Shadow of the Colossus is the perfect response to gamers who complain about the glut of remakes and ports of old games to new consoles. Shadow of the Colossus was on my list of shame for twelve years. I couldn’t afford the game when it first came out in 2005 but I made a mental note to play it at some point. The years rolled on and I had a brief fling with the Nintendo Wii before returning to Sony’s tender loving arms with the PS3. I purchased the HD remake of Shadow of the Colossus as part of a double pack with Ico, but after getting halfway through Ico I gave up and never quite found the enthusiasm to play Team Ico’s follow up. Seven years later, Bluepoint Games has remade Shadow of the Colossus from the ground up to make this classic game accessible to a new generation. I can now join that annoying and slightly pretentious group of gamers who hold Shadow of the Colossus in such high regard. This game is superb.
*Minor spoilers included.*
The beautiful opening cinematic shows Wander entering the Shrine of Worship on his trusty horse Agro. Wander brought with him the body of a young woman called Mono and he asks an entity known as Dormin to resurrect her. Dormin promises to help if Wander kills the sixteen colossi that roam the land, although it warns that the price will be heavy. I thought I knew how the story would play out, however there’s a bit more to it than this initial introduction suggests. Everything’s still a little ambiguous at the end though. It’s one of those stories that generates theories rather than conclusive answers.
Once you’ve been given your task, you take control of Wander and hold up your sword to guide the way to the first colossus. You jump on your trusty steed and follow the light. After killing each colossus, you return to the temple where you start over again in exactly the same way. There are no other enemies in the world. The only thing standing between you and your goal are those sixteen colossi (plus an awkward horse and camera, but we’ll get to that).
This simplicity is Shadow of the Colossus’ main strength because without other enemies to distract you, you’re left to focus on what you’re doing and why. You’re killing sixteen stunning creatures to save one person. You’ll never be able to forget that, although you won’t always feel guilty about the kill. Depending on how the encounter plays out, you might end up feeling euphoric when you land the final blow, especially if the colossus put up a fight. However, more often than not, I felt pretty lousy about what I’d just done. Many of the colossi make no attempt to injure you at all, even after you’ve dealt some damage to them, and the ones that do attack you would much rather be left alone.
Wander goes into each fight with a sword and a bow, but they’re more tools than weapons. Arrows do negligible damage, if any, and your sword is only useful once you’ve reached a weak point and can slam it in all the way to the hilt. Shadow of the Colossus isn’t about the combat, it’s about solving the puzzle of how to get to those weak spots in the first place.
Early colossi tend to be covered in thick, luscious hair that provides an easy way to climb to their heads or wherever else the weak spot may be located. Further into the game, you have to lure colossi into certain locations, get them to destroy parts of the environment, or use your arrows to blind them. Most puzzles are fairly straightforward and there’s a tip system to help if you need it. The tips are even read out in an old-world style like “thy legs cannot possibly carry thee away from its danger” so as not to break the immersion.
Wander has a stamina meter that dictates how long he can hold on to ledges or a colossus’ hair. Occasionally, this means you have to take a risk and stand up while the beasts are trying to shake you off or flying through the air. This leads to some of the most exhilarating moments in the game, such as when I had to walk along a flying beast soaring through the air or walk the length of a large eel as it briefly emerged from the water.
You can boost your stamina and health by killing glowing-tailed lizards and eating fruit scattered around the world. The stamina boost is certainly useful, although health will rarely be a problem. Fall damage is minimal and only a couple of bosses do enough damage to be a threat.
While Shadow of the Colossus might sound like a boss rush game at first glance, the time spent wandering the world with Agro between missions offers just enough downtime to counter any potential exhaustion that might creep up. You get plenty of time to bond with Agro, which is a good job because she’s a nightmare to control and you’ll need the practice for some of the later fights. I’m wary of making excuses for the game, however Agro’s slightly awkward controls do feel like part of the experience. You’re never really in control of the horse; you just do your best to direct her around much like Wander is doing. This is the closest I’ve come to feeling like I’m riding a horse and not controlling one directly.
Everything from the majesty of the colossi to the sparse landscapes contributes to the experience in a way graphics rarely do. I don’t usually advocate for increased resolutions, however the improved colossi on show here make each kill even more personal. It’s that much tougher to stab a colossus in the head when you’ve had to climb up its meticulously detailed beard to get there. The world is so sublime that I would have liked a few extra reasons to explore although I appreciate the argument that the world is empty for a reason. If you’re not completely happy with how the game looks then you can play around with filters to make it lighter or darker depending on what you’re after. There’s also a photo mode to capture the game’s many glorious moments.
With remakes, it’s always tempting to ask the question: what could have been improved from the original? In this case, the answer is the camera. By default, the camera has a tendency to get itself into some awkward positions thanks to the nature of climbing on creatures that are constantly trying to shake you off. You have some control of the camera with the right analog stick, however the game immediately takes back control to provide a more cinematic experience. The camera also feels like it’s not entirely analog. It has a tendency to snap into certain positions as if it’s only capable of being in one of eight places. This makes navigation a little awkward at times because you have to fight the camera to get a decent view of the way ahead, especially when on the horse.
The combination of the camera and movement gets frustrating at times. Wander and Agro always move in relation to the camera so if you quickly look around while riding you’ll change direction. This is a minor irritation when traversing between the environment but it can cross over into frustrating when climbing a colossus. The camera gets flung around almost as much as Wander, so it becomes tricky to keep him going in the direction you want him to climb. For example, if you want Wander to climb down (i.e. lowering his feet) then you would expect to press down. However, as the colossus moves around, Wander might end up facing the bottom of the screen so you would need to press up for him to climb down. It’s counter-intuitive and caused a few harsh words between me, the game, and the unfortunate souls watching my stream on Twitch.
One final complaint is that Wander’s physics are all over the place. Grabbing a handful of hair and holding on for dear life as a colossus tries to shake you off is tense. That tension is somewhat reduced when your character is flung around like his limbs aren’t connected and can all move independently in any direction. Never has the term “ragdoll” felt like a more apt description of your character model.
There’s a strong sense of weightlessness at times which can be especially annoying when trying to time a jump. I never got comfortable jumping. Sometimes I would miss the jump by a big distance and yet the game would warp Wander into the correct position to compensate for my miss. Other times I would make what looked like an excellent jump and Wander would fail to grab hold of anything. On one occasion, I ended up getting flung into the air like something out of Goat Simulator. On balance, the poor physics ended up helping me as often as they hurt me, but it was annoying nonetheless.
The problems listed above aren’t minor niggles, but they still don’t come close to ruining the overall package. One of the early colossi is a flying creature that resembles a pterodactyl. I had no idea what to do so I stood on a platform and got its attention by shooting it with an arrow. The colossus flew straight towards me. At the last second, I saw a patch of fur on one of its wings. I jumped up just as it dived at me, grabbing hold of the hair in a desperate panic as it carried me into the sky. This isn’t difficult to accomplish, but it felt incredible. Once up in the air, I was awestruck by the realistic movement of the wings as I held on for dear life. The sound of wind in my ears and a gentle rumble of the controller enhanced the tension as I tried to walk across the wings to reach each weak spot. I didn’t want the fight to end, but I stabbed my sword into its wing and plummeted to the ground. It was one of the best ten-minute segments I’ve played in a long while.
Bluepoint Games has been doing an excellent job with remasters for a while, but Shadow of the Colossus raises the bar for themselves and all other developers looking to remake older titles. Shadow of the Colossus looks stunning. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief as I entered a forest with the sun shining through the trees or swam through a large lake leaving realistic ripples trailing behind me. Unlike the original, the remake runs at a smooth 30 fps on the regular PS4 and supposedly hits 60 fps on PS4 Pro although I haven’t been able to test this.
Now that I have finally played and enjoyed Shadow of the Colossus, it would be easy to say I regret not playing it all those years ago. I’m not sure that’s true. This remaster is sublime and—as I can attest—no nostalgia is required to appreciate it. This is almost certainly the definitive version of the game and I’m thankful I finally got to play it. I highly recommend you do the same.