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SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS / Sony / PS2
Team Ico is frustrating to someone who wants to see gaming evolve as a storytelling medium. The concepts are great, the games are touching, they're more emotionally engaging than the standard commercial fare ... but it seems like the gameplay gets short shrift for one reason or another. I don't know if it's a simple lack of programming talent, or that there's a "good enough is good enough" attitude as long as the concepts are executed passably, or if the vision is just too grand and budget and time ends up pinching out the games before they can be polished. Whatever the reason, their two games so far have been like reading great literature that's parsed horribly and has awful punctuation and spelling, or great cinema re-edited by a clueless fan. The games are interesting *experiences*, but struggle so much to use their own medium properly and well that you're at more of a distance than you should be.
This worked better in Ico - like Colossus, the game also had somewhat frustrating controls and camera, but it was oriented around puzzle-solving rather than action, and it wasn't trying to push the ragged edge of the PS2 graphically, so the game's janky aspects were that much easier to overlook. Colossus is a concept that really would have been better served waiting for the PS3. The game is all about hunting down giants - 16 of them - and clambering all over them to stab them in "weak spots" represented by a glowing rune. The game does frequently look impressive, but the price you pay is that it stutters along at no more than 20 fps when things are calm, and frequently dips to 15 in the midst of battles with the massive Colossi. There's also quite a bit of fog and pop-in.
A big part of the game's narrative and emotional impact is that you're supposed to be questioning your own actions as you go. The game stars a young man named Wander who brings a dead young girl to a remote temple in a land forbidden by his people. He asks some sort of dark god there to revive her, whatever the price. The god offers him this deal of killing the 16 Colossi in return for her revival. I'll dutifully avoid spoilers here, but you should instantly be able to see where this is all going. Yet, because the Colossi are so annoying to kill thanks to a combination of a wild camera, choppy frame rate, iffy controls and a sometimes extremely arbitrary and tedious series of moves in which to get to their "weak spots", the game unintentionally subverts its own narrative. Rather than any reflective sense of remorse at what you're doing, you're thrilled that you just managed to take down another of these annoying bastards and make some more progress.
That's not to say every battle is a pain and unenjoyable. In spite of all the technical problems, I'd still say at least half of the 16 Colossus battles are actually fun and exciting. The problem is, though, that there's really all there is to the game - in between battles you get a very sparse and minimalist amount of plot advancement, then you roam around the otherwise empty landscape looking for the next fight. So even a handful of Colossi just being a pain and a tedious chore to fight really hurts the game considerably.
The ninth Colossus that you fight was, to me, exemplary of everything that's really wrong with the game. It's a huge rock-turtle monster that is possibly the biggest of the game short of the final Colossus. You fight this guy in an open field with a bunch of geysers that spurt water at random intervals. His initial "weak points" are on the bottom of his feet, so you have to tediously lure him around trying to position him *just so* that he's centered over a geyser and goes off balance. The water bursts are completely random, however, and don't stay on for very long, so even if you get him off balance you may not have time to run up and shoot both his feet before he's back at it again. You can try and use the horse for extra speed, but he fires long-range laser beams that are nearly impossible to dodge with the horse's janky control and slow response time, and does a "ground pound" that can only be dodged by completely jumping off the horse and then running back to it and trying to mount up again before you get pelted with laser fire. And even if you do get on him, you have to position yourself in a really arbitrary spot before he gets back to his feet in order to be flipped up to where you need to be, and if you fail to get there or figure it out in time you get dumped off and have to go through the whole tedious geyser-foot-shooting procedure yet again. There's no "artistic merit" in this - it's just bad, tedious design coupled with rough gameplay, unresponsive control, and a graphically strained processor and goofy camera that makes everything jerky and confusing.
While we're on the subject of Colossus battles, the "hint system" (which can't be turned off) should be mentioned. The dark god you are working for will pop in with a clue if you spend three minutes or so running around a Colossus without getting up on their back. This is fine, and actually helps with some of the more abstract ones. The problem is that he repeats this one hint OVER and OVER and OVER when you've clearly demonstrated you know what to do and are just going through the necessary rigamorale to bring the Colossus down or whatever so you can jump up on them. It starts to seem more like taunting than anything else. Anyway, if the hint system is making you yell "SHUT THE FUCK UP I GET IT ALREADY" at the TV, that's probably a good sign it isn't implemented well.
If you look for opinions on this game, you quickly find two extremist views. One is the hardcore supporters of the game (your 10/10s), who identify with it emotionally, and are so bound up in their love of it that they resort to nasty, reactionary belittling of anyone who attemps to raise any kind of criticism of the game. The other are the people who heard all these great things about the game then tried to play it, found the camera assy, the graphics washed-out and the controls painful, and quit before even getting through half of the Colossi (your 1/10s.) Neither side is right, and both are packed with idiocy, but frankly I think the supporters are much worse. The halfassed critics tend to just drop their halfassed criticism directed at the game and that's the end of it; the "YOU'RE NOT ALLOWED TO HAVE A CONTRARY OPINION AND YOU'RE LESS THAN HUMAN IF YOU DO" stance of the hardcore supporters is frighteningly fascist-elitist as is their seeming determination to completely drive off the internet anyone who dares to not love the game to the depths that they do (ironic for how many of them rave about how the game has "soul"). The funny thing about the "elitist" attitude here is that these people likely find the game profound simply because their yardstick of comparison is shorter than it should be; likely they don't read much literature, or watch much really good cinema. When you stack the game up against the crass commercial cesspool that console gaming always has been, then yes, by comparison it looks fresh, beautiful, artistic and creative. However, it explores territory that has already been covered in countless books, stories and poems, not to mention cinema which comes close to conveying an identical experience to what this game does (given that the actual gameplay segments tend to take you out of the game more than draw you into it.) Certain moments of the game are haunting, such as the deaths of the Colossi and the sucker-punch ending, but there's a whole sort of commercial Hollywood emotional-button-pushy-manipulative thing going on here too that is far from what anyone would call Great Art in any other medium.
If the game is a profound emotional experience for you, great, more power to you and enjoy. My personal metric for rating games is pretty much how the balance sheet comes out of enjoyable v.s. not-enjoyable qualities on the whole; a Meh represents a pretty even balance of qualities on both sides, maybe canting toward the negative a little bit. I feel that's the fair rating for Shadow of the Colossus, as it is in PS2 form. What the game has to offer is a story and immersive experience that *might* seem engaging and profound to you, depending wholly on who you are, and a series of technically impressive battles that you *might* enjoy if you can adapt to unweildy control, an awful camera, a stuttering frame rate, etc. That said, I think everyone should give it a try - but rent or borrow if you've never played it, don't pay some hefty second-hand price blind. Or, better yet, wait for the PS3 re-release package of Ico and Colossus coming sometime in 2011. Colossus is supposed to have retouched HD graphics and a frame rate locked at a constant 30 FPS, which really could change the whole experience considerably for the better. And even if it really doesn't, you still get Ico, which is a rad game, and does a better job of the actual "game" part of the experience than this one does.
Reading Shadow Of The Colossus
- Most spot-on assessment of the game I've seen. The game's hardcore close-minded fanbase absolutely hates this article.
Zero Punctuation review
- The contrary view, this dude loves the game
Team ICO's design document
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