Shadow of the Colossus – Review

The original Shadow of the Colossus is considered by many to be one of the greatest games ever made. Releasing only a year before the launch of the PlayStation 3, it was the swan song for the absolute juggernaut that was the PlayStation 2. In 2006, players took control of a boy named Wander who travels to a temple to ask a bodiless entity to bring a mysterious girl back to life. The entity tells Wander that it will do as he asks, but only if he kills the 16 Colossi that inhabit this vast land. So begins Wander’s journey and, for a lot of people, one of the most memorable video game experiences of all time. In 2018, Shadow of the Colossus has been remade with all the graphical prowess the PlayStation 4 can muster but does it offer more than a fresh coat of paint?

Shadow of the Colossus is cyclical in nature. You venture out from the temple on your trusty steed Agro, using the light that emanates from your sword to guide you to the next Colossus. Sometimes finding them is as simple as getting from A to B, but for the most part, there’s a little more work involved. You may have to climb up to a giant platform that towers over a lake or travel through a dense forest, for example. Even once you find the creature it’s never as simple as just hitting it until it runs out of health. Each of these battles is a puzzle in and of itself. For some, it’s just a matter of climbing the stone platforms the Colossus is wearing as armour and then locating it’s weak spots (signified by glowing runes) and stabbing it without getting shaken off. Others require you to think a little more creatively: hiding in an underground chamber until the beast leans down to try and find you, then jumping on it’s lowered tail, or getting a winged Colossus to swoop you and then jumping on it’s back as it flies past. Others still involve traversing the landscape in order to get the creature into a vulnerable position. When you emerge victorious you’re sent back to the temple you started out from and are given a clue to the next Colossus’ whereabouts and the cycle begins again.

Shadow of the Colossus - Horse

Something that is as impressive and powerful now as it was in 2006 is the amount of player agency involved in each step of this process. There’s no quick travel or quest markers, you have to navigate the terrain, sometimes retreading familiar ground, to find each individual beast’s lair. There’s no targeting or lock-on system, you have to work out how to make the enemy vulnerable. There’s no quick-time-events or flashy finishing moves, you have to climb the creature’s body inch by inch and slowly stab it to death. Every step of the process is done by the player, you press a button to grip the Colossus’ fur, you stop pressing that button to let go. You press square once to raise your sword, you press it again to plunge it into your enemy. It’s genius and purposeful game design: they want you to feel responsible for every part of this process.

Playing on the PS4 Pro in 4k and HDR, I can safely say that Shadow of the Colossus is visually showstopping all over again. Bluepoint, the studio behind this remake, created all the game’s assets from the ground up and boy does it show. Two console generations have certainly made a difference: texture detail has increased substantially, with temple walls, distant cliffs, vegetation and of course the Colossi themselves all looking crisp and defined. Flocks of birds cast their own shadows in sun rays. Rocks crumble from cliffs and Colossus alike with each thumping step. As you climb up the ancient beasts the spectacle becomes even grander: getting up close to their mottled, rocky flesh and thick brown fur, watching in wonder at the sheer force they’re exhibiting trying to shake you off. It all looks phenomenal and scaling these creatures has never been more awe-inspiring.

Shadow of the Colossus - Hello

Another impressive element of the original that has only been enhanced by this remake is the world itself. Cliffs, forests, rivers and grassy plains are no longer rendered as flat brown/grey/green surfaces instead appearing incredibly detailed even from a vast distance. Gone is the apocalyptic bloom lighting, being replaced instead with a beautiful skybox that really makes the most of HDR. Individual raindrops are illuminated by flashes of lightning and watching some of the taller Colossi approach out of a foggy haze is absolutely jaw-dropping. The best thing about this environment, however, is the atmosphere. Even in the remake, this world is incredibly sparse, there are no bustling towns with quest givers and vendors, no NPCs at all except for the occasional lizard or eagle. Basically, there’s nothing to remind you every five steps that you’re playing a video game. It gives the impression that if you were to turn off the console mid-session this world would continue to exist, unfazed by your absence.

Playing through Shadow of the Colossus for only the second time, I was reminded of specific moments of frustration. These stem from a couple of the ‘solutions’ to certain encounters being a little obtuse. Being forced to employ trial and error when fighting a tough enemy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but often in this game the error part of that equation is falling from a great height and having to start from scratch. When this happens for confusing reasons, such as a camera twist at the last second or an awkward jump, or because you did the right thing but at the arbitrarily wrong place, it becomes very frustrating very quickly. It’s hard to pin this issue on the remake of course, and given the high quality of most of the 16 encounters, it isn’t a deal breaker.

Shadow of the Colossus - Forest

A lot of other frustrating issues from the original have been rectified here. The controls have been modernised, but the classic scheme has been preserved as an option for those so inclined. Other extremely welcome quality of life changes include: aiming, both with the bow and sword, has been streamlined and made far easier to hit moving targets. Mounting Agro is no longer a chore, approach from any direction and press the mount button and Wander will work it out himself. Staying with Agro for a moment, he’ll let you know with a whinny and a neigh when you’ve reached max speed so you don’t have to keep kicking the hell out of him. Holding triangle will also automatically have him run at the maximum speed appropriate for the terrain (he’ll slow down in forests, tunnels etc.). The pathfinding on horseback is improved too, leading to fewer collisions with trees and the like. The HUD is now customisable, allowing you to move the health bar to other set locations, or remove every element entirely. These are the most significant changes, but there are even more subtle ones too.

There are a few brand new features added to the remake too. A statistics screen shows you various milestones, a filter mode that allows you to enable different effects like film grain, a rather eye-opening gallery of comparisons between the PS2 and PS4 versions of the game and finally, a new collectable has been added to the world: Hidden Coins. At the time of writing this review, no-one knows how many there are or what they’re for. How mysterious.

Shadow of the Colossus - Hang in there

Shadow of the Colossus is undoubtedly one of the best games ever made, but I have to admit some surprise in my discovery that this version is among the best remakes ever made. It disguises itself completely, presenting a final product so polished that it feels as immersive and innovative as it did 12 years ago. Far more than a fresh coat of paint, this remake rejuvenates the dimmed spectacle of the original, injecting new life into every facet of its design. To have such a landmark title restored and preserved in such a way is a cause for celebration for the entire industry.

Rating: 9/10

Shadow of the Colossus was reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro with a code provided by Sony.