Think of the Statue of Liberty: crazy tall and impossibly massive, composed of heavy, durable materials like cement and iron. "She" is in the shape of a person, but that shape exists on a physical scale that utterly dwarfs us, and her age is almost impossible for us to comprehend. We are, literally, like ants to her.
Now imagine the Statue of Liberty has come to life, but she's a nightmarish, twisted version of the Lady Liberty you know. She's covered in armored stone plates and matted fur, her eyes glow with cold aggression, and she's stomping around like Godzilla, doing her best to crush, bludgeon, or otherwise bust up any living thing in sight.
Finally, what if someone you loved more than life itself had just died, but you could bring them back by killing this horrible Statue of Liberty ... and fifteen or sixteen other raging, titanic creatures like her ... with nothing more than a sword and some arrows?
In case you're not there yet, trust us: you have never, ever played a game like this.
At its most basic, Shadow of the Colossus could be described as a classic, hack-and-slash action game. But we're obligated by our love of video games to spend the rest of this review gushing about how different from the herd SotC really is.
It starts with the game's overwhelming sense of scale. Everything here is huge except you: the vast, empty land you explore to find the colossi; the ruins they tend to inhabit; and especially the colossi themselves. The tiniest one is the size of a Volkswagen, only two are smaller than a house, and the largest ... let's just say he has his own weather. We're not kidding.
Obviously, combatants of this magnitude lead to some pretty amazing battles. Each colossus has a specific weak point (or points) you must attack, but getting to the weak spot can be a real puzzle. You'll find yourself leaping onto the wing of one beast as it soars through the air, clinging for dear life onto the back of an aquatic beast as it plunges deep into a lake, and wondering just how to get high enough to jump onto the shoulder of a stone knight taller than King Kong. The answer is always part of the environment or the colossus itself, and the battles do a wonderful job of staying both diverse and incredibly tense.
Even amid this action, the game's incredible atmosphere evokes a mood in the player better than at least 99% of the games out there. There's a tragic sense of melancholy that still feels somehow beautiful. It's hard to say just what elements give the game this ability, because there seem to be several of them intertwining and working together. One is the story, in which your character braves incredible danger with quiet, desperate resolve, accompanied only by the world's most loyal horse. The story's simplicity, in that you do what you do for love, gives it resonance and impact.
The audio is also a strong contributor, ranging from near-silent passages in which the only sounds are Agro's hooves or the bubbling of a quiet brook to a mid-battle malestrom of orchestral clashing. When one of the great behemoths falls, the battle score suddenly vanishes, replaced by the dreamy, chant-like hymn of a gothic choir.
The world of Shadow of the Colossus is rich and detailed, but drably colored. Everything looks undeniably lush and exotic, but the poor PlayStation 2 is crushed under the weight of the math required to draw these landscapes and animate these gigantic colossi around it. As a result, the scenery often pops abruptly into existence, and nothing moves remotely as smoothly as it should, even if the movements themselves are artistically beautiful.
While we're complaining, we should also mention that both the camera and Agro's controls fight the player as much as the colossi. On horseback, rather than just pointing the analog stick in the direction you want Agro to go, you press up to go forward and left or right to pivot. It can get tricky when the camera is moving around; and the camera is always moving. It wants to be cinematic and artistic, even if that means giving you a poor view of what's going on. You should plan on repositioning it constantly.
These gripes are the reason that number at the bottom of this page isn't a 10, and they might be enough to make some gamers walk away from Shadow of the Colossus. That's fine if you just want adrenaline, and don't really care if your games are unique or artistic. But if you really want something different and meaningful, you must play this. You will remember some of these battles for the rest of your gaming life, and you may never play another game that blends art and action this seamlessly.