Right from the start of Shadow of the Colossus, you will be transported to a vividly imagined world instantly familiar to ICO veterans. In fact, toward the end of the opening sequence you'll experience something eerily reminiscent of the four-year-old classic.
But the similarities end there and Fumito Ueda's new masterpiece emerges from the shadows of its colossal hype as a rather unique action/adventure experience that attempts to attract novice and advanced gamers alike - with mixed results.
You and the horse you rode in on
The hero of this story doesn't make the opening journey alone. Accompanying you, in classic fairytale fashion, is the lifeless body of your beloved, for which you must pay a rather hefty price to revive. After laying your fallen companion to rest on the castle's cold altar, a brief conversation with a celestial being lays the groundwork for the game and you suddenly find yourself alone with your faithful steed, Agro.
As soon as you leave the massive structure that acts as the home base for the game, you'll receive some on-screen tips that introduce the controls, and even though the heavenly voices will offer hints where to go for the first few colossi, following the light of your sword is the primary way to locate them throughout the game. I found the controls to be quite responsive and while the camera isn't perfect, I was battling it less here than in most games (there are no blind jumps to worry about). There is also a map available that displays the entire region of game play, but landmarks to colossi habitats don't appear on the map until you've actually defeated them so this serves as little more than a visual tally of your progress.
Next-gen games like Oblivion might make Colossus' graphics look like PS1 in comparison, but the visuals will impress nonetheless (especially considering the PS2's age). The load times at the completion of each mission are not particularly long and I've experienced no frame rate or collision detection problems. The animation of the horse is particularly fluid whether trotting or in full gallop, and you may find yourself stopping in mid-journey to take a look around and breathe in the picturesque scenery. Despite the beautiful landscapes, however, there's a certain sense of desolation that can make your journey to each colossus seem long and reclusive. However, you may encounter other, much smaller denizens along the trails (some of which are rather tasty) that just might offer you a little boost before heading into battle.
Where's the beast?
After locating the home of the first colossus, I encountered some mountain climbing problems and decided to roam around a bit to see if I could hone in on a more accessible foe. Being an RPG enthusiast with wandering tendencies, I also like to get my bearings and familiarize myself with maps. I should have listened to the gods. While you're allowed to freely explore the countryside, you must defeat the 16 colossi in order. I discovered this after about 40 minutes of traversing a good portion of the map and not seeing any beasts (although I passed five different save points). You're told that colossi "freely roam the land", but in reality, they spawn in order so you must take them down in order.
This is one aspect of Colossus that I wish had been a little different. The game does its best to guide you so that you don't waste a lot of time roaming around with nothing to do, but this is a double-edged sword as the hand-holding and linear storytelling nature of the game prevent a true sense of open adventure. The expansive map would have felt more alive if you could venture off to different parts not knowing what manner of beast you would encounter next - and as a result, no two gamers' experience would have been exactly the same. I can understand how the designers wanted to provide a preliminary "training" mission, but they could have done this and then left the rest of the adventure up to you.
Rules of engagement
Once you find your foes, vanquishing them will require a lot of climbing and some skillful jumping, so if Prince of Persia-style games frustrate you, Colossus might turn you off at first. Fortunately, mastering these competencies require only a little trial and error here. The objective when facing a colossus is to locate its weak spots (again, using your sword as a homing device). The impressively rendered colossi have a mix of plush fur and thick armor covering their bodies and reaching a weak spot will involve some clever maneuvering across their unique hides.
While the general approach is similar for defeating each colossus - draw its attention, find a way to get on it, climb and stab its weak spot - the individual strategies for each monster vary depending on their construct and surrounding environment. For instance, your hero will often be required to go for a swim in one of the game's many pools and lakes to reach (or even battle) his enormous prey, and the settings for each confrontation can frequently be used against your adversaries. You also have a bow and arrow at your disposal and Agro plays an important role in later battle scenarios, adding some strategic depth to the overall experience.
Colossus has a minimalist interface that allows you to appreciate its vast panoramas and the handful of gauges and indicators are present only when switching weapons or while engaged in battle. After mounting a colossus, you'll want to pay particular attention to the circular meter in the lower right-hand corner - this is your grip meter and plays an integral part in your attack. While falling won't kill you in most of the scenarios, it's always better to mount and dismount the beasts on your own terms. I got stomped on the first time I fell off one of them (visions of the giant AT-AT foot crashing down on Luke Skywalker's snowspeeder filled my head). However, a colossus' bark is much worse than his bite for the majority of the first half of the game, and some of them don't even really attack you. In fact, you would have to try really hard to die in the first few encounters.
The range of emotions you feel after watching each defeated colossus topple to the ground may range from relief to exhaustion, and possibly even remorse. But each return to the castle reminds you of your hero's mission and adds to the game's immersive experience. As does the sound. The beautifully arranged score completes your A/V experience from the soothing opening sequence and thunderous battle themes to the haunting chorus of a fallen colossus. The excellent sound effects and generally high production values add to a decisively cinematic feel.
The long and short of it
Shadow of the Colossus is destined to become another cult classic, much like its spiritual predecessor. Where it falls short is in trying to balance general accessibility with more challenging game play, and this approach is what forces a game that is screaming out to be a free roaming adventure into a linear progression of somewhat escalating challenges. ICO was a purely linear experience that never pretended to be otherwise, and the immediate sense of accomplishment and forward progress it offered (when safely guiding Yorda to a new location) is absent from Colossus.
Indeed, this game is not for everyone - novices could grow frustrated quickly, while experts in the action/adventure genre may find it tedious and repetitive. But even though Shadow of the Colossus is probably most rewarding for gamers somewhere in the middle, its impressive design, simplistic control scheme, and breathtaking atmosphere make it very inviting and well worth exploring at any level.
Overall score: 85/100