"Shadow of the Colossus, more than any other game Iíve played, strives to be epic. The colossi, those enormous creatures that frequently steal the spotlight from protagonist Wander and represent the entirety of his opposition, live up to their name. With the light of his sword guiding him, Wander travels great distances to slay these foes, an act that he believes will bring his dead girlfriend back to life. Upon arriving at each destination, however, players are likely to be humbled by the..."
Shadow of the Colossus, more than any other game Iíve played, strives to be epic. The colossi, those enormous creatures that frequently steal the spotlight from protagonist Wander and represent the entirety of his opposition, live up to their name. With the light of his sword guiding him, Wander travels great distances to slay these foes, an act that he believes will bring his dead girlfriend back to life. Upon arriving at each destination, however, players are likely to be humbled by the sight of such a truly colossal beast towering over them. Youíre literally standing in its shadow, and itís such a perfect merge of cinematics and gameplay that Shadowís actual cutscenes are downright negligible by comparison. With hides bewilderingly covered in stone and thick fur, these creatures are both impossibly big and impossibly beautiful, and as such, your task is both perilous and wrong. Moral choices are absent, but such emotional conflicts, combined with the gameís incredible scale and attention to detail, meant that Shadow should have been the game to define a generation. And it absolutely is not.
Boss battles are typically employed as climactic endpoints or tests of skill, so I suppose it was inevitable that some developer would come along and build an entire game around them. Shadow, true to its concept, pits Wander against sixteen colossi and nothing else. Team Ico were smart enough to make the encounters more than just run-of-the-mill boss fights, though Ė theyíre alternatively puzzles and platforming challenges. The only ďfightingĒ in Shadow comes when youíre forced to sink your sword into a colossusís weak point, with a geyser of inky black blood accompanying each stab wound. Itís the process of finding your foeís weakness, exploiting it, and doing any necessary maneuvering around the tremendous beastís body that takes center stage here. For as many problems as Shadow has, itís easy to see why the game has enchanted so many people. Few other games will make you feel this triumphant.
For what itís worth, the game gets off on the right foot. Your first colossus is humanoid in shape and stands, maybe, fifty feet above you. The Omnipresent Voice that ordered you to slay these monsters in the first place chimes in and explains a basic mechanic: Your sword can collect light that can be used to pinpoint the colossusís vulnerable spots. You discover that the first is on the back of its left ankle. You latch onto it and stab it. The creature moans and falls to its knee, giving you the brief opportunity to climb the stone structures that line its back. You reach the main weak point on top of its head, and stab it with all your might. The creature falls, dead. Mission complete.
This is how the majority of Shadowís battles should have gone. You have your tools of destruction: a sword and a bow. You receive a gentle nudge in the right direction, the clue that you should be going for the creatureís ankle first, and working from there. There are no distractions; itís just you and the colossus, with nothing else to get in your way. The objective is straightforward, but the means of completing it are not. You feel triumphant for using your wits, not your raw strength, to conquer a creature that completely dwarfs you. If only the remainder of Shadow had been so engaging from concept to execution.
The first bump came when I arrived at my third battle, bafflingly set on a platform in the sky. My opposition was another humanoid colossus, this one wielding a sword that, in a fair world, would kill me in a single blow. (I guess this is why Wander takes several seconds to recover from a hit.) Since its feet couldnít be climbed, I gathered that I had to wait for the creature to strike, then run along his sword and latch onto his wrist. I came to a dead end quickly, through, when I realized that a stone band around his arm prevented me from progressing. I saw no other entry points, though, even as the Omnipresent Voice kept telling me that the colossusís armor looked brittle Ė advice that was of little help to my tiny hero. I literally spent upwards of two hours with this battle, experimenting and trying desperately to find a way to ascend the monsterís body.
I finally looked up the solution on GameFAQs, which is something I never do. There was a stone plate on the ground, and I was meant to draw the colossus over so that it would strike the plate with its sword. The force of impact would shatter his wristband, thereby granting me access. Thatís bullcrap. The world of Shadow is absolutely littered with structures that serve no purpose (other than cosmetic) and are meant merely to convey the gameís eerily poignant atmosphere, in which the remnants of civilization remain, but civilization itself does not. The revelation that the environment must be utilized is both jarring and disorienting, as it means youíve got to be examining your surroundings and hoping to trigger context-sensitive events that you have no way of knowing even exist in the first place.
The trend continues. The next battle forced me to backtrack to an area Iíd already been to and take shelter in an underground area just to lure the horse-shaped colossus into a vulnerable position. Later, I was greeted with a colossus wearing seemingly impenetrable armor, and eventually found out that I had to pick up a nearby torch Ė the only time Shadow has you interacting with non-inventory objects, I believe Ė and waving the creature away until he backed off of a cliff, shattering his shell. The absolute worst instances are when youíre forced to get the colossus to react in some way that you have no direct control over. By the time I came to a turtle-shaped colossus late in the gameís second act, I figured out on my own that I was supposed to flip the beast with one of the nearby geysers (this is still a stupid solution, by the way), but when I attempted to draw it over one of them, he decided to stand still and fire lasers at me Ė sorry, I forgot to mention that some of the colossi can fire lasers at you Ė rather than follow.
It doesnít help matters that Wander is such an annoyance to control. That thereís often a delay between button press and on-screen response could probably be excused by the excessively laggy framerate, though Iíll note that this doesnít make Shadow any more playable. Even more problematic is the fact that Wanderís actions occasionally contradict what Iím telling him to do via controller. Hereís how play control is supposed to work: When I tilt the analog stick in a certain direction, I expect my character to move in that direction. I donít expect him to blatantly ignore my command and, say, continue climbing up a colossusís hide when Iím clearly tilting the analog stick left. Correct me if Iím wrong here, but if video game characters are flat-out disobeying our orders, doesnít the whole system collapse? Will they be demanding equal wages and voting rights next? Is this how Judgment Day begins?
In any case, Wander can grab onto pretty much any ledge or patch of fur on a colossusís body (provided clipping doesnít become an issue) so long as the player is holding the R1 button. Heís a clingy little shit, too, able to maintain his grip even as heís being swung to and fro in all of his ragdoll glory during any one of the beastsí numerous attempts to shake him off. This is all thanks to a stamina meter that gradually shrinks and causes Wander to lose his grip when it empties. Itís a fine idea until the problematic control smacks you in the face: Since Iím operating under time constraints, every second Wander spends blindly scurrying into a stone fixture on a colossusís body is one that isnít spent hurrying to level ground so he can rest up and recharge. Leaping off of ledges is a hilariously inexact science as well, and although Wanderís horse rarely figures into any of the battles themselves, itís still your primary mode of transportation from one encounter to the next, and as such should have been a lot easier to pilot. Agro (as heís called) swerves to and fro like a drunk driver, and getting the animal to back up when itís stuck in a corner is such a frustrating ordeal that it often tempts me to simply reboot my last save.
Shadow is still not without its bright spots, as for every few tedious colossi, we get one thatís genuinely entertaining to fight. The enormous flying snake encountered late in the game seems to be the fan favorite, and although it fell just short of my number-one pick no thanks to Agroís involvement, I must admit that the process of drawing the creature down to ground level, galloping alongside it, leaping onto one of its wings and engaging it hundreds of feet in the air is an electrifying one; this game should have been made of moments like that. Surprisingly, the obligatory underwater battle Ė against a colossus shaped like an eel Ė struck me as the best of the lot. Youíve got to lure it out of the depths of a lake, grab onto its lashing tail, and then work your way up its body as it weaves over and under the surface, all the while avoiding its deadly stingers. Again, your objective is clear and straightforward, but the process of completing it is a big, grand, glorious experience.
And that feeling encapsulates most of the game, whether you want it to or not. Not all of the colossi are exactly colossal Ė a few of them are downright tiny Ė and that kind of defeats the point, which is to generate big thrills from big accomplishments. Itís probably the reason I saw the adventure through to the end in spite of how much I frequently hated it. Regardless of its setbacks, Shadow is unlike any other game Iíve played, and yeah, that counts for something. It is undoubtedly ďepic,Ē a descriptor that Kow Otaniís sweeping musical score only solidifies. Now, if only Shadow had been an enjoyable gameÖ boy, that would have been something.
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