This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Shadow of the Colossus.
"Ooh, Yahtzee!", moos the farmyard cattle, "We'd love to hear your opinion on StarCraft II." All right, then, you passive-aggressive future casseroles: in my considered opinion, StarCraft II can suck on a space tailpipe. I'm taking a holiday in my "No StarCraft II" clubhouse, and you're all invited to come up the rope ladder and join me.
I've got nothing against real-time strategy, except that everyone who plays them is obviously a massive coward, content to order soldiers to their deaths in fiery shootouts that are all taking place in the far end of a space telescope and therefore so is every country that likes StarCraft. That's right, Korea, I'm calling you out! But I had enough trouble commanding a cub scout troop, so strategy is a genre I've just never gotten into.
Sadly, it's August, and the release schedule has settled into its annual "tonguing the bottom of an empty KFC bargain bucket for nourishment" phase, so fuck it. I'm just going to clamp my hands over my ears and talk about a game I really like.
It seems like all my favourite games are on the PS2, but before that ugly black VCR starts getting too smug, the PS2 just had a massive game library because it had a good third-party support, and for every killer7 and Silent Hill 2 there were fifty Red Factions and Onimushas and Silent Hill 4s.
But if any company embodied the PS2 at its peak, it would be Team ICO. Their first game, narcissistically-titled ICO, was a game that sounds fucking awful on paper: a platform-puzzler that's spent protecting a princess who can't fight, jump, or walk and chew gum at the same time from continually respawning monsters apparently made from Vegemite. But it's tolerable because there's this very clear sense that the princess is part of something far bigger than is immediately apparent, and more importantly keeps her mouth shut, am I right, fellers? It's just a bit more sophisticated than the usual approach to romance in games, which is to say: "Here is your woman. You love her because: A) we say you do, B) she's the only thing in this plot with an X chromosome, and C) she's built like two shrink-wrapped bowling balls arguing over a sandwich."
Now in Shadow of the Colossus, the love interest spends the majority of the game flat on her back - seems Team ICO have a rather traditional view of gender roles. Suppose we should be thankful she wasn't wearing gingham and cooking us pancakes. But actually, her role is to just lie there driving the plot. You are a hot, young stud who has brought his questionably-alive lady friend to a forbidden land in order to request that an imprisoned demon bring her back to life, because these arrangements always work out beautifully for all concerned. The demon's terms are that you search the forbidden land for sixteen giant monsters and kill each and every one with a sword that, by rights, they would barely register as a splinter. And if you should happen to notice a mysterious black poison being released with each victory that slowly corrupts your body, then don't worry, that just means it's working. Or you could always just let it go, dig her a nice grave, and look into online dating, but no, giant monster black poison it is. This is what they call, "true love", apparently, something I've always felt is virtually indistinguishable from brain damage.
Shadow of the Colossus is usually filed under "action-adventure" like everything else that's hard to classify, but really, it defies genre. The gameplay is divided between adventuring alone through the silent wilderness and the sixteen tussles with monsters so large you could hollow out their carcasses and repurpose them as low-income housing. In the former, everything's peaceful and contemplative, with no combat and no puzzling besides navigating the occasional mountain that sits obliviously between you and your destination like a fat guy in a cinema. And in the latter, everything's noisy and intense like you're playing Hungry Hungry Hippos backstage at a DragonForce gig. It creates an effective contrast, like riding a bike down a long and peaceful country road and every other hundred yards, the bike turns into a bear. Contrast is important. You quickly get sick of ice cream cake when it's the only thing you eat, and action games lose effectiveness when they're just a steady stream of nasties lining up for sucker punches. That's why Half-Life starts off with half an hour of listening to scientists complaining about the coffee before any monsters show up for a manaccino.
The monster fights themselves are equal parts boss fight and puzzle-platforming section, each of them utterly unique in their own way. But generally the first phase is to get onto their bodies, and the second is to climb up their armpit hair to their weak spot and administer acupuncture while they try to shake you off like New Age dandruff. Leaping off a speeding horse onto a giant, low-flying snake thing and hauling yourself up to its face to stab it in the eye is a gameplay experience that clicking your space marines over to the Zerg stronghold can't really hope to match. And a dwindling grip gauge showing how much longer you can grip to the monster's thrashing beard adds another basting of adrenaline.
What I love about the colossi is that they actually feel colossal. They move ponderously around, sending out tremors with each step, their ancient husks richly detailed with dirt and plant life. They really do feel like something that has been sleeping in the ground for so long they've almost become part of the landscape, now rudely awoken and sleepily pawing at you, like you're an unusually-aggressive snooze button. You want to keep playing just to see what the next monster looks like, which few other games can claim: "Ooh, maybe the next enemy soldier will be wearing a slightly differently brown uniform! Oh shit!"
But as I keep saying, I've yet to play a perfect game, which would probably be a Prince of Persia sequel where the main character is a giant, disembodied breast. So Shadow of the Colossus has its gripes. One or two of the colossi phone it in a bit, especially the ones that are only about the size of a bull, which is disappointing when held against flying snakey speeding horsey leapy stabby wahey, like a gift box containing five thousand packing peanuts and a Kinder Suprise. And it can get very frustrating to fall off a monster's bald spot because your grip gauge ran out and have to start climbing all over again, the final boss being a particular hedgehog in my prostate for this reason. You can increase your grip gauge by shooting arrows into lizards in the overworld, which strikes me as incredibly arbitrary, like swatting a fly at work and getting inexplicably better at photocopying.
But these are the complaints of a tiny, irrelevant mouse clinging to the back of a roaring lion with a jetpack. There's nothing else like, and it's just damn good. Damn, damn, good, good, damn, good, damn, damn. Good.
- His beard is made of grass and vines: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- You know, 'Colossus of Roads' would be a pretty good name for a biker gang
- Mmm I love the taste of horse