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'Shadow of the Colossus' review: One of the best games ever made is reborn

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‘Shadow of the Colossus’ is one of the most beautiful games ever made.

“Shadow of the Colossus” is regarded as one of the most beautiful video games ever made. When it was released in October 2005 for Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 2, the game’s striking visuals, incredible sense of scale and simple, yet stirring story did more to advance the argument that video games are art than nearly any title before it.

Next to the kind of 4K, HDR graphics found in today’s multi-million dollar games, though, “Shadow of the Colossus’” once groundbreaking visuals look quaint. At least that was the case until Sony’s Japan Studio and Bluepoint Games set out to resurrect “Shadow of the Colossus” for the PlayStation 4.

Complete with 4K, HDR graphics, and more than twice the detail in a single temple than the PS2 version’s entire game world, the PS4 remake of “Shadow of the Colossus” is easily one of the most visually arresting video games I’ve seen to date. And whether you’ve played the title before, or never laid eyes on a colossus before, this is the edition to get.

It’s hard to beat a game that looks as incredible as ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ does on the PS4 Pro.

Beautiful in its simplicity

Unlike narrative-heavy games, “Shadow of the Colossus” doesn’t hit you with dozens of characters whose backstories could each fill every line of a 300-page novel. But it’s also not the kind of game that eschews a story entirely. Instead, Studio Japan built a tale about a young man named Wander on a quest to restore life to a young woman named Mono who was sacrificed for her “cursed fate.”

The colossi are as massive as buildings and hit just as hard.

To revive Mono, Wander travels to a forbidden land and seeks out a being called Dormin that is said to have the power to resurrect people. But Dormin, represented by a booming, disembodied voice from above, tells Wander he must first slay 16 colossi before Mono can be revived. And from there, you set out on your quest. The only other characters in the game are a shaman named Lord Emon, a small handful of soldiers and the 16 colossi. Oh, and your trusty steed Agro. God, I love that horse.

This is the story about the lengths one will go to for the person they care about, and, without giving away any spoilers for a 13-year-old game, its finale is as opaque as it is beautiful. The title’s brilliant score is as much a part of the narrative as the characters, and is already a classic. 

At times the game can crush you with its emptiness. Outside of Agro, Wander has no other emotional anchor, which makes traversing the vast deserts of the forbidden land feel daunting. What’s more, the game is sure to remind you of its incredible scale by pulling back the camera just enough for you to see the expansive landscape in front of you.

Outside of Agro, you’re alone in the forbidden land.

I specifically remember watching one of my best friends play the original “Shadow of the Colossus” during my sophomore year of college and thinking how gorgeous the game looked. But the PS2’s limitations forced the developers to make “SotC’ ” deserts look as though they were engulfed in never-ending dust storms.

The PS4, however, allowed Bluepoint to create a desert with undulating sand dunes and dust storms that cloud your vision, but don’t obscure the distant cliffs surrounding the forbidden land. Streams running through the lush forests of another portion of the forbidden land are inviting enough to dive right into, while the geysers and discolored earth of another region look as inhospitable as a distant planet. Even smaller details like individual blades of grass sway in the wind as you ride past the Shrine of Worship. Agro’s hoof prints also look realistic.

It’s not just the environments that are beautiful, though. The titular colossi are equally stunning with their enormous, lumbering bodies, stone-like armor and huge swaths of life-like fur.

You spend a lot of time looking at this fur, so it makes sense that Bluepoint put a good deal of work into ensuring that it looked and behaved as fur would in real life. Grab onto a colossus and climb up its back and its fur will react properly as the beast tries to shake you off.

See that dam in the distance? You can go there.

Naturally, killing a colossus isn’t as simple as shimmying up its leg and poking it in the head. And that’s the other reason “SotC” is so loved. See, in order for Wander to take down a colossus, you need to figure out how to uncover its weak spot. At first that can be as easy as latching onto its fur, but as you progress through the game, you need to put more and more thought into figuring out how to find a colossus’ vital point.

Essentially, the colossi serve as moving puzzles that can also crush you, blast you with giant electrified orbs or suffocate you with poison gas. Its overcoming those obstacles and learning how to beat these immense monsters that makes defeating the colossi so satisfying.

Looks or performance

The PS4 version of “SotC” comes with two play modes for PS4 Pro owners: cinematic and performance. Cinematic mode is designed to highlight the game’s graphics in 4K, HDR with gameplay that runs at 30 frames per second, which is about average for most console games. If you don’t have a 4K TV, Sony says “SotC” will run at 1080p resolution from a render target generated at 1440p. The idea is to make the game’s visuals look smoother, with fewer sharp edges around objects.

Your bow isn’t going to be enough to stop the colossi.

Performance mode, as its name implies, is designed to show off the PS4 Pro’s performance capabilities. In this mode, the game will run at buttery smooth 60 frames per second. The game’s graphics will still look gorgeous, but you won’t get the kind of benefits available through the cinematic mode.

I preferred playing in cinematic mode, since I wanted to see the game in all of its glory on my 55-inch 4K, HDR TV. After all, this game is designed to look amazing, so why wouldn’t you play it in the mode that does it justice?

And the included photo editor, which is accessible by pressing down on the directional pad, lets you capture images from the game as you play. See a particular landscape that you find irresistible? You can take a picture of it, change the camera angle, adjust the sharpness and saturation of the image and then share it for all the world to see.

Some things never change

One of the chief criticisms about the original “SotC” was how its camera could make tracking the colossi during battle, or even getting a view of the world around you somewhat difficult. And that same issue creeps up in the remake, as well. There were a few times when I was fighting different colossi and the camera kept moving in the direction the game wanted me to look, not where I was looking.

The lush forests in the forbidden land are as desolate as its deserts.

I noticed the same problem when crossing large land bridges, or when I wanted to just get a view of the world around me. Each time I moved the thumbstick to adjust the camera angle, the game would force it back to where it wanted me to look. For a title that’s meant to serve as a template for the kind of visual effects video games can achieve, that’s a bummer.

In close quarters, Agro’s controls, like seemingly all horse controls in games, felt disconnected and slow to respond at times. At full speed, though, Agro steamed ahead with ease.

Should you get it?

“Shadow of the Colossus” for the PS4 is every bit as gorgeous, memorable and tremendous as it was when it debuted for the PS2 more than a decade ago. It’s a graphically stunning piece of art with a narrative that drives you forward with a sense of wonder despite its vagueness.

If you’ve never played “Shadow of the Colossus,” the PS4 remake is your chance to experience a classic in its most perfect form. And if you played the original for the PS2, it makes revisiting the forbidden land well worth it.

What’s hot: A beautifully crafted remake of a PS2 classic; Cinematic mode makes owning 4K, HDR TV worthwhile; The ultimate version of an already fantastic title

What’s not: Camera doesn’t always cooperate with your movements; Agro’s controls felt unwieldy in close quarters

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