As quite the animal lover, we've always fancied a spot of horse riding, but, aside from the odd trot round a farm as a kid, or donkey rides on the beach, we've never really had much of an opportunity. However, if our attempts on games are anything to go by, we may not be the best at the whole steering thing - on Grand Theft Auto Wild West (or as less cool kids call it, Red Dead Redemption), we famously managed to circle our horse into a nearby river and drown the poor guy within a few seconds of hopping on board. Now, quite a few years later, we're ready to give virtual horse riding another go, with the recent remake of Playstation 2 cult classic, Shadow of the Colossus. The good news is we haven't managed to ride him off a cliff yet - the bad news is we did get him stuck in a tree at one point.
Still, as we all know, there's more to a game than good horse-riding mechanics. The story in Shadow of the Colossus is one that's perhaps best described as vague - you, a nameless Wanderer, arrive at a mysterious temple with a dead woman wrapped in a blanket. A short conversation with a disembodied voice reveals that you hope to bring her back to life, and in order to do so, you set foot inside the forbidden temple. As part of the bargain for reviving her, you're tasked with hunting down and destroying the sixteen colossi that roam the land, and so off you dutifully trot to murder some sleeping stone giants, with your noble steed Agro at your side.
And really, that's all there is to it - Shadow of the Colossus is basically sixteen boss fights, interspersed with lengthy horse rides from colossus to colossus. It's all very pretty, with some rather nice music, as you wander through forests, along cliff tops and trot across sandy beaches, but you can't help but shake the feeling it all just feels that little bit.... empty. Especially if you consistently go the wrong way, get lost and end up taking the scenic route to your next scuffle. Theoretically, holding up your sword should give you a beam of light to lead you to your next destination, but half the time it either points straight through a cliff, as the crow flies, or refuses to point at all, no matter what direction you face, which leads to a lot of tedious wandering around.
The boss fights are arguably one of the highlights of Shadow of the Colossus - which is perhaps to be expected, as they're about the only thing there is to actually do in the Forbidden Lands. Part battle, part platformer and part puzzle, taking down each of the great hulking colossi requires brains as well as brawn, as you have to study their movements, and come up with a strategy to defeat them. Generally speaking, each colossus has a couple of weak points, indicated by glowing glyphs on their body, that you'll need to attack in order to do any damage - the only problem is that in order to attack them, you'll need to climb up there first, as they're nearly always on their back or head, way above the ground.
The best way to get up there is generally to climb up the massive stoney giants, although how you go about it varies depending on the boss. Some are a simple matter of clambering up a hairy leg or hopping up some conveniently-placed ridges in their stone skeleton, while others require a bit more strategy. One early colossus, a large knight-like being with a stone sword and armour, likes to swing his sword to the ground to make a convenient ramp for you to run up. However, once you get to climbing up the beast's arms, you hit your head on his stone armour bracelet, some way short of your target on his head. The solution? If you want to get to his head, you'll need to smash his spangly bracelet first - and the way to do that is to lure him over the metal circle in the centre of the field. Get him in the right place, and as he swings, he'll smack his sword on the metal, shattering his lovely jewellery (sad for him), but letting you climb up his furry arms, leap along his armour and make your way to the top of his head (good for you), where several stabs will see you take him down for good (disaster for him). Then it's onto the next colossus - a different beast entirely, which you have to try and outsmart by running around an underground warren to lure him into a good position to leap up his tail, before climbing up his back and stabbing him in the neck.
Figuring out how to defeat the colossi is really the main draw of the game here - however, you can't help but feel that the methods you have to use are sometimes a bit too obtuse. While there is a disembodied voice that does try and give you hints, they often end up as more of a hindrance than a help. Take the aforementioned braceleted knight, for example, where the hints tell you that his armour is his weakness - and which in turn left us spending a good ten minutes shooting arrows at his breast plate, or trying to hack his bracelet off with a couple of jumping sword slashes. Not once did it occur to us that the metal patch of floor was anything but decoration. For the colossus after that, you're told the key is to "hide thyself underground", which is a bit more explicit, although the fact that the underground passageways are a bit of a distance away from where you first encounter the boss, and the fact the ground underneath him looks a bit cracked and unstable, can also be a little confusing.
Shadow of the Colossus was also seemingly a pioneer of one of those infuriating staples of modern games - a stamina bar. When scaling the colossi, you can only hang on for a set amount of time before the Wanderer's arms give way and you fall to the ground. Standing still recharges the bar, so if you can manage to find a flat place on the back of the colossus, you can regain stamina without having to start over, but given that most colossi don't like you climbing all over them and stabbing them in the back, they'll often buck and try and throw you off. As such, getting yourself to a flat spot, and managing to time your arrival to coincide with when the beast stops trying to frantically shake you off its back is a bit tricky - and if you don't time your movements well enough, you'll struggle to get to a safe place before your bar runs out, and you'll have to start again. You can extend your stamina bar's capacity by hunting down glowing lizards that roam the Forbidden Lands and pocketing their tails, but it's such an arbitrary idea, and one which the game never bothers to tell you about, you may not even realise the reason you can't make the jump isn't that you're doing it wrong, but that you haven't upgraded your guy enough.
There's nothing especially wrong with Shadow of the Colossus, and we can see why some may hail it as a masterpiece - it's quite pretty, with some great music, and some quite clever bosses to take down, we can't help feel it hasn't aged all that well. As nothing more than a series of boss fights, separated by long horse rides with nothing much to do, it can all feel a bit too empty - like a load of boss fights that are missing the rest of the game to go with it - and for someone who's a bit… lacklustre when it comes to platforming, the stamina bar quickly gets to be a bit of a pain in the backside. While there's certainly some fun to be had with Shadow of the Colossus, we personally prefer the much more puzzle-centric approach of The Last Guardian, which didn't seem anywhere near as obtuse and awkward, even if your overgrown budgie friend did ignore your orders from time to time.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4