The Shadow of the Colossus
The Shadow of the Colossus came out this week. It could, I suppose, be considered a "sequel" to Ico, a vastly under-appreciated puzzle/dream of a game that came out several years previously. In Ico, you solved puzzles and explored a giant castle, with a princess in tow. In the new game, you do much the same thing -- except that it's a vast land, and this time the princess is dead.
Visually, TSotC is clearly the successor to Ico -- it shares the same great contrasts of light and dark, and the strange shadowy creatures of Ico even make a cameo appearance, although (so far at least) there's been no fending them off like in the previous titles. Instead, the castle that was your main foe in the previous game has been taken to a new level -- now, there are a series of sixteen increasingly elaborate colossi, castles (if you will) that participate much more actively in obstructing you, now that they are fully ambulatory.
TSotC (like Ico before it) has the nice property of only offering you a limited number of actions, but having those actions provide you with a rich panoply of combinations. At the end, you can basically can jump, grab, and scramble. Gameplay consists of figuring out to get from A to B, before your grip weakens enough that you fall. How do I get up? Where do I rest? How do I irritate the beast enough to make a new avenue of ascent open up?
Your horse is a fascinating companion. Unlike other games which feature mounts, this one feels more like you're in the middle of a kind of riding simulator. You can't directly control the horse -- instead, you pull on reins, and use your feet to gee-yap, if you will. The horse's animation's are impressively detailed, and the illusion that you have a living being aiding you on your quest is compelling. Just riding your horse across the game land is an exhilarating experience, especially in surround sound.
The land is also fascinating. It's vast and rolling, and as the game progresses, it's becoming clear that the land will also make for a challenge to navigate. I was hot on the heels of the second colossus, looking out over what appeared to be rolling plains when suddenly my horse reared and came to an abrupt stop. There had been a cliff, disguised by the downward slope, and only the clearer sense of self-preservation evinced by my mount kept me in one piece. It was a great adrenaline moment.
It's worth noting that this game chooses to sidestep the "regular gameplay" vs "boss gameplay" dichotomy by being a game that's just about beating bosses. I like this a lot. I'm not screwing around trying to explore every nook and cranny of the environment, or worrying about getting past makework minions -- I'm completely immersed in the problem at hand, which is finding a giant freaking golem, climbing on top of it, and stabbing it to death. It's difficult to describe how freeing an experience this can be.
The PS2 is clearly showing its age -- the textures are of low-detail, and prone to aliasing effects. But the game art design mostly successfully hides this, relying on high dynamic range effects and light bloom, as well as a muted but effective color palette, to take you past the aging PS2 hardware and right into this land full of wonders.
The sound is incredible. The sound design is minimal, but environmental effects are used very well to convey dark echoey chambers as well as the rush of air that comes when you're clearly far too far off the ground.
Also, the game lacks the ability to save anywhere -- you can only save after each of the sixteen bosses. If you fail, you don't start back at the save point however -- you restart in the same general area where the failure happened. Still, save anywhere would have been a nice (and always welcome) touch.
I'm past the first two bosses, and I've been very pleased with the balance of discovery and challenge. The game has a mechanism for delivering hints if you're at a loss -- I spent quite a bit of time riding around the second boss before I finally put together what the clue actually meant, but once I did, I felt quite a bit of satisfaction from figuring it out.
I'm very happy with the game, and I look forward to progressing through the rest of it. 1:40:22 AM ()