Shadow of the Colossus
A few years ago, I visited Nara, Japan. The city is famous for its sweeping park grounds, winding trails lined by endless rows of moss-covered stone lanterns, and ornate, multi-tiered wooden temples. One of the most famous of these temples is the Todai-ji – a structure that, at 50 meters tall (approximately 164 feet), holds the exclusive honor of being the largest wooden building in the world. As I stepped between the towering pillars that lined the entrance to the temple and gave my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dimly lit interior, a mammoth bronze Buddha seemed to materialize out of the darkness directly in front of me. For several moments, I simply stood and stared. The great Nara Daibutsu, the largest bronze statue in the world, peered down at me with narrow eyes, his right palm pressed outward as if in a peace offering. Locking eyes with this colossal Buddha, I couldn’t help but feel insignificant. Feeble somehow. Both its size and lifespan of nearly 1,300 years made my existence seem irrelevant.
As I sit here typing up this review, I can’t help but be amazed, once again, at just how powerfully that encounter in Nara resonates with the overall gameplay experience featured in Sony’s Shadow of the Colossus. You, as the unnamed hero of the game, explore a world of expansive, rolling plains, yawning canyons, and majestic ruins. Booming waterfalls plummet from 200-meter tall cliffs, emptying into vast, shimmering lakes. Every direction you look, the landscape stretches for kilometers to the jagged horizon, unmarred by pop-up, draw-in, and other blemishes that suck the realism from many other PlayStation 2 games.
Then, of course, there are the colossi themselves – hulking giants, not of gilded bronze, but of flesh and stone, capable of eliminating our young hero with one crushing footfall. Sixteen of these behemoths rest peacefully at various locations in this forbidden land – in a ruined coliseum, under the emerald waters of a crater lake, beneath the waves of a dune sea – undisturbed by those from the outside world. Until now. For it is the player’s task to unearth and slay each of these colossi, armed with only a bow, some arrows, a mysterious, etched sword, and the belief that, with each of these behemoths that fall, more and more life will course again through the body of the hero’s lifeless love.
And, so, our protagonist raises his sword to the sun, turns slowly, and watches as the light gradually gathers, pointing to a distant spot on the horizon – a place where a colossus sleeps. He mounts Agro, his ebony steed and sole companion, and begins his journey to that place in the distance and an inevitable confrontation.
The journey is long and uneventful. The drumming, drumming, drumming of his horse’s hooves and the shrill whistle of the wind as it scours the grassy landscape work together to dull his senses, and his mind wanders. He thinks about his love, and her limp form laying on the cold, stone alter inside the Shrine of Worship. He thinks about the impending battle, and his own mortality. He thinks about Agro, his unyielding companion and only supporter in these foreign lands.
A sharp cry pierces the air and the young hero looks up. An eagle is pacing Agro’s long, galloping strides, its feathers shuddering in the wind. The boy watches the eagle for a few moments, and then pulls slightly on Agro’s reigns with his left hand and spurs the horse onward.
Once the hero arrives to the behemoth’s resting place, the ensuing battle is epic. It’s a searing projectile impacting the soil near Agro’s legs, felling the horse and sending the rider skipping across the ground. It’s a massive foot, narrowly missing the hero by centimeters. It’s a deafening roar, slicing the air. It’s our hero, launching dozens of arrows at the behemoth, some of them penetrating flesh for trivial damage, most bouncing harmlessly off stone. It’s Agro, neighing as the colossus’ footsteps shake the earth. It’s the boy, clinging to a tuft of hair on the colossus’ arm. It’s a stab with the sword and a booming snarl. It’s the hero, running up the giant’s arm and nearly tumbling to his death. It’s the colossus, violently shaking its body, and the boy’s ever-weakening grip. It’s a glowing seal, illuminated by the sword’s magic. It’s the sword’s blade, piercing the seal and wounding the giant. It’s another strike. And another. It’s the colossus, falling lifeless to the earth.
It’s victory, but at what price? Black tendrils release from the colossus and burrow into the hero’s body, leaving him unconscious on the grassless ground. He awakes back at the Shrine of Worship, blackened slightly by the confrontation, but ready to take on the next colossus.
And, really, that sums up the Shadow of the Colossus experience – long stretches of riding across deserted, yet gorgeous, environments, punctuated by moments of sheer, adrenaline-pumping terror. The shockingly realistic animations (especially for your horse and the colossi), vast, streaming landscape, stirring soundtrack, and wistful story all combine with the game’s minimalist gameplay to create a videogame experience unlike any other. Certainly, there is a chance that those who have become adapted to traditional videogame staples like hacking through hordes of enemies, collecting inane trinkets and platform hopping for the sake of platform hopping will find Shadow’s unpretentious gameplay wanting. However, open-minded gamers will find an artistic, thought-provoking masterpiece, and one of the only videogames that can truly be called food for the soul.