The recent confirmation of The Last Guardian at E3 has prompted a revisiting of Team ICO’s previously acclaimed games on Sony’s PlayStation 2. Both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus have, since their releases in 2001 and 2005 respectively, been considered cult classics with several aspects setting them apart from the games in their time with SotC being the more well-known of the pair. In the constant ‘Are video games art?’ debate, SotC was one such game put forward as a constant example in regard to technological and visual presentation as well as its story-telling.
Without spoiling too much, SotC follows story of a young man trying to restore the life of his lost love by making a deal with a spooky, supernatural entity and defeating sixteen colossi that roam the land. It’s up to you to determine whether or not you think the grand price is worth paying. SotC can be classified as an action-puzzle game and simply put, involves searching for and finding these earth-and-stone colossi and defeating them with your trusty steed, sword and bow.
Too easy, right?
The core mechanics of the game revolve around defeating the colossi which can’t be done just by hacking and slashing away with your puny toothpick of a sword. Each colossi and its home are unique and to defeat it you have to first find and expose its weak points, often by utilising the immediate environment, and then actually making your way to each spot. This is usually done by finding a good ledge then sprinting and jumping off said ledge only to grab onto a patch of grass/fur or protruding piece of the colossus’ armour. You then get to enjoy a nice, scenic climb up the colossus as it does everything it can to remove you by violently shaking or picking you off with its stony death grip. In some cases, removal tactics also include doing barrel rolls mid-flight or diving deep underwater. Like I said, each colossi and its home are unique.
A classic and minimalistic HUD in the corner shows your equipped weapon, health and how much stamina you have left to hold on which can be replenished upon finding stable places throughout the climb. You can guess what happens when the gauge runs out when you’re almost to the top of a giant, thrashing creature. This and the game being very puzzle oriented can lead to frustrating fights as you try to simultaneously solve an interesting puzzle and avoid being smushed underfoot.
The game isn’t all fighting as you have to reach each colossus, some in the furthest reaches of the map. The player is pointed in a general direction with their sword which doubles as a magic solar-powered compass and from that, the player is lead through different terrains ranging from deserts to dense forests. Health and stamina can be increased by hunting tiny, white-tailed lizards and by finding very isolated trees and eating their fruits, both of which help encourage exploration. Saving progress in the game is done with classic save points, altars in this game, or by prompts between each battle.
The exhilarating feeling of climbing a moving mountain is enhanced by the game’s overall superb presentation with both graphics and a musical score that was spectacular in its time and even by today’s standards hold up well. The game is set in the Forbidden Lands which, as the name implies is forbidden to all and thus devoid of all human life, with only your horse to keep you company. SotC portrays the loneliness well with huge sweeping landscapes but no towns or settlements in sight, with only the occasional altar or ruin dotted throughout the land. The silence as you travel only disappears during the epic fights as fantastic orchestral scores begin to let you know just how intense your fight is about to become. The 2011 HD re-release of SotC/ICO on the PS3 only optimizes and improves on the already spectacular game.
SotC weaves different gameplay styles such as puzzle, platforming and action into each encounter with these enormous and unique creatures as well as presents a hauntingly beautiful landscape to explore. While the game isn’t necessarily long time-wise, the open-ended story and fascinating, albeit occasionally frustrating gameplay come together to create an excellent experience in which there is nothing else quite like it.