The original Shadow of the Colossus was a total game changer. The sophomore effort from Team Ico is a singular work, and for many years has been cited in the “Are games art?” debate as the medium’s foremost champion. It is a lyrical dark-fairy tale that doesn’t cast the player as a triumphant savior of worlds, but instead as a tragic hero unable to deal with loss. Now roughly 13 years after its original release, Blupoint games has released a remake of the classic, completely overhauling its visuals while mostly leaving the core gameplay intact. The graphical overhaul is quite stunning, a blurry PlayStation 2 game transformed into an almost entirely modernized title.
It stars The Wanderer, a young man who enters a strange forbidden land with the goal of resurrecting a young woman. In the opening cinematic we see him carry out his lonely journey on his trusted horse Agro, a deliberate cadence to his gait marking his single-minded determination. When he finally arrives at his destination, a mysterious temple that lies across a thin bridge, he carefully removes the woman from his horse and places her on the center pedestal. Is she his lover? A family member? A close friend? It’s never made entirely clear, but whoever she is, the Wanderer has clearly decided he is willing to sacrifice everything to bring her back to life. Then a mysterious voice, which seems to emanate from the temple itself, strikes him a deal. Kill the 16 colossi that roam these lands, and the woman will be brought back to life.
Shadow of the Colossus was heralded as a masterpiece at the time of its original release because it has permanently altered the perception of what video games can be. While most action games seek to deliver cool ways of killing things, the violence in Shadow carries distinctly melancholy undertones. The colossi are not presented as aggressive monsters that are intent on human destruction, but are mostly docile creatures unless provoked. From the initial Faustian bargain it is always clear that your actions are likely a mistake, but a mistake that is made understandable through the protagonists single minded determination. In many ways, it flies in the face of traditional storytelling, using the interactive nature of games to fill the details of a minimalist story. It doesn’t matter that we never hear the protagonist speak a single word besides for when he calls for his horse, or that barely any backstory is given. The story is simple, but since the entirely of the gameplay is built around the premise, and because the player is made complicit in these less than heroic actions, the core ideas are driven home.
Its minimalist approach to storytelling is matched by its structure. Instead of being filled with NPCs, side quests, and hordes of henchmen to fight, there are only 16 enemies in the entire game. The colossi await at the corners of this world, each offering a unique puzzle to be solved. Unlike most boss fights, they aren’t oriented around quick reactions and pattern memorization, instead forcing the player to utilize the environment to trick the beasts. The end goal is to scale the colossi, climbing their fur to reach their glowing weak points. While the climbing feels somewhat archaic compared to modern titles (particularly Breath of the Wild), the cleverness of the boss designs persists. There is a genuine sensation of accomplishment when a perplexing boss is finally figured out, these “aha!” moments coming frequently. A few of the encounters can feel a little too obscure or too easy, but the majority are worthwhile and memorable. The elation of victory is both elevated and tempered by the excellent soundtrack, crescendoing as you scale the colossi, but shifting to melancholic strings when they are finally brought crashing down. It’s hard not to feel a pang of guilt as these majestic beasts collapse. As they die they emit a black mist that tracks and inevitably pierces the protagonist, causing him to crumple ineffectually. Between each encounter are open tracks of land, their diversity and impressive graphical fidelity nicely padding the time between the battles. While most barren open-worlds feel that way due to a lack of time or funds, relatively empty world of colossi provides a much needed breather.
While the storytelling in the Shadow of the Colossus remake still carries all of the poignancy of the original, and is bolstered by a new coat of paint in the form of its graphical over-haul, the action elements of the gameplay feel straight out of 2005. The camera during the boss fights is terrible, frequently adding a cumbersome extra layer of difficulty by getting stuck in the larger beasts while they’re being scaled. The dodge is an ineffectual slow-roll that almost always feels useless due to its lack of invincibility frames. Luckily, the vast majority of the boss fights rely more on using your brain than defensive techniques, saving the title from feeling unplayable in a modern context. Another boon is that the bow controls have been overhauled, making this important tool for many of the puzzles fun to use.
It may have not aged perfectly, but Shadow of the Colossus’ puzzle oriented gameplay and penchant for poignant storytelling remain entirely relevant. Bluepoint’s graphical overhaul of the original makes this remake an easy recommendation for newcomers and those who have been eager to return to the classic. It also works in Team Ico and Bluepoint’s benefit that the vast majority of the industry hasn’t caught up to this style of personable interactive storytelling. It may have been 13 years, but Shadow of the Colossus still stands alone.
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