Sony’s Team Ico aren’t exactly what you’d call prolific. Since forming in 1997 they’ve only made 3 games, and one of them took 9 years and ended up being finished by another developer (presumably because the original designers died of extreme torpor).
But if you’re only going to make 3 games, what a trio to make. Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian are all much-acclaimed titles – the first 2 especially. It’s no secret that Ico and SotC are considered all-time classics.
With that in mind, you might think Sony doing an update of the best of the bunch with zero involvement of the original team is a bit risky, no? It’d be like making a ‘modern’ version of The Empire Strikes Back that’s the exact same film, only with a load of photoshopped-in iPhones and Darth Vader redubbed by Stormzy.
Only: it isn’t. Because this is not your common or garden revamp, where a few extra polygons and textures have been glued onto a game engine so old it was written in hieroglyphics. No, rather than a plastic surgery tart-up to hide a crumbling visage, this is your full-on Doctor Who regeneration. New nips, kidneys and eyelids – the lot.
In fact, this rework is Bluepoint Games’ second punch of the cranberry, as they were also responsible for the more traditional HD updatings of SotC and ICO on the PS3 a few years back. But this? This, madam, is something else again.
The world of SotC was always a looker even with the limitations of the technology at the time it first came out, but now it has been rebuilt from the blades of grass up this is simply one of the most photogenic games I have ever played. It’s glorious.
The original SotC pushed the then-aged PS2 hardware to the point where it audibly wheezed and frequently demanded a rest – framerates stuttered, draw distance was limited (though this was cleverly disguised with fog effects) and features such as trees and rocks were sparse to keep processing demands down.
On the PS4 though – and particularly on the mighty PS4 Pro which can belt out the game in 4K or at 60fps, probably while also lifting dumbbells and playing a harpsichord concerto – there’s now enough oomph to render the desolate, lonely, but utterly beautiful landscapes in the detail they deserve.
From the canyons, to the deserts, to the ruins and gloomy forests, and of course the ancient, moss-encrusted colossi themselves, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The signature ‘look’ of the game is still intact too, with shafts of over-bright sunlight puncturing the clouds as their shadows scud over empty plains that seem to go on forever.
Team ICO’s trademark lifelike-behaviour-to-the-point-of-clumsiness has also been painstakingly, and yes at times infuriatingly, recreated; riding Agro (gaming’s 2nd most beloved horse after Epona; though admittedly, it’s not a huge list) is a genuine pleasure, because it feels like you’re controlling a living thing as opposed to a personality-free ‘legged car’.
The only thing that hasn’t changed is the music. Wisely, the fabulous soundtrack by Kow Ōtani has been left untouched. I defy anyone to have the track called ‘Revived power’ belting out while tackling a colossus and not go goosebumpy.
The extra processing grunt also means no framerate drops. That, coupled with a few control tweaks, fixes some of the biggest technical problems with the original. It’s way smoother and less clunky to play, and that makes it feel bang up to date even though the gameplay under the spanking new visuals is the same.
The pared-down story the game tells, unchanged from its 2005 incarnation, also seems remarkably modern – a sign of how far ahead of its time the original was, perhaps. Or how much of an influence it ended up being on later titles, given you can sense its DNA in many a game since.
Breath of the Wild’s no-hand-holding open world and divine beasts clearly owe a few nods in its direction, but you can see how other slow-burn games like Firewatch (no pun intended) and Monument Valley share elements in common with it too.
It also feels modern in how it leaves almost everything to the player’s interpretation, rather than dumping great gobs of exposition on them every few minutes (yes I like you very much Horizon: Zero Dawn, but I’m absolutely looking in your direction). It’s refreshing to not have your attention shredded by side quests honking at you every other step too.
That signature minimalism is also, of course, key to how the story plays out.
The thing that got me when I first played SotC 12 years ago, and that still got me now even though this time I knew exactly what was coming, is how well it turns long-established gaming tropes inside out. You’re the hero with a magic sword, there’s a damsel in distress, and there are monsters to slay. So far, so predictable.
All seems well when you take down your first colossus, then suddenly: that’s odd, this music is a bit melancholy rather than triumphant. And wh…what’s happening to me? What’s all this black stuff?
Then, by the time you start taking on otherwise peaceful, harmless colossi that you have to actively taunt to attack you, things really start to feel unsettling. Because they’re the enemy, aren’t they? Or are they? Soon, the deaths of the colossi don’t feel like victories at all – they just feel plain wrong.
It’s the gaming equivalent of the Mitchell & Webb Nazi Officers sketch, where one, noticing the skulls on their hats, turns to the other and asks, “Are we the baddies?” Only – unless you’re a bit strange – a lot less funny.
This slow, dawning realisation that perhaps you’re not the noble hero you suspected and the end may not justify the means is made all the worse by the fact that by the time you twig what’s happening, you’re too invested and have to know how it all ends.
So you force yourself onward, even as you feel increasingly uneasy because of your actions. And of course while all this is happening, rather than getting visibly stronger as heroes do in most games Wander slowly degenerates from a healthy-looking young chap into something resembling a filthy, haunted towel rail.
Yes – SPOILER ALERT – there is the faintest sliver of hope of future redemption right at the very end, but let’s not kid ourselves. Overall, it’s an achingly sad, decidedly downbeat journey. A Zelda story from a dark, mirror universe where nothing goes right.
But is it still a journey worth taking? Oh my giddy aunt, yes.
I’ll put my cards on the table. I’m one of those people who ‘got’ SotC. Or rather, it got me – specifically, it got under my skin. And 12 years on, nothing has changed. That said, I’m not an ignoramus – I know, despite the plaudits, for many people it’s just a frustrating, quirky platformer.
But if it does get to you…well then it will stay with you forever, like a favourite song or film. Indeed, I still have my original copy of the game as a keepsake; I can’t even play it as I haven’t owned a PS2 in years, but I could never see a time I’d want to part with it either.
As a result, a messed-up remake would have been heartbreaking. But the amount of time, care and respect that’s gone into this full Monty of an overhaul is obvious from the get go. As gaming’s history grows, revamps and reboots are inevitable. If you’re going to do one though, this is how to go about it: SotC is now the benchmark other restoration jobs will be measured against.
Shadow of the Colossus on the PS4 feels like the hardware finally does the vision justice. To be able to experience a much-loved story again as if it were new is one thing – and a joyous thing at that.
But to be able to unreservedly recommend it to a whole new generation of gamers as well, knowing that for some it will come to mean as much to them as it does to me, is a downright privilege.
SUPER BAD ADVICE