It can be difficult, sometimes, to explain why you love a game. It’s difficult as an adult, but it’s even harder when you’re just a teenager. When you explore Shadow of the Colossus on PS4 for the first time as an adult after playing it on PS2 over a decade ago, you realize this.
More specifically you realize that, while you loved games when you were younger, you might not have had the vocabulary necessary to explain – or even the cognizance to understand – what was going on in the games that you loved growing up.
It’s worth pointing this out because underneath all the 4K HDR texture packs in the Shadow of the Colossus remaster beats the heart of a game that was, by all accounts, one of the best games on the PS2 – a console that defined a generation and many of our younger days.
Despite some tweaks to the overall visual fidelity, Shadow of the Colossus is almost exactly the same as you remember it: visually stunning, awe-inspiring, and, at times a bit clunky and obtuse. There are no new colossi and no substantially new areas to explore. It’s just you and the same 16 mountain-sized monsters that you remember from 2005.
Well, it would be the same but everything is different somehow. You’re different.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Before we dive too deep down the rabbit hole on the ethics of killing colossi, we should probably re-introduce the characters of the story, just so we’re on the same page.
Shadow of the Colossus begins and ends with one main character, known only by the name Wander. The game opens with Wander on horseback traveling into a forbidden land. He’s there because of a local legend that claims that Dormin, the god of life and death, can bring back souls once they’ve left our world. Your goal, as Wander, is to bring back Mono, a mysterious, comatose woman to whom Wander feels compelled to resurrect.
To bring her back, Dormin gives you one straightforward – exceptionally difficult – task: kill all 16 of the colossi that inhabit the land. Do this, Dormin says, and Dormin will bring Mono back to life.
After that opening conversation you climb on top of your trusty steed, Agro, and you’re off to hunt and kill colossi.
It’d be easy, at this point, to describe the colossi. But I won’t. They’re so wonderfully crafted, so meticulously designed that I don’t think I could do them justice by describing them. (Plus there are images embedded in this article, so just look at those instead.)
Instead of describing their appearance, I’ll simply give you a vague description of what killing them is like – just so you can understand how the gameplay works and how intentionally personal the designers made this game.
To kill a colossus – a monstrous mountain of stone, flesh and fur – you must first get their attention. Because the colossi are gentle unless provoked (generally) it’s up to you to initiate the battle by shooting them with an arrow. Once the colossi feels the prick of the arrow in its skin, only then will it engage you.
From here you’ll have to find a way to climb aboard its rocky hide. Sometimes this involves dodging an attack and climbing on its hand, sword or face. Other times you’ll have to wait patiently in one spot as the colossus attacks you head on. It will vary from colossus to colossus and the way forward is not always the most apparent. This part of the battle is almost always the scariest for the player as one misstep or one blow from a colossus can – and often does – kill the player.
After you make your way onto the colossus, you’ll look for glowing glyphs that signify weak spots, usually located where vital organs are on the stomach, head or neck. Once you’ve found them, you’ll repeatedly stab the colossus until it collapses in a lifeless heap in front of you. The game’s soundtrack that was once vibrant, chaotic and exhilarating in the heat of battle will now become somber and regal – an aria to the once gentle giant.
You’ve killed a colossus and, in some ways, have become the monster yourself.
The green-eyed monsters (in ourselves)
There’s more to unpack here about the morality of killing for sport, killing for duty and killing for the simple sake of it feeling good, but I’ll leave that work for more qualified individuals.
Instead, let’s focus on how the game has improved upon itself.
The first and most obvious way the game has improved is its overall appearance – it’s in 4K HDR instead of standard definition. And that makes a big difference.
It means you can see individual tufts of fur on a colossus, for one. It means that the radiant sunlight that streams through the trees makes you feel more alone than ever in a world relatively devoid of life. It means that instead of beady, expressionless eyes, colossi can now emote more clearly. That last part, again, is done on purpose by the designers.
Interestingly, though, while the game was built from the ground up for the PS4, the vast majority of the physics engine was carried over from the original. That means it plays, more or less, like you remember. Agro still sometimes stumbles over hills or fails to listen to you in the heat of battle, the camera can still be the biggest enemy you ever have to fight and the Wander will ragdoll when tossed from a colossus. These relics of the PS2 era are annoyances now that we’ve all become accustomed to intelligent AI and pixel-perfect collision detection, and yet they help the game retain its original personality.
These control scheme faux-pas are what some critics will hold against the game, I’m sure. And while anyone new to Shadow of the Colossus will see these as blemishes on an otherwise perfect game, they will feel like familiar obstacles for those of us who struggled and overcame them over a decade ago on our first tour of duty. Overlook them if you can, and if you can’t, there’s no one who’d fault you for feeling frustrated when dealing with them.
Verdict: Play it now
Shadow of the Colossus will probably mean the most to the people who played it growing up – the ones I spoke of earlier who knew they loved it but probably couldn’t explain why, exactly, that was. Returning home to this classic will help you experience themes that you might’ve missed the first time around, as the additions of 4K and HDR help the colossi emote and the environment evoke the emotional response the designers set out to achieve in 2005.
But that doesn’t mean the game is wasted on those new to the world, either. In fact, being new to Shadow of the Colossus allows you to be awestruck for the first time by the sheer size of the colossi, by the profoundness of the adventure and the prolific sadness that awaits after eviscerating 16 divine guardians. It’s a journey well-worth taking once, and somehow even more worthwhile on your second time around.