While most of its peers from the PlayStation 2 era have aged into vinegar, Shadow of the Colossus has remained an artistic achievement. The game’s only problems were technical ones, which the choppy and hazy PlayStation 3 remaster didn’t completely address. No more, as Bluepoint Games and JAPAN Studio have not only raised Shadow of the Colossus’s pixel count and resolution, as well as gotten it to run at a stable framerate, but also rebuilt the game from the bottom to the top, using 2005’s game code but 2018’s developer tools. In short, an already brilliant classic has been reincarnated as one of the most visually magnificent titles of our current generation.
Conceptually, Shadow of the Colossus was very much ahead of the curve when it was released 13 years ago. The game tells the story of Wander, a young man who, with the help of his steed, Agro, carries the body of a princess named Mono to a mysterious, derelict kingdom, which is fabled to house a power that can resurrect the dead. Once there, he meets a disembodied entity, Dormin, who claims to be able to return Mono’s soul to her body, but only if the young man can slay the 16 massive beasts that suppress Dormin’s true power. Wander takes up the challenge, traveling throughout the countryside doing Dormin’s dirty work, which he finds dirtier than expected.
Since 2005, games that examine players’ bloodlust haven’t exactly become commonplace, though many have effectively wrestled with our feelings of doubt and guilt. One of Shadow of the Colossus’s triumphs is its refusal to make murder feel good. None of the colossi, no matter how alien or invertebrate, are necessarily hostile. They all suggest frightened animals protecting their territory, and whatever catharsis you feel in slaying one comes from the selfish, uniquely human ideal of being something very small and frail standing toe to toe with something unfathomably enormous and seemingly all-powerful. The game then treats your victory with all the pomp and circumstance of having slain the last kitten on Earth. Every triumph is a tragedy for which Wander pays a deep physical and spiritual price.
A classic has been reincarnated as one of the most visually magnificent titles of our current generation.
Initially, discovering a colossus’s weak spot is easy enough; just find a good place to climb onto the beast and let your sword do its business. Later, though, a bit more finesse is necessary to bring your enemy down to your level. You’ll need to get the creature’s attention by whistling, or firing an arrow at it. Using some object in your immediate environment, you’ll lure the goliath to the exact spot where you need it to be. You may even need to goad it into taking a wild swing at you in order to make it break its weapon. Once you’ve got the colossus where you want, it’s then a matter of grabbing it by whatever you can find—usually the creature’s fur—and holding on for dear life while climbing toward its weak spot. Blessedly, another thing brought up to modern standards is how the game’s new, intuitive control scheme won’t have your fingers playing Twister across the controller’s shoulder buttons.
Even just finding the colossi is a journey in and of itself, probably the one joy of the game that isn’t tainted by any guilt over what Wander must do. The land where the beasts reside is desolate but awash in breathtaking natural beauty, rendered now with an unprecedented attention to detail. As Wander rides through forests and Agro’s galloping sends leaves gliding through the air, you may have no choice but to marvel at how the ground is bathed in the light of god rays filtering through the trees. The game’s sun-bathed deserts are by and large eerily still, except for when a soft wind sprays sand into the air or a stiffer breeze comes along and forms into a benign cyclone in the middle distance. You can almost feel the weight of every stone, its secret history, in every temple that’s being slowly reclaimed by kudzu vines. Even getting to these places requires careful navigation, patience, a daring to go out on ledges, enter an ominous doorway, or climb down a crumbling wall.
The colossi themselves are majestic now in ways that the PS2 and PS3 versions of the game could only suggest. Once nondescript brown patches of visible polygons and smudgy textures approximating scales and stone are now shaggy manes, cracking gray stone and skin, clear delineations of strange musculature. These are creations full of life and personality, with their sheer size and weight having tangible, earth-shaking effects on the environment around them. (The only mechanical flaw remaining from the game’s days on the PS2 is a camera that can still get fidgety during close-ups.)
The kill must still happen, though, leading to what’s still one of the most harrowing third acts in any game that’s ever been released, as well as establishing a perfect, subtle link with 2002’s Ico (and, in a more nebulous way, 2016’s The Last Guardian). Though its campaign is relatively short, Shadow of the Colossus manages to speak volumes, letting its environment and the player’s actions tell what is still a wholly engrossing, unique, and beautiful folk tale about a place where giants truly rule the Earth.