Sometimes it feels like there should be a self-help group for those of us who give in to gaming hype:
“Hi, my name’s Bennett and I bought The Bouncer.”
Unfortunately, if you rushed out and bought Shadow of the Colossus based on the industry hype leading up to, and especially following E3 2005, you too should join this version of Suckers Anonymous. What’s truly regrettable is that Colossus isn’t a bad game, it’s just not the revolutionary wonder it was made out to be by the gaming press (including MyGamer, if you read our E3 reports).
Sure, the concept is great. You actually climb onto your giant enemies, searching for their weak points in order to defeat them. But when you get down to the basics, this isn’t as much a revolution as it is a twist of the genre. In this case, the genre is puzzle-platformers, with the twist (twists, actually) being that you only fight the bosses, and that each boss doesn’t inhabit their own level; each boss is a level. The colossi literally are the puzzles, ones that challenge you to find a path onto and up each enormous beast.
Granted, this scheme is covered up very nicely. Colossus is simply gorgeous. Each monstrous enemy is finely detailed, from the piercingly glowing eyes to the rocky outcroppings on their bodies to the shaggy fur that waves realistically as they move. The black stallion serving as your steed is animated so fluidly and convincingly that you’ll feel sympathetic as it stumbles, trying to regain its footing after nearly being stomped on by an eighty-foot hulk. The game world is beautifully detailed, from each hillock and tree down to the last grain of sand.
Yet this is where the problems start to crop up. Aside from the colossi themselves, you’re not going to see much in this world besides hillocks, the occasional tree, and lots of sand. You’d better get used to it too, because between battles you’ll be wandering the wilderness for up to half an hour in search of your next target. Sure, the horizon is drawn almost impossibly far away and the graphics accomplish the rare feat of making each area virtually look real, but the world doesn’t feel alive. There’s nobody and nothing to truly interact with, so there’s no soul here as in games like Morrowind. Plus, while things look great when you’re standing still, the frame rate is ridiculously low when you’re going anywhere, which is totally unacceptable for a late PS2 game. As good as the environment looks, these issues will quickly knock you out of that feeling of being ?knocked out? by the visuals.
And then you have the horse. There’s a riding stable in upstate New York that makes you sign a waiver before climbing into the saddle. The first thing this waiver says is “Horses are dumb, stubborn, and unpredictable animals.” Apparently, Sony has been there, and decided to model the horse in Shadow of the Colossus as true to this notice as possible. Riding across the countryside is cinematically stunning, but like a real horse this thing has a mind of its own and apparently wants to do exactly the opposite of what you want. Try to nudge the analog stick to gently turn, and the thing jerks left or right — sometimes even in the right direction. Pull back on the stick to get it to stop, and it might slow down, requiring you to either keep pulling back on the stick or let go and pull back again — both work, but neither works well.
Thankfully controlling your avatar in Colossus is easier, though that’s not saying much. In fact, the controls on foot are excellent until you want to climb atop something or jump from one ledge or platform to another. It’s just a shame that climbing and jumping are the two main ways you actually navigate the colossi. The real key to the controls is the grip meter. You must hold onto and climb parts of each colossus, but hold on too long and you lose your grip and fall, usually to be crushed by massive feet. In addition, your enemies will try to shake you off like the annoying insect you are, at which point you must hold tight or be thrown despite all your efforts.
Yet there is as much praise for this game as there is grievance. So the concept isn’t as innovative as we’ve all been led to believe, so what? It’s still damned good. By condensing the game into just boss battles, the thrill and excitement of each fight is heightened to an intense degree. Every one of the sixteen battles is truly epic in scale, not only because each colossus is huge but also because, as levels, they are each well designed and challenging. This is more of an adrenaline rush than any extreme sports game or hackneyed FPS.
There’s an overall high level of polish, highlighted by the situational orchestral score. The music is silent until you approach one of the lumbering beasts, at which point it gently fades in, increasing in intensity as the battle increases in desperation. The only true low point is the unconvincing story, where a young man pleads with a powerful spirit to bring life back to the body of a beautiful, but dead, young woman. It should be obvious that the only way to do so is by defeating each colossus. Thankfully, this is not a story driven game, so the weak plot hardly matters.
Is Shadow of the Colossus a bad game just because it doesn’t live up to colossal expectations? Of course not. In the end, it’s like a great looking but uncomfortable pair of shoes; you hope you can break them in and get used to the pain, but after living with them for a week or two you realize it won’t get any better. The retail price is a reasonable $40, and this is a fun, exciting game that’s worth a few hours of your time, with a few challenges even after finishing the main goal. But despite the hype, this is not the instant Best Game of 2005 that everyone was claiming it would be.