Monday, October 31, 2005

Colossal Ruminations

Well, I've finished Shadow of the Colossus, and am overall very pleased with my experience. I gave a brief overview of the game a few posts ago when I bought it, so rather than repeat myself I'll get right to the specifics. Shadow of the Colossus is all about atmosphere. It's light on story, has very simple (albeit flexible) gameplay mechanics, and has a huge sandbox with almost nothing in it, and all of these serve to really put you in the role of the nameless protagonist and immerse you in his world. Whether riding your horse across an open field and watching the birds flying alongside you or dodging a sword 100 times your size as it crashes into the ground, it's very easy to leave the couch and lose yourself in the game. Also, there are all kinds of little, inconsequential and undocumented details that really give you a feeling of participation in the gameworld. Feeling hungry? Then shoot a nearby bird or slash a nearby lizard and chow down. And if that's a little too grim for you, then have some fruit hanging from a nearby tree. And if you like, you can riddle either the corpses or the fruits with arrows until they look like a pincushion. For more fun with arrows, you can walk up to a tree and thunk arrows into it to spell "Hi!". If you find a thin tree and sink a few arrows into it, you can then go around the other side and see their ends protruding. Bored with arrows? Then run over to the local pond. Whoops! Careful about tripping over a turtle. It'll hide in its shell an send you stumbling. Once you find a fish, go ahead and grab on and watch it thrash. Anyway, you all get the idea-- it's very fun and immersive.

And the boss battles. Oh my. These battles are essentially the entire game, and they don't disappoint. I've never seen a game so effectively convey a sense of disparity of scale. The moment you see a colossus, you get the distinct impression that it could squash you like a bug. From watching the ground and trees shake when it walks, to running between its legs and climbing up its back, and finally to desperately hanging on as it tosses about its head, you're always intimately aware of the comparative size and power of these things. And those are just the mundane ones. Eventually you'll be hanging on for dear life as colossi fly through the air, dive underwater, or burrow underneath the sand. This is made all the more stressful by the fact that, while you're desperately trying to stay alive, you also have to figure out how to kill it. Each colossus has one or more weak points that you can stab or shoot to injure it, and for the first one its simply a matter of getting up there and doing the dirty deed, but things quickly get more complicated for subsequent colossi. This is because, although it may not be immediately obvious, this game is essentially an obfuscated puzzler/platformer hybrid, much like ICO was before it. The colossi themselves serve as giant puzzles, and also as giant platforming stages once you climb onto them. For each colossus, you have to figure out how to make it expose its weak point, and how to get to it, which is generally not immediately obvious and generally is comprised of several steps. So, half of the fun (and eventually frustration) is in figuring out how to kill each colossus. This being the case, I suspect that this game would essentially be ruined if you made use of a FAQ or walkthrough. Just to give an example, one particular colossus took me 2 hours to beat the first time around, but only took my ten minutes during a later time attack (more on this later). So, although some of the more convoluted solutions may have you pulling out you hair, it's well worth the time and effort, and the sense of accomplishment as they stumble and finally crash defeated to the ground is significant.

Now that I've got all of the gushing out of the way, I do have to admit that the game is not perfect. The game world is one large seamless environment, streaming data as you move around, so if you gallop everywhere on your horse, you'll notice the textures move and suddenly take on extra dimensions of detail as you approach them. Also, I've read many reviews lamenting the camera and the controls, which I generally disagree with. Some people seem to have had many problems with the camera, but I'm given cause to wonder if they knew how to control it properly, since, aside from a couple of specific problems in key situations, I found the camera to be flexible, intuitive, and responsive. And, as a cute added bonus, the camera is always enabled, even during otherwise non-interactive cutscenes, and even during the introduction, idle demo sequence, and title screen, which is new to me. As for the controls, despite having heard the opposite from other reviewers, I found them to be simple and intuitive, although I do wish mounting the horse was a little easier (I often found it easier to run and launch myself onto his saddle than to just walk up and get on, since the mount button is also the jump button and you have to be placed perfectly to mount with it).

There are several other aspects that I've heard people take issue with, and they are essentially the same things that I already lauded earlier. There were several design decisions made in order to enhance the atmosphere, and whether you love them or hate them seems to be largely a matter of personal opinion. The narrative is simple and lacking in detail (although there is a surprisingly robust ending waiting for anyone who finishes the game); the only other real character that's around is your horse, who doesn't talk; there's not much in the way of power-ups, items, or menus; there is a huge, seamless environment that offers no reward for exploring it other than the experience itself; and, finally, there are no minor encounters to fill the space and time between colossi. Although I'll admit that I found the reward-less exploration a bit frustrating, since exploring every nook and cranny in search for goodies is my usual modus operandi, I found most of these things to be a refreshing change of pace. The only other real complaint that I've heard is the length, and I fervently disagree. I finished my first game in roughly 20 hours, and with each passing year I am increasing of the opinion that no game should be longer than 20 hours, so I was entirely satisfied. It kept me busy for the better part of a week, and that's plenty for me. However, even if you do take exception to the length, the fact of the matter is that the minimalistic gloves kind of come off after you beat it once, unlocking a new game plus in which you can time attack each colossus, earning fun game-breaking special powers and items if you beat them quickly enough. Additionally, a hard mode is unlocked, and if you beat it once it too has its own new game plus in which you can earn a second set of powers and items in hard time attacks.

In any case, depending upon the type of gamer you are, you might love or hate Shadow of the Colossus, but if you fall into the later group, you're an uncultured Philistine. :-)


Blogger Stefan Robak said...

Sounds pretty damn good. I haven't played this game (well, for very long) and I'm already curious as to what the creators of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus will do next. Their unusual games are very refreshing and engaging (in terms of both gameplay and story).

By the way, I have theories on how ICO and Shadow may be connected, but I'll bring that up when I see you next. Man, it's been a while since I've played a game, but I really want to play Shadow of the Colossus.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005 12:24:00 AM  
Anonymous NOS said...

The graphical artifact about textures snapping in and out of detail doesn't sound to me like a streaming data issue... That's just standard Level-Of-Detail algorithms at work. The approach of swapping out high-rez textures for low-rez when you are far enough away that you probably can't tell. This doesn't have to do with the seamless-openendedness other than it lets you get away with a much longer draw distance. (And avoid Turok-Fog.)

Er, I think, anyway. I'm no graphics programmer, that's just my understanding of the algorithms involved, as hauled out from my ass. Anyway, you can notice it in just about any 3D game if you look for it. The degree of smoothness is mostly a hardware issue, I believe, so I'm not surprised if it's pretty glaring on the PS2 with the ambitious environments you describe.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Aiden Green said...

So....did you beat JA2 yet?

Thursday, November 03, 2005 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

*shifty eyes*

Actually, I started playing Fire Emblem for GBA and am presently finding it hard to tear myself away. It's quite fun.

Also, with my ailing drive, I spent a lot of time this week running fixes and diagnostics that took sometimes days at a time, so my computer was usually tied up.

That being said, I did play for an afternoon between Shadow of the Colossus and Fire Emblem, so I managed to liberate a few more sectors.

Thursday, November 03, 2005 4:11:00 PM  

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