Has it really been an entire decade since Team Ico first pinged our radar? In that time, the Sony development outfit has given us just two games, but they’ve been two of the most beloved, highly regarded adventures ever to appear on the PlayStation 2. And now, finally, they’ve been packaged together in what may be the most eagerly anticipated HD collection to hit the PS3.
The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection has been years in the making, and it’s something we’ve wanted to see ever since Shadow of the Colossus overtaxed our aging PS2s in 2005. Of course, games have gone through a lot of changes since then – but in the intervening years, the industry still hasn’t really produced anything quite like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. In HD or otherwise, the games still stand as easily recommended must-plays, whether you’re a newcomer or a fan clinging to nostalgia-clouded memories. And the collection, if nothing else, is the best they’ve ever looked, even going so far as to add slick 3D visuals for those with the TVs to support it.
That’s not to say the games don’t look a bit dated, though. In particular, Ico and his herky-jerky stick-man movements take a little getting used to, as do some of the game’s environmental textures, which can look kind of blurry close up. The blurriness is even more pronounced in Shadow of the Colossus, although it could be argued that, given Shadow’s soft-focus, ethereal look, having backgrounds that weren’t a bit blurry would detract from its unique appearance.
However, that wouldn’t excuse the fact that – while looking much sharper and running at a much smoother framerate than its PS2 predecessor – Shadow still suffers from occasional visual hiccups (like textures that pop in suddenly) while you’re riding across its vast landscape.
Those issues aside, the games still look stunning, in large part because their art direction was always more about creating a moody atmosphere than about cutting-edge visuals. Ico’s colors are just as vibrant, its shadows are just as menacing and its characters are just as fragile and sympathetic now as they were in 2001.
Likewise, Shadow of the Colossus still retains its sense of foggy melancholy, although its vast, open landscape is even more impressive to ride through now that it doesn’t visibly chug as it streaks past. It also benefits more from 3D than Ico does, as the addition of depth makes its enormous sense of scale seem more tangible. Things like the bridge to the game’s central temple, for example, now look less like abstract background scenery, and more like massive, looming objects that just happen to be far away. It’s a cool effect, and it makes the battles against the towering Colossi feel a lot more urgent and vertigo-inducing than they are otherwise.
Visuals aside, the games play about the same as they did on PS2, which is to say they manage to be hugely engrossing in spite of somewhat fiddly controls and a few surprisingly frustrating challenges. They also feature just 10 save slots per game, which seems like an unnecessary throwback There’s one key difference, however, at least for American gamers: the Collection features the European version of Ico. That means you’ll encounter some noticeably different (and sometimes more difficult) puzzles and room layouts, although it also means that all the dialogue gets translated on the second playthrough – and that there’s a two-player option, for those who’d like to try Ico with co-op.
If you’ve never played Ico, well, you should. It’s a puzzle-focused adventure that revolves around a young boy – Ico – who’s brought to a mysterious castle and entombed alive because he was born with horns. He soon breaks free, however, and meets a pale, fragile princess, Yorda, who’s constantly hunted by intensely creepy shadow monsters. Together, the pair attempt to escape the castle, something that involves Ico trying to protect Yorda (who’s essential to clearing certain obstacles) while opening paths for her (and, more often than not, literally pulling her by the hand) across the treacherous, crumbling architecture.
A sidekick so helpless might evoke rage in just about any other game, and Yorda can certainly be annoyingly slow and unresponsive sometimes. But there’s also something about her – whether it’s her delicateness, her obvious fear or her seeming determination to overcome the first two – that makes her sympathetic, and makes us want to keep her from harm instead of pushing her off a cliff.
Aside from that crucial, symbiotic dynamic, Ico’s puzzles – which tend to involve a lot of climbing, exploration and experimental switch-pulling – are enjoyably challenging, and the occasional bouts of smacking shadow-demon kidnappers around with a two-by-four keep things from getting too placid. It all makes for an unusually sweet (if sometimes frustrating) romp that’s still achingly pretty after 10 years. It also comes with a handful of high-value Trophies that are relatively easy to get, so that’s a plus.
Next page: Shadow of the Colossus, and the verdict
For a lot of gamers, though, Shadow of the Colossus will be the real reason to pick up the Collection. One of the PS2’s last great games (and the first time a lot of reviewers started using the word “melancholy”), it provoked a lot of discussion, pre-Bioshock, about the nature of free will in games and whether doing things simply because a voice in the sky tells you to is really ever a good idea. It also gave players a chance to climb up the flanks of massive creatures, each one a unique puzzle with hidden weaknesses, and stab the shit out of them. So there’s that.
Revolving around a young hunter named Wander, Shadow’s gameplay is made up of two distinct halves: in the first, you’ll roam around its immense (and immensely varied) landscape on horseback, using beams of light from Wander’s sword as a compass to find the next Colossus. It’s a fairly lonely experience; with no enemies to fight aside from the Colossi themselves, your main challenge is simply figuring out how to navigate the rough terrain (and how best to control your horse, Agro, who kind of has a mind of his own).
Then, when you reach each Colossus’ lair, you’ll have two challenges, the first being how to actually reach said Colossus. This frequently involves picking your way across treacherous ledges and other obstacles that tend to involve a lot of climbing. Then you’ll meet the Colossi themselves. These range from towering, humanoid giants to smaller creatures that look and act like crosses between bulls and tigers. Some are extremely dangerous, while others are almost completely harmless, but either way they’ll all have to die.
There are 16 of them to hunt, and while each one is unique, the battles tend to follow the same pattern: first, find a way to weaken or distract it enough so that you can grab onto whichever part of it has the most fur. Then, as your grip meter slowly decreases, resist its attempts to buck you off and clamber around until you’ve found its glowing weak points. That’s your cue to stab until either you’ve been shaken off or your massive prey falls over, dead, in moments that aren’t so much triumphant as they are strangely sad.
Ignoring the atmospheric touches, though, we’d forgotten just how much sheer frustration there is in playing Shadow. The landscape’s maybe a little too vast, and although the game’s structured to keep you from revisiting the same areas (unless you want to), getting anywhere is not something you can do in a hurry. Also, when you begin the game, Wander is relatively weak, and so stabbing the average Colossus to death takes ages. This also increases the likelihood that you’ll fall off the Colossus while you’re trying to kill it, which then means you’ll have to repeat whatever you did to reach its weak point in the first place. This can be anything from hitting a weak point with a well-placed arrow to a grueling climb to a lengthy, high-speed horseback ride followed by a hard-to-time jump.
For those of us spoiled by the convenience of modern videogames, this can be extremely annoying, although never quite enough to be outright discouraging. It’s also never enough to mar the fun of discovering each Colossus’ weakness, or of climbing up their massive furry backs and delivering the hard-won death blow. Melancholy or no, there’s a definite satisfaction in bringing down something hundreds of times your size with nothing but strong hands, keen eyes and a sharp hunk of metal, and it hasn’t been dulled by six years of generous checkpoints and easy victories.
In spite of any irritations or hiccups the Collection has, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were both easy 10s when they were released – and while they’re maybe not quite as impactful now as they were then, they still belong in any serious gamer’s library (especially if said serious gamer missed them the first time around). These are brilliant, memorable, inventive and emotionally involving adventures, and the combination of remastered visuals, 3D options, Trophies and a $40 price tag make them more irresistible than ever.