Shadow of the Colossus: art or pain?

Last winter, I finally got around the playing Shadow of the Colossus. In the time it took me to finally play the game, I had already upgraded my original PS2 copy to the PS3 HD remaster – and now there’s a PS4 remake on the way. The trailers for the remake soon attracted comments from people eager to buy yet another copy of the game, or even a PS4 upon which to play it. Clearly, Shadow of the Colossus has a keen fan following – but is it really such an amazing masterpiece?

Shadow of the Colossus is a game which consciously tries to elevate the medium to the level of art. The player takes on the role of Wander, a warrior who has trespassed into a forbidden land in order to save the life of a young woman, Momo. In order to achieve these, he is tasked with defeating the Colossi – sixteen monsters scattered about the land. Wander’s only resources for this quest are a shortsword, a bow and arrows, and a loyal horse named Agro.

And that’s all there is to the game. You travel to the Colossi in a specific order, and defeat them one-by-one until all sixteen are down and the finale plays out. There are no other monsters present, no way of grinding or practising. There are very few cutscenes, and only the smallest smattering of dialogue. Shadow of the Colossus is pure in its minimalism.

And I can see why that appeals to people. The game is set in a starkly beautiful land, where your only foes are these sixteen majestic beasts. Each Colossus is unique – some are similar to each other, but no two foes are exactly alike. The key to killing them is to climb atop their mighty bodies and strike at their weak points with your sword, but getting them to expose their weak points is a puzzle in itself. The bodies of giants must be scaled by clinging onto their fur as they angrily try to shake you off. Flying beasts must be lured into striking range, whilst underwater creatures are forced to surface. The environment around you can often be used against the Colossi, whether to protect yourself from their powerful attacks, or to trap your foe. Only by taking all of this into account can you land that mortal blow and experience that bittersweet moment when another mighty beast falls before you.

So far, it all sounds great – reading that, I can even convince myself that Shadow of the Colossus is both an amazing game and piece of art. But the truth of the matter is, I actually found the game quite painful. I was not sad when those amazing creatures died – I felt only a vindictive joy at their demise. Given the pain they caused both me and my character, and the hoops I had to jump through to defeat them, I felt only happiness when another one of the bastards fell. But just why didn’t I get on with a game so universally loved? To explain, I’ll have to talk you through some of the finer details.

The ‘hub’ of the game, such as it is, is the Shrine of Worship, where Momo’s body waits in perfect preservation whilst the mysterious voice of Dormin commands you as to which Colossus to tackle next. From there, it is up to you to make your own way to the Colossus, using the reflected sunlight from your blade to lead you. Great, you think – with such a convenient guidance system to hand, how can I possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, there are three problems here.

The first issue is that the guiding light always points directly towards the next Colossus – and the direct route is hardly ever the correct way to get to them. With earlier Colossi, it’s easy enough to figure out which winding road you need to detour down in order to reach your final destination. With later ones, however, it starts to become trickier, and it’s all too easy to get stuck in a dead end. There is a complete world map to hand, but its stylised grey design makes it only of limited help when you’re well and truly stuck. You try to zoom in for more specifics, but to no avail.

As if that weren’t enough, you also have to contend with the fact that your guiding light will only be available when you are in sunlight – so as soon as you enter a shaded area, all bets are off. Sometimes, you get enough of a sliver of light to work with, at other times, you’re just plain lost.

Finally, due to the vast scale of the world, it’s impractical to expect to be able to run to your destination on foot – instead, you must rely on horse. Indeed, there are even a couple of battles where it is impossible to defeat the Colossus unless you are on horseback.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the idea of horse riding in video games, I’ve never got to grips with the reality. The turning circle of a horse, its tendency to shy at obstacles, and the difficulty of swinging one’s sword from horseback have all been a bit of a turn-off. Riding Agro is a similarly awkward experience, with some extra control-based fun thrown in. When it comes to riding her, the D-pad only controls direction and slowdown – speed and forward motion are achieved by pressing X to spur her on. This just serves to make riding feel a bit more tedious than it needs to be, especially when you are trying to turn around and Agro is flat out refusing to take a step. If you’re stuck in a corner, it’s often easier to get off the horse, wait for her to follow you out, and then remount once she’s turned herself around.

Horse and map troubles aside, in due course you will make your way to the various arenas where the Colossi await. Not only is each foe unique, but so are the battlegrounds in which you find them, with the terrain and environment usually holding the key to victory. Now, the light from your sword will point at the weak points of the monster, which must be repeatedly stabbed in order to drain the health of the beast. Getting to the weak points – or even getting the Colossus to expose them – is left as an exercise to the player.

And that really should be exactly my sort of thing. I love puzzles, and the challenge of figuring things out on my own, so why did I find myself just not bothering and resorting to a guide to help me through Shadow of the Colossus? I think it was because, ultimately, the cost of working it all out for myself felt too high.

There are two things about the game that led me to feel this way. First is that I simply don’t like the controls that much. Not the mapping of buttons to actions, which is adequate, but the sheer floatiness of them. It never quite felt like the commands I gave to Wander were being interpreted in a timely manner. In a game where precision and seizing the moment to strike at the weak point are crucial – especially if you decide to take on the time trial mode – I just felt too much of a disconnect between myself and my character. A particular low point was with one of the smaller and faster Colossi, who would repeatedly rush me and knock me back down for several seconds every single time Wander finally managed to get up.

Secondly, many of the Colossi require quite elaborate sets of actions in order to reveal that sweet, sweet weak point. Maybe it was because I already hadn’t clicked with the game enough to want to spend ages engaging with it, but the last thing I wanted to do was spend ages repeatedly doing tricky things just to have a chance to bumble around figuring out what to do next. If I managed to achieve that first, necessary action, I wanted to get on with it and head straight for the weak point. Given the number of times I had to climb up the final Colossus even with exact instructions on what to do, I can’t imagine I would have enjoyed trying to figure it all out on my own.

Final Thoughts

I can appreciate what Shadow of the Colossus endeavours to achieve – I can even see why, for so many people are satisfied that it meets its stated goal of being a unique experience, both art and game. Yet it just didn’t quite click for me, becoming more of a painful experience than a majestic and fun one. I hold out hope that I will find more enjoyment from Ico and The Last Guardian.