2018 has been the year of finally visiting lauded titles I never got around to. I’ve now played all the way through two titles I missed during their heyday: Okami and Shadow of the Colossus. These were the kind of titles that made Nintendo fans second guess their console decisions back in the day, and getting to finally play them has been an interesting experience. But while Okami was a blast to play and left me satisfied with its strong ending, I’m still trying to process exactly how I feel about Shadow of the Colossus.
Let’s start with the basics. Shadow of the Colossus is the story of a young man named Wander who brings a dead girl to a temple in the middle of nowhere. He is told by an entity called Dormin that in order to cast the spell which will return the girl to life, he must destroy the sixteen idles located at the temple. The idles can’t just be smashed to bits with a sledgehammer, though – each one represents a colossus, a giant being that lives out in the empty land. To destroy an idle, its corresponding colossus must be killed. So Wander’s task is to kill the sixteen colossi, and he’ll be able to cast the spell which brings the young woman back to life.
To describe the premise like this, it almost seems simple. Kill sixteen bad guys, bring back dead girl. Easy, right? The thing is, nothing about Shadow of the Colossus is as easy as it seems on the surface. There’s a lot more to this story and to the journey which results in its conclusion. I’m more confused now that I’ve completed the game than I was when I started my adventure as Wander – perhaps sharing my full thoughts in this review will help to unravel some of the conflicted feelings I’m experiencing.
Oh, and in case “sharing my full thoughts” wasn’t enough warning…spoilers for a 13 year old game.
Let’s start with the colossi themselves. There are sixteen of these beings in total, and while I at first referred to them as giants they are not all creatures of enormous size. A couple of the colossi are barely larger than Wander, and fighting these smaller foes is a pleasant change of pace after facing a few giants in a row. Some of the colossi designs are repeated, with only their location in the environment and their armor placement distinguishing them from one another. Despite the repeats, I enjoyed the look of these creatures and at the beginning of any given challenge I was excited for what I had to fight.
Colossi battles are identical in a few key ways. Each colossus has one or more weak points on their body which you must stab with your sword repeatedly in order to kill them. These weak points are generally on parts of the colossus’s body that are difficult to reach. More often than not, you’ll be climbing to these points on the body, though in other battles it might be more about exposing a weak point that’s covered by armor or getting underneath a colossus instead of on top of it. These battles land somewhere between an Assassin’s Creed climbing challenge and a Zelda puzzle – they are as much a riddle as a battle and the majority of your time during any given boss fight is actually spent just trying to get to the spot you’re supposed to stab.
Whether that’s an enjoyable process or not varies wildly from colossus to colossus. My favorite battles were those in which realizing the solution was the meat of the challenge – once you figured out what you were supposed to do, executing the plan got you to the point you needed to be and allowed you to quickly dispatch the colossus. A couple of examples of this would be Barba and Cenobia (by the way, I’m Googling these names – they’re not mentioned anywhere I was able to find in the game). Barba is a tall giant with a long beard – when you first face him, he blocks off your exit at the start of a long hallway. Running away from him leads to a space where you can hide from Barba’s onslaught. When he bends down to look for you, you can jump on his beard and use that as the starting point to climb to his weak spots. Cenobia is a smaller, almost feline colossus whose weak point on the back is covered in thick armor. Cenobia attacks by charging at you and slamming into your body, but there are plenty of objects in the environment to use as shields. Climbing to the top of the towers in the ruined city and shooting Cenobia will lead it to destroy the base, allowing the tower to fall and connect you to the next part of the map. At the end of the puzzle, you’re able to bring down a balcony that collapses onto Cenobia and breaks its armor, revealing the weak point.
These battles were fun for me because once I knew what to do, doing it went smoothly and the battles were quick but brutal. What seemed to happen with most of the colossi, though, was that the fights were difficult not because it was difficult to identify the goal, but difficult to execute the plan once you got there. The word I’d use to describe the majority of my time with Shadow of the Colossus is tedious. Let’s look at some examples of the tedious boss design in this game.
Pelagia is a colossus which you fight in a watery arena dotted by tall structures with a ground level and an upper level. You can’t climb to the top of a structure from the bottom. Pelagia roughly resembles a giant turtle, and it’s a pretty simply matter to swim up behind him and climb onto his back. Once you do so, you learn that his weak point isn’t on his back at all – it’s on his belly under the water. To get to Pelagia’s belly, you have to hit his head with your sword to maneuver him to one of the upper platforms. Jumping onto it will give you a place to hide from the colossus’s electrical blasts, which forces him to raise up to get an angle on you. From here, you can jump onto the belly and get a few stabs in before he shakes you off in the water.
Now repeating this process isn’t difficult to do – as long as you’re close enough to Pelagia to render his long-distance lightning blasts impractical, there’s no danger in this fight at all. But the problem is how water affects your movement. You are very slow in this fight, and the act of swimming to Pelagia to climb on his back and then slowly “guide” him to a platform takes ages. At one point, he destroys one of the platforms, creating even more distance that you have to push him. But there’s no point. It isn’t harder to get him where you need him to go; it just takes even longer than it already did in the first place. It’s the action-game equivalent of mandatory grinding in an RPG – it adds minutes to your playtime but doesn’t truly add content or value to the experience.
Tedious design set the game back enough, but the issue was further complicated because the experience isn’t a smooth one. Controlling Wander is an aggravating exercise. Perhaps I would feel differently if I had played this game back when it first came out, but the climbing is graceless. Your climbing direction is based on the camera angle, so pushing the control stick down is going to move you in a different direction if the camera’s facing changes while you are moving. Because you’re climbing a giant monster that’s trying to shake you off, it’s a normal thing for the camera to be all over the place. I frequently lost track of Wander – and by extension, the direction he was moving – because the camera was so eclectic. Even when I could see where I was going, it always felt like the controls were fighting me. Pushing up and the jump button while hanging on a ledge is supposed to make you climb the ledge, but often I would find myself just sidling to the side, having to wiggle the control stick around to find just the right angle so that the game would let me move where I was trying to go. The poor controls led to more than one death and, even worse, many times where I tumbled prematurely from a colossus and had to begin the climb again, lengthening the tedious battle even further.
It’s a pity that the controls and the overlong climbing challenges negatively impacted so many of the battles, because conceptually I love the idea of the colossus battles. I’m a big fan of boss battles being puzzles rather than battles of attrition, so these confrontations should be right up my alley. But as they are now, the fights have so much artificial length because of choices which make the battles take longer without actually making them any more difficult to pull off. It got to the point where I stopped describing my time with Shadow of the Colossus as fun, and I only wanted to finish the game so that I could finally see the resolution of the story.
I had a lot of theories about where exactly the story of Shadow of the Colossus was headed. Going in, I knew in advance that there was some kind of twist ending, but I didn’t know the exact nature of it. My theory was that the colossi were actually benevolent beings and that Wander’s violent executions of them was some kind of blasphemous act. I wondered if it was possible that the woman he wanted to revive was in actuality an evil entity, and most of all, I wondered if he was being deceived by Dormin – or if the only one being deceived was me as the player.
It turns out that Shadow of the Colossus didn’t answer many of my questions. What is clear from the ending is that Dormin was indeed a bad guy, a demon who had been shattered into sixteen parts and spread around a cursed land in the form of the colossi (so much for my “colossi are the good guys” theory). By killing all of the colossi, Wander was taking their dead spirits into himself and in the end, he became Dormin revived. A figure known as Emon arrives at the temple and seals Dormin away, destroying the only path to the temple in the process. Apparently Wander stole his sword of light from Emon, and knew that the path he had journeyed was forbidden – though whether or not he knew about Dormin’s true nature remains to be seen.
There are plenty of questions left open by the end of the game. How much did Wander know about the task he undertook? Who is Mono and why is she significant to Wander? Why did reviving Dormin also revive Mono? And why in the world is Wander reborn as a demon-baby after Dormin is sealed away? Thinking about the answers to these questions will probably occupy my mind for a few more days after finishing the game, and honestly I don’t mind the lack of clarity. Shadow of the Colossus tells a story which is intentionally vague, but does so in such a way that the questions you are left asking are compelling rather than frustrating. I’m excited to go and read theories about what exactly happened in this game, and to see if the ideas of others match up with my own.
At the end of the day, Shadow of the Colossus is a game that I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend to another person. While I found the story fascinating and the concept of the gameplay was exciting, the actual execution of battles against massive titans turned out to be tedious and slow rather than thrilling and dangerous. I can’t say for sure whether or not I actually liked Shadow of the Colossus, which is a weird place to be after the conclusion of a game. Perhaps in time I’ll settle on a final verdict – for now, I’ll be pondering Wander’s journey and searching for answers in the writings of others.
Okay, so there are a few specifics I wanna pick up on and I’m not sure which ones would actually be useful to mention, so here are just a couple of immediate thoughts!
There aren’t actually any duplicated colossi. They’re all unique; Celosia and Cenosia look quite alike but are neither physically nor behaviourally the same. (And yes, the names are not mentioned in the game. They’re unofficial fan names, but they’ve become near-as-darn-it canon just from widespread use.)
Perhaps the most important thing you picked up on is that SotC is kind of hard to recommend because in terms of gameplay it is frequently not particularly *fun*. There is tedium due to the length of some climbs and frustration due to the janky controls, but I really do think it adds to the gameplay. Wander is doing something *bad*. He probably knows this, or at least that it was forbidden if not why, and the player should figure that out fairly early on too; it’s not fun to kill these creatures because they should not be killed! In fact, the more aggressive colossi are sometimes the easier and more fun ones to kill, and conversely there’s at least one who takes ages and doesn’t attack you at all, ever. You have all this time to realise that you’re killing something which is defenceless and unresisting, and you’ve got to keep going at it for ages while it just… sort of lets you.
Plus, Wander really has no idea what he’s doing in a practical sense. He doesn’t know how to use the sword and he’s just a regular person whose body doesn’t move super smoothly like most gaming characters; I love that the controls aren’t 1-to-1 and that he’s often slow to respond because I feel his struggle more. Plus it sets up the final part quite nicely: Wander-Dormin controls like a sack of potatoes because Wander’s terrified and in a body he doesn’t know how to move!
Basically, I think you’re right. It’s not always particularly fun or enjoyable, and that does make it harder to recommend, but I also think it is genuinely a special game precisely because it was brave enough to recognise that sometimes a quest is misguided.
(Also, Agro the horse is best horse. Haven’t played RDR2 but guarantee it doesn’t have any horses as good as Agro.)
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You make a good point about Wander not really being a proficient warrior – I caught onto that based on his fighting style, but I didn’t think to consider the awkward climbing as a part of that as well. I think a lot of my complaints about the game boil down to intentional choices that the developers made to convey an artistic point that don’t necessarily translate well into a stereotypically “fun” game experience. I think putting some of your points into consideration, my original impressions of the game, and also some of the reviews and articles I’ve read about it after the fact, I would recommend this game as an art piece but not as a video game, if that makes sense. I think I went into it expecting an amazing game from a more traditional standpoint, when in reality it is a daring, experimental game that is amazing in its own, very different way.
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I think I feel about the same. Of course, we play – and recommend – games for different reasons, and SotC is one I’ll suggest everyone play once for the experience but I wouldn’t bust it out at a party. In fact I’ve only played it once myself – I’ve had that experience and don’t feel the need to go through it again, I’d rather do something more fun. I guess it’s the difference between reading a thriller or, like, War and Peace or something; the latter is certainly worth doing and probably more enriching but the former’s much more comfortable, more fun. I dare to say even that the latter might be much less *interesting* while it’s unfolding (while you’re reading it and having the experience, that is), but then be far more interesting and stimulating to reflect on and think about *after* the fact. (That sounds like some sort of art theory, doesn’t it? Maybe we should think more about that!)
Do you think you’ve changed your opinion based on what others have said or told you/ what you’ve seen and read? Because I think it’s totally valid for you to still think that SotC fails as an experience if you only felt that you ‘got’ it based on things that are outside the experience you yourself had with it. Not all works are successful with every audience, so… I think it’s totally fine to revise an opinion based on consideration of points, which might be aided by things others have spotted that help to reframe your thoughts, but I still think you’re allowed to continue thinking SotC doesn’t quite work if, when *you* played it, neither was it fun nor did it speak to you in a way that it maybe now does but that you needed convincing on.
Apologies for lengthy comments here! I find stuff like this really interesting because I think it speaks to bigger questions about art in general when people have different experiences and things like that.
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Lengthy comments are always appreciated, and I certainly think the topic is worth discussing. To answer your question, I think reading the thoughts of others has increased my appreciation for the game as an art piece but didn’t change my mind as far as actually enjoying the game itself.
Comparing it to reading a classic novel is a really good example. I think of Lord of the Rings in that way – I’m glad I read them when I did so I understand them and can talk about them but I have no intention of ever cracking those books open again. Shadow of the Colossus as the video game version of a classic novel makes a lot of sense to me. You play it for the gravity and history of the thing rather than for a pleasurable experience.
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My favorite things about the game have always been the puzzle nature of the boss battles as well as their scale and the unique structure of the game (basically just exploring a barren world between boss battles). Some of the other stuff I am definitely less into. This just isn’t my kind of story I guess though I loved the bond between Wander and Agro. And the controls could be super frustrating. My favorite colossi was definitely Cenobia!
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It’s interesting, I think I like the idea of the game more than the actual playing of it. Like, the concept of the puzzle-bosses and climbing these giant monsters while scouting their weak points is all very appealing to me, but in the moment when I was actually playing it the only sensation I experienced was tedium.
Cenobia was probably my favorite colossus too. I think it was a clever way to handle “boss as climbing challenge” while not having the boss be the literal challenge that you climbed. I loved leaping between the different towers and trying to outrun that creepy thing on the ground!
The most intriguing part of this game is learning the development backstory: apparently there was a total of forty-eight colossi at one point but the game engine’s limitations forced them to cut it down to sixteen. And it’s a shame really, as some of the cut colossi looked truly interesting: a phoenix colossus that was on fire, a worm colossus with a giant lamprey mouth, a monkey colossus that swings from the roof of a cave, a boar colossus that runs away from you and you have to chase, a spider colossus with many legs…sadly none would ever see the light of day. And given we got three minotaurs, two small catbeasts, three serpents and two water buffalos, I feel like the redundant colossi could have been swapped out for something more unique.