In 2005, Fumito Ueda followed up Ico, his directorial debut, with its spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus. In it, the player guides a young man named Wander whose trespass into a mystical, forbidden valley is largely motivated by the cursed fate of his beloved. According to the folklore of his people, this place has the power to return souls to the dead in exchange for undergoing a perilous trial. The game would go on to earn critical acclaim for its gameplay, visuals, and evocative presentation. At the time, Shadow of the Colossus was a great technical feat for the PlayStation 2, but age has since weathered its once acceptable appearance. A remastered version for the PlayStation 3 softened some of the rough edges, but it’s difficult not to see it as a relic when held up against games that are getting more and more photorealistic.
Enter Bluepoint Games. After bringing the game to the PlayStation 3, they have returned to Ueda’s fantastical world and brought his vision to Sony’s newest console with a staggeringly beautiful update. This isn’t a “George Lucas adding CGI to the original Star Wars trilogy” kind of update -- This is Leonardo da Vinci going back to finish the Mona Lisa. From the opening cutscene to the game’s emotional conclusion, toe to tip, this version is how Shadow of the Colossus was meant to look. High resolution textures, powerful lighting effects, ambient weather, and a fluid, consistent framerate come together in a grand restoration of a video game classic.
To those who missed out on the game in 2005 and 2011, this third-person adventure involves tracking sixteen Colossi and defeating them in a one-on-one battle. Like a gnat trying to attack an elephant, your attacks are largely ineffective to these towering behemoths with the exception of weak spots indicated by glowing blue sigils. Attacking these areas will significantly damage a Colossus but getting there is often easier said than done. Each Colossus, then, is a traversal puzzle that challenges you to navigate across their body, climbing atop fur, moss, and rocky armor while the Colossus does everything in its power to shake you off. The Colossi present the player with unique situations and environments that play a role in how you’re intended to topple them. Should you get stuck, the disembodied Dormin, who has set Wander on his trial, will chime in with subtle hints. Every Colossus you face is designed to feel as epic as the game can allow. The in-game camera behaves dynamically whenever the player isn’t manipulating it, panning, scanning, and zooming out to better impart a sense of scale. The music also changes depending on the situation, with a quiet and methodical score that plays underneath your attempts to find a way onto the Colossus and then changes to something more rousing, exciting, and active as you clamber atop their frame in search for the weak points.
The experience of playing Shadow of the Colossus never ceases to amaze. Even the quiet moments during the lead up to each Colossus battle, where there are no enemies to fight, instill a feeling of quiet awe. While certainly playable on the PlayStation 2, it did suffer from technical problems because of the platform’s limitations. Framerate drops were an all too common issue during encounters that featured a lot of particle effects, or if there was just a lot of action going on screen at once. Lighting effects were effective yet plain, which can also be said of the graphics. It was pretty, but textures looked as good as they could on the system. Granted, the game didn’t need to rely on painting a pretty picture because it’s gameplay was so enthralling. By today’s standards though, if there was ever a game that could benefit from a modern reconstruction, it’s this one--and Bluepoint doesn’t disappoint.
From the game’s opening cutscene, I couldn’t believe I was seeing the same game from thirteen years ago. Shadow of the Colossus on the PlayStation 4 is breathtaking in every possible way. The textures are far more vibrant and show staggering detail (whether you’re looking at trees or ruined structures), the Colossi are incredibly detailed and feature animated fur effects that are on par with a Pixar film, and the world itself has more character as trees sway in the quiet breeze, sunlight cuts through dense forest canopies, and sand devils swirl across the valley’s desert plains. Water splashing against lake shores can be seen from miles away, dust gets scattered to the winds, and water froths realistically as it spills over the edge of the landscape. The best visual improvements, by a wide country mile, are the renewed lighting effects. While the sun and firelight are responsible for creating some fantastic shadows and god rays, I grew really fond of the effect of the Colossis’ blue sigils. Not only do they stand out better during an encounter, but they also emit a glow that spills onto Wander’s body whenever he’s in close proximity. I find it difficult to properly convey just how good this remake looks, which is why I made liberal use of the newly added Photo Mode to make screenshots for this review. Like Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection (also a Bluepoint joint), you can hit a button at any time to pause the action and take a shot, manipulating various sliders and filters that should delight your inner shutterbug. Because it’s impossible to take a bad photo, I can’t wait to see what the community does with it.
Shadow of the Colossus will forever hold a special place in my heart. Everything about this unique adventure, from watching hawks fly alongside Wander and Argo to the tragedy that precedes its conclusion, is as I remember it: powerful, evocative, and heartstopping. I was able to recall almost every Colossus battle but even though I knew the trick for each, the encounters never fail to be exciting. In fact, I strongly believe that the Colossus 13 encounter is one of the most thrilling setpieces of any video game made within the last twenty years. After the story is over, there are a few things to keep you sticking around. A New Game+ option lets you start the adventure over with health and grip meters carried over from the last playthrough, a Time Attack mode, and even an option to play the whole thing mirrored add more to an already full-feeling experience. Completionists are likely to go back and find all the shrines, crystal lizard tails, and apples to fill out their Trophy logs.
Rebuilt for a new generation, Bluepoint has created a stunning tribute to one of the best video game experiences on the PlayStation. I haven’t seen a quality remake of a game like this since Capcom’s Resident Evil REmake. And now that the visuals finally match Shadow of the Colossus’ grandeur and scope, there’s no better time to play it for the first time--or third, fourth, or fifth.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.