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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Shadow of the Colossus (Playstation 2)

This is unlike anything on the PS2, creating a beautiful ponderous world of light and dark that immerses players in a metaphysical journey. A unique structure gives the game an epic quality where you face off against a series of massive opponents, each of which presents a unique challenge that offers an incredible sense of accomplishmen. An immense sense of scale, beautifully realized environments, and a gorgeous soundtrack creates a beautifully realized game that expresses ethereal sensibilities perfectly. Shadow's minimalist controls and interface allow players to become fully immersed in this mythical adventure, while giving players a great deal of flexibility. Its design is nearly flawless, blending cerebral and visceral elements perfectly. This Zen like approach extends throughout, making Shadow of the Colossus one of the most unforgettable games ever made.

Transporting players into a distant mythical land, Shadow of the Colossus follows the journey of an unnamed lead character on a quest to defeat a series of mythical beasts known as the Colossus. As the beautifully rendered prologue unfolds, players learn that the hero's motivations are pure. A young maiden has been killed unfairly, and he sets her body on a slab in a mysterious temple set in the middle of a strange and desolate land. While he sets her down, a booming otherworldly voice informs him that there is a remote possibility of bringing her back to life if he defeats all 16 of the guardian beings that roam this twilight world between life and death. Setting out into this adventure, he rides his black horse through a bleak, almost otherworldly space as he tries to defeat these enemies. While the over-arching storyline of a young man battling a series of seemingly impenetrable foes owes much to classical literature, Shadow of the Colossus' dreamlike, almost ambiguous setting allows players to project themselves onto the noble quest. Reaching the end of each battle thus gives you a strong sense of closure that's less like the ending of a video game boss encounter and more like the closing of a unique chapter in an ongoing novel. All 16 Colossus creatures themselves come in different forms with each seeming to represent a different type of beast or animal. A tremendous amount of symbolism and myth is invoked during the battles with the Colossus. This makes the adventure seem like a spiritual journey, with each level representing another step towards heaven or eternal life, as represented by hero's hope to revive the dead girl.

In addition, there is a mystical sword at his side, which shows him the path to set upon when he raises it up in a lighted area. He can also raise his sword when near a colossus to expose its' weak areas and use it to plunge into the Colossus, in hopes of destroying them and unlocking some kind of curse. As the game begins, you set off down the steps of the castle and find an evocative world. Once outside the castle walls, you'll find that the expansive environments can become a bit disconcerting, yet the temptation to explore remains. While most of the areas are deserted, they are also quite beautiful with gorgeous viewpoints, massive canyons and valleys, beautiful forests, lakes and rivers, and many more areas to traverse. While the earlier battles don't require you to journey very far from the main castle, later Colossus are located at quite a distance, meaning you'll have to stop and let your horse drink water or pray at temples to restore your health. Most of the action occurs in real-time, with extended periods where nothing happens. In most games, this could be disastrous, but the metaphysical aspects of Shadow of the Colossus means these moments give you time to soak in your environment, think about your mission and become one with your horse. By creating these moments of introspection, Colossus creates a strong sense of identification with the main character, allowing you to become further involved in the storyline.

Shadow of the Colossus has implemented a unique control system almost flawlessly to create a minimal amount of screen interference with allows you to immerse yourself in the experience. Few games have successfully implemented such a system, but with such an immersive, evocative game world, its lack of menus actually helps put you into the game. You have a minimal choice of weapons, with either your bow and arrow or sword at your disposal. Switching between these requires only the press of a button. Controlling your horse is likewise naturalistic, you make it move faster by kicking at its sides, and can slow it down or make it stand by pulling back on the reins. This makes you feel like you are riding an actual horse, with its natural rhythms and movements giving you a realistic sensation of riding on its back. By creating a convincing sensation of horseback riding, it allows you to feel like your character and the horse are one, with the beast accompanying you on this epic journey. When you encounter a Colossus, the controls are likewise simple. Climbing onto one of these beasts can be an epic task, but you can hold on while it shakes and moves around. This isn't as simple as it seems, since your grip will loosen over time, making it easier for the Colossus to shake you off. You will hear a beeping noise when you are about to lose your grip, and can steady yourself by standing or crouching. In order to help position your character better while on one of these massive creatures, you can use the camera system to change the angle, getting a better perspective on the action. It's difficult to get the hang of these controls at first, and your first few times getting on will probably be a frustrating chore - however, with persistence and practice, the game's rhythm will gradually coalesce, making the task of holding onto the colossus a secondary objective, allowing you to concentrate your energy on finding and attacking the beast's weak points.

One of the most important elements that makes Shadow of the Colossus stand out from other games on the market is its naturalism, which extends to every aspect of the game. The way your character appears, your interaction with your horse and finally the monsters themselves feels incredibly accurate down to the smallest details. Every element from rock formations, the climbs down narrow paths, to the way water splashes and responds appears and feels quite rustic. This helps to create a cohesive, believable world full of mystery and intrigue. The environments themselves seem to stretch on for miles, and you can fully explore the world between battles with the Colossus, though there's plenty to see from point to point even if you decide to play the game straight through. In keeping with the mystical feel, muted colors and earth tones predominate, adding to the desolate landscape's intimidating atmosphere. The developer's previous title, ICO is definitely an influence on Shadow of the Colossus, with a great deal of nuance and subtlety in approach. This helps to create an atmospheric experience where the world itself feels very much alive. While you usually feel quite alone in the world, you'll see the occasional bird fly by, to further the sense of being in an actual world, not a static gameplay environment. The game's use of lighting effects is also superb, with the bleached out environments, glaring sunlight, and shadows used to give the world a surreal, otherworldly feeling throughout. The most impressive aspect of the graphics is the use of scale to create some breathtaking moments that will leave you in a state of unbelieving awe at first. The massive size of each Colossus and your character's relative smallness in comparison makes each battle all the more exhilarating.

Tying all of these elements together, Shadow's beautiful restrained soundtrack mixes elements of classical music with traditional eastern sounds to create one of the most beautiful scores heard in a video game to date. The music follows the game's pacing as well, and the silence that accompanies your long journeys is only punctuated by your horse's steps on the ground. When you face off against one of the boss creatures, the epic score kicks in - accentuating the battles' epic scope perfectly. The use of foreign languages and subtitles for dialogue only adds to the game's mystery and evoke a diametric world that feels simultaneously ancient and mythical, paradoxically spiritual and dangerous. These elements coexist to create a nearly flawless balance of differing emotions and feelings that draws the player into a spellbinding adventure. The battles themselves are perfectly paced, offering both strategic play in trying to reach the Colossus' weak points, and brutal action, where you must combat the creatures on a very real level, while avoiding their massive punishing strikes.

While this might seem like only a series of boss battles, each Colossus presents its own unique puzzle, which usually takes several intermediate steps to defeat. You usually need to climb and attack several different areas of each foe. Add in the fact that each Colossus you face require a almost completely different strategy to defeat and you have a game that challenges players on many different levels. This makes the game increase in challenge, as each Colossus is larger and more complex than the previous one, posing an ever-greater challenge. This could be frustrating, but you only need search out the weak spots and reach them - making each battle feel winnable, even through you may need multiple attempts to conquer your opponent. While most of their weak points can be easily located, reaching these and holding on long enough to attack presents an incredible challenge, especially later on. From a pure gameplay standpoint, the structure of dividing the game into 16 massive battles goes against what most modern designs offer, and while it may seem simple on the surface, each Colossus offers enough challenge and depth that would encompass an entire level in more conventional titles. As stated earlier, there are also extended periods of travel, exploration as you search for the Colossus, and this mixture of Zen-like moments, and intense action creates one of the most unique gaming experiences of the current generation.

While some of the ideas in this game have been seen in previous titles, it creates something original and fresh thanks to its superb implementation. Instead of knocking you out with cheap special effects, the game's visuals are used to create a believable world populated by sixteen different super-sized monsters, each of which looks remarkably alive and detailed. Their size and shape creates an immediate sense of mortal danger when they appear, yet their deliberate movements make them seem almost sympathetic on some level as well. You have to kill them all to bring back a single life - something quite deep to ponder while you're stabbing them. There's no doubt that Shadow of the Colossus is definitely one of the most brilliantly realized, original titles on the PS2, with an imaginative, artistic approach that sets it apart from most other titles on the market. This unique approach to the gameplay allows for plenty of open-ended exploration marked with some of the most intense, dramatic battles seen in any game for some time. The dark edges of the storyline permeate the entire game, creating a bleak yet beautiful experience that keeps you engaged throughout. While many games have been hailed as innovative or artistic over the past few years, very few have lived up to their expectations. Shadow of the Colossus actually exceeds its billing by immersing players inside one of the most imaginative, evocative, beautiful and emotional games of the current generation. It easily exceeds the level of detail and emotions it's predecessor Ico created, and its ambition impresses by the sheer scope of its worlds and the beauty of the experience. It's power to move and challenge the player, to mix two distinctly different halves into a cohesive whole makes it all the more impressive, making many current titles seem pale and empty in comparison.   - Michael Palisano

Grade: A

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