Presenting a feeling of isolation like no game before it, Shadow of the Colossus is a strange, odd, and artful piece of game design. Sadly, the art seems to take over the game portion. What it does to keep itself engaging is offer spectacle and a unique experience, even if it's a frustrating one.
With only 16 enemies in the entire game, players are left to their devices. People can discuss the merits of Grand Theft Auto design by the freedom they have in a city. Colossus one-ups that and offers an entirely new world to explore. Also unlike GTA, the entire game is open. You can ride for miles inside this fantasy land and there's little to stop you other than pits and mountains at the corners.
There's little to do though, and rather strangely, that's sort of appeal. You can walk or ride horseback for hours without accomplishing anything, yet you'll still feel like you've been entertained. This is as far as you can go from mainstream gaming, and it's truly pushing the art category.
When the "game" portion of the title begins, the epic battles create the greatest sense of scale ever achieved in a video game. The player's character has only one goal: kill the 16 giants roaming the landscape. The word "giant" is not used lightly. These beasts, an impossible design of mechanical parts, fur, and entire platform sections, are brilliant. The player is completely overwhelmed and seemingly hopeless, armed with only a sword and a bow.
The goal is to find a weak point, an area of the body to stab repeatedly to bring them down. Each of these epic struggles offers a unique situation, even taking players into the sky. Climbing the Colossi is also difficult, and the real challenge. There's little question these things do not enjoy the company, and will vigorously try and shake the lead (though not the only) character off.
Problems begin here, with an overly convoluted and frustrating control scheme. The simple act of grasping onto a ledge requires two buttons be held just to hold on. It's worse when you're being tossed around like a fly by one of the Colossi. It takes incredible dexterity and patience from the player to deal with these situations, and if you make it all the way through, you'll likely be part of a minority group.
When not fighting, horseback provides the quickest means of transportation. While realistic, the unresponsive nature of the horse is aggravating, and it seems out of place given the fantasy nature of the title. You'll also need to constantly jab away on the X button to make him run faster (and then deal with his awkward turning), an unnecessary step and just another way Shadow of the Colossus can be frustrating. You'll also be fighting against an awful camera system.
Hardware issues continue to stall the experience. While there's a stunning motion blur when moving quickly, it's only hiding ugly, bland, and pixilated textures. The Colossi, obviously killing the aging hardware, lead to critical frame rate gaps. Their designs, no matter how masterful they are, don't compensate for the gameplay issues they cause. The barren landscapes offer little color, which sets the tone wonderfully. It also makes distant areas tough to discern. That leads to lost time exploring areas you already visited, simply because you couldn't see the same area from a distance.
It feels as if the design team had the concept of something new, and took it further than it should have went. In the end, they've pushed the hardware too far, created an awful control setup, but also crafted true gaming art. With a complete lack of enemies less than 100 feet tall, it's the freshness of Shadow's ideas that will draw in a sector of the hardcore gaming crowd. Everyone else will be left baffled, confused, and frustrated.
(*** out of *****)