Not quite a month this time...
Well, you know what they say: time flies when you're having fun. And with 'Shadow of the Colossus' I certainly was :D.
'Shadow of the Colossus' is a game I had thought about playing since last Summer, or even before then really. It is sometimes regarded as a 'work of art' game (you know, the same genre 'Flower', 'Journey' and 'Limbo' belong to) while for others it's just a great experience. At first I really didn't understand the appeal: it's a game where you just track down a series of colossi and defeat each one at a time. It's true, the game is exactly that. But that is a very deceptive description. If you wanted a more accurate one, try:
"You play as the young lad Wander, with only his horse Agro as company, as he embarks on a series of trials in an abandoned valley, tracking down the places in which each unique colossus hides. Once he faces the colossus, he must seek their weaknesses and exploit them, at great risk to his own life. No colossus acts the same, no colossus shares the same weaknesses. Use your environment to your advantage."
I have to admit, much of the satisfaction in this game doesn't just come from the fact that I beat the colossi, it's that I figured out how to beat them.
Anyway, to actually review it. Well, I think I'll get all the negatives out of the way, as there are so few but such obvious ones. The camera is annoying and refuses to sit still. Unless you're staring at the colossus you're fighting, if you move the camera, it tries to instantly go back to the original position instead of letting you look at something in particular. Wander's attacks are very stiff, making lizard-hunting more difficult that it should be. The horse-riding mechanics could have done with a bit more testing. I mean, you ride Agro like you would a real horse: you press X to squeeze your legs to make her go forward and you steer her head left and right to direct her. They just missed a few opportunities by not including a mechanic that would allow you to get her galloping and to jump on her as she gallops. Oh, and I really don't appreciate the sometimes ragdoll physics at play. I have better balance than Wander at times. Seriously, one colossus was tricky to defeat quickly for the simple reason that this colossus walking caused Wander to lose his grip.
I have to say though, it's rather refreshing not being told where to go the entire time, or constantly having button hints and displays, telling you exactly how to defeat each colossus. You do get the spirit of the shrine telling you what to do if you take too long though, so you're never stuck. So yes, many of my face-palming moments didn't come from looking up how to do something on gamefaqs (which is what normally happens), but from the fact that after outrunning and dodging a colossus a good 5-10 minutes, I'm told how to slow it down and my only thought is 'oh, DUH!'
Well, those are the negatives out of the way, time to look at why the game is so lauded. Again, it's the colossi themselves. One reason I never felt desperate to play the game was that I had the illusion you faced bipedal giants in fields. That only describes 2 out of the 16 colossi. My favourite colossus is a winged colossus, who will only attack you if you provoke it, and once you're clambering around on its body it will barrel-roll and flap its wings incessantly to try and get you off and into the water below. Other memorable ones include the hot gaseous-breathing lizard colossus that lives in an abandoned aqueduct, and the electric dragon that lives in water, the blimp-like eel that lives in the desert and the giant armoured tortoise that battles you around geysers.
Then there are the aesthetics: the scenery is stunning and detailed (even on the PS2 engine, I'm taken aback), the intro movie is like an intro to an epic fantasy movie, the music is beautiful and perfect, the buildings fire the imagination as you wonder what kind of civilisation inhabits this fantasy world (you never find out, not that you need to). What I also found interesting is that everyone speaks a language that...I have no idea what it is. It's either ancient Japanese or something completely made up.
The game itself is what I would describe as a video game equivalent to a mood piece. There really isn't very much dialogue and most is conveyed through actions and emotions. The story is there of course, just very simple. The main characters' names are not even introduced, so most of the time I amused myself with the identities of 'the boy' and 'the horse' and 'the shining spirit'. Mind you, in order to signal the horse, Wander does shout the name Agro, so I knew the name but still thought of her as 'the horse'. I had learned later that the horse is a mare; while I was playing initially, I was convinced it was a stallion for some reason. The story is this: this abandoned valley houses the Dormin, an ancient powerful spirit that could possibly even revive the dead (so the exposition narrator tells us). Wander goes there with the body of a beautiful girl, clearly his beloved (we never learn her name) and presents himself to the Dormin with 'the ancient sword'. He explains that the girl was sacrificed because she was cursed with a cruel fate (that could be a fantasy epic all on its own) and agrees to hunt all the colossi in order to bring her back.
So yes, Wander has a voice. I never said he "never" talks.
The game is surprisingly effective at making you care. You spend all your time with Wander, performing his slip-ups, figuring out how to bring down the colossi, seeing his expression change from surprise to cautious fear to determination. You even notice how he changes as he defeats each colossus. Agro, your faithful mare, always tries to stay with you. If you save at a save point, but start up the game later without going straight to loading your game, you get a film showing Agro standing by the shrine you saved at, and just wandering and galloping around the landscape wherever you are. I like to think she gets bored of waiting for her master to wake up, so she goes gallivanting on her own mini-adventure.
The trophies added to the PS3 release do enrich the experience. One of them is awarded if you can climb to the top of the central shrine. Without that trophy it wouldn't have even occurred to me to try and do that.