Monday, November 14, 2005

Shadow of the Colossus

Now that Halloween is over, I've had a chance to pick up a few games I've been wanting to try out. The first on my list was Shadow of the Colossus, which I can honestly say is the most enjoyable game I've ever played.
The game that convinced me to buy a PlayStation One was Tomb Raider. Sure, that game was fun, but the best moment was when that T-Rex emerges out of the jungle gloom, looks right at you, and bellows. The first time you see that, your heart skips a beat and you don't think "How am I going to beat that?" but instead, "How am I going to survive that?" The sheer scale of the thing, combined with the raw coolness factor, is what hooked me, and I went and bought a PlayStation soon after that.

Shadow of the Colossus brings back that sort of feeling to an admittedly jaded game player like me, and it doesn't do it only once, like Tomb Raider did, but instead brings it every time you face a new Colossus, and there are sixteen in the game. I've taken down fourteen of the sixteen, and it's been a ride.

Many things work in concert to make this game so fantastic. First off, there's the naturalistic, pensive tone of the game that rivals a Hayao Miyazaki movie - in both theme and visual design, the game feels like a playable version of Princess Mononoke. The environment design is spectacular but not overdone, so that it seems very realistic. The Colossi are modeled after real animals, birds, etc., and are covered with fur and ancient stonework, giving them a distinctly ancient and even totemic feel that really connects them with the environment.

Another great aspect of the game is its stunning level of organic detail - lots of artistic effort and polygons were budgeted for grass, trees, weeds, branches, water, etc. And it's all animated - when a Colossus stamps its foot down, the ground buckles, throwing dirt and debris into the air through a cloud of dust. When you swim through the water, bubbles stream out behind you and beams of light filter down through the surface of the water. In particular, the animation and characterization on the horse you ride throughout your adventures was impressive.

The gameplay is refreshingly innovative. At heart, it's a puzzle game, but since the puzzles are alive and trying to kill you, it also becomes a challenging action game. And the puzzles themselves are very tightly designed, requiring you to utilize the characteristics of your avatar, your horse, the colossus, and the environment in tandem to bring down your foe. And each one is brought down in a different way, so the puzzle is fresh each time.

The action gameplay, too, is spectacular. The sense of urgency and danger generated by these colossi surprised me, and the manner in which you tangle with these beasts is different for each one. Whether you're pounding across the sands on your horse with a colossus breathing down your neck, or dodging a herculean swing from a weapon as long as a city block, or hanging on for dear life as the colossus you're clinging to tries to shake you off or the flying colossus you managed to leap onto does a corkscrew in the air, there's an original rush of excitement available for each challenge you face. Just riding on top of a colossus and seeing how very high up you are is a great moment unto itself.

But the real power of the game comes through the moral ambiguity of what you are doing. These colossi are, for the most part, docile, coming to life only when their domain is threatened - some of them have obviously been lying dormant for decades. They're portrayed as being closer to animals than monsters, comfortable in their habitats and not threatening anything outside of them. When you finally kill one, the music is sad, not victorious. As you watch the slow-motion cutscene of the giant coming crashing to earth and finally lying still, you can't help but feel a pang of guilt. And that's the amazing thing - it's just a game after all, but seldom do you find a game that can elicit an emotional response like this. Not many games out there transcend their gameplay like that.

This all isn't to say that the game doesn't have its flaws. There are a few places where the controls are frustrating, and the Playstation 2 technology isn't up to snuff for the vision of the creators (you often see the terrain "popping" as it switches level of detail as you approach the models), but the game is so immersive and powerful that these minor issues just fade into the background compared to the overall experience.

Shadow of the Colossus is, in my book, one of only two games I'd classify as must-haves. If you haven't seen it, go out and get a copy - you won't be disappointed.

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