REVIEW: Ico + Shadow of the Colossus [PS3]

Chad Habel: Shadow of the Colossus is the go-to example for the “games as art” argument. Released towards the end of the PS2 lifetime, it pushed the processing power of that generation to the brink and slightly beyond, and is burned into many memories as one of the greatest and most innovative games ever made. Edge called it “a fiction of unquestionable thematic richness, of riveting emotional power, whose fundamental artistic qualities are completely fused with its interactivity”. It’s hard to disagree, though it also shows its age a little, given developments in technology and game design in the past six years. Unlike Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, however, this is very much a re-release rather than a remake, in that it boasts few new features. The re-release of such an iconic game is bound to produce different reactions based on experience playing it upon its first release, so it’s worth having a discussion about the Collection from these different perspectives.

Andrew Craig: Shadow of the Colossus broke a lot of boundaries in its time. It did, as you say, push the technology to its limits, but more importantly it worked within those limits to create something beautiful. There’s a tendency to think that great graphics means a high resolution, and more polygons, but ultimately Colossus has an impressionistic quality about its artwork, which works within the original PS2 hardware. The slow pace of the game allows a focus on this beauty.

Most memorable, however, is the integration of story and gameplay. Often, the claim that a game has a great story is a sure sign of a half-baked film or book with a game tacked on, or vice-versa. Colossus integrates an emotional narrative arc within the gaming experience. While there are cutscenes, this is not where the narrative really takes place. Playing Colossus evokes a sense of isolation and loneliness while wandering the barren landscape, suddenly broken by the heart-skippingly massive colossi that emerge from that landscape, the intense thrill of standing against something so truly huge, the release of its defeat, but then sadness. These lonely colossi are actually your kindred spirits.

Of course, this is only what the game attempts to do. If you get lost in the landscape, a short change of pace turns into long frustration. And if you’re a butter-fingers like me, then the colossi themselves can become frustrating, particularly in levels involving water, where every minor failure leads to a long period of swimming. This can seriously disrupt the narrative pace of the game.

Chad: Yes, I’ve heard this kind of love for this game, so I was very eager to play it. It starts with an extraordinarily long cutscene, which actually made me wonder whether I was playing a game at all, or if it was a film. This was an opportunity for the game to introduce its protagonist, Wander, meandering through a rich environment of craggy mountains to reach a vast temple surrounded by sixteen monoliths. This introduction goes to some lengths to establish his motive (resurrecting a lover with a cursed destiny), his quest (destroying sixteen colossi and their associated statues), and the richly detailed environment that is exemplary for its generation. However, the main purpose of this cutscene is to carve out a space for SOC as a unique game, the type of thing you’ve never seen before and may never see again: a game with a ponderous pace allowing ample time for self-reflection and admiration of the environment, and a game which unashamedly stands as a narrative-driven experience.

[img_big]center,8454,2011-09-15/TypeD_004_20050725.jpg,Shadow of the Colossus[/img_big]

Once you finally get control of Wander, the first thing you notice is the awkward animations of his running: He looks like a drunken marionette. By today’s standards the controls are a bit counterintuitive, and the camera is particularly difficult to control. But all these are forgiven when Wander mounts his horse and rides into the landscape. Here you are treated to a feast for the senses and a truly unique style of climbing/platforming/puzzling gameplay. The game seemed to run fine (as we’ve come to expect from the PS3), which was a welcome improvement, I believe…?

Andrew: One of the biggest problems with the original game is that it was designed to push the machine to its utter limit, and this meant framerate issues and a rather sloppy physics engine. The framerate issues can hamper the experience on the PS2, and these no longer exist on the more powerful hardware. The limited physics-engine and odd animations made traversing the moving, giant, organic colossi even harder than it would be otherwise. It can be difficult to work out what, exactly, is going on sometimes. The raw power of the PS3 seems designed to deal with this, and if it had originally been designed for that machine, dealing with the colossi could have been made to be much more fluid and natural. But this remains an archival release. Other than improved resolution and framerate, the game is identical to the original PS2 version, and contains the same limitations.

In a way, it makes sense to leave one of the PS2’s crowning achievements as it was. Colossus was something of a pinnacle for the PS2, designed to work within the confines of that machine, and Team Ico is now working on The Last Guardian, the game that will hopefully do the same for the PS3. Updating Colossus might have just made something of a Frankenstein’s monster, and a poor cousin of Guardian. But not updating it makes it harder to recommend to players expecting a PS3 game.

Chad: Yeah, that’s true. On playing SOC in more depth, I was left with a sense of an absolutely classic game, but ultimately one which time has somewhat left behind. Looking at its origins, it is clear that it was hugely influential on the whole genre of action-adventure games: it is difficult to think of Assassin’s Creed without it, or the wholesale integration of puzzles into action games. It is certainly fun to play, but again, given the advances in free-running gameplay and the significant technical advances of the new generation, it feels more like a valuable relic than a favourite you would get out and play regularly. It feels somewhat limited (I got about 7 hours of it) with little replay value, save for a bit of a nostalgia trip for some. However, if there were a hall of honour for influential, sophisticated games, Shadow of the Colossus would occupy a prime position. Ultimately, it leaves me looking forward to Team Ico’s next game, kind of the way that Ico whets an appetite for SOC.

Andrew: Much of what has been said for SOC can also be said for Ico, although of course it lacks the iconic colossi and also the action of that game. What action is here is an unfortunate annoyance – think the fights in Sands of Time – that distract from the core puzzling gameplay. Ico is all about atmosphere, and a certain emotional attachment to the young, strange girl you are attempting to save. Even more than its successor, the slow pace and static cameras put the focus on the utter beauty of the environments. They are still beautiful, and the design is sometimes staggering. It’s amazing that they can even be compared to PS3 games at all, but they have still been greatly limited by the original hardware. But it still might be a little too much to ask of a game now a decade old to stand beside the latest games on the PS3 on aesthetic merit. And if aesthetic merit is the main thing these games are bringing to the table, then…

Chad: Yes, I felt that Ico was even more of a museum-piece than Shadow. It feels less like a spiritual predecessor and a bit more like a testing-ground. It has more traditional platforming and puzzling, but unique cooperative elements with a non-player character. It’s easy to play a game like this retrospectively, though. Ico certainly was progressive, but ultimately it feels like it a placeholder for Shadow. And ultimately, the main thing these games have given me is a keen desire to play The Last Guardian. I guess the marketing office of Team Ico couldn’t be happier.

Andrew: I still have my copies of Ico and Colossus sitting next to my PS2, which I still play. I’ve yet to finish Ico. I will one day. They are beautiful and beguiling, in their way. If you’re like me, and are tolerant of older-game-generation quirks, and have a kind of obsessional need to play through these key games to find their beauty, then you might want to pick up this pack. To others, to most of you, it’s hard to recommend and it might depend a little on the price point these are released at. My hope is that The Last Guardian will fulfil this same role, but for a new generation. And for those playing on latest generation equipment, Guardian will likely be a much better bet.

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