill in the gaps. You begin to transpose your own ideas and theories as to what brought the young man here, who this mysterious voice was, who these colossi were, and what will happen when you complete your trials. After slaying the sixteenth colossus, you are finally provided answers. (SPOILERS from hereon). The young man stole an ancient sword and went into a forbidden land. The mysterious voice was a demonic like figure that fooled the young man to slay his sixteen instantiations, to unite them into one, and bring him back into the world. Members of the village from where the young man came, arrive to see the deed is complete, and seal off the forbidden land. With the demonic figure, who — absorbed the young man — dissolved, they head out. The young woman comes back to life and finds a baby with the same demonic horns as the puppeteer. Presumably, this is a reincarnation of the young man. This is a thoughtful ending. The player is left to question their entire endeavor. Why was the player unquestioningly killing these colossi? Was all of the violence worth the resurrection of his partner? We are compelled to ask deeper questions about balancing personal desires with the public good. We are asked to think more critically about why exactly we decide to pursue a certain course of action and who may have an interest in persuading us to do so. We are asked to consider if we have any real agency in the decisions we make. This is subtle story telling at its best. Nevertheless, one does wonder, in the back alleys of their mind, whether the game would have been better off leaving the mystery intact and letting the player’s imagination wander into the distance.
Shadow of the Colossus features a subtle but thoughtful story, a brilliant score, beautiful visuals, ambitious level design, and thrilling boss battles. Unfortunately, it is weighed down by unforgivable logic errors, poor controls, an insufficient camera, and a general lack of polish. Shadow of the Colossus’ misgivings might have been easy to overlook in 2005, as it spearheaded the movement towards artistically bold and mechanically ambitious video games, but in 2020, Shadow of the Colossus is buried by archaic systems and inexcusably poor execution. Bluepoint games should have made a stronger commitment to this remake, reimagining its controls and camera. Unfortunately, this was not the case. As a result, Shadow of the Colossus is now a beautiful piece of antique technology: impressive for its time but obsolete in the present.