It’s strange to think about it now, 12 years later, but there was a time when I wondered if Shadow of the Colossus was going to be any good.
I was a big fan of its predecessor, Ico, and when the doors opened at E3 2005 I beelined for the Sony booth to get a first taste of this intriguing and unexpected follow-up to the original brilliant, understated, emotional puzzle-adventure from Sony’s Japan studio, led by designer Fumito Ueda. The pitch was undeniably cool: Seek out massive beasts that roamed a desolate land, climb their dizzyingly tall bodies by clinging to their furry hides, and kill them.
This piece originally appeared 1/30/18. We bumped it up today because the game is out.
But Shadow of the Colossus did not demo well. The framerate of the E3 version was choppy and rough, and the weird control scheme had a learning curve that was not suited to a 10-minute trial version on a cacophonous trade show floor. I had a frustrating time with it, and as the show went on I heard that feeling echoed by other players as well. It didn’t seem like the game was coming together well.
It’s strange in retrospect to have had those feelings about a game that is now considered to be a masterpiece. The framerate and control scheme were still imperfect, but the final product—when enjoyed in the comfort of one’s own home and at one’s own pace—was such an astonishing, emotional, unexpected, thrilling journey that it overcame its technical handicaps. Shadow of the Colossus is a game you want everyone to experience. But as the years go by, it’s more and more difficult to get people to fire up a PlayStation 2, or even a PlayStation 3 for the 2011 HD remaster.
Fortunately, there’s now another option, and it’s also something that even those who’ve nearly worn holes in their PS2 discs should experience: Shadow of the Colossus for PlayStation 4, a bottom-up remake of the game done with exceptional care and respect for the original. It’s not a reimagining of the original, it’s a faithful recreation of it, only with modern-day graphics and sound and a variety of quality-of-life improvements. It’s a great introduction to the works of Ueda for those who might have missed them (or started with 2016's The Last Guardian), but also a fond reminiscence for those who played it in 2005.
Ueda’s ethos is “design by subtraction,” and this is the ultimate expression of it so far: This game is about tracking down and killing 16 monsters, and that’s just about it. There are zero other enemies to fight in its nearly desolate wasteland, no one to talk to, not much in the way of architecture, and very few other goals to accomplish. It’s just you, your horse, the journey, and the colossi.
Locating them in the world can sometimes be tricky—your sword shines a beam in the direction of your next target as the crow flies, but it might be in the middle of a cave or a mountain range with only one hidden entrance. But mostly, the journey is for the journey’s sake, which is what’s so impactful about the simple act of riding your horse across the land—there’s nothing to do besides look and listen, and the camera pulls out and swoops low, letting you take in the grand curves of a majestic cliff, stare up the towering heights of a distant waterfall, or peer into a dizzying canyon below a narrow rock bridge. In an age before “walking simulators,” Shadow of the Colossus showed us the joys of downtime in a video game, the pleasure of contemplative solitude.
Shadow of the Colossus benefits a lot from having a contemporary remake. When you spend so much of your in-game time just meditating on landscapes, it’s quite a pleasure to have them now look so detailed to the point of photorealism.
The game will run at 30 frames per second on a standard PlayStation 4. On a PS4 Pro, you have the option of running it at 60 FPS with a slightly lower resolution, or at a higher resolution (even 4K, if your TV supports it) at 30 FPS. I played at 60 FPS and enjoyed every free-flowing second of it.
Once you reach a colossus, the battles, too, can begin as slow, contemplative experiences. You have to observe your environment and figure out how you might scale these massive beasts. Some of them walk slowly, ignoring you or regarding you with a detached skepticism. Some soar through the skies and must be pestered into even noticing your tiny form on the ground below. A couple of them, later in the game, will actually attack you, but in most cases you’re simply left alone to look at the colossus and think.
The beasts’ weak points, where you can do serious damage with your sword, are in difficult-to-reach places, often (but not always) on the top of their heads. At first, it seems like it won’t be possible to get up there, but eventually you’ll figure out how—either through pure observation, or through hints provided by a booming voice from the heavens (the same booming voice that told you to go kill all these things in the first place), or most likely through a combination of the two.
Once you figure it out, the next step is to do it, to goad the colossus into moving into a certain position that will allow you to grab onto a patch of fur or some craggy part of its body that can serve as a handhold. This is where your stamina meter comes in; you can only grip its fur for so long, and occasionally it will try to violently shake you off, and you can hang on by holding the R2 button until your stamina gives out, at which point you must either find a good place on the colossus’ body to rest (and hope it doesn’t fling you away), or fall off to the ground and start again.
The tweaks made to the game’s control scheme are most welcome in these do-or-die situations. You can hold onto R2 (the comfortable analog trigger) to hang on, instead of holding the less comfortable R1 as in the original. Jump is mapped to the more natural X instead of triangle. If you want the original mapping, that’s available too.
Open up the menu and you’ll find many more options that you can tweak. You can overlay graphical filters over the game, adjust which elements of the heads-up display appear and where they appear, change the aim sensitivity and camera controls, and more. There’s even a remarkably feature-packed photo mode that will let you take some seriously artistic shots, if that’s what you’re into. There’s also an Easy mode, which the original game lacked. (Hard mode returns, as well.)
Other than this bevy of bonus options, the only way I could see that the core gameplay had been tweaked was that occasionally, while exploring the far reaches of the land, I’d find a little glowing collectible object on the ground that I could pick up. But these weren’t tracked anywhere I could find in either of the game’s menus, and I have no idea what they do, if anything. Perhaps this would reveal itself if I kept playing the New Game + mode over and over again, resetting the 16 colossi and killing them anew as I kept building up health and stamina, as Shadow of the Colossus diehards are known to do. But it wasn’t apparent in a single playthrough.
It’s different playing Shadow of the Colossus in 2018, versus 2005. To explain more about why I will have to discuss the actual themes of the game, which, if you haven’t played it, might constitute a “spoiler.” Scroll to the screenshot below if you want to skip this part.
Shadow of the Colossus’s story begins with you believing that you are a brave, gentle boy who wants to save the girl he loves, who is dead. That’s why he carries her body through these desolate lands, to the shrine that he believes can bring her back to life if he undergoes a series of trials.
As the game goes on, maybe you start to feel not so great about what you’re seeing transpire. These colossi don’t seem to be hurting anyone; in fact, many of them are thoroughly uninterested in you and seem only to be acting in self-defense. And there seems to be an ever-present sense of doom pervading the game. It all seems sad, not triumphant.
Indeed, at the end you learn a more plausible interpretation of the events on screen, which is that you are playing as a thoughtless little shit murdering 16 beautiful peaceful creatures to, against all good sense and verbal warnings, release a powerful demon on the earth who promises to bring your girlfriend back to life, but also kills you and wants to kill more people besides.
When I started playing this game in 2005, I believed in the essential goodness, in the pure-heartedness, of the protagonist. I believed that what we were doing in games was the right thing to do, that the moral calculus had already been worked out and we didn’t really need to consider that. Shadow of the Colossus gave us a game that appeared to begin as a hero’s journey, but slowly revealed itself to be a tragic tale of self-destruction in which we were complicit. In 2018, I think we approach the games we play more skeptically, and game stories are more ready to explore that ambiguity. Shadow of the Colossus was, for many, the game that caused that shift in view. To play it again after a 12-year gap and with more of an inherent appreciation for its fundamental tragedy, it’s funny how much Shadow of the Colossus feels like a 2018 game, not one from 2005.
I’m quite pleased with how this remake has been handled. I had not played Shadow of the Colossus in 12 years, and what I remembered most after all that time was a feeling, a feeling of foreboding, of dark clouds gathering in the sky, of loneliness and futility. It’s a rare game that can so cleanly evoke a mood like that, and I think that’s a big part of why it’s so well remembered.
By lovingly recreating that feeling from scratch, this remake is not just a means for Sony to sell you Shadow of the Colossus again—it proves that its appeal is not rooted in mere nostalgia but is a lasting work of quality that transcends its era.