As highlighted previously, I am a person who is dipping back into video games after having been away for two decades. The explosion of the gaming industry happening in my extended afk, there are numerous, numerous titles I missed. Trying to focus on those which have had the greatest staying power, I’ve slowly been picking up games which still seem relevant despite the advances in technology, graphics, etc. Some of these games have met expectations in spades (The Last of Us, Journey, etc.) while some have been fun but not so spectacular (Uncharted, Bioshock, etc.). It’s at least been an interesting and eye-opening return journey. Near the top, or at the top of many players’ ‘greatest games of all time’ lists, is SIE Japan Studio’s Shadow of the Colossus. So when it was announced a remastered version was coming for the PS4, I was all ears. Released in February 2018, I bought a copy, have now played it, and…
Firstly, Shadow of the Colossus, if nothing else, deserves recognition for daring to walk its own road, and as a result be an inimitable game. Where most action-adventures feature a cycle of gun/sword combat, followed by a boss battle, followed by exploration/puzzle sections where players must find their way to the next gun/sword fight, SotC bucks this trend. Combining all those aspects into one, the game is simply sixteen boss battles, each of which presents its own set of puzzley-combat difficulties in a variety of environments.
Set in a decaying land of craggy mountains and open fields, deep lakes and stony cliffs, ruined temples and blowing deserts, players start the game as Wander, a young man on a quest to revive a girl named Mono who was killed for being cursed. Wander’s only companion his horse Agro, he arrives at the Temple of the Kormin where he learns in order to resurrect Mono, he must take down sixteen colossi hidden in the surrounding mountains. The catch is, he must be prepared to sacrifice something, himself.
This premise does not seem much from the outside: wander a fantasy land and try to find and kill sixteen massive beings. But developers make the simplicity work through the combination of unique design (each of the sixteen colossi is very different) as well as the unique solutions how to take each down. I have read people praising the artistic side of SotC, particularly the sparsity of music, beauty of the open-world, and application of a muted color palette. And I would agree this approach adds much to the game. But I would stop short of saying SotC is an artistic statement any more than Wipeout, Journey, Inside or other games which stylize in complementary fashion with art and music, are. Video games are an art, and SotC happens to be one in which its minimalist style allows the player to experience the whole of it better than most.
More than just taking on sixteen bosses, SotC has a story that is key to the game’s success. Surprising, tragic, dark, mythopoeic, twisted, metaphorically human—these are some of the words I would use to describe it. And it nicely accompanies the game elements players are presented with. But I remain with reservations. 30% of the story told in the intro and the remaining 70% told after the final colossus has been defeated, little story is developed between. Developers may have been working with a limited budget, I don’t know, but there is A LOT of room to add content that would make the transition between the beginning and end smoother and more engaging. Cut scenes from the characters’ backstories, for example, would be the perfect way to build anticipation and mystery, not to mention heighten the impact of the climax. If nothing else, break up the routine: find colossus, kill colossus, return to temple for cryptic clue about next colossus… The story is ok, but could have been better developed for greater impact.
I’m sure a lot of players are frustrated with the game’s controls at first. I was. On many occasions pushing buttons has no effect and getting Agro to ride the direction you desire can be an insanity test. However, the lack of button response is something I came to understand, even appreciate as it only happens when the player is riding on a colossus. A massive, moving object trying to shake you loose while you stab it, the lack of precise controls makes sense. In (some) reality I would not be able to jump or climb while being flung about like a rag doll, and would need to wait for things to stabilize before making my next move. The control difficulties riding Agro I have less forgiveness for. They can be partially justified for the same reason: riding a beast larger than you cannot be an easy task. But there were still times I would jump off Agro and walk rather than be tortured by his going right when I pushed left, which leads me to believe there is something deeper, some error in the game beyond designer intent. A real-world horse still seems more controllable…
But the initial frustration of the game’s button control is nothing compared to the in-game camera. As stated, I played the remade version of Shadow of the Colossus, which if the internets can be believed, features a few improvements beyond graphics, i.e. remake not remaster. But why-oh-why didn’t they fix the #@$%^ camera?!?! It’s maddening. The button to lock the player’s view on the colossi is great, only because it’s the single, stable view in the game. But let me back up. Players do have control of the in-game camera. As with most games, the right analog stick allows the player to rotate the view however they like. But don’t get too comfortable with the view you stop at. Immediately upon letting go of the analog stick, the game automatically attempts to adjust the view to “epic”. The adjustment might be small, might be big (depending on the distance from the camera to the nearest obstacle), but is always annoying. It’s like being in a movie theater and somebody turning your head so that you can see only a portion of the screen, and every time you twist your head back to center, they turn it in another direction. Why this could not be made better, or at least made so players could choose a fixed camera, I don’t know. Like the controls, I tried to find some in-game logic which justified the fidgety camera, but couldn’t save that designers wanted the view to always revert to ‘epic’. It’s not a game-breaking issue as otherwise the game would not be as regarded as it is. But giving players complete control of the camera, as with most open-world games today, would have been a huge improvement.
In the end, Shadow of the Colossus is a good game. I moan about controls, the camera, and lack of transitional story, but at its heart it is still immensely enjoyable. Finally figuring out how to take down a colossus is hugely satisfying, as is the awe of cresting a hill or entering a cave and discovering the next one. And the atmosphere, in particular the sense of emptiness and loneliness redolent to every scene, as well as story climax, make the player feel a weight or a sorrow they cannot identify, all which help build an unforgettable relationship with the game. Is it one of the greatest games of all time? My answer is a question in return: how long is that list? If we’re talking about top-five greatest ever, then the answer is: it depends on the player. For some it would certainly qualify. If we’re composing a more general ‘best of’ list, then it deserves mention, if not for simply how unique and memorable the experience is. Uncharted games go in one eye and out the other, but this one sticks around—in more ways than one considering how many times it has been remastered.