The harder they fall, indeed.
At that instant, the frame rate dips.
Problems like this - among other disturbing flaws - make Shadow of the Colossus a dichotomy unto itself, a game that is at once both gripping and repulsive. For every mile of beautiful landscape that beckons you to traverse it, there is a massive texture pop or slideshow session to snap you back into reality. For all the masterful cinematography that the in-game camera displays, that same camera sometimes obstructs your ability to direct Wander to success. As inspired as the minimalist concept of concentrating on colossal boss battles is, any attempt at balanced pacing in this game is destroyed by that very concept.
There are sixteen of these boss battles, but Wander is tasked with actually finding the colossi before he can combat them. To accomplish this, he must hold up a sword that emits blinding rays of light that converge when pointing in the general direction of his foe. From that point, he can mount Agro and can follow the light for as far as the horse can take him. In most cases there are certain points at which Wander must dismount and traverse the land on foot, whether it means climbing up craggy rock formations or swimming across a lake.
Thankfully, our protagonist is given a bevy of abilities with which to navigate the land. Wander can grip ledges, shimmy across them, set his feet and catapult himself to higher ledges or adjacent surfaces, and scale cliff walls by grabbing onto any strong foliage that happens to be growing around. Yet, some may have to come to terms with the controller mechanics that make these moves possible. Those of you familiar with Prince of Persia – and even Ico, to which this game is a spiritual successor – may sometimes forget to push the R1 button to actually grip onto a ledge that Wander jumps towards, expecting him to grab it automatically. At other times, you may hold R1 first before pressing the Jump button, executing a dive straight into a wall - resulting in head trauma as opposed to a successfully grabbed ledge. If anything, this game's controller setup demonstrates how a simple thing such as an extra required button press is capable of causing headaches.
When you finally overcome the irritating controller setup and actually find one of the beasts, it is then time to actually figure out how to mount the damned thing. Some colossi are airborne, and you must figure out how to bring them low; others live in the water, and you are tasked with directing them to the surface. Most commonly, though, they are land-bound creatures. So at least initially, they're right out in the open for you to pounce on. Figuring out just how to successfully get on the colossi is refreshing and engrossing at first. However, with all the mental fatigue and potential boredom that comes with figuring out where to go at first and then how to make them come to you once you've spotted them, the urge to kill rises as the game progresses and as your patience wears thinner.
By nature, however, the Shadow of the Colossus experience is one of intense struggle. Indeed, it's very clever of developer Sony Computer Entertainment to have us wrestle with controls, mounting strategies and our own temperaments to bring us closer to Wander's own trials. Sadly it’s impractical and downright frustrating as far as playing a videogame is concerned. Once it comes to finally scaling the monstrosities, however, the cumbersome mechanics make for an experience that is as brilliant within the colossus sequences as it is ridiculous outside of them. The colossi you fight vary in shape, size and behavior, but the common thread between them is that they have protrusions and fur that you can grab onto. You must find their weak points by scaling them and hanging on for dear life. As you fumble with the Dual Shock buttons in directing Wander; as he loses his balance and topples head-over-heels down the hairy back of a colossus; as the beast violently shakes its body to brush off the sword-bearing gnat that aims to destroy it; you will inevitably find your right index finger gripping that R1 button ever so tightly, watching as the on-screen "grip meter" shrinks to signal Wander's growing fatigue. It is during these instances when you believe that the developers have created an absolutely harrowing, immersive and exhilarating experience.
Given the sensation of difficulty that scaling these beasts exudes, it is only natural to feel mighty when you come across one of those (potentially multiple) weak points. Wander must maintain a steady footing and thrust his blade deep into these glowing, blue areas in order to make a significant dent in his adversary's life meter. As Wander kneels and grips onto the surface for steadiness, he brings his sword arm back for the thrust. At the point of maximum damage, the Dual Shock controller vibrates. It is a brilliant way of delivering a quick, tactile signal of the optimal moment to strike - especially given that, should you hesitate, one violent jolt from the colossus can have you scrambling to regain your footing and position. The payoff here - the sound of a sword burrowing deep down into a hard surface, the excruciating roar of the colossus' suffering, a sizeable chunk of life meter lost, and a violent spray of blackness from the wound - is satisfying nearly to the point of gluttony. A few hearty strikes will have the colossus tumbling in defeat, an edifice of power and invincibility reduced to a tired pile of rubble. The juice almost makes the entire exasperating, meddlesome squeeze worth it.
As exciting as these battles are, though, frustration rears its ugly head and reminds you that it's not just going to go away when you're having your fun. Should your finger slip from the grip button at even a slightly inopportune moment, you may find Wander being sent hurtling to the earth from whence he came. The blood, sweat and tears that went into scaling the beast, or even just luring the beast into an accessible position will have to be repeated. Sometimes this happens without you having made any dent in its life meter. In addition, it can sometimes take more than an entire minute of waiting next to a weak point, trying to get steady yourself as the colossus shakes you around, before you can even strike. When you've repeated the luring ritual for the fourth time, and you find yourself waiting - again - for the perfect opportunity to strike, all you can think is, “Can’t I just get on with it?”
When you're finally doing mental victory dances, you become bloodthirsty for more. You want Wander to sink that sword into more creatures. You want to see that concentrated spray of black goo again. Your desire to see a hulking, walking mountain collapse into nothing becomes insatiable - and it's then when it hits you that you can't just dive headlong into the next battle. You've got to hunt... again. With no minor enemies to murder whatsoever, or even obstructive vines to slash, the energy spent building up your taste for blood inevitably turns into fatigue. While Wander's desire continues to burn brightly, your hands and brain may simply just burn in pain - in need of a much-deserved break. When you go to turn on the console the next day, you might let out an impatient sigh at the thought of having to spend another how many minutes grabbing ledges; traversing an empty land; and watching Agro gallop to Wander's next destination from some impractical, aggravating camera angle.
Navigating the land with Agro in full gallop actually sees the camera panning such that Wander and Agro appear to have veered off to the side. The camera does follow the same general path that Agro takes, but from the player's point of view it's sometimes very disorienting as it's not entirely clear where Agro is actually going. Are we following his center-point, or the camera's center-point? Furthermore, during colossus battles, sometimes the colossi are so huge that they cannot fit the screen entirely without compromising Wander's view elsewhere. If you use the shoulder button to "lock-on" to the colossus you're currently fighting, it's often during times where you’re running away in order to circle around for a better strategic position. Yet, as the camera is looking at the colossus dead-on, you can't see where you're going. It brings out this feeling of discomfort and disorientation that sometimes prevents you from concentrating on what your next move should be. Would panning the camera out for a moment to show the colossus, Wander, and the playfield from a more birds-eye view be less cinematic? Sure. Would it be more practical, playable, and ultimately more gratifying? Absolutely.
It's not that Shadow of the Colossus is necessarily painful to watch at all times. In fact, aesthetically speaking it presents bright and wonderful vistas. Outside of the sharply textured stones that make up the shrine, you find yourself running through deserts; grassy plains; dense forests; and other, older shrines that are dilapidated almost beyond recognition. Stop at any point and you'll find that all of these assets are constructed with painstaking detail - or at least as painstaking as the Playstation 2 hardware can handle. The world is awash in a color palette of "nature" - greens, browns, and the nourishing light of the sun abound. In fact, it's perhaps the sun which is the most impressive feat that the developers have pulled off with the hardware. High-dynamic range lighting technology will have the sunlight blinding your vision at first, and then slowly fading away as your virtual eyes adjust. Surfaces exposed to the sun aren't just colored lighter - they actually glow with more intensity. Even though remarks from the developers reveal that they had to "fake" this sensation with workarounds, the fact that the end result appears at all - as vibrantly as it does - on Playstation 2 hardware is astounding and testament to the team’s dedication. For an impressive yet quite ominous experience, take Wander under water and look at how everything above you warps, leaving you feeling cold and desolate below the surface. Virtually all of the animations within the game - those of Agro, Wander, and each of the colossi - are quite vivid. The somewhat flailing nature of Wander's running gives off the impression of impetuous youth coupled with determination. The slow rearing back of a colossus, intent on squashing you underneath its fist, fills your eyes with dread even though you know it's too slow to catch up with you.
Yet, the special effects like the lighting and the motion blur which occurs when you swivel the camera around, coupled with the massive amount of landscape that the machine is trying to render at one time, become too ambitious and make a resounding argument for significantly increased horse-power in consoles. Watch the mountains and ground in the distance come closer as Agro takes you across the land - you'll see almost fierce texture popping and warping as the console tries to render more detail. A smooth cliff side, for example, magically sprouts protrusions. The frame rate is wildly inconsistent, and vehemently spits you out of the immersive experience that the game attempts to pull you into. To be fair, the game remains playable most of the time; the frame rate issues are largely a matter of aesthetic distraction. Some colossi, however, are constructed with such complexity that it does become almost unplayable. When one frame of animation has you in a running stance to jump across a gap and the next frame has Wander slipping off the ledge, with hardly any time to press the Jump button in between, you start to question what kind of emotions Sony's engine is trying to bring out of you.
The unfortunate solution to appreciating the graphical beauty of Shadow of the Colossus would be to stand still for a few moments and just gaze at the view, be it a barren desert or a lumbering colossus. Use these moments, also, to take in the ambient sounds that permeate the game space. By the lake, you hear the subtle gurgling of water. In the sky, you just might catch the squawking of gulls. Begin to move, and the sound of mother nature oozes out of every crack – the “pift” of Wander running on the hot desert sands and the “klop” of Agro galloping across a stone cliff. As well-done as the sound effects are, it's the captivating score that should be mentioned for awards. The fully orchestrated melodies fit the epic battles more appropriately than the vast majority of videogame scores fit their respective titles. During a colossus confrontation, heavy percussion and low-end string work bring out the thunder of each colossus. Meanwhile, the overlaying dynamic yet legato violins and other instruments in the melody evoke Wander's motivation and spirit. In some cases, the music even changes from an antagonistic melody to a heroic fanfare when Wander "makes it to the top" and finds a colossus' weak point. The score is sandwiched in between the moving, exotic melodies of the game's opening and ending sequences that do almost a better job than the cinematics of conveying the emotional impact of the game's interpretive story to the player.
Indeed, Shadow of the Colossus' story is quite a touching and emotive one. Though not much is explicitly explained to the player, the characterization of the small cast helps lead to a few obvious conclusions and allows you to interpret others that don't necessarily matter. The entire concept - a young warrior taking down sixteen walking buildings, knowingly sacrificing himself (according to the warning he was issued) in some mysterious, unknown manner, to bring back a dead maiden - lends just enough insight into exactly what drives him for would-be storytellers to create theories from. Then there’s the mystery of the context of the game itself - do we know who exactly “the bad guy” here is? Does such an entity exist? Does evil even exist, and if it does, where does it lie? Open to all kinds of interpretation and hypothesizing, Shadow of the Colossus transcends basic plot and gameplay and might very well lead those who are more ambitious into social discussions of morality, spirituality, and even personal sacrifice. With perhaps nine to ten hours of gameplay and secret items for the completist to find, Shadow of the Colossus not only provides a decent chunk of gameplay value but also much more experience from which to draw these discussions than a single ninety-minute film ever could. As videogames are rooted in gameplay - interaction between player and medium - said experience is that much more intimate. As a result, Shadow of the Colossus stands as a shining example of just what the medium is capable of, as well as a piece whose value extends beyond its videogame roots.
It is difficult to determine whether the frustrations of the title's gameplay bring down the overall transcendent experience, or if everything surrounding its flaws saves it from damnation. Shadow of the Colossus is an outstanding artistic achievement. It is also practically a case study of the pitfalls of choosing technical magnificence over practicality and - to some extent - playability. The dichotomous nature of the game itself has likely herded, and will continue to herd, videogame pundits into one of either the "love it" or "hate it" camp. With this title more than any other, which camp you join – regardless of any predispositions you may have towards what constitutes a “good game” – can only be judged after experiencing it. Only then can one determine whether or not the nitpicky yet frustrating flaws dig too deep into this ambitious concept, just as the diminutive Wander plunges his blade into the behemoths that tower over him. In that sense, whether you end up adoring or abhoring it, Shadow of the Colossus should be considered mandatory curriculum for anybody serious about videogames.
[This review was written by myself originally for publication on Trigames. It appears here unabridged.]