Platform: PlayStation 2
The backlash nearly starts here.
Back in 2002, Sony brought us a strange Japanese fantasy game called Ico. It received excellent reviews, was hailed as a next-generation masterpiece, and has since been acclaimed as one of the best games ever. And that all happened for good reason. Perhaps Ico leant heavily on the existing tropes of the platform puzzle game, but it did so with a style and atmosphere that few games have every matched. Its setting – a vast, gothic castle, it’s enormous, gloomy rooms and jagged ramparts – was an incredible piece of game architecture. Its characters – a courageous horned boy and a ghostly princess – had more soul and personality than just about any game characters I could mention, and the whole design was breathtaking. It was a wonderful piece of stripped back storytelling and intelligent gameplay. When we talk about a game being beautiful, we normally mean it looks superb. Ico makes a mockery of that sort of careless hyperbole. It’s as close as games get to works of art.
The problem is that Ico’s reputation has left Shadow of the Colossus with a huge weight of expectation resting on it. It’s a standard bearer for alternative, arty gaming. Gamers in some circles need it to be a flawless, polished classic – a game that can carry its considerable ambitions to their limits and triumph. And these people won’t be bitterly disappointed by the finished result. Shadow of the Colossus is incredible. It does try to do things that no other game has ever done before, and it succeeds more often than you might think. Artistically, it’s everything its predecessor was; a unique, gorgeous looking experience that can evoke such a real sense of wonder.
But as a game – as an article designed to entertain – it sometimes falls a little flat.
To talk about why, we need to go back to the basic concept. A young warrior enters a strange land on horseback. He carries what looks like a sleeping, dead or dying girl. He takes the girl to an ancient, ruined temple, where he lays her down on an altar. Perhaps his desire is to bring her back to life. If so, under instructions from a strange voice from the sky, he must travel the land and destroy 16 colossi. Why? We don’t know. What purpose or threat do the colossi serve or pose? Again, we don’t know. All we do know, is that the warrior can find the colossi by focusing light from his shining blade, and that – while seemingly indestructible – each can be killed by finding and stabbing its hidden weak points.