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Name: Shadow of the Colossus
Developed By: Sony Computer Entertainment
Published By: Sony
Year released: 2005

The anger of the sleeping giants shatter the earth...

There are two controversies that endlessly bounce around the intersection of the venerable old guard and the upstart newcomers of the intellectual elite, and both regard the aesthetic merits of the relatively newfangled field of video game design. Is video game design and creation an art form, one asks, or simply a way to construct more entertaining ways to pass the time? And even if one grants that point, the natural follow-up is that if video games are indeed art, can they ever compare to more traditional forms in any meaningful sense? Can a mere game ever cause the emotional impact of a classic movie or a gripping novel? Every so often, a game comes along that strongly argues that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes- which brings us to Shadow of the Colossus.

A young warrior on horseback rides along sullen, bleak cliffs, through empty, silent woods, and over a long bridge to reach a tremendously ancient temple in the heart of a hidden wasteland. In the temple he places the body of a young girl on the altar, and it is explained to him that within this land there may be a way to bring the girl back to life. Once the nature of the quest is explained the warrior, known only as "the Wanderer", readily accepts without any care for the hinted potential price of this wish. Now, accompanied only by his faithful horse Agro, he must seek out 16 beings of enormous power and stature that dwell within the waste and find some way to destroy them, for the sake of the girl's resurrection.

When the next game from the creators of the cult favorite Ico was revealed at the 2004 Tokyo Game Show, tentatively named "Wanda and the Colossus", it was difficult to see what the big deal was. A quick summary of the game doesn't sound all that compelling- ride your horse across the world for a few minutes, fight a monster, repeat. Note that there's no "explore the dungeon", "find the red key", or "defeat hordes of underlings" in there- the only danger and challenge in the world comes from the 16 colossi, unless you count the danger of accidentally falling off a cliff (something the game takes pains to make rare) and the challenge of locating the colossi in the first place (you are equipped with only a simple direction indicator and a vague hint from the entity leading you on your quest). There are no side quests, no levels and stats to manage, no inventory, no NPCs; just the 16 colossi. It cannot be denied that SotC is paced quite slowly- there's no endless stream of minor battles to keep a warrior's blade busy, no impossibly portentous story of world-saving or evil-empire-overthrowing, no grittily realistic gang wars or covert ops, no authority figures shouting threats and story points at each other while the player sits back and watches. But, for someone who's willing to stop and smell the virtual roses, appreciate the less interactive aspects of gaming, who is willing to try out a more languid but ultimately rewarding experience, or looking for a deeper and more interesting story where the good guys don't nuke the bad guys' fortress/doomsday device and live happily ever after will find this game a must-have.

A silent being wields thunder...

Each of the 16 colossus battles is divided into three distinct phases. First, the Wanderer and Agro set out from the central temple to find the general area of their next opponent. The Wanderer's mystical sword can be used as a sort of compass to find the general direction in which to travel, but the wasteland is full of obstacles to make the path less direct- cliffs, rivers, chasms, deserts, lakes, wooded areas, mazes of box canyons. The entire world covers countless square miles and can be explored without ever seeing a load screen, thanks to a content streaming system that pushes the aging Playstation 2 to its limits. And not only is it all accessible, but it's all unique and detailed to the point where no two areas look alike and every zone is recognizable. There's always something interesting to ride past in the foreground and something tantalizing on the horizon to look forward to reaching. Agro is a swift and agile mount and traversing the world rarely becomes tedious, except for a few cul-de-sacs that must be backed out of later in the game when the Wanderer must look further and further afield for colossi. Occasionally, though, the pair will encounter an obstacle Agro can't pass, forcing the Wanderer to dismount and confront a colossus alone.

Once the Wanderer has discovered a colossus, he has to kill it. This is easier said than done, of course, as the colossi more than live up to that description. The smallest of them are the size of elephants; the largest are almost unbelievably gigantic, towering over the Wanderer like skyscrapers. Many of them are simply gigantic humanoids, while others seem inspired by at least one animal, and still others are more abstract, but they all have one thing in common- to defeat them and complete his quest, the Wanderer must plunge his sword into at least one "vital point"- a glowing blue symbol somewhere on the colossus's body. Getting in close enough to even think about doing this is quite tricky all on its own, as each colossus has a different movement pattern that may or may not give the Wanderer a chance to approach without getting stomped on, swatted away, or falling into some sort of hazard. Forcing a colossus to make itself vulnerable is often more difficult than actually damaging it.

And then, when the Wanderer has finally ran, snuck, tricked, and forced his way through a colossus's defenses to a situation where he can start to land blows, he has yet another task ahead of him. Sure, the colossi have weak points, but these weak points are well-protected- say, on the very top of a huge head held ten stories above the ground. To make with the stabbing, the Wanderer has to physically grab onto these beasts and scramble up their huge bodies to the critical points. Each colossi is covered with small details- bracelets, breastplates, ridges of rock or metal or bone, patches of furry skin- that, since "small" to these monsters is around the same size as the Wanderer himself, offer hand- and foot-holds for clambering around platformer-style. It's like a level out of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, only here the "level" is walking (or running, or swimming, or some even more exotic means of locomotion), roaring, and shaking beneath you as it tries to dislodge its passenger. The most important control in the game is the "grip" button; pressing it makes the Wanderer hang on for dear life as the monster's frantic efforts to shake him off send his handhold hurtling through the air over the impressively distant ground, the game's camera struggling to keep up.

Defeating a colossus results in... something that would be a major spoiler if it were described before one played it. A good chunk of the game's entertainment revolves around experiencing some of the truly original ideas and twists it possesses, and the impact of first catching a glimpse of one's latest foe and having the realization of the challenges posed by it ram straight into a waiting mind; the word "epic" barely seems sufficient. And another comes from the story, world, and characters the designers have brought to life, forming one's own theories and ideas and having them swept away when least expected, or wondering over the import of a momentary flash of something disturbing but not quite defined. Who is the mysterious, disembodied voice leading the Wanderer through his quest? Why do the colossi tend to ignore the Wanderer until he makes clear his intentions, and why does the player feel a strange sort of sorrow at their deaths? How exactly is killing all these colossi supposed to help resurrect the girl?

Shaking the earth, its gaze is upon thee...

The emotional impact of the story the game tells is powered mainly by the sublime visual and aural design. The game's engine is unfortunately just a little bit more than the Playstation 2's five-year-old brain can handle, especially in the 16:9 progressive scan mode the game allows, as it rarely achieves the 30 frames per second of a less ambitious title, but a low frame rate is never an obstacle to the sort of gameplay SotC offers. The art direction running on top of this slightly hamstrung engine, however, easily stands with the best in recent memory. From the worn carvings on the walls of the main temple to the rolling hills of the wasteland, the textures are universally beautiful. One of the rare forested areas of the wasteland lets the thin, gray sun trickle down through a thick canopy, leaving only rare shafts of light to hang among the silent trees and cast circles of light on the empty clearings. Elsewhere, vast rocky cliffs enclose a shimmering lake bordered by crashing surf and a huge, dim cave. The coloring of the game is universally gray and unsaturated; at some times it might as well be black and white. The world created by this imagery is desolate and abandoned, and life has very nearly given up its grip on this sealed, cursed region. Loneliness and despair surround the Wanderer on his desperate, impossible quest. The more active elements of the game have received just as much attention and are executed just as well. Agro's behavior is nearly flawless, down to the bounce of his tail at full gallop and the shake of his neck as he whinnies in annoyance at your excessive yanking on the reins. The animation of the colossi perfectly conveys their incredible size and weight, as they ponderously raise weapons and/or limbs a frightening distance into the air before slamming them down in an explosion of disturbed soil or shattered rock. The game makes liberal use of the bloom effect, whether to convery the soft luminance that fills the temple with mystical presence or the cruel sun beating down on the desert to the south. Fur and hair effects are top-notch, exemplified in the huge, shaggy, and utterly convincing beard sported by one of the more humanoid colossi. The game's foley and soundtrack contribute equally to the solitude and emotions the game invokes. With such an empty world to explore (aside from rare small animals and birds, the only living things to be seen are the Wanderer, Agro, and one colossus at a time) the only sounds the player hears for long stretches are Agro's clip-clop and breathing, the Wanderer's shouts to command him, and the muted moan of the wind passing through the empty crevices and dark canyons of the wasteland. The colossi are impressively loud when they choose to be, of course, with the various cries, roars, impacts and explosions they cause all rendered perfectly in Dolby Digital sound. The music enhances the game's mood brilliantly, from the quiet ambience of exploration to the menace of a colossus's appearance to the exhilaration of the Wanderer's final push for the fatal stab to the strangely mournful coda as one of the great beasts finally falls.

On the eve of the next revolution in home entertainment, a great deal has been made of the possibilities of future hardware; the carrots of "next-generation gameplay" and other buzzwords are dangled all the more fiercely in gamers' faces. Those stuffy old consoles you're using right now are dead, they say; come buy into our shiny new future of tremendously high polygon counts and unworkably huge budgets. We must never forget that the truly great games don't need meticulously detailed robots or online services or hyper-realistic physics or even a smooth framerate- it's good old-fashioned creativity, imagination, and willingness to take a gamble on something unknown that matters. We are fortunate that games like Shadow of the Colossus (or Katamari Damacy, its opposite in nearly every way) are always there to remind us of this.

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