Platform: PlayStation 4
Shadow of the Colossus Review
A new take on an old classic
To this day, the PlayStation 2 is still the bestselling video game console ever released. Shipping a massive 150+ million units, the console was home to some of the greatest games ever made and a plethora of titles that have shaped the gaming landscape. One such title was Shadow of the Colossus, released in the final year before the PlayStation 3’s launch.
Shadow of the Colossus gained widespread acclaim upon release and would go on to become a legendary title for Sony’s little black box. It even ended up selling incredibly well after the relative disappoint behind Team Ico’s first game, ICO. So much has been written about the merits of Colossus over the past 13 years that I’m going to refrain from explaining the story in excruciating detail. Chances are you’ve ever played the game before or you’ve somehow missed it, but are aware of its presence.
While this isn’t the first time the game is getting an HD re-release (the game was released alongside its predecessor on PS3 in the “Team Ico Collection”), this is the first time that Bluepoint Games is completely remaking a title instead of remastering one. The big difference between those two terms is that a remaster is more akin to touching up a paint job while a remake is the meticulous process of going through each asset and changing/reimagining it. If that has you worried, put those fears to bed; Bluepoint Games has turned in one of the best remakes I’ve ever played, even if a few aspects aren’t homeruns.
The general plot of Shadow of the Colossus is that a young, unnamed wanderer (referred to by fans as “Wander”) is looked to revive a young woman named Mono from a terrible curse she suffered. Wander enters a faraway land and is told by an ominous voice that he must slay 16 colossal beasts to restore her life, though the cost to him will be heavy. Without even questioning, Wander takes to his trusty steed and the journey begins.
The best thing about Shadow of the Colossus is how simple the premise is and how well the point is conveyed. The narrative certainly works on multiple levels, but if you aren’t one to dig deeper into your entertainment, Shadow of the Colossus only conveys the absolute necessary information to you. There aren’t lengthy cutscenes filled with exposition or even overly long tutorials dragging out the basic story. You can channel out and still get a thrilling action game.
By providing the player with only what they need to know, Shadow of the Colossus does invite a lot of personal interpretation to its plotline. There are many theories that go over whether Wander’s quest is just or if the “villain” is actually evil, but all that truly matters is the game never complicates anything for the sake of complication. This philosophy even boils down to the gameplay, which works with a less is more mentality.
Wander only has access to his horse, a sword and a bow. You can jump, roll and grab on to things, but there aren’t weapon upgrades or secret suits of armor to unlock during the main game. You’re given all the tools necessary to take down every beast from the start of the adventure, which means you’ll certainly be a master of them by the end. What prevents the game from becoming a monotonous chore is how varied the colossus designs are.
Each of the 16 colossi is approached in an entirely different manner. While a few actually share designs, the way in which you’ll damage each foe is more like a puzzle game than a straight action title. You can’t just run at them and swing your sword; you’ll need to discover where their weak points are and how to even access them. It brings a more visceral intensity to each fight that feels empowering when you finally thwart a foe.
That also applies to the overworld design. While Shadow of the Colossus has a completely barren open world, the game never gives you a breadcrumb trail that points you in the direction of each beast. You can raise your sword to the sky to get a guiding beam of light, but it only points in the general direction without going into nuanced detail. This makes sure you’re actually paying attention to your surroundings, which is a problem most open world games haven’t really solved.
There are some things you can find in the over world, but these are mostly trinkets and small upgrades for the more astute players out there. Shadow of the Colossus never prioritizes collectible hunting, meaning the less patient among us can completely ignore or miss out on certain landmarks without feeling an overwhelming difficulty wall.
Special mention also needs to go to the phenomenal soundtrack, which was composed to evoke very specific emotions from the player. When first encountering a beast, the score brings a subtle whimsical atmosphere that encourages exploration before giving way into a booming, heroic orchestra when scaling each boss. The final blow is the most gripping, as defeating a beast should be a moment of triumph. Instead, the game basically plays a dirge for the colossi as if you’re attending a funeral. It subverts typical action game tropes in a very powerful way.
None of these excellent points are changed for the remake. If you’ve already played Shadow of the Colossus, you’ll be blown away by how closely Bluepoint Games matches the original splendor of Team Ico’s title. While I’m not incredibly familiar with the original (having played it once nine years ago), my memory of each scene came rushing back as I surmounted the foes before me. This remake is basically the way I remember the game, instead of the reality of what the PS2 version actually looks like.
From a purely presentation standpoint, Shadow of the Colossus on PS4 might be the best looking game I’ve ever seen. Not everything is perfect, mind you, but the attention to detail at any given moment is just breathtaking. These are the kind of visuals I expect from high-end PC settings, not a nearly five year old console.
The fur on each colossi sways in the breeze and from their scared attempts to shake you, light rays cast shadows in a very crisp manner and the revolutionary HDR lighting from the PS2 version is now recreated with a modern technique that looks spell bounding. Even on a base PS4, this is a plain gorgeous game. All of this extra detail would amount to nothing if the original game’s biggest problem (a rather unstable framerate) wasn’t fixed, but Bluepoint Games absolutely delivers on that front.
While players with a base PS4 will get a locked 1080p, 30 FPS experience, users with a PS4 Pro can actually opt to have an increased resolution or better performance. The “cinematic mode” renders the game at 1440p and 30 FPS, while “performance mode” is basically the base PS4 experience at 60 FPS. To say the fluidity of the game is tremendously improved would be an understatement, as this is clearly the way Shadow of the Colossus was always meant to be played.
While there is still some graphical pop-in while galloping in the open fields, you’d be hard pressed to find many errors or glitches in this game. Try as I might, I also couldn’t get the framerate to buckle or even slightly dip, so this remake impressed me very much. The only real way this project falters is that Wander looks a bit goofy. That comes down to a more artistic debate, but I just find his newer design to be wonky compared to everyone else.
So with the presentation out of the way, how does the gameplay hold up? I still believe this game is one of the greatest around and this new version only feels slightly better. The controls have gotten a small overhaul in that button placement is changed, but the weighty feeling of Wander is pretty faithful to the original. This means you’ll still be stumbling around like a buffoon as the intention behind Shadow of the Colossus’ design was to imitate real life.
Even something simple like platforming follows a more realistic approach, as you’ll need to hold the R2 trigger to grip onto surfaces before then jumping up to the next area. It has led many people to call the controls wonky, but I’d prefer to go with deliberate as an explanation. Nothing is without its place, even if they don’t always work as intended.
The biggest fault, gameplay wise, in the PS2 original was the collision detection for Wander while scaling beasts. Since Team Ico had to get around the technical limitations of the PS2, monsters were rendered with a lower polygon count and used a lot of filters and layers to hide their unshapely forms. This meant that climbing could sometimes send Wander in the opposite direction as he transitioned from one polygon to the next. That is kind of still a problem in this remake, but to a much lesser degree.
Now the biggest problem tends to be camera control. As stated by the developers, the camera attempts to follow Wander better than before. What ends up happening is that you’ll try to point the camera at a colossus while the game ends up ripping control away and position it back over Wander. This isn’t the biggest problem in the world (I still managed to finish Normal Time Attack with this issue), but it is slightly distracting and can end up being annoying under a time crunch.
Honestly, the only other complaints I have are just nitpicking. I’ve never disliked Shadow of the Colossus, even in its console crippling original state, so I couldn’t find much to get concerned about. Bluepoint Games deserves commendation for its attention to detail and its dedication to the source material. I suppose I would have liked a way to play with the original graphical presentation, but the art direction in this remake is so faithful that you could hardly call this superfluous.
The biggest plus is that you no longer need to complete the game, first, to start Hard Mode. You can also take your finished game data into New Game+ on any difficulty, meaning attempting Normal or Hard Time Attack doesn’t require an additional playthrough. All of the rewards for finishing Normal Time Attack (or Hard) can also carry over into different difficulties, which actually end up breaking the easier modes, but that is fine.
Along with those conveniences, the game now autosaves to prevent any loss of data. The save shrines are still present in the overworld, but they merely restore your health and stamina instead of being a requirement to save. The heavily touted photo mode can be turned off, if you so desire, as can the tutorial tips and hints.
You’re also given free rein to customize the HUD as you see fit, removing health meters and even the stamina gauge if that is your thing. The final cherry on top are the various filters you can apply to the image, changing all manner of colors and even adding some film grain.
This all adds up to an experience that is on par with the original and even surpasses it in a few ways. Shadow of the Colossus lives up to the legacy of the original and provides a brand new presentation for fans to experience. Newcomers will get the best playing version of the title while veterans will get the version they always dreamed of. The game is smoother to play, the presentation is top notch and the minimalist storytelling from the original isn’t embellished or altered. This is exactly what you’d want from a remake and I couldn’t be happier with the final result.