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Revisiting a Colossus

With my recent gushing over The Last Guardian and its stunning trailer I decided to replay Team Ico's most recently released game, 2005's Shadow of the Colossus. Loyal reader(s) may remember when I reviewed it back in December 2006 after playing it for the first time. The spoiler laden 'review' I wrote is mostly my own complaints about the ending of the game, which I agree is still sort of odd, but now knowing about Ico (which I still have not played but very recently purchased) it does make a bit more sense. However, my main purpose here is to go over the game again since I feel my initial review doesn't do justice for the rest of the game.

The Forbidden Land

Shadow is an interesting game for a number of reasons. It's classified as action-adventure, similar to the Zelda series. Like Zelda it takes place in a massive open world full of hills and mountains and deserts. However where Zelda games tend to close off parts of the world until you obtain a certain item, Shadow of the Colossus lets you explore the entire forbidden land at your leisure. There is only a single area that you can't access from the start; the area that houses the final colossus, who remains hidden away until the other fifteen are defeated.

The complete and total freedom to traverse the world is perhaps the first thing you notice about the game. It's showcased in the two lengthy opening cutscenes, but the size and scope of it doesn't become apparent until you actually start moving across it. The massive size of the world is also coupled wonderfully with how barren it is. Aside from some birds and lizards nothing else inhabits it. There are no smaller enemies to fight, there are no dungeons or secret areas to explore, there's nothing to collect and nothing to unlock. The composition of a game consisting solely of sixteen boss battles would probably not work as well with any other backdrop.

Technically, perhaps most impressive aspect of the world is that it's entirely streaming. There are no loading screens outside of the initial load and a short one after killing a colossus (since the player is warped back to the starting temple). Due to the limitations of the Playstation 2's hardware there's a decent amount of level geography or textures popping in, but considering the hardware it's surprisingly smooth most of the time. The draw distance is especially impressive, and aids in demonstrating how vast and sprawling everything is.

One thing worth noting is that while the forbidden land is the stage the game is set and a vehicle for displaying the colossi, it's also secretly perhaps the star. There are numerous moments where you will be riding towards the next colossus or even fighting a colossus and just simply 'notice' where you are. Riding past a huge ravine with a lake at the bottom, or being wildly tossed around as you cling to the head of a colossus and seeing something you perhaps hadn't seen earlier. The game's sense of scale is amazingly well done. The colossi are huge, the world is massive and everything meshes together beautifully.


Your loyal horse, Agro, is an understated but compelling component of the game. Of course he is Wander's primary mode of transport around the sprawling world, but he's also an invaluable tool in fighting some of the colossi. Aside from that he's an amazing realization of an actual horse. In some cases he won't listen to you, requiring multiple instructions to turn right or left. If he's unsure of the terrain he'll slow down. If you try and ride off a cliff he'll stop and refuse to go forward. Like a real horse he's able to follow a path without your input. When navigating one of the zig-zagging rock bridges in the game you don't need to steer him as he will automatically follow the proper course without falling. When you are separated from him he'll follow you, or if he's too far away you can call him and he'll come running to greet you. His animation is spectacular (something consistent throughout the game), sometimes causing you to forget he's not a real horse. And indeed the events occurring before the final colossus will cause you to realize just how much he's grown on you.

The Lone Warrior

The hero of the story, a lone warrior name Wander, is an equally interesting character. He's motivated only by bringing Mono (his love) back from the dead, and makes a deal with Dormin, a mysterious god-like being who appears only as a shaft of light from the roof of the temple. Dormin tells him the way to get Mono back is to slay the sixteen colossi, but warns him that doing so could have grave consequences. Wander of course, ignores the warning and goes after each colossi, becoming more pale, his hair darkening and loosing a little bit of his humanity with each one he slays until finally at he is no longer human.

Wander's devotion to Mono seems to be his sole motivator. He has stolen a mystical sword; the only one capable of slaying a colossi, traveled to the forbidden land, made a deal with Dormin, continues to degrade as he fells the colossi, and keeps going until his life is undone at the end of the game. It's an interesting characterization, since a lot of times heroes are tricked or misinformed. However Dormin reveals from the start that Wander's actions may have dire consequences and Wander asks not a single question further. He simply sees that a certain act will enable him to complete his goal and decides to do it.

Legislating Morality

In that same vein, moral ambiguity seems to be a pretty big driving force behind the game. Wander's decision to slay the sixteen colossi in spite of Dormin's warning is only the beginning. Indeed Dormin itself appears to be neither good nor evil. He is clearly an extremely powerful entity (the very reason he was split into sixteen pieces), but he never attempts to trick Wander. He does attempt to slay the men who kill Wander (or what's let of him) at the end of the game, however these are the same men who imprisoned him (or descendants of those who did). Regardless of all that, he does keep up his end of the bargain and brings Mono back from the dead, or at the very least was revealed to be telling the truth about it.

Obviously the biggest moral 'choice' in the game (and I put it in quotes because from the viewpoint of the player it's actually not a choice at all) is the slaying of the sixteen colossi. Encountering them is fairly awe inspiring. With about thirteen of the sixteen being absolutely massive in size (and the remaining three being large, but not ominously so) every time you meet one it's quite an experience. Even the smaller of the large ones are almost daunting in their size, and the largest ones easily tower over ten stories tall.

Many of them will attack you on sight, however there are a few who need provocation before they engage you and in rare cases won't attack you at all. Scaling one and striking its vitals is perhaps a larger insight. Black blood sprays from the wound, they scream in pain and attempt to throw you off their bodies. Subsequent attacks yield more of the same until finally the beast lets out a final bellow and falls to the earth. The music that plays during these moments is especially evocative. In spite of what is often a hard-fought victory you often think to yourself, "Was that thing really bad? Am I supposed to be doing this?" Of course as a game it doesn't afford you an actual choice (unless you decide not to play) so you continue to do the same thing and continue to wonder.

Perhaps as an answer to these thoughts you may notice a large column of light in the distance. Was that there before? Another column appears after you slay the next colossus and it finally dawns on you what they are. Memorials to the fallen. If you visit the site where you fought one you will see a curiously shaped mound of earth that was not there before. Upon closer inspection you realize it shares the shape of the colossus who once tread upon these grounds. It is now a gravestone.

Giants Walk Here

The colossi themselves, the stars of the show, are obviously worth discussing for a number of reasons. The moral choices already discussed are one aspect, but the pure technical achievement accomplished with each one is something worth noting in and of itself. You can climb and hang on to any part of their body with hair, including when they are moving. Their armor often has ridges or edges that you can grab onto as well, as a means of climbing up their bodies. Many are capable of supporting Wander as solid ground, but in an instant they can move their limb or shrug their shoulder and his footing will be lost. The physics and collision in the game are nothing short of spectacular.

Each colossus is also a puzzle in and of itself. Some may be fairly straight forward; just find a way to climb. Others may require you stab or shoot a weak spot on their bodies in order to expose their true vitals. Others need to be forced to interact with the environment in a certain way as to allow you a way to climb them or expose a hidden weak point. Once you have actually scaled one of them you often need to find their vital. Your sword tells you where the first one is, but if a second one needs to be hit you have to search for it or jump down and use the sword again. There are a number of times where you will spend a good amount of time puzzling over just how or where to strike, and the 'ah-ha' moment that follows are among the best you will find in a game.

A Colossus Among The Ordinary

For these reasons Shadow of the Colossus is easily one of the finest video games you can experience. An engaging and interesting story, beautiful and almost flawless design, an amazing soundtrack are just a few of the things it brings to the table. If I could apologize to this video game for my lackluster 'review' in 2006 I would, but as it stands video games don't have feelings so I can only offer up this article as penance. Shadow of the Colossus knows depth, beauty and skill as perhaps no other game does, and for that it deserves every bit of praise it's received.

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