Shadow of the Colossus, on the other hand, is everything that it has been acclaimed to be—the sum total of Team Ico’s experimentation in its previous effort, comprehensively refined, and providing a complete, engrossing experience. A major contributing factor to SotC’s appeal is that while the introductory sequence portrays a horseback trek similar to that seen at the beginning of Ico, the former foregoes misdirection by providing the necessary information to incentivize the gameplay: the seemingly androgynous Wander has embarked upon an adventure-seeking a place where he can restore life to a maiden whom he believes has died much too soon.
(Digression Warning: Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies, OH MY! I myself am a fan of the Underworld and [the old] Resident Evil* franchises, but I cannot help but to ponder how these myths are simply modern manifestation of, and answers to, old questions revolving around death. Even believers in Christ find themselves enthralled by these narratives, knowing the ultimate answer, yet still find entertainment in the “what if.” A topic for another day….)
The resurrection trope in fantasy is a fickle thing. Get hit too hard in a D&D game such as Baldur’s Gate 2, and death is permanent (anything but hardcore rules is for sissies); clerics can’t cast resurrection on a pile of gibs. Likewise, all the Phoenix Downs in the known universe (or the actual Phoenix summon) could not bring back Aeris (Aerith) in FF7. Naturally, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is the most seminal work of fiction (fantasy) on the resurrection trope, and well-read individuals know that the created creature is called [his] monster. Now I love me some Heroes of Might and Magic, and though I have found the modus operandi of the Necromancers in Heroes V compelling (I must disclose that they were always my favorite faction even when they were considered “evil” rather than “neutral”), we are well aware that life after death is unnatural, and that only one person in the history of humankind was capable of overcoming death under His own Power. So when Lady Isabel in Heroes V wishes to resurrect her beloved King Nicolai, he returns as an incarnation of Death itself and proceeds to desecrate all that is holy because he is cursed by birth. I bring forth Heroes V because it is the only game that I can think of at the time of this writing, besides SotC of course, where “the good guys” seek to bring someone back to life, as such a desire is usually a badguy thing where some minion wishes to summon a fallen master, spirit, or god, to achieve malicious goals. So the judicious gamer should be giving Wander the side-eye from the jump, and certainly playing through the game with an elevated eyebrow.
It should be expected that Wander should have to travel to a faraway place to find anything resembling the Fountain of Youth or Ra’s Al Ghul’s Lazarus Pit, and that there would be some proverbial dragons to slay, because something so anomalous would be highly sought and therefore guarded—but what few consider is are both possibilities that the dragon exists for the protection of the adventurer rather than as an adversary, and furthermore the motivations of the explorer. Wander’s journey ends at the bottom floor of a temple where he places the maiden’s corpse on a pedestal resembling an altar. A subsequent encounter with the Shadow Puddies similar to those that harass Ico and Yorda is notably unremarkable (then again, were any of those encounters ever anything more than irksome?) since he vanquishes them with a wave of his sword that resembles something from the age of Spartans. After having to maul those things to mush in Ico with 2x4s, rusty swords, and a morning star, we must be talking about a pretty powerful weapon within its ordinary form. Sure enough, a voice from above points out that Wander does not wield just any weapon, but a particular one, a specific one, an ancient one. Making it known that his wish is to restore life to the girl, the voice tells him that it is “not impossible,” but the price he pays will be great. Of course, like any would-be hero, Wander responds that it ain’t no thang. “K” is about what the voice replies, and indicates that to do so, the sixteen colossi idols that align this temple must be destroyed, and the only way that they can be is to kill their avatars in the “lands that are strictly forbidden.”
Thus the genocide of the colossal begins! There is not a more appropriate word for Wander’s mission given that the colossi are minding their own business eternally existing in the purgatories that are their individual valleys, lakes, and towers, until Wander straight-up stabs them in the back.
There is no question that the fights with the individual colossi are what made SotC a cult classic. Unlike with Ico, here I agree with the critics, because the fights with the colossi provide a payoff for all of the forced exploration. Indeed, from the first boss, the player must learn how to use light reflecting on Wander’s raised sword as a compass for locating the next colossus. The first is within reasonable walking distance, but subsequent colossi require some hunting and tracking through canyons, rivers, and mountain ranges. Ico also wants to showcase some impressive environments, but those presentations feel completely arbitrary. If I want some eyecandy “just because,” I’ll look at a picture and be done rather than invest hours of my life into…whatever Ico aims to be. Ain’t nobody got time for that. SotC on the other hand, rewards the player for every section ventured, even if previously visited.
SotC continues to pay off with the tension building before every fight as Wander explores the Forbidden Lands while upon his trusty his horse Argo, and the environments compound the suspense. Here, I’ll address some of my favorites. To reach Valus, Wander has to climb and shimmy upon a mountain, which is appropriate given the first impression that he makes as one of the colossi the player is expected to dispatch. Accessing Phaedra, the horse-like colossus that managed to kick me 10000000000000 ft in the air when I fell off of its back and onto its hind legs and ended up “floating” for 30-40 seconds, is found in a shady grove, simulating horror. Avion, the birdlike fan favorite, sits upon its perch above a massive but tranquil lake. And finally Phalanx the sand wyrm resides buried in a desert ruin. Each colossi is located in an “arena” appropriate for its form. SotC rewards the player with every foe fallen by returning to the temple, seeing the Shadow Puddies accumulate in number, and the corresponding statue crumbles in a magical explosion. Unlike in Ico, the player is always aware that s/he is building toward something.
Free exploration is also possible if the player so desires, but Team Ico strategically places the colossi so that most of the territory is covered in between or during the battles that make the game famous. It is possible to take on quests of finding all the prayer stones and certain fruits and animals which expand Wander’s health and stamina upon consumption. All who explore the Forbidden lands will find that it is a peaceful place. A playground, a sandbox. But you know what else is peaceful? A graveyard! It does not have the same luster yet “rest in peace” is an idiomatic expression for those who should not be disturbed, a mores upheld as sacred across numerous cultures in history with some reinforcing said belief with grave robbing laws. And yet, Wander rapaciously tears through this territory with remarkable perseverance because some of these colossi hit pretty darn hard as a deterrent, (IIRC, Malus could 1-shot me). Wander desecrates all in sight, assuring himself his doom.
Remember that the voice at the beginning says Wander will have to play a heavy price to bring the girl back to life? Yeah, it turns out, the colossi are ancient guardians of a subdued demon’s power. Every colossus contains a bit of the evil’s power. That raised eyebrow I spoke of earlier? Any suspicions should have been confirmed once Wander fells the first colossus Valus, and the strings of black tar seep from the beast and attack our “hero,” rendering him unconscious, exhaling a black puff of smoke. As Wander slays more colossi, the entropy of his humanity becomes evident on his person. I first thought that his febrile countenance was due to battle attrition, but it turns out that it is his soul that is dying as Dormin manifests within.
In the end, we should come to realize that in the game’s opening sequence, Wander does not vanquish the Shadow Puddies with the sword but Dormin dissipates them to allow our would-be hero passage into the Forbidden Lands, for only this ancient sword has the power to harm the colossi–if stricken in sigils that are revealed by reflecting light from the sword on them. I do have to wonder, if Lord Emon and his posse wanted to seal off an evil power forever, why would they have created a sword that allows some fool to unleash it? Seems silly if the shamen were trying to lock Dormin away and throw away the key.
Alas, Lord Emon arrives and indicates that Wander had stolen the ancient sword. Emon’s soldiers kill Wander despite his zombie-like countenance, but Dormin as a giant shadow monster emerges, so we know that the colossi were referential to Dormin’s power. Emon and the few men who survive Dormin’s outburst escape the temple in the direction that they came and cast a spell to repress the demon once more, leaving a horned infant where there was once a man. Interestingly enough, Dormin keeps his promise, and a hobbling Argo (who had fallen to her apparent doom en route to the final colossus) leads the girl to the infant as the bridge to the Forbidden Lands crumbles, sealing the girl, baby, and horse in this province forever. Argo leads girl and baby to an oasis at the top of the temple, where it can be assumed that the wildlife will sustain them in this purgatory. There are many fan-based theories which attempt to tie Ico with SotC, but I am completely content with this particular ending because trying to make sense of Ico just gives me headaches.
I’ll never play Ico again, but the assiduously designed colossi–painstakingly animated–paired with dynamic and thematic Music, will beckon me again one day, and I see myself returning to SotC at least to fight my favorite foes.