Shadow of the Colossus is the second game to be released by Fumito Ueda and the rest of the design team behind Ico (see my previous blog entry on Ico), to which it forms a sort of prequel. The gameplay, though, is quite different. In that first game, the aim was to find your way out of a vast castle. Combat, though part of the game, was pretty much a distraction from the exploration, a sprinkling of action to keep the player’s pulse up. With Shadow of the Colossus, although there is an element of exploration (finding the lair of each colossus in a large landscape you cover mostly on horseback), combat is the main focus. But they’re not the sort of button-blasting fights you get in shoot-’em-up type games. In Shadow of the Colossus, combat is very much about puzzle-solving.
In Shadow, you control Wander, a lone warrior who has travelled to a distant, forbidden land with the aim of bringing a young woman, Mono, back to life. To do this, he must collect the life-force from sixteen colossi. This is a rather game-like excuse to go around killing them, really, but there you go. Unlike most combat-oriented games, the colossi are the only opponents you face; there are no minor hordes of mildly-distracting sword-fodder. And the colossi really are colossal. To defeat them, it’s not simply a matter of going up to them and swinging your sword till they fall over. You do have to find their weak-points and stab them till the poor things keel over, but in order to reach those weak points you have solve various problems. With the first colossus, for instance, it’s a case of getting close enough to jump up and grab the fur of his leg, then climb up and stab him in the right place. With later colossi it gets more complicated. Not all of the colossi walk on the ground, for instance — some fly, some swim, some burrow into the sand. Some have weak points covered by armour you have to work out how to break off before you can stab them. Most have weak points in hard-to-reach parts of their bodies (on the head of a creature twenty or thirty times your height, for instance), and while you’re trying to climb up to reach it, they’re trying to shake you off and smash you into mush. You have to look at the environment, or the way the colossus moves, to find clues as to how to approach each one.
I said, above, that you have to “stab them till the poor things keel over”, and I really did feel sorry for these lumbering monsters, even while I was trying to kill them. Largely this was because of their eyes. The colossi are wonderful creations, made out of a combination of fur and rock, in the main — carefully designed so you can’t tell if they’re living creatures or automata — but their eyes are small, round, and rather dumb, which always made me feel they can’t really be evil, so why should I be murdering them? That didn’t stop me shaking my fist in triumph whenever I did finally blitz one, though, because they got more and more fiendishly difficult to kill, and each time I managed to do it, it was a huge relief. This was one of the best aspects of Shadow of the Colossus (and the worst) — it was so addictive. The early levels were quite easy, carefully graded so you learn new skills and methods of approaching the problem of colossus-killing. But suddenly, about halfway through, just when I was thinking this game would be easy enough to finish, the level of difficulty trebled, and kept going up at the same rate. But by that time I was hooked. So, whereas it took maybe 20 minutes to complete one of the earlier levels, it took me about a week’s worth of hour-long daily sessions (alright, sometimes more than that) to get past the incredibly tortuous final level, after which I sat in a daze while the ending played out. (This is another slight criticism: compared to Ico, whose story was present right from the start, and kept progressing as you played, Shadow of the Colossus really doesn’t have much of a story till you’ve finished the game, when you get it all loaded into a big wodge of cut-scenes.) But, again, the worst criticism is, as with Ico, that the automatic camera angles so often work against what you’re trying to do, and can be quite frustrating — a minor point against an otherwise excellent game. I look forward to whatever Ueda and his team do next.
Shadow‘s official site can be found here. (It does resize your browser window, though, which is rather annoying.)