Facing My Giants: First Impressions of Shadow of the Colossus

Last year during a time when my wife and I had a little extra money in our pockets, we decided to sign up for Playstation Now and try it out. If you’re not familiar with the service, it’s Sony’s form of game streaming. They store a not-insignificant number of games on the service, and as long as you pay for a yearly subscription you can enjoy any of them to your heart’s content. I never tried it out, and once my wife finished maybe three games she’d been interested in she wasn’t taking advantage of it either. We decided to cancel the service, but there was one little issue: we forgot. So this year, during a time when we very much did not have a little extra money in our pockets, we got a notification “thanking” us for signing up for a second year of Playstation Now.

This, of course, is where subscription services get you – they count on you kind of just forgetting about them and sustaining your barely-used subscription into eternity. And the fine print clearly states that you can’t get a refund on a year of service once you’ve paid for it. So while we certainly have canceled our PSNow subscription for our next cycle, in the meantime we have a massive library of Playstation games to stream when we feel like it. One evening, while my wife was away and our Switch was away with her, I decided to bite the bullet and finally see if there was anything on this service worth playing.

The first game to grab my attention was a title I’ve heard of for years and even intended to try before but never got around to it: Shadow of the Colossus. The middle game in the trilogy consisting of Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian, this title was legendary during the PS2 era. Along with Okami, this is a game which I heard many stories about, one of very few which made me think that maybe my GameCube was missing out on something. Luckily, despite always hearing about how great the game is, I’ve never heard much in the way of spoilers. All I knew going in was that I was a dude fighting some giants and there’d be a twist ending. So with a bowl of goldfish and teddy grahams on one side and a cup of apple juice on the other, I dove into the mythical world of Shadow of the Colossus for the first time.

Shadow of the Colossus Wander
If not for the voicework and my prior knowledge of the game, I might have mistaken Wander for a young woman. Good to see a male protagonist absent the stereotypical, overly-masculine features we typically see!

Shadow of the Colossus opens on a cinematic showing the unnamed protagonist riding on a horse through an empty world. We get an idea right away of the scale of this game – it’s tough for me in 2018 to see this world as particularly large, but I can imagine back in the day that the open fields and towering mountains held plenty of promise. Our hero arrives at a temple of sorts and once he arrives at what appears to be an altar, he dismounts from the horse and carries a bundle of cloth to the altar. Of course, it’s obvious from the outset that the bundle in question is a person, and it turns out to be a young woman. Wander unwraps her and then a voice speaks to him from the light above. According to legend, the souls of the dead can be summoned at this temple, so Wander wants to do so for the young woman. The voice states that in order to accomplish the feat, the boy must slay 12 colossi whose lives are attached to sacred idols in the temple. Killing the colossi will destroy the idols and thus allow the spirits of the dead to be commanded. This is the setup for the game, and once you have it you are free to jump out into the world and go slay some giants.

I haven’t mentioned this yet, but it’s worth noting that the version of this game available to me on Playstation Now is the original game. We’re not talking the fancy remastered version here, and because we aren’t I think it’s interesting to touch on the game’s design. I’m coming at this title as someone whose tastes and expectations are molded by the games I play currently, a time far in the future compared to the title I’m playing. In 2018, Shadow of the Colossus would likely have a larger open world, where all of the colossi exist at once and can be tackled in any order, and a detailed minimap making it easy to quickly track where you’ve been and where your giant prey roams. For all I know, the remastered version does have this stuff. But in the absence of these advantages, the original game gives you a few different tools to help you navigate the massive world.

The first is that the colossi only spawn one at a time. Each time you leave the temple you’ll be given a general idea of where the next colossus is located: at the bottom of a temple in the woods, in the sky above a lake, etc. Of course, if you haven’t fully explored the entire map yet, those vague directions can seem quite unhelpful. So the other tool given to you by the game is a dowsing ability with your sword. Hold the blade aloft in a place touched by sunlight, and the reflection of the light will focus in the direction you need to travel. This simple system gives you some degree of guidance – “you’re looking for a cave by the water, and it’s that way” – but still gives you plenty of leeway to get lost or have to work to figure out the best route to where you’re going. The sixth or seventh colossus that I faced (at the time of writing, I’ve defeated eight of sixteen) took me longer to find than it did to fight.

Shadow of the Colossus Save Shrine

When I first started playing this game, it took some time for me to adjust to the controls. The game does not operate as smoothly as one might expect from a modern title. I found myself initially comparing the game to Breath of the Wild a lot, and not in a positive way. While I may not consider Breath of the Wild to be my ideal Zelda experience, it does some things very well when it comes to open world navigation. Comparing the endless options for climbing in that game to the clunky, limited capabilities in Shadow of the Colossus is rather unfavorable for the latter. At the same time, it’s an unfair comparison – there’s over a decade of difference between the two, so while the controls and mechanisms of the game took some getting used to, I’ve worked pretty hard to understand the context that Shadow of the Colossus came from.

In those initial moments when I felt the game’s exploration to be lacking, I wondered why it was even present. There are no NPCs to interact with, no loot to gather, no experience to be gained from fighting other monsters in the world. The world is large and open yet quite empty – you essentially just run in a straight line from boss fight to boss fight. Why not just have teleporters in the temple which connect directly to the various colossi? Naturally, most if not all design decisions are intentional, and the point of the game’s exploration is to show us this empty but beautiful world in which the colossi live. It’s to give us a break from the brutal killings to show us the quiet, peaceful environment into which Wander is bringing violence.

“Uh, Ian, you recognize that Wander is the protagonist, right? He’s the good guy.” I’m not convinced of that just yet. Now it would be silly for me to pretend that I’m not biased to look extra hard for foreshadowing, symbolism, and the like – remember that one of the few things I did know about this game going in is that there’s some kind of twist at the end. Naturally I want to predict that twist, and while I may be going in the wrong direction I think that there’s lots of evidence to point towards Wander’s actions being evil. Let’s break it down a bit (spoilers for the game’s early parts, for those who care).

Shadow of the Colossus Shadows

During the opening when Wander is hearing from the voice out of the light, it is stated that the power to bring back the dead is not a power that should be sought by mortals. Outside of the game, lore of entities such as necromancers and liches shows how cheating death can lead to corruption. This seems to be the case in Shadow of the Colossus as well, as every time Wander slays a colossus, shadowy tendrils emerge from the creature and enter his body. This results in an increasing number of shadowy figures standing over the protagonist every time he reawakens in the temple. This could, perhaps, simply refer to the price that Wander has to pay for his actions – the voice stated that one would be involved. I think there’s more to it than that, though.

What are the colossi, exactly? We know nothing about them as Wander sets out on his journey, only that defeating them will cause the otherwise unbreakable statues in the temple to be shattered into pieces. Whenever you stumble on a colossus, though, they aren’t exactly wreaking havoc. Many of them are sleeping, or simply wandering an otherwise empty location. While we see a bit of wildlife in the world as we wander (ha!), there’s no indication that the colossi are hostile towards the natural world. They are minding their own business until the protagonist shows up. Wander brings destruction to the colossi, creatures that by all appearances are innocent of evildoing. And their death destroys the statues in the temple – statues that could have sacred significance to somebody, even if it isn’t Wander or his culture.

What I haven’t figured out yet – and what I most look forward to learning – is exactly who is being deceived here. Does Wander believe he is doing good by slaying the colossi, only to learn at the end that he has been manipulated by the voice into doing something horrible? Or are we as players, through vaguely-delivered information from an unreliable narrator, assuming a purity of purpose that Wander does not in fact have? I think this second option would be most interesting to me; if the protagonist knows from the get-go that his actions are evil, and we are unwittingly assisting him in perpetrating that evil under the false assumption that he is doing good deeds. I’ve got eight more colossi to kill before I find out the answers to my questions, but the fact that a game which barely has any dialogue has been able to create such a compelling story shows the quality of the development team.

Shadow of the Colossus Avion

I can’t end off a first impressions piece about Shadow of the Colossus without addressing the meat of the game: killing the colossi. These battles are truly epic – between the amount of ground they cover, the vertical space used, and the time that any individual battle can take, there’s no denying the scale of these showdowns. The colossi all follow the same rules: they have weak points on their body that, when stabbed enough, will cause them to die. Their sheer size and the armor they wear make it difficult to reach these weak points conventionally, so Wander must climb their bodies to reach the points where he can strike and actually deal damage. All the while, these colossi will try to crush him with their footsteps, hook him in their talons, or shake him off of their bodies and send him plummeting to his doom.

What keeps this formula from becoming repetitive is that each individual colossus (or at least the first eight, based on my progress at the time of writing) live in different environments and implement different strategies which force a different approach from Wander. My two favorites so far have been the battle against a sword-wielding colossus whose brittle armor could be broken apart by tricking it into striking a metal platform, and the battle against an electrical sea serpent which would drag you underwater and electrocute you if you were too close to its spines. These battles were challenging in the sense of legitimately pushing my critical thinking skills and sense of timing. Not every fight has been like that, though.

Some of my issues with Shadow of the Colossus at this point stem from situations in which the battles are tedious rather than difficult. I’ll give two examples. One battle against a horse-like colossus has you using underground tunnels to evade attacks, with the hope that the colossus would think you were in the wrong place and put itself in a vulnerable position to attack you. Getting that to happen seemed to be a matter of luck rather than skill, though, and even when I finally won the battle I wasn’t entirely sure how I got the creature to bend down so I could climb its back. Then there’s the bird colossus. This thing hangs out on a tower over a lake of water. While it’s fun to ride around on the creature when it is flying, getting dumped into the water drags out the battle because this game isn’t designed with swimming in mind. Wander swims quite slowly and has no techniques for moving quickly through water, dodging in water, attacking in water – and honestly once you hit the water the bird colossus just leaves you alone. Instead of falling off the colossus being a legitimate threat that makes the fight harder, it simply stalls the fight, adding lots of artificial length in which you are not in any danger while the colossus waits politely for you to slowly paddle your way back to a point in the battlefield where it is allowed to attack you. I’d say out of the eight battles I’ve fought so far, three of them stick out in my mind as having distinctly tedious mechanisms which quickly yanked any tension out of the battle.

Shadow of the Colossus Kuromori
This fight happens in an interesting location but for me often became a waiting game where the momentum was completely in my control.

When these issues don’t come into play, fighting the colossi is intense and rewarding. The moment when you figure out the strategy that will give you that first opportunity to climb up is deeply satisfying, and the tension you feel when hanging on for dear life while the colossus attempts to give Wander whiplash is hard to match. You fight to earn your perch atop on the enemy’s weak point and you fight to keep it. In this way, the battles feel action-packed despite being more like puzzles than the button-mashing brawls in action games. It is this feeling which has kept me coming back to the game in the early hours; the challenge that comes from fighting tooth and nail for victory over a being far beyond your scale, along with the compelling narrative told primarily through the questions which aren’t answered by the game itself.

I’m excited to complete the second half of Shadow of the Colossus and finally slay a giant of my own. This game which stands tall in the esteem of many a gamer has been on my to-play list for far too long. Now that I’m finally making my way through it, I think I’m starting to see what makes it special.

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