There is one word to describe Shadow of the Colossus: Wow. Or, depending on your preference, I've heard "crack" and "breathtaking" used as well (the former to describe being addicted to playing and the latter by someone who no doubt wants to have his review quoted by other people). But seriously, there is nothing else like it out on the market right now. Despite the heady four year development time (which usually means the doom of a project before it even hits the shelves), I'm sure that Shadow of the Colossus is very much what it was intended to be, and if you're the right type of gamer, this is one ride that you should not pass up!
It's probably best to call Shadow of the Colossus a puzzle-action game, but trying to cram this game into a genre doesn't do it justice. What it basically comes down to though is that there are sixteen colossi out there and you've got to take them out one at a time with nothing but a bow, a sword, and your trusty steed. And with few exceptions, the colossi are every bit as colossal as their name would suggest. Poking an arrow or a sword in any ol' location won't do much damage, if it does any damage at all. So you've got to use brains to take them out. Well over half the game isn't the act of physically stabbing colossi to death, but figuring out how to get to them, how to get on them, and how to take them out. Each colossus has one or more weak spots that have an unfortunate tendancy to be highly placed on its body (no Achilles's heel for these guys) and it takes a certain amount of stabbing in those weak spots to bring each one of them down. Getting to the weak spot, or revealing the weak spot is the hard part. Once you're there it's generally just a matter hanging on.
So why is this nutjob of a main character killing all these colossi anyway? They're so huge that it's a stretch for him to reach an ankle. Some colossi have fingers bigger than he is.
Well, the story in this game is extremely minimal, but in this case, less is really more. The story is largely the prologue, the epilogue, and of course, the journey itself. Our nameless hero crosses from the outside world into this sealed and forbidden land to meet with an entity that inhabits a temple in the center of this forgotten realm. With him he brings the body of a young maiden, which he sets upon an altar in the temple. He has come here to ask Dormin to restore her to life, because he has heard that Dormin can do so. Dormin, a light that shines from the ceiling of the temple, initially says that souls that are lost cannot be brought back, but it notes that the young man beseeching it wields an ancient sword, and because of that, restoring her to life might not be impossible. To restore her he will have to destroy the sixteen idols in the temple, but because they cannot be destroyed by a mere mortal, he will instead have to defeat the sixteen colossi that are the living incarnations of those idols, and then the idols will fall. Despite the fact that Dormin warns the young man that the price he will pay may be heavy indeed, our hero doesn't care and agrees to it.
Beyond that, we don't really know much about the story. We can assume that our young hero is probably a tribal warrior of sorts, relatively inexperienced, but determined and headstrong. He probably stole the sword given that it's connected to the colossi and this realm is forbidden to his people (and in the epilogue we find out this assumption is correct), but beyond that we don't know a whole lot about his past. But we do know a lot about what he's like.
In writing, budding authors are often told to show versus tell, and in Shadow of the Colossus there is a lot of showing, perhaps something other games could take a lesson from. The attention to detail in this game is immense. Our hero will trip and stumble if he runs over some rocks in his path or a step on a ramp that he chooses to run rather jump over. He grunts with exhaustion when the player pushes him to his limit without giving him time to rest. He has a ragged gait when he runs, as though he's tired, but has no choice but to keep moving. When he swims his arms and legs are uneven, not a practiced swimmer but someone just trying to get by. We, as the player, can tell that this guy is a fairly ordinary person, not a legendary hero type, though perhaps possessing a determination that would rival a hero of legend. When I first watched other people at my work play this game, I would joke "Is it really worth it to do all this [fighting the colossi] just to save this girl?" After all, the hero is clearly out of his league. But the fact he does, and without complaint, even when his enemies tower as high as mountains, shows just the kind of person he is and how much she means to him. Even after the ending sequence plays, if he could answer I think he'd say it was worth it.
Similarly, there is only one cut scene centered around Agro, the protagonist's horse, and it's when the horse (presumably) falls to his death. I was crushed when this happened, and appearly I wasn't the only one. What could elicit that kind of a reaction for a character that doesn't even talk and had never even had a bit in the "plot" until now?
Agro is, quite frankly, the most amazing video game horse I ever met, and the designers ensured that the player would spend a lot of time with him. Getting to the colossi, particularly the later ones, requries a good deal of riding. It allows the player to really get a sense of scale of this forbidden realm and just how tiny horse and rider are against the backdrop of the mountains. There are rolling plains, desert sands, dry lakes, lush forests, all of which can be navigated on foot, but so much faster on horseback. Without a doubt, every player is going to make use of Agro for transportation if nothing else.
More than other horses in games, Agro is also possessed of a reasonably bright AI. When riding Agro, the player does not have a one-for-one switch of controls, where Agro handles exactly like the hero except that he runs faster. Instead steering Agro is like gently pulling left or right on the reins of a real horse. It's possible to not touch the analog stick at all and Agro will just keep moving forward. If an obstacle comes in the way Agro is smart enough to go around it. He'll only come to a screeching halt if it's say a sheer cliff with a fifty drop to the bottom. But a boulder? He'll go around. Heck, if he can and he's up against something too big to walk around, Agro will often keep turn to the right or left and keep moving so you don't lose any momentum trying to get him from zero to sixty again. And narrow pathways that zig-zag? You don't have get off and walk because poor pathfinding will never let the horse through. Obviously Agro can't gallop on that kind of terrain, but if you let him have his head he'll walk through it on his own with you on his back. In some ways this is actually safer because Agro is smart enough to never fall off a narrow path, whereas a clumsy player can send our hero to his doom.
Nowhere is the fact the player can trust Agro more important than against the tenth colossus. This beastie can only be taken down on horseback. It's so fast our hero can't even dodge it, but Agro can, and thus results in an amazing sequence in which the player is riding Agro and the colossus is chasing the pair from behind. The only way to slow the colossus is to shoot it in the eye, which means that the player has to bring out the bow, turn around and aim, and because of the aiming process, the player (and the camera) is now facing backwards. At this point the player is no longer steering. Avoiding obstacles (and there are obstacles) is entirely up to Agro. And you know? You can trust that horse. Agro does have his own mind so he won't try to set up the shot for you (he is just a horse after all), but during those crucial thirty seconds or so that you have to shoot the colossus you can be certain that if you die, it won't be because of Agro. And how many times can you say that about your partner AI?
Aside from his AI, the designs put a lot of effort into Agro himself. He's oldly proportioned in comparision to his rider (Agro doesn't look very large himself, but his rider looks small when sitting on him), but his animations are spot on. Agro has three different gaits, possessing a walk, canter, and gallop that he will change between depending on the speed the player is riding him at, and each has a realistic set of hoofbeats to go with it. He tosses his head as he idles, snorts with irritation when you make him turn too fast, whinnies when forced to a sudden halt, and when you dismount he will wander around on his own. Sometimes he'll follow you around, other times he'll wander off a short distance. He can be summoned by having the main character whistle, but if he's in vocal range, you'll hear the protagonist call out "Agro!" which again fuels the bond between horse and rider. Agro's not just a horse. He has a name, and he behaves surprisingly like a real horse, except that he's also the bravest and most loyal horse around.
Each time the player beats a colossus, the hero passes out and is teleported back to the starting temple, where Dormin gives him a description of the next colossus he will fight, and somehow, just as the player finished up with Dormin, Agro gallops into the temple, ready to go. No matter where in this land the player abandons him, Agro comes back ready to serve. There is never a one way trip with Agro, since he's a smart horse and knows better than to jump into places he can't get out of (which can't be said for our hero).
So it was with some consternation that I found a bridge on my way to the final colossus which kept collapsing on me. I could grab on to it, but it always collapsed before I could climb up and start running. My brother suggested taking Agro and having Agro jump and race across, which would certainly look dramatic. I agreed, but I told him that Agro never makes a one way trip so I wasn't sure it would work. But I got up the horse, led Agro back, and then bid him run as fast as he could. He made the leap on to the bridge, and it was fast collapsing as expected, but then the screen narrowed from gameplay to cut scene mode, and we could see why. The bridge was collapsing too fast. Agro lunged for the edge of the bridge, throwing himself forward and his rider clear over his head to safety, and then the stone crumbled under him and the loyal horse fell deep into the chasm, so far down he could no longer be seen (and a fall the player already knows is lethal since the hero can't survive it). I felt absolutely terrible. Killing the colossi felt kinda sad, since they're often these great majestic creatures that haven't down anything to harm the player prior to attempted stabbings, but to lose Agro who was just trying to help was worse than anything else. It made me wonder if the hero's mad quest to ressurect his female companion was worth it. The player might feel sorry for the colossi, but the player knows Agro, even if he's just a horse, and that makes the loss more personal. The player might even feel guilty for having forced Agro to attempt the crossing in the first place.
This sort of wordless storytelling doesn't happen in most other games. Since the player is left to figure out the solutions to nearly everything in this game, everything that does happens feels like it was a circumstance created by the player. The game didn't tell me to race Agro across. It was not a cut scene that the game triggered as soon as I got there. I had to start it. I had to decide that I would do it. Then the game finished it.
And the entire game is like that. Though the training path to the first colossus and the first colossus itself is fairly linear, the later paths and colossi can have multiple methods of getting to where you're going. The world is open, divided by mountains and canyons, and rivers, but there's nothing stopping the player from going anywhere on the map from the very beginning of the game. (I presume there are things to prevent the player from prematurely fighting colossi, but because I got lost for over a half hour on my way to the third colossus I can vouch for being able to run off to far away locations that have nothing to do with where you're going.) The colossi themselves have various behavior patterns that the player must figure out in order to climb on their bodies and stab their weak points. Or, sometimes there's no figuring out involved and the player gets a lucky break and grabs on for the ride. After beating the game I went back to work to talk to people about my favorite colossi and found out that a couple of them I'd beaten using a different method than my coworkers, but despite that we achieved the same result.
The amazing thing about this game is that the interface is so inobtrustive. Usually there is nothing on screen except for the player, possible Agro, the colossus, and the background. The health bar, equipped item box, and stamina meter will disappear when not in use, leaving the entire screen visible. And then they do show up, they're only in the lower right corner of the screen. The stamina meter can be used for everything from hanging on to a colossus's furry body (the protagonist is like a human ant that can grip on to just any bit of hair or ridge on a colossus's body as long as he has the stamina to hold on) to holding his breath underwater. Aside from keeping things simple, there's another reason for this. Immersion.
Shadow of the Colossus might not have the fanciest textures out there, and much of the world is covered in a haze reminiscent of an ancient world, but the environment is just as real as it is in our world. That is to say, it doesn't stick out with big neon lights to show it's interactive, but it's interactive all the same. When walking on foot or riding Agro, the camera is generally offset so the player's avatar is rarely in the middle of the screen, making the focus of the player's attention not the hero and his horse, but the environment that they are in. When climbing a colossus, the camera will often zoom in, so sometimes the screen is little more than a hairy body with flashes of background around the edges of the screen, but the detail on that body is such that you really feel you're on something gigantic. The camera might show little more than the colossus, but at that moment you're on it, that colossus is your world and little else matters, and that's the way it should be. I don't normally praise video game camera work, but there's very interesting and cinematic camera work in this game. Sometimes it's a little off when it's the generic camera on rails, especially when the player is doing something crazy, but then it does things like zoom in as the player is charging up the energy to stab the colossus. There's more damage done if the player takes the time to charge (though the colossus's thrashing around might prevent the player from getting time needed for the best stab), and the camera will zoom in as the player charges, so that it's close at the height of anticipation, when the player just gets the fully charged stab into the monster's body. It's a surprisingly good way to increase the excitement.
Each time the player stabs a colossus, black smoke gushes from the wound, and each time the player defeats a colossus, black tendrils burst out of the final weak spot, fly around got a bit, and then impale the hero, who then passes out. This happens every time. And every time after that there is a cut scene showing the hero lying passed out on the temple floor with a shadow standing over him. With each colossus that falls there is another shadow standing over him, and the shadows are tall and short, fat and thin; individuals. They don't harm him, but they stand around looking down at him, only to vanish by the time he wakes up. Also, for each colossus slain, a white bird appears in the temple, often on the stairs before the altar where his companion lies. We don't know what the tendrils are when they first impale him, and though it happens to him every time, we know it can't be healthy. After the eighth time, there is a brief mid-game cut scene in which we see a closer look at our hero and his skin is sallow, and he looks unhealthy, but he still goes on. I knew Dormin must want the colossi to fall for a reason, since this was the entity's request in exchange for restoring the maiden's soul, not something that must be done specifically to get her soul back.
When the hero finally beats the sixteenth colossus, the end of the game begins to play. The people from his village/clan/whatever arrive at the temple, ostensibly to stop him, but they are too late. They arrive in time to see the sixteenth idol fall. A short while later our hero teleports in, and the shadowed spirits gather around him. He wakes up while they're there this time, but he's no longer himself. His skin is like ash, and his eyes are a shining aqua like the colossi. When his people attack him, he bleeds black smoke like a colossus. They try to kill him to put him out of his misery, and still his companion lies dead on the altar, despite all the colossi being dead.
Though the backstory of the colossi finally comes out at this point, and I was happy to finally know it, it wasn't something I expected out of a game like this, where everything feels so rightly obscure from the understanding of a mortal like myself. The sequence that follows involves Dormin possessing the hero and trying to escape the temple before the intruding humans stop it, but I mostly felt for the hero and the fact that after all this, his beloved (or possibly his sister--it's not clear who or what the maiden is to him) still hadn't woken up from the altar. Was Dormin going to keep its promise? Would our poor hero pay this heavy price and get nothing in return? The villagers/clansmen manage to create a seal that begins to suck Dormin powerlessly towards it, and the great big shadow demon beings to melt away into a shadow man, or perhaps more of a shadow boy (he looks smaller), futiling trying to claw his way to the altar where his beloved rests, but no matter how hard he tries, he can't do it, and he's sucked into the well.
Though the hero's folk manage to escape intact, the bridge leading into the forbidden land collapses, perhaps forever sealing it off from the outside world. And then... the girl wakes. Her reaction to waking in a strange place is surprisingly mild (I'd probably freak out more), but since we don't know what the journey from death to life was for her soul, perhaps she knows what has happened. Surprisingly, Agro returns at this point, with a busted leg, but otherwise able to walk on the other three (again proving he's the most loyal horse out there--returning to the temple after the death of the sixteenth colossus, only held up a bit this time because of his broken leg). Together the girl and Agro go to the well and find a tiny horned baby in it, all that's left of our protagonist, and then climb up the side of the castle to discover a garden at the top. And that's the end of the game. The girl, a horned baby version of our hero, and Agro are the only beings from the outside world in this mysterious land and it looks like this is where they're going to stay. But she's alive again, and there's food in this place. It could be home. I think our hero would say this was still worth it.