Have you ever wondered what a game would be like if it had no simple minions to defeat -- only boss battles? Well, you can wonder no longer, as Sony Computer Entertainment's Shadow Of The Colossus is that game -- just you against sixteen towering "boss" characters in sequence, replete with some truly lush backgrounds, pacing that puts lesser titles to shame and an overall effect that's quite unlike any other game you've played before. This one is quality, folks -- go out and buy it now.
There you are. That was easy now, wasn't it? I think I'll take the extra time left for this review to go and walk the dog.
It's at this point that the reviewer's editor tuts disapprovingly at the reviewer, partly because the review is way too short, and also because he doesn't own a dog. It's all just a ruse to go down to the pub, you see.
Shadow Of The Colossus is a 3D action game that puts you in the role of a mysterious young hero who has a problem. His problem is rather acute, in fact -- the love of his life is a cold dead corpse, and he'd much rather she was alive and breathing. He travels to the very edge of the world in search of a way to bring her back to life. His travels bring him to the edge of the world and a mysterious god-like creature that charges him with a task. Just slay sixteen different gigantic beasts -- the Colossi of the game's title -- and his mortified lover will be brought back to life.
On a very basic level, Shadow Of The Colossus is an extremely basic game. Your protagonist can run, jump, wield a couple of weapons, use his sword to locate the next Colossus to slay and ride around on a horse who's got more emotive character than he does. You ride around, finding each mammoth creature, at which point you've got to work out how to defeat it. If you've ever seen the cult classic short "Bambi Meets Godzilla" you'll have a rough idea of the scale of the problem. To the hero's benefit, each Colossus has specific weak points that glow when you bring your sword near them. Bear in mind though, that this involves scaling a creature the size of Sydney's Centrepoint tower -- while it doesn't want you to -- and hanging on for fear of your very life. Naturally, when you plunge a sword into a giant's tender parts, they don't react favorably. Oh, and did I mention that not all of them just plod around on land?
The beauty of the Colossi -- beyond their visual appearance -- is in the sheer variety of attack patterns and not-always-obvious puzzles you'll have to overcome in order to fell each beast. How do you tempt a flying beast to come within range? How do you climb a creature whose knees are just grazing the clouds? The mix of puzzles and action keeps Shadow of the Colossus tense in battle sequences, although tension isn't the core mood that the game tries to invoke.
There aren't many games that truly invoke moods -- at least not beyond the simple adrenaline rushes of a touch of fear or exhilaration, anyway. Shadow Of The Colossus has its adrenaline moments, to be sure, but it's also a game that's strongly mired in a melancholic funk. Your hero -- who never speaks -- has less to say than his horse and nothing but grim determination keeping him going -- and while each mighty colossus has plenty of designed character, they're also silent and graceful creatures. It'd be a hard-hearted gamer who didn't feel at least a little regret at killing each and every one of these awesome creatures, especially as the post-victory celebrations are generally cut short by your own hero collapsing under attack from black spirit threads that weep out of the fallen giants. This has the effect of robbing the game of the kinds of adrenaline highs you'd get, replacing it with the aforementioned melancholic mood. It's a hugely effective tactic, although it's one that may leave some players feeling more than a little uneasy about continuing to play. Aren't games meant to be relatively shallow escapist experiences, not representations of difficult moral choices and ambiguities?
There's a fine line between a game that relies on its art direction in order to entice, and those that offer a great game experience underneath. Shadow Of The Colossus walks both sides of the equation -- it's an undeniably gorgeous title, and without its art direction, Shadow Of The Colossus would be a terribly average title. The stars of the show are clearly the sixteen colossus characters, each of whom has unique visual and tactical aspects to deal with. Part of the joy of the game is finding and uncovering each Colossus in turn, so it'd be massively unfair to spoil anything -- but it's worth pointing out that Colossus #5 is one of the best game bosses ever produced, period. You'll have to find out why on your own.
All of this never-ending praise might sound as though this game has no flaws, but that's not strictly true. The game camera, bane of many a 3D title, could have used some tweaking in places, as could the collision detection. There's no doubting that the game is intensely gripping, but that type of immersion has its downside, and with only sixteen foes to defeat, there are plenty of gamers who'll make their way through the game in a comparatively very short period of time.
If Shadow Of The Colossus were a movie, it's pretty clear that it'd be Orson Welles' best known work, Citizen Kane. Not that it's in black and white -- although it's not the most colourful of titles -- but simply because it's a masterpiece of a game in terms of artistic direction and scope. That's not a combination that will appeal to absolutely everybody, and so, just as you get snooty film critics praising Welles' work while ignoring everything else within a sixty year time period, there will be those who bemoan Shadow Of The Colossus' rather poor camera, lack of side-quests and sometimes simple action. Those people, of course, are philistines of the highest order. Play Shadow Of The Colossus, and you'll either agree, or want my head on a stick. The choice is yours.