Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Some Little Bastard Crawled All Over Him For Ten Minutes...

Shadow of the Colossus (Sony)

This game is the followup to Ico, which I finished a few weeks back. Both games are quite original in terms of both plot/theme and gameplay, and it's very heartening to see that inventive games are still being made by big developers, and (in Shadow's case but not Ico's) even doing well financially as well as critically.

I enjoyed Ico a lot, but I am pleased to say that Shadow of the Colossus is even better. The fundamentals of the gameplay and the art direction are very similar, but it has a darker, more adult story and theme. The protagonist is a young man named Wanda (a mistranslation from English to Japanese and back of 'Wander') who wants to resurrect his dead girlfriend. He is offered a chance to do so by a collection of godlike beings known as the Dormin who manifest as a beam of light. In order to satisfy the Dormin, you must hunt down and kill sixteen gigantic beasts, the colossi of the title. All of this is conveyed in a very nice but overly long introduction movie. I would have preferred the plot details to be dealt out in more concise portions throughout the game instead of being dumped on you in one big chunk at the start, but hey, your patience will be rewarded.

The gameplay itself is original and unconventional, but fortunately it works really well. It uses a similar engine to Ico, but instead of being a platformer it's more of a 3d action game. Defeating each colossus is roughly a three step process. First you must find the beast, by following a trail of light that shines out of your magic sword. This usually takes a while as the world area is quite large and very detailed. There are no enemies or challenges in this phase of the game, so you would expect it to be a bit of a bore, but as it turns out the anticipation of seeing the next colossus is more than enough to keep the interest levels up.

Once you find the monster there is usually a trick to finding a way to climb on to it. This section of the game is more of a puzzle than anything else, and is mostly about thinking of some creative way to take advantage of the environment or the enemy's behaviour (while avoiding its fists, feet, teeth, weapons or laser beams). The colossi are all mechanical, robotic versions of mundane and mythical animals. There's a lion, a minotaur and an electric eel for example. They range in size from just a bit larger than your character to so hugely massive that they blot out the horizon. This aspect of the game is the real content of the gameplay and it's refreshingly original and perfectly executed. The designers have really come through in creating interesting and varied scenarios to fight each enemy in while using only a limited set of gameplay gimmicks.

Finally once you're on the beast an action element comes in, and you have to climb to the colossus' vulnerable point and stab it until it dies, trying to stay attached all the while as the monster tries to throw you off. This part is usually not too challenging, and I think ideally should have been made a little harder. The final colossus balances the difficulty of this aspect well, but the others are all a bit too easy.

The lead designer claims that both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are meant to evoke the same emotion, and if you feel differently it means that you've grown as a person since you played Ico. Since I played them pretty much back to back and I don't think I've changed much in the last two weeks I must disagree. There are certainly similarities, both games evoke loneliness through the deserted, crumbling backdrops and silent, inhuman enemies, and contrast this with a close relationship with your companion, in Ico the vulnerable girl Yorla and in Shadow of the Colossus your faithful horse Agro (am I the only one who, instead of waxing poetic about the horse's bravery and nobility, found it intemperate and insolent?) However Shadow is a lot darker. Contrast the two games endings, Ico's twee love conquers all message and Shadow's grim warning against hubris are worlds apart, although they make a nice pair especially when you take into account that plotwise Shadow of the Colossus is a prequel to Ico.

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