This was one of my most satisfying new gaming experiences of the year, without a doubt. I'm kicking myself for not having played it sooner, but at least now I'm no longer embarrassed to have missed out. Shadow of the Colossus is my third-to-last game of 2011.
The plot framework of Shadow of the Colossus is simple - the young hero Wander and his trusty steed Agro have journeyed from afar to visit The Forbidden Lands, the area in which the game takes place. Legend has it that Dormin, the governing spirit of The Forbidden Lands, has the power to restore lost souls. Wander wants to revive a young woman who was wrongfully killed, and upon hearing his pleas, Dormin agrees to do so if Wander can defeat the sixteen Colossi that wander The Forbidden Lands. Wander agrees to the terms and sets out.
That's about 90% of the plot right there. You'll have an occasional cutscene, usually silent, where Wander gently touches the face of his dead lady friend or riders appear in the distance, but pretty much the entire story takes place in the opening and closing scenes. Dormin will also introduce the next colossus every time you defeat one and give you hints if a battle rages on for some time. But that's all the dialogue you're getting. And it appears to be in some language that definitely isn't English and doesn't sound Japanese either. Couldn't tell you what's up with that. Be glad for subtitles.
But that's enough background, let's talk about playing the actual game. There are sixteen giant stone monsters out there, and by God you're going to stab and arrow the shit out of them. Each of the game's sixteen quests consists of the following - Wander locates the Colossus's lair using sunlight reflected off his magic sword, encounters the creature, and brings him down by stabbing the Colossus' weakpoint(s) (one or more glowing white runes) until they fall. That sounds straightforward, but it usually isn't. Each colossus is totally different, and Wander typically has to a ton of running, climbing, sneaking, and jumping to get to those weakpoints. Strategy for downing these monsters involves everything from shooting them in the eyes with Wander's bow to blind them to luring them into bending over by hiding out of sight. Once you latch onto the patch of fur where the weakpoint is, the Colossus isn't done yet - it'll thrash every which way trying to shake you off.
But wait, fur? Aren't these monsters made of stone? These stone colossi appear to be carved out of mossy black stone. The "stone" is cracked and bricklike, resembling statues from ancient China or possibly an old Central American civilization. The "moss" resembles long brown-green grass, and on the Colossi resembles furry patches - one Colossus has a beard of the stuff. This fur is key to defeating any Colossus, as it's often the only space where Wander can grab on and is the location of the weakpoints of all sixteen Colossi. The Colossi themselves are extremely varied. The smallest takes up about as much space as an SUV, and the biggest is longer than several football fields lined up endzone to endzone.
If it seems like I'm talking about these Colossi too much, it's because they're the most awesome part of the game. All sixteen are unique, elaborate confrontations whose mechanics are unique, innovative, and thought-provoking. The game's striking visuals and epic, reactive soundtrack (peaceful to intense to victorious as the battle evolves) add to the effect. A time attack mode after you've beaten the game adds replay value, especially since completing it can unlock new goodies from improved maps to new weapons.
If Shadow of the Colossus has a major shortcoming, it's that there isn't much to it. I beat the game in about 7.5 hours, and I'm sure an experienced player could conquer it in as few as 5 hours. There is also the (extremely minor) issue of an imbalanced difficulty curve. Depending on how long it takes a player to figure out the trick to a particular fight, a Colossus can take as few as ten minutes or as long as an hour to defeat. It took me a good 45 minutes to defeat the third Colossus, because I had difficulty making a few specific jumps. Conversely, I beat the fourth one in less than ten minutes, discovering how to access its weakpoint almost by accident.
The other qualms I have with SotC are the kind of qualms that superfans of the game will identify as strengths (not an uncommon occurance with incorrigible fans of something). First, Agro is hard to control - running on horseback is fast and exhilirating, but it's extremely difficult to jump when you want to, walking in narrow areas or right next to a wall usually will stop you cold due to pathfinding issues, and if you try to change the camera angle while running, Agro could turn at random or come to a dead stop again. This is undesirable to say the least when I'm, say, trying to run away from a fast-moving Colossus in one of the two battles that require using Agro. Sure, it makes sense that controlling a horse is harder than walking normally, so sue me. I like movement controls to be responsive and sensible, not fickle.
My other beef is with the world map. I love most of it, I really do. The arid landscape is gorgeous and I'm stunned at its contiguousness - everything seems interconnected perfectly without so much as two seconds of load time, and sometimes I'll just ride around to gaze at the scenery. The Forbidden Lands are also home to several birds, lizards, and plant life; eating different varieties of fruit off of certain trees can increase your health bar and stamina meter (stamina lets you hold on to Colossi without falling off). But the map is also a cruel mistress - sometimes you'll have to do all kinds of twists and turns to reach a Colossus, and certain Colossi took longer for me to find than to defeat (I'm looking at you, sand snake).
Shadow of the Colossus is really, really awesome. I've already gone on too long, just do yourself a favor and pick up this one. The HD version on PS3 that comes bundled with Ico is probably the nicest option, but there's nothing wrong with the PS2 version, either. I am so mad that I've owned this game for over four years without playing it until now.
Games Beaten: 2011 Edition
1. Mario vs. Donkey Kong
2. Primal Rage
3. Torchlight Hat Trick
4. Ghost Trick
6. Batman: Arkham Asylum
7. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
8. Sly 2: Band of Thieves
9. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves
10. Tales of Eternia
11. Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds
12. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
13. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
14. Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation
15. Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
16. Dragon Age: Origins
17. Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
18. inFamous Evil Finish
20. inFamous 2 Good Finish
21. Big Bang Mini
22. Final Fight: Double Impact
23. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning
24. Cthulhu Saves the World
25. Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword
26. Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening
27. Disgaea Infinite
28. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse
29. Jeanne d'Arc
30. Dragon Age II
31. Jade Empire
32. Cthulhu's Angels
33. DeathSpank: Orphans of Justice
34. Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
35. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
37. Prince of Persia '08
38. Final Fantasy IV: Anniversary Edition
39. Professor Layton and the Last Specter
40. inFamous: Festival of Blood
41. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
42. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
44. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 1
45. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
46. Portal 2
48. Shadow of the Colossus
Half-Life is too hard. It's not the shooting, it's just running and jumping around with bad jump mechanics and my own lack of experience. I'm not even 1/3 done with the game and I'm struggling, so Half-Life will have to wait. Maybe in 2012, when I'm not trying to stick to a gaming deadline. Instead, I'm going with Shadow of the Colossus's acclaimed predecessor for my next game, which I also haven't beaten. Starting tomorrow, it's Ico time.