Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
If ever there was a time where I wish I could be playing a video game again for the first time, this is it. Shadow of the Colossus, as magnificent as it is both as a game and a piece of art (yes, video games can be art!), is a game that is never as good as that first time playing it. That’s not to say it’s not worth revisiting, I have done so several times across both its original PS2 release and PS3 remaster. But the true experience of Shadow’s journey is its mystery, the venturing into and confronting the unknown. And that’s something that just doesn’t carry over to future playthroughs because by definition it is now, you know, known.
However, even if you’ve conquered the game before, or better yet have never had the pleasure of experiencing it, this PS4 remake of Fumito Ueda’s masterpiece is a must play, for this is the best the game has ever been.
First, some context. In Shadow of the Colossus, players inhabit a man named Wander, who has brought the corpse of an unknown woman to a forbidden land in the hopes an entity that dwells there will bring her back to life. Upon arrival the entity, calling itself Dormin, says that yes it can resurrect her, but only if Wander can slay the 16 colossi that inhabit this realm. Armed only with a sacred sword, a bow and your trusty steed Agro, players venture forth into the vast, desolate landscape to confront these creatures, risking life and limb, and hoping Dormin keeps their word…
To say any more would be venturing into spoiler territory, because piecing together what’s happening in the narrative and not knowing what colossi you’ll be battling next is a big part of the fun. The only thing I will spoil is that it’s awesome.
To put it simply, this visual restoration of Shadow of the Colossus looks nothing short of incredible. Unlike the HD upscaling job performed on the PS3 version, developers Bluepoint Games along with Sony Japan (a division of which were the original developers of the game) have rebuilt all the assets and animations from the ground up. The game now supports HDR and full 1080p/30fps on base PS4, with PS4 Pro offering two performance options. First is Performance Mode, running at 1440p/60fps (downscaled to 1080p on non-4K displays) and Cinematic Mode offering dynamic 4K at 30fps.
The results are well and truly gobsmacking.
For a start, the new visuals manage to retain the uniqueness of Shadow’s original art design but pack them with richer detail and clarity. The original game looked incredible for its time and pushed the PS2 to its limits, but it suffered from a lot of pop-in as the environments loaded ahead of the player. Now the technology allows for greater distance rendering, lighting and detail throughout the rocks, fauna and skybox, making the vast landscape feel alive and genuine.
The beauty of the world is aided by the game’s dynamic camera, something some players may find they have to wrestle with (much like in Ueda’s recent The Last Guardian or early work ICO), but here I find it often places itself in prime positions. It pulls back when approaching vistas, hangs to the side while you gallop across plains, always pointing in the direction you’re heading while providing a picturesque view of the incredible environments and colossi. You can manually aim the camera when necessary, thankfully, but for the most part it does just fine displaying what it needs to.
Over the course of playing the game for this review I kept stopping my travels around the world to just look at it, to stand and stare at the waterfalls from atop a cliff face, or watch the grass gently waft in the breeze as a rocky mountain loomed in the distance. Heck, at one point my partner walked into the lounge room while I was messing around with the added Photo Mode and she said “wow, that looks like a photograph.” So, I guess you could say it lives up to its name.
So yes, the new environments are amazing; but so too are the colossi themselves. The colossi are made up of a combination of rock and fur, both of which are packed with detail; especially the fur, which is Sully in Monsters Inc levels of stunning. Their enhanced level of beauty makes slaying them even more of a guilt trip than it already was in 2005.
And the fact that all this performs so well is just unbelievable. Fumito Ueda’s most recent game, The Last Guardian, was one I criticised for its poor performance, particularly on base PS4, because at best it hovered just under 30fps and other times was a stuttering mess. So I certainly had concerns going into Shadow, but thankfully I found the performance to be true to its word, with the 30 and 60fps options on both platforms running smoothly, even when rendering some of the most intense scenes with the larger colossi. I had a couple subtle instances of screen tearing near the main central structure, but other than that no issues really stood out. Seriously, from a technical standpoint, this remake runs like a dream.
Interestingly enough, when I was playing on a PS4 Pro, I found I preferred playing on the Cinematic Mode rather than the Performance one. I know 60fps-or-bust fans will think I’m nuts, but while 60fps feels smoother to play, it just didn’t feel right to me seeing the hulking colossi moving so fluidly. It could be because I’ve always played this game at 30fps and am just too used to it, but I also feel the greater resolution detail and lower frame rate makes the game shine better as the visual artwork it is. Having said that, both modes are still incredible, so every preference wins. And it’s great to see graphics preferences being offered, as I’ve discussed before.
Now there isn’t much to say about Shadow of the Colossus’ gameplay or design that hasn’t already been said in the 13 years since its initial release. Hell, I own an entire book dedicated to discussing it. But if there’s anything this remake has shown me is that the experience of playing Shadow of the Colossus has stood the test of time, so it’s definitely worth mentioning.
What’s so brilliant about Shadow’s gameplay is how simple yet involved it is. Across the entire game you only ever have two weapons, with no opportunities to upgrade them and only three simple attacks; your horse; and the ability to jump, roll and climb. But the game takes these basic (by modern action/RPG standards) mechanics and creates such incredible, varied encounters.
Although Shadow is categorised in the action/adventure genre (the genre given to all games too nuanced for the usual suspects of genres), it really is more of a puzzle game. The first puzzle is finding the next colossus to fight, using the sunlight reflecting off your special sword as your guide. Though most of them are pretty simple to find, some do prove tough, particularly in darker areas. Once your next foe has been found, the second puzzle is finding out how to kill it using the abilities you have, the environment around you, and exploiting the instinctual behaviour of the colossus itself.
Battling the colossi are some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had playing video games. You can’t just walk up to these creatures and whack them with your sword, God of War style (although that’s fun too), rather you need to find the places on their bodies that are vulnerable to a precise strike. Once you’ve found them, it’s then a matter of finding a way to climb onto the colossus, make your way there, and pierce the area before your dwindling strength-metre is depleted and you lose your grip. And on the first playthrough this is no easy feat, as the colossi’s behaviour feel like that of real, living creatures, making their behaviour at times unpredictable and challenging. But not in a bad way like in The Last Guardian, where unpredictable animal behaviour was a pacing hindrance; here it enhances the realism.
Sure, controlling Wander can feel a little awkward, but this is by design. He’s not a badass warrior, he’s a scrawny man pushing himself to his limits to tackle these behemoths, so he isn’t always so finessed. He falls over if the colossi beneath him moves too unexpectedly and he’s not clinging on, he can’t keep climbing if the colossus is furiously shaking its body trying to throw him off. Traversing the platforming sections of the world take timing and focus under immense pressure. Some may disagree, but to me Wander’s weaknesses up the stakes considerably.
The results of all this are intense situations of clambering over gigantic animals, some the size of buildings, wrestling against their efforts to fling you off, hanging on for dear life as you try to bring it down. Sure, not all the colossi are as memorable as others, but I guarantee you will find ones that will be nail-bitingly unforgettable. For me personally (but no spoilers), the colossi that dwell in the sky and underwater are the ones I won’t ever forget.
This remake of Shadow of the Colossus does everything a video game remake should. It keeps the heart and soul of the original title, but completely upgrades its visuals and performance to modern standards while remaining faithful to the original vision. As well as being a fun and unique game, Shadow of the Colossus has always been a gorgeous piece of interactive art and a staple of video games as a medium, so to see it realised with such incredible detail and care for both old and new players is an absolute joy.
This is the greatest version of one of history’s greatest games, and you owe it to yourself to play it.