Developer: Bluepoint Games, Team Ico (original game)
Review copy purchased
Memory can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. For years, I was convinced that Shadow of the Colossus was a peerless game that would stand the test of time with the best of them. After trying it out again on PS3 a couple of years ago, I found that my rose-tinted spectacles had been replaced by the They Live sunglasses. The perfect game of my youth had disappeared, replaced by something far finickier and more flawed than the hallowed pedestal my nostalgia had placed the game upon.
Graciously, rather than giving the game a second re-release with some minimal tweaks, Sony opted to commission a remake of Team Ico’s classic to the guys at Bluepoint: the team behind the successful remasters of the Uncharted trilogy. Once my six hours with Shadow of the Colossus were up, my treasured memories had not only been repaired but also enriched.
Shadow of the Colossus puts you in the unenviable shoes of Wander as he seeks to resurrect his fallen love at the behest of a spirit. With only his horse, Agro, for company and a special sword that will light his way, the task at hand is a mammoth undertaking in more ways than one. He must travel across sacred lands and kill the sixteen colossi that amble, swim, and lurk within them.
Things start off relatively easily, the first colossus acting as more or less a training dummy. The colossi in Shadow of the Colossus aren’t standard bosses where an inordinate amount of spamming the attack button will win the day — they are living, breathing levels. The player must climb up the behemoths or find a particular way of making them vulnerable so that the wiping away of guilty tears as these beautiful creatures collapse to the ground becomes an inevitability. No game will make you feel as bad for doing what it asks of you quite like Shadow of the Colossus does. The gorgeous, melancholy soundtrack makes you question everything as the once mighty giants become anything but.
Traversing colossi starts off fairly straightforward: find the beautifully animated fur and climb up it. Wander’s lack of gains in the early goings means that his stamina can’t hold up, so constant breaks on the colossi’s “safe spots”, such as handily located platforms, are required. Most of the colossi’s weaknesses are found on their head, which means Wander must plunge his sword into them multiple times while also trying to contend with a colossus who doesn’t really appreciate what’s he up to, swaying their head around and around in a panic. Shadow of the Colossus offers a constantly evolving set of violent puzzles to solve, which become more complex and opaque as time wears on.
Take, for instance, Cenobia, the thirteenth colossus. Taking the form of a very pissed off dog, the armoured foe will constantly chase you around some ruins, barely letting you up for a second before he rams you down again. Without a weak spot, your best bet is to get to higher ground, which entails some pretty thrilling platforming as Cenobia tries to dislodge you from your perch. Eventually, the ruins themselves are the undoing of your attacker as a platform crashes down on top of him, exposing his weak point. He’s still no slouch, so the world’s most stressful game of Buckaroo quickly unfolds, you wildly trying to put him away with frenetic stabbing and him thrashing around like his life depends on it.
There’s enough variety in the colossi so that the process never gets old, even if Celosia and Cenobia (the eleventh foe) are cut from a rather similar cloth. If the upcoming battle features either water or flight, you’re in for a rough but utterly enthralling ride. My favourite of the bunch is Phalanx, a gigantic bird-worm…thing who dominates the horizon. Using a combination of his bow, steed, and a stunt that would make Tom Cruise denounce Scientology, Wander is able to climb aboard the colossus. As Phalanx bucks and twists in the sky, Wander has to travel down his skeletal spine and attack the weak points. It’s a grandiose and breathtaking affair, made all the more impressive by the fact that it originally appeared on a PS2.
If you haven’t played the original Shadow of Colossus within the last ten years (or at all), the changes brought to the game by Bluepoint may not appear as impressive as they actually are. Visually, Shadow of the Colossus is a striking series of oil paintings only let down some rather basic human faces. It’s often tempting to just sit atop Agro on one of Shadow of the Colossus’ many sumptuous plains and watch as the world, well, lives. Despite not being populated with towns or much in the way of activity, it’s hard not to appreciate the artistry of swaying blades of grass or the peculiarities of Agro and Wander’s movements.
The controls, too, receive a much-needed polish, though they aren’t always perfect. Climbing is easier than before, meaning that Wander can dash up colossi and mount obstacles more smoothly, though there were a few points where inputs for me didn’t seem to register properly or go the exact direction I wanted. Agro also proved that he may be a cousin of Roach, often difficult to steer or getting himself stuck on a rock. Nothing game-breaking, but it is an immersion-sapper when you’re next to Agro and Wander calls out to him rather than jumping up on him.
There are a couple of other faults with Shadow of the Colossus that are hard to overlook. On a base PS4, frames don’t tend to stutter as much as they do disappear; whenever the camera is close in on Wander, he can be unpredictable in his movement and climbing, sometimes glitching out at the smallest of cues. Although improved, the climbing is far from faultless, particularly irritating and unreliable on the final colossus where a mixture of low brightness and dizzying scale means that I was regularly just jumping blind or not in the direction I had hoped. Emblematic of third-person games in the PS2 era, the camera can often be rather unwieldy as it refuses to go through the environment to allow you a better perspective, which becomes maddening when in close quarters. It’s not maddening enough to take much away from the game, however, coming across as more of a leftover quirk.
Once the credits roll and you’re left doubting everything you’ve just done, your time with Shadow of the Colossus shouldn’t be over. There’s far more content packed in here than you would first think, including the supremely challenging time attack stages and the amount of collectibles dotted around Shadow of the Colossus’ sparse but lush world. Certain lizards can improve Wander’s grip (something which I could have done with knowing well over a decade ago) and fruit will buff his health, which will all help in time attack and, eventually, lead to better weapons and items. Combine this with the mysterious gold coins (newly introduced for the remake) and the game’s daunting trophy selection and you have at least five or six playthroughs until you can say you’ve truly conquered the land.
While it may lack the initial wow factor by way of being a remake, Shadow of the Colossus on PS4 does the original justice, and then some. It cements the legacy of Team Ico’s classic while bringing a few new things to the table, creating the perfect introduction to a masterpiece in design and understated storytelling in the process.