Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most beloved, well-developed and artistic games of all time. It tells a beautiful, somber story about one man’s fight against death, metaphorically represented by the hero, Wander, being dwarfed by the titanic proportions of his enemy. A vast, lonesome world provides a stark counterpoint to themes of companionship; Wander does not fear death like Gilgamesh—who is vaguely referenced in the name of the god whose help he seeks—nor does he attempt to cheat death. Rather, death has robbed him of companionship, and he will sacrifice health, life, or his soul for her resurrection, and the emptiness of the world emphasizes that Wander has little else to fill his life with other than the departed girl he lovingly places on the altar at the beginning of the game. It is touching, emotionally powerful and calls upon conflict the human race has suffered since its inception. The game is precisely controlled, strikingly detailed, and viscerally perfect. Shadow of the Colossus well deserves its reputation as one of the best games ever made.
That being said, let’s make fun of it!
Shadow of the Colossus would best fall into the genre of puzzle-platformer where the platforms attempt to bring about your grizzly death. In order to free the essence of Dormin, the god who can resurrect the girl, you have to slay sixteen beasts ranging in size from a Volkswagen Beetle to New Hampshire. Mostly this involves discovering and exploiting the Colossi’s weaknesses and attack patterns to find a way to climb to the top, then stabbing them to death while they try to shake you off. It’s like trying to shave a cat (don’t ask…bad weekend), except if the cat shakes off the razor, you don’t usually need to hire a Sherpa to get back to work. Beyond that, it’s rather difficult to find a unifying thread for the game. There are no fights except the sixteen boss battles, and between each Colossus’ unique body design and interactions with the surrounding environment, you won’t reuse strategies other than “Stab it in the head!”
That strategy, however, raises one point of contention I have with the game. Stabbing the Colossi requires two separate actions: first, pressing the button to raise the sword over the monster’s vital spot, then pressing the button again to stab once a strength gauge has charged. However, since they try to throw you off like they’re twerking with Parkinson’s, you spend a good deal of time flopping around like a carp. All you need to do is hold R1 and not run out of strength—although later bosses challenge this with their prolonged bouts of epilepsy—but during that time Wander will not perform any sword related action. Really dude? It only takes one arm to stab. You really can’t use any of that wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man momentum to get a hit or two off while you’re waiting for Clifford to dry himself off?
I get why the game controls are a little on the convoluted side. While they’re difficult to master, it helps to know exactly what will happen when you use a specific button combination. In other games, merely shifting the camera angle can confuse the mechanics, as if you spoke a phrase it didn’t learn in the first two chapters of Introduction to Spanish, so it just started talking louder and adding “o” to the end of each word. The weak point in this scheme, though, is Wander’s horse, Agro. Required for traveling and for fighting a few battles, Agro handle’s like Link’s Epona, if she had shown up for her driver’s exam after half a bottle of Smirnoff. With broken glasses. And a hairline fracture in her foot. Only a few weeks out of playing Haunting Ground, I’m not sure I like game animals who realistically ignore commands. Realism is a wonderful thing—to a point. But we need to sacrifice a certain amount of it in order to make games fun. In the 35 square km world, we have mountains, forests, lakes, valleys, deserts and grassy plains. If they had scaled this realistically, the game would have a much larger map and we’d be measuring play time in weeks and months instead of hours and minutes. I’d rather an unrealistic horse that obeys commands and doesn’t try to reenact Thelma and Louise into nearby canyons when I give him a slight nudge to follow the path. After eight hours of gameplay—spoiler alert—I was not sorry to Yoshi him into a canyon on my way to the final Colossus. Not that Wander always controls much better. Half the time I tried to mount Agro I wound up hopping up and down like I was showing off my new pair of moon shoes. Even worse, when Wander takes hits, he stays down for eight full seconds. That doesn’t sound like much in writing, but in the middle of a fight that feels like slipping into a minor coma.
While it deserves its reputation, most of what people had told me about the game turned out not to be true. I did fight a lot of monsters large enough to have their own climate systems and geological patterns, but at least half of them were less than colossal, about four or five didn’t have much in the way of shadows, and at least two of them probably get pissed off at SUV drivers who pull up next to them at stop lights. People had also told me the twist ending revealed the peaceful, gentle nature of the colossi you slaughter throughout the game. Personally, I don’t find a lot of kittens in animal shelters who carry school bus sized cutlery, and I’m pretty sure that petting zoos tend to avoid the llamas who fire lasers out of their eyes.
I felt pretty good about making it through this game—for the most part—without needing a walkthrough. The puzzle-solving aspect really pressed me, but most of them could easily be solved by wits alone. While it rarely happens, I like buying games that don’t try to sell me a strategy guide, although sometimes the game isn’t as helpful as it thinks it is. Dormin often gives you hints if you don’t make any progress for a while, but one time I desperately needed help, I sat on a rock out of reach of a graboid for ten minutes and he didn’t say anything. Later, in another fight, he told me, “Find the hidden vital spot.” Great job, sensei! You’ve just given me a clue so vague it sounded like the entire premise of the game! I’ve seen better education coming from South Park’s Mr. Garrison. I eventually figured out what he meant, but solving the puzzle involved exploiting an attack the colossus hadn’t ever used against me, not exactly the epitome of intuitive. Elsewhere, apparently you can increase your stats by attacking the lizards that roam the lands or finding fruit trees throughout the world. Which I figured out after only…the entire game. Do I get hard mode points for finishing the game without them?
But meh. I’ve yet to find a game good enough that I can’t mock, and I sort of have an obligation to do so. But go play it anyway.
Note: If you were wondering about my reference to Gilgamesh, the game’s god, Dormin, is Nimrod spelled backwards. Nimrod was the biblical name of Gilgamesh, the 4500-year-old Sumerian King who attempted to cheat death and receive immortality. Obviously, he failed.