A few weeks ago, me and my fellow Bearded Robot; Peter, decided to play one of my personal favourite games of all time; Shadow of the Colossus. Peter had never played it, but knew it only by reputation, so it excited me to be bringing something so amazing to someone for the first time. I love doing this. Showing someone something that they have never seen before, but yet you absolutely love. I have also read lots of theories on it, so afterwards I was then able to educate him into some of the ideas and hypothesises that people have on this game and, mainly, its peculiar ending. I am currently doing the same thing but in reverse with my other friend on Dark Souls, so it is interesting to be shown something for the first time that has a huge cult following and which the other player is so passionate about.
I remember the first time I was shown SotC (Shadow of the Colossus). I was round a friends and they just randomly stuck it on and we started playing it. It was in that moment, when you are introduced to the first colossi (love that word), that my life was changed forever. Much like the protagonist of the game, right then I felt like a small and insignificant speck hiding and fighting for survival in the shadow of this tremendous game.
Now I will be going into some serious spoiler territory, as I am assuming that you have played this fantastic and legendary game. If you have not, then I would whole hearteningly suggest that you go away and play it now. Do not read anything online about the game (other than the occasional tip on how to defeat one of the colossi, or at least how to get to the next stage of the puzzle) as this will spoil the magical wonder that the game makes you feel. I can’t describe the feeling that I had when I first completed it and saw the bigger picture of the minimalistic plot, which meant that I had to go away and read theories online for it to help me get an even better understanding for it.
After me and Peter finished this run-through of SotC last night, we then watched a YouTube video explaining this game’s story in-depth, linking it to the developers other two games, and even then, 10+ years after the game’s release, and probably about 7 or 8 years after the first time I had played it, and all the subsequent play-throughs afterwards, I am still learning so much about it.
With that in mind… let’s press on.
Released for the PlayStation 2 in 2005, Shadow of the Colossus is the second game created by Team Ico, and directed/written by game designer Fumito Ueda. Their first game (and inspiration of their development team’s name) Ico, follows the story of a young boy, born with horns and so considered cursed, as he is sent away to a fortress. There he must rescue a princess and escape, fighting off shadowy figurers and her mother. Whilst it sounds simple on paper, the game is anything but. The player must help guide the princess but literally holding her hand. She cannot fight and must be protected through the game’s entirety. So effectively it is like all those terrible missions in GTA and other third person shooters, where you must protect someone unless and if they die then it is game over, but for an entire game! The player must solve puzzles and scale the castle, finding routes so that the princess can be saved.
Skip forward quite a few years and we have Team Ico’s latest game; The Last Guardian. This one is effectively SotC and Ico merged together, as it follows the story of a young boy who must be protected by an enormous dog/cat/bird creature. The creature itself is very SotC-like, and YOU are now the one who needs to be protected and cannot fight, turning the idea of Ico on its head.
While I will not go into too much about these games, having a small understanding of them helps build around SotC, as these games are all loosely linked together for those willing to see it. Sometimes I have read things online or watched YouTube videos of people desperately trying to link the games together, but other than the ending of SotC directly linking to Ico (as well as the fortress in Ico seen in the background of one of SotC’s cut-scenes) there isn’t really much else joining the two. It is clear that it is set in the same universe, and from the ending of SotC, we learn that it is maybe a prequel of Ico, with Ico taking place over 2000 years later (which you can find out if you read up about the number of horned children who are sent to the fortress and the time between each horned child).
As for The Last Guardian, on the other hand, other than the basic feeling of the game (the setting and the Guardian itself), unfortunately there is nothing linking the games that isn’t just outlandish beliefs.
All three games play similarly. They are all third person games where the controls feel a little sluggish and the camera is awkwardly going into walls and never where you want them to be at the right moments. Even with The Last Guardian coming out in 2016, Team Ico have not made any attempts at trying to resolve this.
The player’s avatar jumps and rolls, swings a sword, and can climb the terrain. When playing The Last Guardian, you automatically feel at home, as if you are playing SotC, and the same with SotC to Ico.
We will get more into the gameplay, or what little their really is, in a moment. Let’s get back on track and get back to SotC.
So the story of SotC is very minimalistic. I had heard that it actually inspired the creator of Demon Souls and Dark Souls to create a deep story without saying any words, and now that I am playing Dark Souls, I can totally understand this. So, for the purposes of this Retrospective, instead of straight away telling the key plots of the story, I will get to that later when it is time to reveal it (despite the fact if you have decided to continue reading, you already know it), so as to try and recreate the way that we are given such little information in the beginning of the game.
SotC follows the story of Wander; the protagonist of the game, who is first seen travelling on horse back across a mounting, through a jungle, and among ruins, in order to reach a large desert like area with a large bridge leading towards an enormous structure in the centre of it all. When he gets there we can see that he has been transporting something under a cover, and, once inside the structure, he places it onto an altar. As he pulls back the cover, we can see that it is the body of a young woman (Mono is her name). Wander announces that he has travelled here to seek the help of Dormin, who is a strange and mysterious voice within the temple, in order to bring Mono back to life unsing ancient and taboo magic. She appears to have been sacrificed for having a cursed fate and Wander has travelled to this Forbidden Land, with a relic sword that voice in the temple seems to recognise. Dormin says that he can bring her back to life, but there will be a great cost. Wander tells him that he does not care, before Dormin then goes on to explain that there are 16 Colossi in this sacred land that must be defeated. Each one is represent by a statue within the temple.
That is basically all we are given as far as story goes for quite a while in the game.
After this Wander must travel to each Colossus and battle them. Unfortunately you cannot fight them in any order, so the rest of this land is barren. You are able to travel everywhere you like, but to be honest, it feels completely pointless. You cannot fast travel and other than black lizards with white tails, which can be found at save point shrines dotted around the map and the occasional one in a hard to reach location (these white tailed lizards increase your grip metre), there is nothing else here in this game. Apparnetly the game was suppose to have loads of wildlife in it, but other than a few birds and some lizards, there is nothing else here.
If this had been made today, then you would be able to fast travel and there would be a shit ton of collectables, relics, artefacts, manuscripts, etc, that you could find. Thankfully SotC doesn’t go in for that (and this is not because of the age of the game, as other PS2 games had these types of collectables in), so really the only thing to do is to crack on with the game.
There would have also been loads of hunting animal challenges that games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Far Cry, and every other open world nature game likes to include nowadays.
There are also no other enemies in the game. Other than the 16 colossi, the game features literally nothing else than travelling to the next boss, which is done via horse, foot, and/or climbing. Some of the journey’s to the next colossi are quite difficult, sometimes in terms of traversing the terrain, and other times because you can’t figure out exactly where you need to go. Fortunately the relic sword that Wander has can be held up in sunlight, and you can move the beam of light that is produced to shine towards the way you need to go. It doesn’t work in shadowy areas, so the forest part of the game, you need to find spots of sunlight to guide you.
Another point is that if it was made today, then we would most likely have a mini-map and a compass telling us which way to go.
So the game is just essentially 16 boss battles. After ever one you are teleported back to the temple in the centre of the Forbidden Land, and we are treated to a cut-scene of the statue representing the colossi, we have just fought being, destroyed and then the voice Dormin telling us who our next battle will be against; “Thy Next Foe Is…” All the while shadowy figures stand around Wander, growing in numbers with each colossus defeated.
Occasionally we are treated to a little extra scene, and it is at those times that the we are gripped and heavily invested into the story. As the game tells us next to nothing, whenever it does tell you something (anything!), we act as if we have been rewarded and must sit quietly as we watch it, taking it all in. It is strange as games that flood us with cut-scenes, like anything by Hideo Kojima, we find ourselves maybe not giving it our full attention. SotC does an excellent job of giving us the bare minimum and making us want more.
I can, however, understand why this might put people off. Sometimes you do want a little bit more, and if you are playing SotC for the first time, with no previous background knowledge of it, then you are really going to have to push yourself to get to the point where you realise that this game is truly amazing.
The minimal story, mixed with the minimal gameplay other than the bosses, is a terrible combination on paper. If it was presented to me decades ago, then I would have most likely turned my nose up at the very idea of it, but for some reason it really works well here.
With regards to the gameplay, Wander can ride his trusty horse; Agro, and while doing this you can attack with his sword (which you NEVER need to use, as the Colossi are too big and the only other thing you can kill are the lizards, who are too small), use your sword for navigation, you can also shoot your bow from the back of the horse (which you will need to use for some of the bosses). You can do all of that stuff not on horse back as well, and you can also crouch, roll, and jump. You also have a button to lock onto the colossi, and if you press X then you can whistle at it to get the creature’s attention, but I am not 100% that this actually works. If you press X whilst not locked onto a boss, then Wander will call for his horse.
The boss battle themselves are what makes the game. Each one is kind of the same, but at the same time, completely different from one another. They are all essentially gigantic puzzles, rather than bosses, as you can only injure them in specific locations, represented by a blue glowing glyph on their bodies. These glyphs can only be targeted with the sword, so Wander must scale the creatures in order to find them and defeat the colossus. Sometimes there are a couple of different glyphs on the beast, and they will each represent only a part of its health, so after you have dealt enough damage to one, it will disappear, and you will be left to climb it and find the next one (some of which can be in really hard to find locations and will take some creative thinking in order to get there). If you complete the game then you can play on hard mode where some of the glyphs have changed locations.
Some of the colossi, you will feel as if that was the greatest boss battle of all time. You will this euphoria once you have finally taken it down and seen the cut-scene where it crumbles away, and other ones will be incredibly stressful and find yourself swearing and gripping your controller tightly as sweat begins to drip from your forehead.
Whilst replaying this with Peter, I have found some bosses that I remembered being fun, stressful and annoying, where as others, which I remembered being difficult, being really enjoyable. So it really does change each time you play it.
The good thing is that none of them are terrible. While some may be annoyingly difficult and you can feel your hair turning grey (I’m looking at your number 16), they are all amazing in their own way.
Each one is completely different from one another, and while some may appear, at first, to be similar, they are really not, not just in appearance, but also how you defeat it. For example, the first, third, sixth, and ninth colossi are all huge humanoid characters, most of which are armed with a club, knife, or a large pillar type thing weapon, but each one looks completely different. I forgot to include the third when I was first writing this just because of how different it really is to the rest of them.
Others include an enormous dragon/snake type creature which flies high above the desert, a bird, a huge horse-like one, and a giant turtle which shoots lighting at you, to name just a few.
That is another point, some of them will attack you. While others just feel as if they are defending themselves (more on that in a bit), some will actually trying and kill you.
Some of them you need to fight on horse back, which is probably the worst part of this game, as the Agro controls like a shopping trolley. There is a part in the game near the end where you must traverse this collapsing bridge, and Argo just kept hitting the edge of the bridge and stopping dead, leading me to fall to my death. Needless to say, I was not impressed. In the battles against the colossi, especially the 10th colossi, a large sand snake, which you must ride in one direction on top of Agro, with the colossus chasing you, as you look behind you to shoot it in its eyes with your bow, whilst leading it into a wall… and not hitting the wall yourself, which is fucking difficult to do! Let me tell you that!
Other ones you must climb and work out where you need to get to in order to get to the colossus’ glyph, and/or holding on for dear life as the beast tries desperately to buck you off of it.
You see Wander has a grip meter which depicts the longer you hold on for, and can only recharge when Wander is standing still (something difficult to do when you are halfway up a Colossus’ back), so sometimes you can be completely thrown off of it and have to start the entire process again.
Each one is accompanied by an amazing sountrack. Some of the scores are aboslutely brilliant and feature in my own personal play lists for Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, or just in my general music libraries. ‘The Open Way’ and ‘Demise of the Ritual’ are a couple that come to mind and really stand out as absolutely masterpieces.
The colossi themselves are these tremendously large mixture of dirt, stone, brickwork, and fur that are just beautifully designed to bring these creatures to life. The look of this game is truly something to behold. Each one has a face and deep coloured eyes which, after a while, you do feel bad for killing them, which is sort of the point of the game.
You see at first you feel as if they are the enemy, but then as time goes on, you begin to feel as if they are just harmless creatures and we are hunting them. Dormin; the mysterious voice of the temple, seems to be this dark entity and that the Forbidden Land is forbidden for a reason.
After each colossi has been defeated, you are left to play the game for a moment. Automatically you are going to start to head back in the direction of which you came, but suddenly these strange black tendrils pour out of the body of the defeated colossi and force their way into Wander, dropping him to the floor and knocking him out. He then awakens inside the temple again, as we see the colossus’ statue destroy etc.
After a while we start to notice that Wander is changing. His clothes are becoming tattered and dirty, and his skin is starting to grow dark and veiny. It is a slow change that you might not even notice at first (especially with the graphics of the PS2), but when you do, you start to think that maybe you shouldn’t be doing what it is you are doing.
After the 12th Colossi has been defeated (so a large chunk into of this 6 or so hour game), we start to be treated to a few more cut-scenes taking place after each colossus battle. We start to see these mysterious people on horses who appear to be travelling to the Forbidden Land. One of them is wearing an owl mask and has similar clothing to Wander, so it is clear that these people are from the same place as him, or are even chasing after him. It is the first time we have seen anyone other than Wander, the horse Agro, and the body of Mono, so it is really a shock to the system.
When you get to the final colossi, everything changes. We are shown a few more scenes on the actual journey to the boss, one of which is where the bridge, mentioned earlier, collapses and Agro throws you off of him to save you, resulting in him falling down into the canyon below, with Wander calling out to him as he falls, leaving him to face the final boss alone.
The boss itself is an absolute abomination and incredibly frustrating. Thankfully this is not a walk-through so I will not bother going into that. But once it has been defeated, we are shown a scene where the people travelling to the Forbidden Land arrive at the temple.
Lord Emon (as one of the others calls the owl masked wearing guy) watches in horror as the final statue is destroyed. When Wander returns, he is fucked up! His skin is dark, his eyes are white, and he has spawned small horns sticking out of the side of his head (remember that link to Ico?). Emon is shocked to learn that Wander was behind it, almost as if he didn’t want to believe it to be true. It is clear that they knew each other, so all the characters are from the same village, maybe even hinting that Wander is some kind of student of Emon (who appears to be some kind of village shaman) as the two of them wear similar outfits, different from the others in Emon’s crew and what Mono wears.
Emon tells Wander that it was he who managed to break Dormin’s soul/spirit/essence into 16 pieces and locked him away inside the colossi. So it is clear that the creatures are enormous prisons holding in the evil entity’s essence to stop him from making his return, for which he has managed to get Wander to free.
Emon tells us that Wanda stole the relic sword from their village, which is probably why they chased after him, as it seems that this sword is the key to locking and unlocking Dormin’s power.
Wander, fuelled by his love for Mono, who at this point is still just lying on the altar as she has done through the entire game, attempts to get to her, but Emon and his men stop him by shooting his leg with a crossbow and stabbing him with through the chest. Suddenly Dormin speaks and transforms Wander into a colossi himself, only a strange shadowy one with enormous horns and attempts to kill Emon and his men, who at this point are running for the door.
It seems that the shadowy figures who stand around Wander each time he returns to the temple, are essentially the 16 pieces of Dormin’s essence, and they all flood into Wander to help form him into this colossus.
You are left in control here to try and stop Emon, but it is a waste of time and pointless piece of game-play. It is a terrible idea that must have looked good on paper, as it is sluggish to control and to work out what the hell is even going on. It is a nice twist that suddenly you are playing as the colossus, but it is not overly implemented well.
So as you can guess, due to the shoddy controls of the colossus, Emon and his men escape (there is no way to avoid this). Emon says that he needs to seal this place and throws the sword into a pool of water at the bottom of a large spiral staircase inside the temple. This causes the Dormin/Wander hybrid to be pulled into it, and as Emon and his men are escaping, the bridge collapses, essentially separating the Forbidden Lands from the rest of the world.
Emon says something here about how he hopes one day Wander might be able to atone for what he has done, insinuating that he knows that Wander is still alive and what will happen to him.
Just then the credits roll and you get a glimpse of the bodies of each of the colossi, and we assume the game is over. After the 16th one, we are then shown Mono at the altar lying there as the breeze blows through her hair. After a few moments it appears that Dormin did hold up his end of the bargain and Mono opens her eyes. I am unsure at this point in time of how she was sacrificed and if so, did her wounds heal? But I suppose that doesn’t matter.
When she gets up, we hear the sound of a distant horse, and Agro hobbles in. When this happened I had a gigantic smile on my face. I was absolutely gutted by Agro’s death and when he came back, I thought it was a truly wonderful moment. I was heartbroken by his little broken leg, but at least he was still alive. I am wondering if Dormin had anything to do with Agro’s revival as well, as there is no way the horse could have really survived the fall that he did.
Anyway, Mono hears another noise and heads for the pool at the far end of the temple. There she finds a young newborn baby with horns, which she picks up and enbraces.
It is here that there are many theories as to what this is all about, but the one that makes the most sense and that I really like, is that the spell Emon used converted Wander/Dormin back to the most purest state a person can be; a baby, but it is now a hybrid of the two, which is why it has horns.
It is clear that this is the first of the horned children mention in Ico, and it seems that after this, Mono and Wander either created a race of horned children who then integrated back into society, or perhaps Wander atoned for what he has done and was accepted back into the village years after he had reach adulthood and long after Emon had died, and Wander procreated.
Mono, horned baby Wander, and Agro heading up to a secret garden at the top of the temple, filled with animals and beautiful trees, before the game comes to a definitive conclusion.
It leaves us with a sense of wonder and mystery that has been discussed and theorised online for over a decade. While the true answers we might never know, we are left with some interesting ideas behind it all.
A great theory I saw was one that I have intrigued into this article, and that it discusses the idea that Emon sacrificed Mono because of her cursed fate, possibly due to the fact that he saw in a vision of some kind (being a shaman and all), that she would play a part in the return of Dormin. This, of course, this leads to the idea that Emon created the events that would ultimately lead to the return of Dormin, the one thing he was trying desperately to keep at bay. I love stories like that.
Another interesting idea is that The Last Guardian is a prequel to SotC (which in turn is a prequel to Ico) and the boy in that game is actually Emon as a young child. It is from this that he learns about the colossi and eventually the dark power of Dormin… but of course that is just a cool thread I read about online. I am sure there are a hundred more that are just as interesting and you should probably go and check out (if you have made it to the end of this retrospective). Both fit together nicely so I am going to keep them as my official interpritations of how these games link together.
And so that is essentially Shadow of the Colossus; one of the greatest games ever made, not for the gameplay itself, while the battles against the colossi are epic and incredibly enjoyable, the story itself takes a large portion of the stage for me personally, which is ironic as the story is minimal and told very loosely with a lot for people to interpret however they like, but the boss battles against the colossi are truly magnificent in their own right.
It is for this reason that SotC is a brilliant masterpiece and one of the top 5 or so games in my personal list of the greatest games ever made.
While not an overly replayable game (you can do the time attack mode, try and get into the secret garden, and try out hard mode), it is best to play it in its entirety, then leave it for a few years before going back to it.
Hopefully this has inspired you to replay this grand achievement in gaming’s history and go forth on a quest to destroy the 16th colossi and bring back a dark entity to save the life of a young girl.