Shadow of the Colossus is a timeless masterpiece. Some of the greatest games exist as the best representatives of an era or a genre. They were groundbreaking and influential in ways that guided and evolved future game design. They’re remembered fondly but maybe they don’t hold up as well as they used to.
That’s not the case with Shadow of the Colossus. It’s widely regarded as a popular candidate for the best game ever, and its design hasn’t aged a day in the 12 years since its original release. That’s not hyperbole and more than a decade of affection speaking either; this is the part where I feel obliged to confess this is my first time ever playing Shadow of the Colossus. This remake’s fresh coat of paint isn’t there to hide any flaws, it’s there to highlight its perfections.
Shadow of the Colossus (PS4)
Developer: Bluepoint Games, SIE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Released: February 6, 2018
Shadow of the Colossus is an obtuse and twisted fairy tale. It’s a traditional “stoic hero performs feats of bravery to save a fair maiden” adventure but almost all exposition bookends the game. The narrative veers slowly and naturally without leaning on direct storytelling. There are themes of love, sacrifice, innocence, grief, and death. More than anything else, there’s an underlying motif asking what lengths you’ll go to for someone you love.
The immediate sacrifice our protagonist makes is that he’s willing to slay 16 behemoths in order to restore life to this befallen woman. By the guidance of an enchanted sword, he sets off across the Forbidden Lands to track down each colossus. There’s no real deviation or distraction from the plan. Each conquered titan comes with a sense of definite progression toward the ultimate goal, and an itch to immediately find the next one. Your mindset is monotrack.
For a game full of colossi that are mostly enormous in stature, Shadow of the Colossus is remarkably minimalist. The story is light on details in a way that leaves plenty open to interpretation, but the minimalist design carries over to the environment and the colossi encounters. The vast openness of the Forbidden Lands makes it feel largely empty except for the nooks where the colossi peacefully rest. The complete toolset for felling all of these beasts is limited to: A sword, a bow, and occasionally a horse.
The obvious juxtaposition is our hero’s inconsequential size compared to the staggeringly big colossi. Less obvious is the juxtaposition between how quietly they dwell versus how aggressively we pursue them. All of these creatures are calmly confined to their lairs until we awaken them. It’s only then that they become violent (although some of them stay docile throughout their dying breaths). It isn’t long until you wonder how noble this pursuit really is.
The process of killing each colossus — specifically, how unique and different these encounters are — is what makes Shadow of the Colossus so special. Every fight is a new exercise in behavior recognition and environmental awareness. Figuring out the tactics and procedures to properly climb one of these monsters is the task; the reward is the tactile gripping of their fur and the relentless stabbing of their sigils. Watching its life bar empty as your stamina drains will lead to you clutching your controller tighter the nearer you are to success.
It’s easy to eventually lose the thrill of any single colossus to the collective goal of besting them all, but the memories will persist. Thinking back, you’ll fondly remember every confrontation and what it entailed. That is the magic of Shadow of the Colossus. Nothing in this entire game is forgettable. For a game predicated on methodically finding and exposing these creatures’ weak points, you’d be hard-pressed to find a weak point throughout the entire experience.
As for what this remake has to offer, efforts have successfully been made to modernize Shadow of the Colossus without compromising Team Ico’s vision. The art assets have been remade in high definition, so this PlayStation 2 classic looks in line with what’s expected of a PlayStation 4 game. There are four control schemes instead of the original’s (controversial) one scheme. A handful of gameplay tweaks have been made to make things more user-friendly. PS4 Pro owners can have the option of 4K resolution at 30 frames per second or 60 frames per second at 1080p. (I don’t have a PS4 Pro so I wasn’t able to test this.)
From a more artistic perspective, the remake has a robust photo mode that lends itself to taking some incredible shots. The game can be paused at any time to take photographs. There’s an entire editing suite of filters, shaders, balance sliders — everything needed to get the perfect picture. For anyone who’s partial to a particular look, some of the filters can be left on while playing the game.
Not to diminish the accomplishments of this remake, but it’s all possible because Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus is so impossibly perfect. It’s epic and majestic and emotional and imaginative and breathtaking. There are so many superlative adjectives you could attach. Shadow of the Colossus‘ reputation is as great as some of its tallest colossi. This remake might just help some people see that a little more clearly.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]