Are video games art? The conversation’s been decided by now, likely as a result of some sort of secret conference in a smoke-filled boardroom; it’s “yes,” by the way. Even bringing it up as a question these days will lead to angry nerds attempting to beat down your door – if we keep discussing it, it might stop being true, so just accept the answer you were given and shut up! That’s not altogether surprising, since games being art is valuable in a lot of ways to a lot of people, not least of which because spending ten hours straight playing Monster Hunter World now counts as “art appreciation” instead of “wasting your oh-so-limited time on this Earth.”
When we talk about video games as art, though, there’s a few standout titles that the conversation usually finds its way around to. These include classic heavy hitters like Metal Gear Solid, verbose RPG adventures like Planescape: Torment and any number of indie games that involve walking around and looking at stuff. They also inevitably include the work of Fumito Ueda, creator of atmospheric titles like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It’s the latter that we’re concerned with today, since that classic title’s found its way to a new home on the PlayStation 4.
As in the original, we follow an unnamed wanderer – usually called Wander – and his horse Agro as they explore a ruined landscape in search of towering animated Colossi. By slaying the Colossi, Wander hopes to earn the favor of a mysterious deity and by doing so resurrect a deceased loved one. Our hero isn’t exactly loaded for bear, though; he’s got an ancient sword that can damage the Colossi directly, a bow that’s more useful for long-distance irritation to leave the creatures vulnerable and his own grabby mitts. Given what’s on the line, though, this fight isn’t as one-sided as you might think; Wander’s sheer determination makes his mitts that much grabbier and his sword that much stabbier.
Actually bringing down a Colossus isn’t just a matter of slashing away at it, though. Each of the beasts has its own weak points; Wander can make these visible by shining a light on them with his sword. Once you know where to strike, it’s just a matter of getting up there and doing the deed. Early Colossi are covered in easily-climbed fur with obvious pathways up their massive bodies, allowing Wander to easily clamber on up and get to killin’, but later foes protect their vitals with obstacles, speed or sheer aggression. Shadow of the Colossus ends up playing out as a sort of puzzle game where more of your time is spent figuring out how to press the attack against an opponent that appears invincible.
It’s a pretty great concept all in all; the majesty of the Colossi is on full display and bringing each one down feels like an accomplishment. Meanwhile, Ueda’s emphasis on atmosphere makes everything feel a little more somber, adding a little more nuance to the goings-on. The Colossi weren’t really bothering anyone before you decided to show up and start wrecking them, after all, and who’s to say if that deity really intends to hold up its end of the bargain when they’re all rubble? War and Peace it ain’t, but Shadow of the Colossus can at least keep up with the average Pixar film and by video game standards any nuance whatsoever is something worth mentioning.
It’s certainly a nice-looking game as well. Shadow of the Colossus really capitalizes on a sense of scale; most games define “huge” as “the height of the screen,” but there, “huge” means “so enormous it has its own weather patterns.” There’s enough variety between the Colossi that there’s always an underlying urge to keep playing to see what’s next as well. Meanwhile, Wander, Agro and the world around them are brought to life by little graphical and gameplay touches here and there; note how Agro will automatically navigate pathways, for instance, or how Wander visibly tires as you climb up a Colossus. Even the environment has a sort of story to tell based on the ruins and remnants of whatever civilization was there before you arrived.
This is all well and good, but the initial release of this game on PS2 was stifled somewhat by questionable performance. The Colossi were huge and detailed and the environments were lovely but, well, the little Emotion Engine that could had trouble handling the goings-on. Many players were able to get past Shadow of the Slideshow to appreciate the underlying craftsmanship, but this keep me from enjoying the game to the utmost. Good news: more than a decade later, the game runs great on PS4! It’s a nice, smooth 60FPS all the way through on PS4 Pro (or a presumably nice, smooth 30FPS at 4K if you’d rather have that, but I’ll take 60FPS every time).
That alone might make this Shadow of the Colossus remake worth a look even if you’ve already played the original, really. It’s those diehard fans of the PS2 version that might get the most out of this definitive version of a beloved classic. Meanwhile, newcomers who are willing to accept that this is game that comes and goes on its own terms should certainly consider giving this one a closer look.