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10 January 2019

Epic battles and beautiful scenery: why 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus was a giant success

Team Ico’s masterpiece was ahead of its time. 

By Rohan Banerjee

If ever there was a video game deserving of the term “epic”, it is Shadow of the Colossus. Released on the PlayStation 2 in 2005, the masterpiece of the now defunct Team Ico blazed a trail for the entire action-adventure genre.

In a not particularly feminist move, the game’s objective is to resurrect its sole female character, Mono, who spends the majority of the story dead and whose only narrative purpose is to be rescued. To do so, players take control of Wander, a young warrior-type man with a bad fringe.

Wander, perhaps naively, makes a deal with the demon Dormin, who promises to bring Mono back to life if he can slay 16 colossi – the giant monsters that roam the game’s magnificently crafted fantasy landscape. Each colossus serves as equal parts boss fight and puzzle-platforming exercise. Battling the monsters in their respective lairs, climbing their towering bodies and using the interactive environments around them, players are treated to an exhaustingly satisfying combat experience. Who doesn’t like to defeat something several hundred times their size?

Team Ico’s minimalist approach to development means that there are no smaller enemies in the lead up to each colossus, which adds to the game’s suspense value and sense of foreboding, and means the player gets to appreciate the beautiful scenery at a leisurely pace between battles. Guiding Wander across open plains, forests, marshlands, deserts and mountains, it’s clear that graphically, Team Ico pushed the PlayStation 2 to its limits. It set new standards for making video games look cinematic, as well as raising the bar for boss design.

But for all Shadow of the Colossus’s glorious gameplay – a masterful blend of adrenalin rushes and exploratory intrigue – it’s the story that prevents it from receiving a perfect score. On some level, the game’s deliberate ambiguity could be praised; Wander’s mysterious past certainly makes you want to play on to find out more about him and there’s opportunity for the player’s own imagination to fill in some of the gaps. Yet the ending raises more questions than it answers and after defeating 16 giant monsters, the lack of closure, I found, was a little frustrating.

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The sparse set of characters and absence of lengthy dialogue feel, at times, like missed opportunities to create a wider mythology worthy of Wander’s incredible surroundings. More background information on how the colossi came to be, for example, could have added an extra layer to the game.

Still, for all its flaws, and despite being sceptical about remakes – I generally think developers should focus on thinking up new ideas rather than revisiting old ones – I have to admit I was pleased when Bluepoint Games picked up Team Ico’s torch. Shadow of the Colossus was given the high-definition treatment it deserved with PlayStation 3 (2011) and PlayStation 4 (2017) versions.

But these later editions came at a time when epic giant monster boss battles are more commonplace in gaming – see the God of War, Dark Souls or Bloodborne series – so it is worth remembering that in 2005, Shadow of the Colossus was a peerless title in the action-adventure sphere.

This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.