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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Review: Shadow of the Colossus

Format: PS2
Developer: SCEI Production Team 1

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment International


Urgh, 'SCEI Production Team 1', such a jarring juxtaposition of clinical corporate regimen against the wide-eyed realisation that this team has not been doped or bonded by their employers, but left free to create something truly majestic. In harmony with Cory Barlog's observation (he's the director of God of War I and II), this game drapes a silken subtlety over the themes it elegantly addresses. SotC aptly avoids the temptations of Hollywood-style, testosterone and napalm-fuelled plot progression - eerily - as though this game were developed is an alternate Proto-Hollywood hegemonic yet digitally capable universe. Wonderment at Japan's cultural isolationism aside, SotC features giant freakin' monsters: the colossi. As the protagonist, Wander, you'll be responsible for the felling of the gargantuan inhabitants of this strikingly radiant game-world. So, how can SotC be subtle? The big chap on the game's box wouldn't do so well at a game of hide and seek in and around your grandparents' living room, would he now? Well, it's in the methods used to tell SotC's story, in the way that Wander and Agro (his horse) develop a character and motivation despite the minimum of dialogue (actually, Agro hardly talks at all), but rather through the player's identification and empathy with a duo clearly suffering through adversity. My understanding of SotC was borne through being compelled to supplant my own worldly experience in lieu of any definite knowledge of Wander's world, and, in doing so, to accept the symbiosis of my own personality with that of the protagonist. The colossi are strong characters in the most obvious of ways, however, playing SotC you'll marvel at the many nuances and intricacies that amaze precisely because they don't take up the entire screen with a toenail or attempt to model your avatar on a pancake.

The colossi sport Reactions lenses.

Now that I'm forced to unceremoniously disassemble SotC's gameplay, it's clear that there are three distinct segments, to be named, 'The Briefing', 'The Hunt' and 'The Battle'. The Battle is inverted in upon The Briefing, meaning that once you've killed the Big Bad, you'll find yourself (almost) instantly back in The Temple of Briefing (I'm so glad Sony didn't call it that).

Briefings live up to their name because your boss issues instructions whilst standing before you in his underwear. Although I just lied to you, my reviews are to be trusted. What actually happens is a heavenly light shines down from the roof of the temple, accompanied by succinct orders, furnishing the player with ambiguous and perfectly unhelpful clues about the next colossus. The Briefing is the weakest section of the game and mercifully brief. My ire is raised because I'm no fan of the voice acting, the fictitious in-game language's semiotics, or the content or font present in the subtitled translation. After every fourth colossus is toppled, the player is granted a cutscene of such marvellous quality it almost, almost, dispels the lacklustre quality of The Briefing.

Moving on: The Hunt. In the above picture you'll see Wander holding his sword aloft, beaming radiant sunlight against the matted chest of a hideous beast. This sword-and-sunlight dynamic forms a crucial element of SotC. Holding the controller's circle button whilst manipulating the left analog stick allows the player to harness and reflect any light source towards a target. This technique has two major applications: the cone of light will focus and become more intense when pointed in the direction of the next colossus on Wander's death-list, the second application regards battles, I'll cover that in a moment. I like SotC's reflective navigation because, as well as being beautiful (along with the rest of the game), the mechanic remains embedded in the world - it's feasible - I find this preferential to a jarring radar-display, HUD-based or otherwise 'artificial' mechanic. I call this segment 'The Hunt' because of the distance you'll travel before encountering your mark. The environment is diverse in setting and rendered in a remarkable style that I find reminiscent of high-exposure photography. Distance travelled in SotC should be measured in pleasure.

The battles are mostly great. From the walkthrough I consulted (I have no shame!), I've garnered that people's opinions vary widely as to which colossi are rubbish and those that are the most difficult to beat. For example, I read that people had a lot of trouble dealing with the sand-worm, but I found that if you allowed Agro to take charge of whatever direction he cared to carry you, killing the beast was simple. Aptly demonstrated by Blockhead, computer games have a talent for exposing our strengths and humiliating inadequacies. I fell off the last boss so much I had to quit the game before my head exploded. To describe how a colossus is reduced to an inert hill or small mountain, it's best that I attempt to tackle a summary of how SotC's platforming is handled. The use of L1, to grab, is paramount. It's possible for Wander to grab and then shimmy (or pull himself up, or jump away from) almost any ledge, mossed or hairy (yes, hairy) surface in the game. Hair comes into the equation via the follicles of our big-hearted chums (they're not big-hearted because they love you, sorry), who are often covered in the stuff, allowing you to grasp the intricacies of stabbing your sword deep into the places they'd rather you didn't. Oh, yes! The sword, I said I'd mention the sword's light once more: it's very helpful to shine a beam, caressing the colossus with the glow, because the points at which the rays focus will aid you in identifying the important parts of your adversary's body, this equates to the parts you should stab or fire an arrow at. Alternately, if you clamber close enough to one of these points when your sword is unsheathed then the magic of exploitation will cause a symbol on the colossus to glow. Fighting a colossus is a lot better than I've made it appear. You won't be thinking about ledges or even hair during the battle, you'll be screaming 'Dios mio!' (this article is pending localisation).

Wander represents the proverbial David to the colossi's Goliath, as such, his life often dangles on the line depending on the dangling ability of the player. Health rarely presents a problem until the later colossi, but stamina is an ever-present hazard. Handily, gauges accurately plot the decline of both attributes, allowing the player to remedy Wander's imminent cessation of wandering. I particularly enjoy the moments when Wander runs out of stamina and regains just enough during his fall to manage a desperate grasp onto an obscure invert of the colossus - I've actually discovered weak points using this, ahem, 'method'.

"Hi, I came for the gymkhana"

I adore the audio. The orchestral accompaniment serves as a suitable incense to the chambers of sacred sites and long-forgotten halls of worship that comprise much of SotC. The game makes use of a central musical score which is then modulated according to the moment's theme and place, perhaps a knowing tip of the hat to the player's discovery of the unknown amidst the familiar: the unforeseen swell of a viola set against the rebellious nature of a game that goes beyond expectations, a world without restraint, an orchestra loosed into this setting lacking a conductor.

I want to believe that SotC exists as a grand design which, like the ancient monuments of its world, stand in defiance of reason or regulation. This can't be true, SotC has been developed, as all PS2 games, through a series of staff meetings, bosses, underlings, compromises and amendments. Yet, what I love most about this game is that not a hint of sacrifice taints the purity of vision that radiates to the depths of this holy font of gaming.

2 comments:

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pharmacy said...

Maybe the most epic game I've ever seen in my whole life! simple amazing!