Towering mythical giants walk the earth, and it's your job to kill them in Shadow of the Colossus, the long-awaited PlayStation 2 adventure from the team that created 2001's sublimely rendered ICO. Shadow shares a prevailing aesthetic and subtle attention to detail with ICO, but where the latter focused on the intimately protective relationship between an outcast boy and his fragile feminine charge, this new game pits you in epic combat against some of the largest foes ever to grace a television screen. The game's fighting and pacing are in stark contrast to those of typical action games, but with a little patience and a taste for high-concept adventure, you'll find an experience here that's unlike any other.
There's only a bare pretense of story at the outset. From the introduction, you know that you'll play the role of a young warrior who has brought his fallen love to a faraway temple in the hopes of restoring her to health. According to a mysterious presence that dwells within the sanctuary walls, the only way to save this girl is to hunt down and destroy the 16 colossal beasts that roam the varied lands surrounding the temple. This is all you know as you set out on your quest, and it's all you need to know. Is the girl your wife, or perhaps your sister? Is she dead or merely injured? What is it about the colossi, exactly, that will confer upon you the power to bring her back?
The answers don't really matter. Your focus and sole occupation is the defeat of the colossi themselves, and these striking, larger-than-life beings are the real stars of this show. Shadow's gameplay consists of two parts. You leave the temple in search of the next colossus (under instruction from that disembodied voice), and when you find the beast, you engage it and kill it. Once you've slain and absorbed the essence of that colossus, you return to the temple in a dreamlike haze so you can repeat the process all over again. There's no quantifiable leveling up, and no menial combat to get in the way of each encounter. You'll fight each colossus in quick succession, and you'll finish the game in essentially the same state as you began it.
If all this sounds like a series of massive boss fights that make up an entire game, it's more or less what it is. The designers could have doubled or even tripled the length of the adventure by placing hundreds of lesser foes between you and your ultimate objectives. But that would have only diluted the experience of fighting these beasts that tower hundreds of feet above you and shake the very earth with their footsteps. In other words, don't mistake Shadow of the Colossus' purity of focus for a thin or potentially unsatisfying adventure. Indeed, it's one of the game's most commendable traits.
In the spirit of that singular design, your tools of battle are basic and unchanging. You embark on your trusty steed armed only with a simple sword and a bow and arrow, which you'll keep with you till you've seen your quest through to the end. The sword acts as a compass of sorts. When you hold it aloft in the sunlight, the sword produces a beam of light that becomes more focused as you point it closer to the location of the next battle. Once you've pinpointed your destination, it's a relatively simple matter to navigate the environment until you reach the area in which the colossus makes its home. On occasion, you'll have to circumvent such obstacles as canyons or mountains to get where you're going, and you'll sometimes be faced with light, Prince of Persia-style platforming elements that require you to climb moss-covered walls or hoist yourself over a few ledges. Just as often, though, reaching a colossus is as simple as pointing your horse in the right direction and just running there.
The real challenge of the game is figuring out how to defeat the colossi, each of which is unique in its own way. Your sword and bow are indispensable tools in the appropriate situations, but your most important weapon against the great beasts is your wits, which you'll need to use in full to puzzle out the right way to defeat each colossus without being ground under one massive heel after another. In fact, Shadow of the Colossus feels almost as much like a puzzle game as it does an action game, or an adventure, since you'll frequently have to make creative use of both the environment and your weapons just to reach a monster's weak points, much less strike at these points effectively to bring it down.
Simply put, the battles with the colossi are among the most frantic and exciting action sequences in gaming. Your smaller foes are only comparable to, say, a house, but the largest ones are the size of skyscrapers, reaching heights hundreds of feet high and sundering the ground with every footstep. Some of them take flight, soaring high into the air, while others dive deep below the surface of a lake. Some are fast, and some are slow. Each of your foes exhibits unique and thoughtful design on the part of the game's creators. No two battles proceed in nearly the same manner.
The only commonality between all of the colossi is their weak points, which are always located up high and require you to literally climb right up the great beasts themselves. Understandably, none of the colossi are happy when you plunge your sword into their most tender regions. They'll thrash and buck around wildly in an attempt to remove you, and you'll spend more time clinging desperately to a given monster than you will actually attacking it. There's a grip mechanic at work here, whereby holding R1 will cause you to grab onto any surface that provides purchase, whether it's coarse fur or hard armor plating. Oddly, if you're thrown to the ground even from a hundred feet up, you'll usually only take a small amount of damage and then be required to climb all the way back up again.
The constant threat of being thrown off creates a palpable sense of tension that endures until the moment you send the colossus plummeting to the ground. The game's controls aren't as responsive and precise as in, say, a game like God of War, and it does take time to get used to the climbing and jumping mechanics (not to mention the horseback riding). But no matter what you're doing, whether it's clutching the back of a soaring winged beast, running from the danger of a giant's crushing hammer, or firing arrows from the back of your speeding mount, the battles in the game are uniformly exhilarating and must be seen (and played) to be fully appreciated.
These epic battles even engender a sense of moral ambiguity. With a few exceptions, the colossi aren't aggressive. The ones who attack you on sight are in the minority; most of them regard you with curiosity or even indifference when you arrive on the scene. What's more, the game makes you feel sympathy for the great beasts as they crash to the ground, victims of your burning drive to complete an arguably selfish quest. Though the storyline isn't heavily developed until the end of the game, you'll eventually come to wonder exactly who the bad guy is in this adventure.
Veterans of ICO will remember that while the game was not the most technically accomplished on the PS2, it was an artistic tour de force. That dichotomy holds true for Shadow of the Colossus as well, not least of all because the visual similarities to ICO are so prevalent. The resemblances in the architecture, character artwork, soft focus, and unsaturated color palette are both unmistakable and eminently pleasing. You'll experience some breathtaking moments as you explore the lonely, immaculately detailed world, which stretches across plains, deserts, forests, lakes, underground caverns, and more. The game streams all these environments from the game disc, so you won't even encounter any loading as you move from one lavishly designed area to the next.
The character animation is also top-notch. Your own hapless warrior is a little clumsy and a little unsure of himself--he'll stumble a bit after a long leap, and clamber awkwardly up the side of a foe, flailing his legs all the way. When you mount your horse, it moves around like, well, a real horse. Then there's the colossi themselves, the designs of which stem from a common template but branch into diverse territory. Some foes are humanoid in nature, while others draw on specific animal influences, but they are all unmistakably of the same origin. They also move with a plodding expressiveness that's utterly appropriate to their great and terrible forms.
The game makes such an exceptional visual effort, in fact, that it's a disappointment that the technical execution is less than perfect. This is primarily due to an uneven frame rate, which is reasonably smooth while you're exploring the land but can dip dangerously low when a battle heats up--the worst time for it to happen. The camera can also be a bit erratic while you're climbing around the back of a colossus, though you can hold down L1 to center the camera on the monster, which helps to mitigate this problem. The low frame rate is actually countered somewhat by a motion blur effect, which makes everything appear a little smoother and adds a superb cinematic quality to boot. The game also supports 480p and widescreen modes on HDTVs, which enhances the visual presentation all the more. In any event, this is still one of the best-looking games on the PlayStation 2, and these minor visual flaws absolutely shouldn't keep you from playing it.
Though Shadow is similar to ICO in visual terms, it features a more cohesive orchestral score than its predecessor. You'll explore the world itself with only the subtle sounds of wind and water as a soundtrack. But once you've encountered a colossus, you'll hear music that effectively conveys the mood of the situation, whether your foe is more interested in destroying you or is simply existing in peace. Without exception, the moment you climb upon or anger any of the beasts, you'll hear a great swell in the score that perfectly enhances the tension and excitement of the battle. It's also worth noting that Shadow makes use of a fictional language in its few instances of dialogue, which seems appropriate to the otherworldly atmosphere that's so prevalent throughout all aspects of the game.
It's inherent and unavoidable, given the design of Shadow of the Colossus, that the game is fairly brief and lacking in substantive replay value. You can finish the main story in roughly 10 to 12 hours, and once you know how to defeat each colossus, much of the challenge is removed. But none of the wonder is. The game makes a great showpiece--you'll be able to go back and fight individual colossi time and again and experience that same thrill as you battle with these beings, some of which are hundreds of times your own size. Shadow of the Colossus deserves a look by anyone with an interest in cerebral, slightly offbeat action adventures. There's never really been anything like it, on the PlayStation 2 or on any other platform.