Brilliantly Flawed #07 – Shadow of the Colossus

Woof.

There are so many games that are near enough universally adored, but are they all as perfect as we like to believe, or are we just peering through overly rose tinted glasses? The goal of Brilliantly Flawed is to expose games we all know and love for what they really are: very well made and enjoyable, but by no means perfect. Watch as childhood memories are shattered and objections are shouted. This week we take on Team Ico’s seminal adventure game, Shadow of the Colossus.

The Defence

Sunny says: 

Shadow of the Colossus was a title I picked up during a point in my life where I had been ploughing through game after game, tirelessly completing one after the other. I had been saving worlds, conquering distant lands and rescuing princesses in an endless, tedious cycle. Shadow of the Colossus offered something different. It deviated from the usual norms and conventions that I had come to expect in a game. It made me take a step back and question how much I really enjoyed playing games. It taught me to appreciate them more with its use of brutal minimalism in narrative, setting and gameplay, which also provided what was probably my first truly emotive gameplay experience. Agro, the player character, Wander’s horse contributed significantly to the experience of Colossus, conveying the game’s themes of companionship and parallels through the simplicity of the game’s cast, as well as the desolate setting.

The travel sequences separating each of the colossi provided the player with a great journey through arid deserts, dark ravines and decaying forests, with the emptiness of each area further amplifying the player’s companionship with their horse, their only means of travel through the landscape. The battles with the colossi themselves were truly grandiose in scale and, for lack of a better word: amazing. Each colossi needed to be defeated in a different way, sometimes Wander needed to use the environment, sometimes they needed to be outsmarted, or the player could simply climb from bottom to top. The use of the stamina gauge while mounting a colossus further increased the tension of the battle as the player furiously searched for their foe’s weak point, but arguably one of the greatest moments of the game is defeating each colossi, providing a tremendous feeling of triumph. Shadow of the Colossus can emulate this feeling incredibly successfully through the use of scale and parallels. Giving the player a seemingly impossible task of defeating a forty-feet walking statue can be highly daunting, so the feeling of achievement is heightened significantly when the player has (literally) scaled such an insurmountable obstacle; emulating emotion that not many games can successfully accomplish.

If nothing else, the game taught me to how to spell “colossus” correctly.

The Prosecution

Dan says: 

Shadow of the Colossus was a really lovely game, the world fully drew you in with its pure level of desolation and the bosses were one of the highlights of the PS2′s lifespan. While I have no doubt that the boss battles throughout Shadow of the Colossus are widely praised as one of their strongest points, I feel they also hide one of the main flaws. Due to the game lacking almost anything substantial in the way of content besides the climatic boss fights, the idea that the battles themselves never really progress in difficulty and lack imaginative battle design and structure (of course, in my opinion) is a massive hindrance to the overall experience of Shadow of the Colossus. In regards to the statement about battle design not advancing throughout the game effectively enough, it is of course to an extent subjective, but I feel that overall the battles can cause a number of players to feel stagnant through their play sessions.

Michael says: 

As much as I loved Shadow of the Colossus the first time I went through it, it felt so hollow and empty. There was literally nothing to do that was off of the main path, which just seemed like a waste of an opportunity for a world as big as Shadow of the Colossus’. This apparently lack of extra content held up as fact to me until I’d later found out online that the extra content was there, but that it was never explained or obvious enough for someone to come across immediately. Lizard tails and fruit were collectable and boosted health and stamina. If the player had eaten enough lizard tails, there was a secret area that they could get to that was otherwise inaccessible due to the player not having enough stamina. While this doesn’t add all that much to the experience, it’s still a hidden extra that shouldn’t have been so hidden. A lot of criticism about the game comes from the fact that there’s nothing to do in the game other than follow the main path, which would be true if there weren’t expertly hidden collectables lying around. Even if it was only for the smallest of perks, these kind of collectables shouldn’t have been assumed to be tacit.

Greg says: 

I only played Shadows of the Colossus quite recently as part of the HD collection, but even after 7 years it still took my breath away especially the updated graphics. It’s a near flawless game that completely and utterly draws the play into a fantastic world that holds these gigantic Colossi but one thing constantly prodded at my side as I was bound across the landscape, which was the fact there was barely anything at all to do or see between each gameplay section. Surely the addition of some small nooks and crannies to really explore wouldn’t have hurt the fantastic atmosphere? Possibly a water well that leads to a small, hidden colossus that is somehow condemned to the area, or even a small cave hidden inside a crack in a mountain face that leads to an item which increases your stamina bar? Even some cosmetic items could be hidden away as small extras that allow for some extra exploration, though this would possibly affect the overall tone. It isn’t a huge problem, not at all, but the sheer lack of anything interesting, save for the main Colossus battles, leads to bouts of tedium in an otherwise outstanding game.

Counter-Point

Sunny says:

In response to Dan’s point about the colossi battles not progressing in difficulty, the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each colossi presented the player with the task of stepping back and thinking about: firstly, how to ascend, and secondly, where the weak point is. The early colossi helped establish this framework to the player for future battles. The game would then switch up the formula of each battle as the player progresses, fighting water-based, airborne or smaller colossi which required players to put more thought into their battles. The general mechanic stayed the same, but the true difficulty comes from solving the “puzzle” of how to take down each colossus, which was one of the most satisfying things about the game. Thus, I agree to an extent that the difficulty did not progress much further outside the main battle mechanics, but the game’s real difficulty comes with thought rather than action.

Michael’s statement about the game feeling “hollow and empty” is frankly, one of the main reasons that I adore the game (and many critics seem to agree). The intentional use of desolation helped the player appreciate the little things about the game, such your horse or the environment itself, or even the abundance of things to do in most other adventure games. If the world was filled with sprawling towns, NPCs, minigames, etc, the impact of the game would be lessened significantly. The setting also helps drive the game’s story as the emptiness of the world mirrors the emptiness of Wander as he is slowly corrupted by Dormin. I will however agree with Michael’s point about small additions such as lizards and fruit. These were trivial little additions that were added into the game as optional hidden bonuses that could increase Wander’s stamina, and while a good idea, a badly implemented one, and an almost Suda51-level of weird.

As for Greg’s point, I completely agree. Even if there is nothing to gain from it from a player’s perspective, expanding the exploration aspects of the game would be a huge increase in the game’s longevity. Many fans have been drawn to the game for its stunning environments, so adding some extra mountain passes or temple ruins outside of the main story for the player to find and explore would be a huge improvement.

The Rebuttal

Dan says:

Fair enough, but I feel that a real escalating challenge or some real differences in the gameplay would have done nothing but add to the experience and create more of a title that is fondly looked upon for more aspects than the atmosphere. It had a great amount of potential but ended up falling slightly short from what it was really capable of in my eyes. There’s always The Last Guardian, eh?

Michael says: 

I don’t really disagree with the use of them in the game, it’s just that there was essentially nothing to tell you that they were there. It was just a case of luck if you’d somehow taken 20 seconds to experiment in a game that would have bred out the experimental nature of any gamer in the first 20 minutes. Even then, the secret area it opened up to you really wasn’t all that special and it wasn’t at all worth the effort required to get there.

Greg says:

Glad you agree as it seems like such a small thing but would improve the game immensely. It just seems like such a waste for such a fantastically stunning game to not include other distractions throughout especially since temples seem so completely fitting within the world. As said, it’s not a huge thing in the slightest and it feels like an obvious omission to help create atmosphere but I would’ve loved to go searching around in some side areas.

It’s hard to fault a game as fondly looked upon (by fans and critics alike) as Shadow of the Colossus, and while the game has a solid formula, its faults lie in the fine print with a few gaping inconsistencies. Small flaws like these are no reason to undermine the game entirely however, with Shadow of the Colossus remaining as one of the most engrossing and acclaimed games of its generation.

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Author: Dan Carter View all posts by
Hey there, I’m Dan. I’m the Managing Director and Editor in Chief of Parable. I adore gaming and have a big background in console eSports, which is probably why a lot of my pieces put such an emphasis on it. Aside from that, any good RPG, FPS or Visual Novel can drag me away from the real world for double digit sessions. I also write for Decerto.net and Team eNigma, leading eSports brands.