Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review - Shadow of the Colossus HD

There have been a lot of HD collections of PS2/Xbox games released in the last couple of years. Some have been well done, others have been cheap, poorly optimized, or otherwise lacking in some way. Re-releases of older games really seem to bother a lot of people on the internet, but the way I see it, it's no different from re-releasing a album previously released on tape on CD. As long as the price is decent and the conversion is well done, it shouldn't be a point of anger. You don't need to buy every version of a game you love, but it's a great option for people that never played them before. In 2011, Sony released HD versions of two of their most critically acclaimed titles, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I'm happy to say that this collection gets pretty much everything right.

For the sake of this review, I'll be focusing on Shadow of the Colossus HD. I'll cover Ico HD in a later review. I hope that I have something useful to say for both people new to these games and fans who played the original versions and are curious about the HD editions.

In this game, you play as Wander, a young man who comes to a cursed shrine with the intention of finding a way to bring his lost love back to life. He encounters the disembodied voice of Dormin, an ancient monster who promises to restore this lost life if Wander fulfills a series of tasks. It's an obviously bad idea, but Wander goes along with it, embarking on a journey to destroy 16 giants that roam the land.

The world is large and open, but the game progresses in cycles; Dormin gives you a clue about where to find the next Colossus, you get on your horse and ride to it, figure out how to enter its arena, figure out how to defeat the Colossus, and then get warped back to the shrine to do it again. There are no minor enemies along the way. You can consume fruit and hunt lizards to boost your maximum health and stamina, but this can be ignored completely and not really affect you. The time spent in battle with the Colossi is (for the most part) intense, and the time in between the fights is serene. The environments were gorgeous in 2005 and look even better now. The HD version adds widescreen functionality and nicer textures, making the world of this game look modern in a stylized way.

When you reach a Colossus, you can annoy it with arrows, whistle at it, and climb all over its body in search of weak points to stab. Wander looks less like a hero in these instances and more like an annoying insect, and is treated as such by the Colossi, who desperately shake to try to loosen you from their fur. These creatures are killed not to save the world, but for purely selfish reasons, and when you take down the more docile ones, the game definitely makes you feel bad about it. Some of them are real jerks, though.

This game became famous in Games As Art circles for its minimalist narrative, the selfishness of its hero, the tragedy of death, and its poignant ending. It tells its story well, and its art design and music are fantastic. The encounters are epic in scale, and most of them are quite exciting to engage in. As an audio/visual experience, Shadow of the Colossus is nearly perfect, and thankfully, the HD remaster actually has a steady frame rate, which was a big problem for me in a few fights in the original version.

That said (I'm sure this will be a point of contention): I don't think the game itself is perfect. Some of the fights are a lot worse than others (Colossus 4, the stone horse, is particularly bad, even knowing exactly how to defeat it). The camera feels smoother than it did on the PS2, but it's still not perfect, and it can still get stuck against enemies and leave you unable to see anything around you. It also doesn't lock into place at all, so if you tilt the camera to get a better look at the enemy, it will snap back to its original position as soon as you let go of the right stick. The game also, on rare occasions, would lose my y-axis camera settings and revert to the defaults. I'm not sure if that issue existed in the original version, but I don't remember encountering it before.

Riding through plains on your horse is exciting at first, but it begins to wear thin by the time you reach the end of the game. You never have to repeat entire areas, but things will start to feel repetitious once you're done with all 16 Colossi. A much bigger complaint is that there are a couple bosses that require you to swim, and swimming in this game is very, very slow and exactly the opposite of exciting. Swimming is often unenjoyable in video games, and Shadow of the Colossus is not an exception here.

I honestly feel that this game would have benefited from a shorter play time. As it stands now, it's roughly a 7-10 hour long game. I think it would have been perfect at 5. Every time I replay it, I start to feel the need to just get it over with once I get to around the 12th Colossus. I know this is an unusual complaint, but I think the game would have felt tighter if four of the Colossi had been cut. Which four I'd cut is a more difficult issue (except Colossus 4, I'd take him out in an instant), but I seriously think the game's pacing suffers towards the end, especially since you have to start riding longer and longer distances to reach each progressive Colossus.

So, again, I think this game is a masterpiece of art design, music, and simple narrative. I just think its gameplay has a few tedious bits that stand out for me, and I'd have no complaint if the game was shorter.

That's just me, though. For people who enjoy spending hours wandering the plains, there are plenty of fruits to eat, lizards to hunt, and shrines to find. There are Trophies associated with each optional task. There's also a Time Attack Mode for each boss once you've completed the game, which lets you get right to the action without having to hunt down each Colossus, and a Hard Mode which I've never tried out.

Another minor complaint is one that's exclusive to the HD version; not all menu resources are redrawn. Specifically, text and buttons displayed when you're saving your game are stretched out and ugly since they weren't originally drawn with widescreen in mind. This just feels really lazy, but it doesn't affect the game itself. Everything that actually matters to the game looks perfect.

You can find hundreds of essays about why this game is emotionally the most important game someone has ever played. I think it's a great game, but I don't think it's a transcendent experience. I don't think you can plop someone with no interest in video games down with this game and get them to fall in love with the medium. I don't think Shadow of the Colossus will convince anyone who hates games that they're suddenly art. It's a beautiful game, but it's still very video gamey in a way that will not appeal to people who aren't interested. I think that's fine; I don't think the game needs to transcend its medium. It does what it does extremely well, in spite of the issues I have, and whether or not someone else thinks games are art really doesn't matter a whole lot to me.

Shadow of the Colossus was worthy of the praise it received in 2005 and it's still quite excellent today. The HD remaster is well done, and it really makes me wish I had a 3D TV to experience the full 3D mode it supports. No game's ever made me say that before! In addition to the remastered versions of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, this collection contains three concept videos, two making-of videos, and two downloadable system themes. It also features a reversible cover, in case the logo-heavy front to this game isn't to your liking. This is a high quality package, and is the definitive version of these games. If every HD collection were as nice as this one and the Metal Gear Solid collection, I think there would be a lot fewer complaints from gamers.

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