A bird of prey swoops from the sky, down into a deep gorge, trees and vibrant green grasses fringing the sides, a proud river snaking along its bottom. The bird cries, then plunges on, gaining speed as it darts toward a majestic landscape composed of canyons, deserts and endless plains. But avian matters are of little concern to our hero. His problem is an entirely human one. He’s carrying the limp body of a woman. Unconscious or dead? Dead, we must presume. As he sets her down on the stone altar in the middle of this barren temple, her unbreathing chest leaves no doubt. We do not learn her name or what she is to him, but his intentions at least are clear: he wants to resurrect her.
That’s how Shadow of the Colossus (SotC) welcomes you into its world and points you in the right direction. It’s not the best intro I’ve ever seen, but it excels at what it’s there for: to set the stage for what follows. It gives your eyes a small taste of the lush terraces you may once visit, drenched in warm sunlight, and then dumps you into a chilly stone temple, with an equally cold woman and a tall horse. Oh yes, the horse. But I’ll get to that.
The problem I face is that I’ve got this dead woman, but I probably want her alive. Rumor has it that there’s a temple where someone can help. A god, maybe. *The gods*, maybe. All I get to see of it is a bright light in the sky, and its voice is a mix of many, whispering the same subtitled mumbo-jumbo we’ve heard in Ico. It seems to know what it’s talking vis à vis revival possibilities for mysterious dead women, so I listen. It shows me sixteen statues. These represent sixteen colossi, it explains. To revive my fallen girlfriend/wife/sister/accountant, I have to kill them all. With my magical sword that locates and slays colossi. Bummer.
So I set out. Glancing round the temple to find an exit, I mount my horse, Agro. It feels strange to ride Agro. Controller movements lack any immediacy, and pushing the left analog stick accomplishes nothing on its own. But there’s a button to make the horse move forward, and only with this forward motion do left and right have any effect, since horses aren’t helicopters and can’t slide sideways. Except in the circus, perhaps. But this isn’t the circus! See, I told you I’d get back to the horse.
I tenderly coax Agro toward the temple’s exit, getting a feel for the controls while bumping his nose into the odd pillar. The hoofbeats are transferred to my hands through the vibrating controller, which adds a bit to the realism. Not so bad, a horse.
The first unexpected thing comes up here. While the landscape outside the gloomy temple was an indistinguishable glowing cloud so far, it turns into a wide plain of green grass as my character’s eyes adjust to the glare. Amazing! Slowly more details emerge, the bright blue sky, the play of sunlight and shadow, the earthy colors of a distant rocky hill. The landscape looks breathtaking. Throughout the game I never tired of the feeling I got when I saw it. Particularly after emerging from a dusty cave or deep forest, the liberating sensation of a ride on Agro’s back through the varied deserts, plains and hills is remarkable.
Did we talk about the sword? I have a magical sword. The gods seemed mighty impressed by that. They even showed me the built-in colossus locator: hold the blade into the sun and follow the beam of light. So that’s what I do. Ah-hah. It points straight ahead towards a hill. Let’s ride! As I ride there I notice how Agro’s controls make more sense now. The faster he’s running, the harder it is to make him go anywhere but straight ahead and I found myself yanking the stick left and right spasmodically as I tried to home in on my goal. It feels quite natural, though. The only places where the horse controls are really lacking is when it’s time to turn around in close quarters. Agro will refuse to turn, then turn too far, then refuse to turn again and take a step back only to walk foward into whatever’s in his way, so it takes you ages to get out of a narrow cave. Not comfy. But manageable, mind you, and probably realistic.
There, now we’ve arrived at the hill. It seems to be a horse-free zone, Agro still lacking rotors. So I jump off my horse. The next section functions as a tutorial for how to control the various climbing and grabbing movements your character can perform. Well done, there, it’s instructive without boring you to death, and at the end of the section you’ve actually accomplished something: you’re standing in front of your first colossus. Yikes.
The colossus battles are the meat of the game: there are no other enemies at all, and you spend more time in actual colossus battles than riding around. Unless you choose to just ride around. But that’s your choice. Don’t cheat yourself, though, as the colossi are at least as beautiful as the landscape. Each of them has patches of fur to which you can cling, and some features are made out of horn- or tooth-like material. One particular individual wears a crown of supersized teeth right there on his head. Must be hell to brush. All of these biological, plantlike and animal-like elements give the creatures a look that’s at the same time otherworldly and sort of recognizable. Very eerie! The result is that every encounter is accompanied by a very dense atmosphere as you ride towards the lair of your enemy and wonder what it looks like, where it might appear from and how it fits into its surroundings. You’ll meet a gigantic water snake, an oversized bulldog and several magnified humanoid warriors, each in its very own and very fitting setting. Sometimes, I felt a gulliveresque sense of unbelonging in their company, and I wonder if it was mutual.
The dramaturgy of the battles is roughly the same each time. Find colossus, discover weak spots, attack weak spots. The difference lies in how these spot are exposed and how you get to them in the first place. Most of the battles see you climbing a colossus, perhaps starting with his arm so you can jump on his head, then sliding down the back to find a weak spot in his spine and plunge your sword into it. The colossi aren’t stupid, so they’ll want to shake you off, stomp you, drive a fifteen ton stone sword into your skull or drown you in the lake. So be careful.
When the battle is over you’re back on your quest. You get on Agro’s back again to find the next colossus. The lack whisper of the wind and the soothing landscape bring your pulse rate back to normal. These parts of the game are oddly meditative in that sense.
One thing that deserves a special mention is the music. Most of the time, you don’t hear anything. No music, at least. Agro’s hoofbeats, the sound of the wind in your ears, your own footsteps on grass, sand and gravel are all there, and the lack of any other sounds creates a dense, expectant atmosphere. The music only starts when you catch a glimpse of a colossus. Violins and celli are your accompaniment for most battles, playing a timeless epic harmony and launching into wild crescendos in synch with your struggle. I found the soundtrack captivating and excellently produced. The pools of silence between the islands of dramatic, intense music add greatly to the effect.
This game is so full of technological marvels: HDR, blooming effects, meticulously animated fur and specialized adaptable collision detection in the colossus models. But it never feels like a tech demo, it never feels like it aims to please the hardcore gamer crowd, but it also never feels like it’s something for the uninspired game buyer who picks whatever’s on the top spot of the sales charts. This is no NFS Underground. Instead, if you try it you will find a very creative, very *finished* game that defies accurate categorization. One that can suck you in for an entire weekend, one that invites you to lose yourself in its world, and puts very few obstacles in your way once you arrive.
This title was a must-buy for me ever since it was announced over a year ago, and I’m glad it doesn’t disappoint.