Light and Shadow. Good and Evil. Wander and the Colossus.
It has now been over 12 years since Team Ico’s classic Shadow of the Colossus released all the way back in 2005 for the PS2. The question today is whether it holds up and if the remake of the iconic title from Bluepoint Games is worth your time and money.
Shadow of the colossus is a game shrouded in a veil of mystery which is only pierced by lingering despair. From the ethereal opening notes to the bittersweet finale, Shadow of the colossus is pervaded with sorrow, an indeterminate sense of interpretation about the validity of your actions, about the time and place of this world and most of all about the nature of video games themselves.
The premise of the game is simple. A young boy trespasses into a forbidden land in hopes of resurrecting the pale faced damsel he is escorting. The player’s task is to locate and hunt down sixteen ancient colossi scattered across the land to fulfil the bargain struck with an enigmatic godlike figure, in exchange for the girl’s revival. Shadow of the Colossus wastes no words with its story. It is decidedly economical and intentionally sparse much like the landscape it is set in. Players, of course, have questions. Who is this boy? Did he love this girl? Why must I kill these colossi? Ultimately, these are questions with no clear answer, as Shadow of the Colossus forgoes conventional narrative and exposition, instead relaying its story and lore through fragmented hints dissolved throughout the world. As such, we have no reason to relate to any character. But we do anyway. We see a young boy with a sword carrying a dead girl and automatically assume that he is inherently good, that his quest is justified. The narrative is a distillation of centuries of literary, mythological and artistic ideas, even going as far as biblical allusion. The opening moments appeal to a socially constructed consciousness in that we confer so much through symbols and images. Unlike many other games, however, Shadow of the Colossus undermines this initial moralistic characterisation of its protagonist. As the game progresses, we have more reason to question our actions.
The agonising wails from the colossi as they collapse to the ground, the final blow delivered, soon begins to take root in our minds. Before long, the line between good and evil is blurred just as Wander’s corruption progresses, forever altering his physical appearance.
Essentially, the game is divided into two sections. Firstly, locate the colossus which involves reflecting beams of sunlight off your sword to point in the right direction and some minor exploration. Second, kill it. The game does not deviate from this pattern. There is a set order to finding and destroying these colossi. So, unfortunately you cannot happen upon any whilst exploring. Figuring out how to scale many of the colossi and locate their vital points proves to be a thrilling challenge, they should be thought of more as giant, hulking puzzles than action set pieces. Each colossus has a distinct character. They appear to be sentient, largely docile creatures which only deepens the doubt about Wander’s quest. The colossi are made of a combination of stone and earthy flesh woven together with fur, they are certainly magnificent creatures to behold. It is especially epic when a few of them take flight. It makes for a show of sheer awe when you ascend to the sky on the back of one of these huge beasts. These are unforgettable moments that etch themselves into your memory while increasing your heart rate in the moment as Kow Otani’s masterful soundtrack soars.
Yet, these battles are marred in the remake as they were in the original game by frustrating control and a camera which you constantly combat in order to wrest control over the situation. To be fair to Bluepoint Games they have addressed many quality of life issues plaguing the original version. A few examples include being able to mount your horse from any angle, faster swimming (provided you are going straight), and improving the input detection in a number of scenarios. Despite these changes, the movement of both Wander and Agro feels clumsy. Wander’s lightness and floaty nature is a staple of Ueda’s game design, perhaps Bluepoint were unwilling to make drastic changes. It seems that Bluepoint games found themselves between a rock and a hard place. They had the choice of completely overhauling the control scheme and camera. Doing this, however, would no doubt damage the integrity of the original game and would cause outcry among fans. Overall, Bluepoint likely made the right decision to be as faithful as possible and clean up gameplay in less noticeable ways.
Of course, the bulk of Bluepoint Games’ work is the beautiful graphical makeover they have given Shadow of the Colossus. All assets have been completely remade from the ground up allowing for stunning new texture work and drastic improvements to the lighting. Base PS4 users can experience the game at 1080p/30fps while PS4 Pro users have the option of playing on “cinematic mode” at 1440p/30fps or at 1080p/60fps with “performance mode”. Whatever way you choose to experience Shadow of the Colossus, what cannot be denied is the fidelity of the visual work on display. Again, the question of the integrity of the original vision is brought up. The changes to lighting often shift the atmosphere in many areas, and not for the better, as was the case with the fifteenth colossus battle. The lighting in the remake is certainly better, but some fundamental element of the original was lost in the process. It is difficult to define what exactly was lost, as Ueda’s design appeals to the inexplicable, the emotional within all of us. The game is also much less bright overall compared to the original.
This may seem like a minor point, but that was the original vision. The game wasn’t bright by accident, the mingling of light and shadow was a very real component of Ueda’s direction and some part of it has been lost here. Indeed, Koji Hasegawa, one of the original graphic designers for the game, explains in an interview that Ueda would often tell him, “Make it whiter! Increase the brightness and the saturation of the textures!” However, Bluepoint Games has included a slew of visual filters and a brand-new photo mode for players to tinker with and set the mood to whatever they wish. The filters range from a “night” filter which mimics the appearance of night-time visuals to a “vivid” option which enhances the colours. Personally, I choose to play with the “bright” filter to be as similar to the original game as possible.
What cannot be ignored is the space between the colossi. At first it seems a lifeless landscape only there to fill the time between battles. You will soon discover that this is not the case. There is life in this cursed land. Fish swim in ponds, Seagulls dart the shoreline, and the buzz of insects can be heard in forested areas. It is only humans that no longer exist here, and Shadow of the Colossus does an excellent job of isolating you with this thought. Fruit also grows on trees which Wander can use to increase his health and small, silver-tailed lizards can be collected to increase stamina. Curiously, Bluepoint games has added an additional collectible this time. These are mysterious gold “coins” or “enlightenments”. They do not feature on the stats screen, but a counter for them can be seen on the map screen. Strange. I’m sure the Shadow of the Colossus community will have their mouths watering over these morsels.
Human civilisation did once exist in this land. Ruins of temples, enclosed cities and oracular shrines dot the landscape. You cannot help but wonder who once lived here and why they built such structures, and why ultimately the land had to be sealed. Finding these ruins along with other extraordinary vistas and pondering such questions are their own reward. In line with minimalism, Ueda allows the players the space to interpret and form their own conclusions about such mysteries. There are no quest markers directing the player to such locales. There are no experience points for finding them. They do not become fast travel markers. Mechanics such as these are ones which we have become all too accustomed to with modern gaming. Shadow of the Colossus strips all this away and only leaves the moment, the unclouded experience, and it becomes all the more powerful for it.
This is a must play. Love it or hate it come the end of the journey, it is a journey that must be experienced nonetheless. Fumito Ueda’s unique vision of silence and emptiness is one that has captured the imagination of gamers for over a decade now. Shadow of the Colossus thrives on its minimalist aesthetic, achieving a resonance with gamers that few other games can hope to match.
- Colossus battles are epic and provide ample challenge
- A large world free to explore at your own pace
- Open-ended narrative told through gameplay
- Beautifully reconstructed graphics
- Controls can be clumsy
- Camera can be a struggle to use, often at pivotal moments