Time moves slowly and inexorably forward. The world changes, and we grow old telling stories together. Those stories, the ones that stick with us, communicated something important to us. As a medium, game creators have spent decades learning how to put together ever more effective stories that can offer that thing of precious importance, that moment of beauty, clarity, success, failure. In a sea of stories, Shadow of the Colossus stands out as a fairy tale in the classic sense, and the remake by Bluepoint Games serves to enhance what was already a foundational piece of video game history.
Shadow of the Colossus tells the tale of a young man named Wander who travels to the Forbidden Land, a landmass sealed off from the rest of the world. Using an enchanted sword, he strikes a deal with an enigmatic entity named Dormin who agrees to bring the woman he has brought with him back from the dead if he can complete an impossible task: Defeat 16 colossal incarnations of the towering stone statues that line the temple. Armed only with his magic sword, a bow with unlimited arrows, and his trusty horse Agro, Wander sets forth into a long-abandoned world of ruins and natural wonders to battle towering behemoths the size of skyscrapers.
The simple, powerful set up allows the visuals, music, and gameplay tell the vast majority of the narrative. That open approach to storytelling led a lot of people, even the marketing team for Shadow of the Colossus, to interpret the adventure as one about true, undying love. Wander, after all, goes to incredible lengths for a woman with whom he has a close connection. However, playing through the remake, a version remade after over a decade, I realized that my perception of the game has shifted to seeing it more as a tale about loss and the inability to let go being an ultimately destructive force.
That flexibility and changing interpretation feels interesting. It's a reminder of how much time has passed since I played Shadow of the Colossus in 2005. Back then, the question of whether video games were capable of being art was a hotly debated topic. The internet was on fire with hot takes about what it meant to be art and whether interactivity itself negated art. Now that the question has largely been settled, it feels liberating to be able to think, "okay, it's art, so what does that mean? What does all of this, as a piece of art, mean?"
Everyone will have to struggle with loss at some point in their lives. It's not pleasant. It hurts. There's the impulse to yell and scream and gnash your teeth because you would do anything to have that person back in your life. And Shadow of the Colossus asks the seductive question: What if you could throw everything to the wind and bring that person back? What price would you pay? And at first, the answer seems obvious, heroic even. But as the game progresses and one by one the beautiful, deadly colossi, who were all minding their own business before Wander showed up, begin to take their toll. The feeling of triumph and accomplishment gives way to self-doubt. Is this the right thing?
That question of meaning scratches at the fundamentals of what I believe make myths and fairy tales resonate across time. Because Shadow of the Colossus is art. To some it could be a tale of love, to others it could represent a cautionary tale about obsession, and playing the remake it brought to mind loss. Shadow of the Colossus manages to have the narrative flexibility to accommodate multiple interpretations, and that's a quality that can bestow a great deal of longevity to a piece of art. I'd argue that's at least partly why we are getting a remake of a game that's two-and-a-half generations of technology behind the current PlayStation console.
It's a testament to the artistry of the original PlayStation 2 release of Shadow of the Colossus that the visuals largely hold up due to its adherence to a strong minimalist aesthetic that focuses on natural beauty. The entire production possesses a washed out quality that cleverly hides some of the deficient parts of the world as Wander and Agro make their way across the quiet plains and subdued forests. With the remake, none of the world needs to be hidden by visual tricks; flowing water glitters in the sunlight, grass sways with the wind, dust motes flit through the air. The effect of the increased focus on detail afforded by the technological leap and the original style is jaw-dropping.
To put it bluntly, this remake of Shadow of the Colossus stands as one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. I found myself slowing to a walk to soak in the moments of natural beauty that made yet another outing in the Forbidden Land unforgettable. With the share function on the PlayStation 4, I constantly paused the action to fiddle with the newly added photo mode in pursuit of that perfect angle to show off Bluepoint's gorgeously rendered take on Team Ico's classic. It was a compulsion to ogle the work put into everything on screen and then share that with the world.
If I had to nitpick the presentation, there were a few elements that felt a bit off. The biggest would be Wander's strange lack of facial animations. The update gave him somewhat of a baby face; not a huge problem, but slightly different from the original character model. His face seems to lack some degree of animation for reacting to events, something more noticeable with a built-in photo mode. Outside of cutscenes, Wander is content to stare passively into the distance, regardless of the circumstances. Wobbling on the ledge of a colossus-sized fall? Not even the faintest recognition of his own mortality.
Lastly, and this might be one of the most nitpicky things of all, one of the subtle elements of the original release of Shadow of the Colossus was the slow shift that visualized Wander's fall from grace. As each colossi met its death, he became less human. Players saw that change happen bit by bit, witnessing horns sprout from his head and his skin turn pale and black veins appear on his body. The remake seems to only gradually make his skin paler until the very end when he suddenly has horns and horrific cracked skin. It would have been nice to have a subtler touch applied to his transformation to give it more of a build-up.
All of that being said, the small issues present in the Shadow of the Colossus remake are an exceedingly small price to pay for an update that's otherwise a fan or newcomer's dream come true. An updated control scheme provides people frustrated with the PS2 controls a new way to play, while also retaining the retro layout available for those who have grown used to how the original played. Small additions to the game like a series of hidden coins that can be collected for a secret reward that have been scattered across the world to reward players who poke into every nook and cranny. Additional clarification has been added to some of the colossi themselves to show what can and cannot be climbed and grabbed. The same with some parts of the environment that now have grabbable surfaces to avoid frustrating falls.
The gameplay remains as harrowing, exciting, and frustrating as ever. Players who found the camera a problem in the original will find similar issues here. Agro's AI enhanced controls will prove just as frustrating (or appropriate) as it was in 2005. Running up gigantic swords, struggling to maintain a grip on a gliding stone eagle high in the sky, or outsmarting walking artillery batteries all remain exhilarating, rendered more breath-taking by Bluepoint.
Kow Otani's soaring track still sends chills up the spine, playing with the player's emotions, masterfully directing the the reaction players have at any given moment. As far as I could tell, the soundtrack remained unchanged, but I might have missed a few subtle alterations. The soundscape of Shadow of the Colossus remains one of the most cohesive pieces of the whole package, bringing all of the elements together with a neat bow.
Shadow of the Colossus was already a phenomenal game that shaped an entire generation of people and helped solidify the acceptance of video games as an art form. The remake provides a face lift from the ground up that brings forth a whole new world of beauty that enhances a timeless story. If you missed out on the original on PS2 or the HD remaster on PS3, this is the definitive edition that you owe it to yourself to play.
Shadow of the Colossus is available now for PlayStation 4.