Thursday, December 24, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #2: Shadow of the Colossus

Ico was released in 2001 for the Playstation 2, and was a cult classic of sorts. The game focused heavily on scaling buildings and solving puzzles as the horned boy Ico attempted to rescue the mysterious Yorda from an evil queen and her shadow creatures. The game, though not very widespread, was received with much praise from those who did play it, and many hailed it as the Playstation 2’s equivalent of The Legend of Zelda.

In 2005, Sony released the prequel titled Shadow of the Colossus. Early footage showed the game to be focused around teamwork with other horned people as they attempted to climb aboard and slay a large moving creature. This beast appeared to be made of some sort of stone-like material, with long fur covering the majority of its body. The final product, though similar in design, put players in control of a lone character known as the Wanderer.

Shadow of the Colossus has an absolutely breathtaking opening sequence as the Wanderer’s journey to the forbidden land is chronicled. The sequence is completely devoid of dialogue, but is layered over by a beautiful and dark tune orchestrated by Koh Otani. As the Wanderer approaches the temple, players are given their first glimpse of the massive and open world that is the forbidden land. What they are unaware of, however, is just how empty the land truly is.

The story sets up rather simple. The Wanderer was in love with a girl who met an early death. He comes to the temple in the forbidden land in hopes of bringing her back to life by appealing to the deity of the forbidden land Dormin. Dormin agrees to help the Wanderer if he is able to slay the sixteen colossi that exist within the confines of the forbidden land. Not asking for any further instructions or elaboration, the Wanderer mounts his steed Aggro and rides off to slay his first foe.

As large as the first colossi is, he is in fact one of the smaller Colossi in the game. His build is humanoid and players will be required to perform the relatively easy task of climbing up his back in order to locate his glowing weak spot, which upon injury will profusely bleed a black liquid substance. The Wanderer, having slain the giant, is rewarded by the bizarre effect of having the black material from inside the colossus turn into rope-like appendages, and then throw themselves into his gut. If this seems incredibly odd or somewhat disturbing to anyone, I can’t help but agree. The game’s mysterious aspects are what make the overall story so impactful, as much of said story is reserved almost exclusively for the latter half of the game.

The colossi are incredibly varied in design, and although players will be using the same basic controls to defeat the behemoths, each battle requires a distinctly different strategy. The fifth colossus, Avion, is a huge bird that flies around a partially submerged set of buildings. Players must attract the colossi’s attention via arrows and leap onto the front of its wing as Avion attempts to swoop down and knock the Wanderer into the water. From there, Avion will do rolls in the air, attempting to fling the Wanderer off his wings. In contrast, reptilian colossi Kuromori is trapped within a colosseum-like structure, and scampers around the walls as he fires energy beams at the Wanderer. In order to take this colossus down, the Wanderer must shoot arrows into its feet, then jump onto its belly after it has rolled over to find the glowing weak spot. The colossi come in many different shapes and sizes, and each has its own attack to use against the Wanderer.

The control scheme is fairly simple. Players will use the square button to swing their sword and stab the colossi, while using the triangle button to jump. The R1 button is used to grab hold of the colossi’s fur or outcroppings on a building. Cycling between weapons is left up to the left and right D-pad buttons, the X button lets the Wanderer call to his horse Aggro, and the Circle button reflects light off the Wanderer’s sword to point him in the direction of the next colossi. The six main controls for the game make things fluid and intuitive, as players can memorize these rather quickly.

Some gamers may be turned off by the fact that there are only sixteen enemies in the entire game. I admit that I was somewhat skeptical at first, figuring the game would be easy to complete. Not so, as many of the colossi, regardless of what difficulty setting you are playing on – really pack a wallop. But instead of getting frustrated each time I died, I actually found it helpful, as it teaches you which approach works and which do not. As challenging as the game may be, it is also incredibly fair, dealing out fights that are intense but not impossible.

When not fighting the colossi, the Wanderer will spend a large amount of time travelling to reach them. Along the way, players can save the game at any one of the small prayer buildings. Also, players can sort of ‘level-up’ the Wanderer by collecting rare glowing lizard tails and grabbing fruit off trees. These will then improve the Wanderer’s maximum grip ability and health bar respectively.

In regards to the landscape, there is such variety in this huge land, it’s almost surprising that Sony managed to pack it all onto one disc. The massive ruins at the edge of the desert make an epic setting for the battle against the fifteenth colossi Argus. The graveyard-esque environment in which player fight the fourth colossi Phaedra, is almost completely devoid of architecture, and shows off the beauty of the natural environment. Players will travel to all sorts of areas, and from the empty city nestled deep within the jungle, to the geyser field where players must coax out ninth colossi Basaran, no two environments will ever look the same.

While the main game is a decent length, it still leaves something to be desired. Thus, Sony added a second playthrough in conjunction with a time trial mode. In this second time through the game, players can unlock new weapons and armor as they complete each time trial challenge. These can prove invaluable against the colossi, and loosen up the player’s dependency on fruit and lizard tails.

The art style of the game is some of the most hauntingly beautiful I’ve ever seen in a video game. Everything feels believable, yet still has an aura of fantasy about it. The lighting effects are quite possibly the best in any game from this past generation. While much of the game is constrained to a dark setting, it lets the mood of the game express itself freely to the player. Koh Otani has outdone himself again with a superb soundtracks. While the story does not pick up pace until the second half, it is masterfully written and tosses an amazing plot twist at players. Simply put, Shadow of the Colossus is Sony at their best, offering some of the most challenging and creative adventure gaming in years.

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