The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection Impressions

Two PlayStation 2 classics make their triumphant return complete with HD visuals, and they're just as incredible as they were the first time around.

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My colossi-killing blade had gone rusty since I last put it to use six years ago. I found myself wandering through a graveyard meadow in search of another behemoth to cross off my list. Dappled patches of sunlight flitted through the trees, illuminating mounds of earth that resembled Hobbit homes. When I crossed a barrier separating this quiet oasis from my prey, the camera pulled back to reveal a stone-encrusted beast resting on its haunches. It looked like a horse with trusses dangling off its face, and it moved with the awkward grace of a just-born lamb. It was as angry as it was confused and wanted little more than to banish me from its home so it could resume its slumber.

I couldn't figure out how to slay this beast. Each hoof stomp shook the screen, threatening my life with every thunderous blow, but I couldn't find a weakness. Its back was covered with hair, but it was dozens of feet above the earth. How could I, an ordinary man, attempt to reach such a lofty height? I brandished my trusty bow and sent a few piercing arrows sailing toward its thick hide, but it remained unperturbed. My limitations were overwhelmingly apparent. I was no threat to this gargantuan foe. I was but a mere fly, a pest that abruptly awakened it and could do nothing to topple it.

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And then, when another crashing hoof landed dangerously close to my fragile body, I was forced to dive into the Hobbit hole. An ascending staircase awaited me, and because my equine match was still snorting and stamping outside, I figured it was worth exploring. Down the stairs I ran, pursuing a dusty, dreary path. I sprinted up the hallway as I looked for something of value to make this trip worthwhile but could only find another staircase. This one led up; I took it, two stairs at a time, and emerged in a clearing a little away from the horselike creature. Its back was turned toward me, its legs squatted, as it searched the hole I had disappeared down. My opportunity had presented itself.

Once I figured out what to do, the focus shifted to pure action as I found myself clutching onto its hindquarters with every ounce of my strength. It grunted and screamed, shook its body, stamped its foot, and let out a frustrated growl. But it was no use. I slowly mounted my opponent, desperately grabbing fistfuls of its hair when it tried to shake me off, making slow progress when it stilled itself.

Shadow of the Colossus is a puzzle game wrapped in an adventure brought to life by stunning artistic design and evocative music. Everything is a struggle in this game. Your controls are restricted by the realistic animations, so you can't scamper where you please as other games so willingly allow. You fight for each yard of turf you conquer, and once you find the glowing weak spot that beckons you forward, you still have to steady your sword and hang on tight to have any success. Movement is handled so differently in Colossus from other games that it can be frustrating at first, but once you understand that grip is not infinite--that you can be thrown clear from these towering bodies if you get cocky--you learn to love what it delivers. When I finally plunged my sword into its broad backside and it fell to the ground, I felt a mixture of elation and grief. I had slain the beast, but at what cost?

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Six years after it first came out, Shadow of the Colossus is still a unique experience that has no peers. Sure, you can point to the boss fights in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow or maybe Kratos' struggles with titans in God of War III, but the superficial similarities only hint at the wonders found in Shadow of the Colossus. This was an incredible game when it first came out on the PlayStation 2, and it's only more impressive today. It's an emotionally riveting experience that is not only eminently satisfying while you're playing, but it also stays with you long after you put the controller down. I know I haven't been able to get it out of my head since I saw the first colossus years ago.

Shadow of the Colossus appears for the first time on PlayStation 3 alongside its spiritual predecessor. ICO was initially released ten years ago, and didn't have a very strong emotional connection to it. When it first came out, I spent less than an hour with it, realized it was an escort game, and put it permanently back on my shelf. I was young and foolish then, and I'm not proud of my actions, but after sinking a few hours into the HD remake, I realize the error of my ways.

The scope of Ico is much smaller than that found in Colossus. There are no giant monsters to slay, no vast expanses to explore. Rather, you're confined to a castle with a girl who doesn't speak your language. It's an odd concept, but it's executed brilliantly. I was immediately drawn to this strange girl, Yorda, even though we couldn't communicate. You feel like you have to protect and care for her because demons will banish her to the netherworld if you are not vigilant. It's an interesting conceit, and though it does lead to moments of frustration when she refuses to come as you beckon, it's usually empowering and engrossing.

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Both of these games have stood up to the ravages of time remarkably well. Strong game design has the ability to transcend eras, but it's the artistic touches that are most striking. Although they don't offer the technical showcase of other PlayStation 3 games, both of these games are still beautiful. Both use a subtle color palette that draws you in without being flashy. Grays and browns are the predominant colors, and there's a dank dusting over every object. It's somber, and the music feeds into this tone. There's a feeling of helplessness and intimidation in both games that makes it easy to connect with the characters and inhabit their struggles.

Aside from the touched-up visuals, there are a couple of other enhancements. For those with state-of-the-art televisions, there is an option to toggle on 3D visuals. This isn't particularly impressive in Ico, a small and intimate game that doesn't push the boundaries of the space you inhabit. But it's a sight to behold in Shadow of the Colossus. You feel just how large these beings are when you're riding on their heads hundreds of feet in the air, and you almost feel as if you're going to be touched by vertigo if you look down too suddenly. There's also behind-the-scenes footage of the creation process of these two classics, which is certainly interesting if you wonder how people could craft something so exquisite.

The bonuses are nice, but the reason to own this package is that both games in it need to be experienced. It doesn't matter if you've played through both already or are taking this journey for the first time; these unique and incredible games are unlike anything else out there. They are in turns stunning, somber, and outright thrilling. I can't recommend them enough, and they are a great tease for the upcoming spiritual successor, The Last Guardian.

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