As taglines go, ‘into the unknown, ride forth’ isn’t the most attention-grabbing. Even more so when you think of the alternatives Team Ico could have gone with for a game where you stand on the shoulders of giants… then repeatedly stab them to sad, stone-faced death. And yet those five little words perfectly capture the central charm of this enigmatic work of art.
Exploration in Shadow of the Colossus is everything. You’d assume the core appeal of a game that’s essentially 16 interspersed boss fights would be, y’know, the bosses. And you’d be wrong. Sure, its gargantuan scraps against melancholic leviathans that act as moving platforming levels as you clamber around their grassy backs are richly enduring, but it’s the quiet, introspective navigation of a desolate forbidden land on horseback that truly cements Colossus’ classic status.
Once known as Nico, the ethereal giant-killer originally contained much stronger links to its spiritual successor Ico. Like the ghostly hand-hold-‘em-up, Colossus originally starred horned boys who roamed the land hunting mighty beasts in packs. While the ‘guilty slaying of strangely adorable monsters’ survived as the central theme, it’s the lack of the team aspect that makes the title such a mesmerising piece.
Controlling the near-mute Wander, it’s your job to make a pact with a mysterious demon in order to bring your hero’s missus back to life. To do this, you’re tasked with murdering a series of the cuddliest goliaths this side of the BFG – no, not the sweary Doom blaster. Cue a lonely trek across miles of disquieting marshland, decaying forests and decimated shrines on gaming’s best horse. Thanks to your fantastically animated steed Agro, there are few PlayStation outings where the journey is so much more important than the destination.
In the absence of a supernatural satnav, the only way to guide Wander from gloomy point A to stabby point B is to point your sword skywards. Hold circle and your blade sucks up the sun’s glistening juju and provides a beam that points you in the general direction of the next Colossus. As tracking systems go, it’s about as reliable as getting drunk, blindfolding yourself, then attempting to seek out your regular Friday-night kebab joint via the hope of catching a whiff of rotting donner.
But it’s precisely because exploration is so hands-off that this is packed full of accidental moments of beauty. Stumbling upon a hidden beach or taking a dip in an elusive sinkhole are the sort of excursions that only occur through veering off the beaten track.
It’s testament to the game’s beguiling world that forumites have written War and Peace-dwarfing diatribes over the years dedicated to glitching the game’s unlockable parachute to uncover hidden areas of the map or to find the rumoured seventeenth Colossus. Give it up, guys: you’ve more chance of catching Nessie knocking back an Irn Bru chaser in the Loch Ness Arms.
Yes, those 16 bosses are of course wonderful. From a sky-surfing earwig to a brilliantly beardy troll, each sizeable scuffle subverts expectations through thoughtful placement of each beastie’s weak spots. Yet it’s the ride into that unknown that makes this PS2 gem such an unforgettable trip.