Shadow of the Colossus (PS4) review: On the shoulders of giants

Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most remarkable achievements of the video game art form. That was true in 2005, when it first came out on PlayStation 2. It was still true in 2011, when it got ported to PlayStation 3 alongside its predecessor, Ico. And it remains true today, with the PlayStation 4 remake once again reminding the world of how important this game is.

On paper, Shadow of the Colossus is simple: in an effort to resurrect his friend, a young boy called Wander travels to a forbidden land that’s home to giant beasts. If Wander can slay all 16 colossi, the god-like Dormin will bring his friend back to life, so he sets about to take down these giants, one at a time.

Fighting each colossus involves scaling their giant forms, managing your stamina as the beast tries to shake you off, until you can reach its weak point and pierce it with your sword. Even though you’re fighting these colossi, mechanically they’re more like platformer puzzles; you have to figure out where, when, and how to climb so that you can safely make it all the way up.

Shadow of the Colossus PS4 review

These fights are intense and epic. The scale of the colossi is a sight to behold, and that’s all the more apparent when you’re clinging to the fur on their back, a great many storeys high. Shadow of the Colossus isn’t some fast-paced action game or methodical Souls-like; it’s a game about the grandiosity of it all. It’s not about taking down the colossi so much as the adventure of facing off against them.

As brilliantly realised as those fights are, they’re not what makes Shadow of the Colossus the masterpiece that it is. Combat makes up only a small fraction of the game, and it’s everything else—the stuff that gives those fights context—that really pulls the whole game together.

In a sense, this is an open-world game from a time before they were so overplayed. Before you can slay a colossus you have to find it, which means spending long stretches of time travelling across a huge expanse of wilderness on horseback. Instead of a map full of things to do and things constantly vying for attention, the world of Shadow of the Colossus is sparse, even empty. There are ancient, crumbling ruins dotted around the landscape and curious geographical features, but there isn’t really much to do, per se. And it’s in these empty, thoughtful moments that Shadow of the Colossus is at its most powerful.

Shadow of the Colossus review

The world is serene and beautiful, and the many extended moments of quiet the game affords you, there’s plenty of time to ponder exactly what it is you’re doing. You’re not simply fighting monsters; you’re driving a species to extinction. Beautiful as the forbidden lands are, they’re also desolate, with little in the way of life. It feels like a land on the verge of fading into nothingness, and with every colossus you take down, you’re contributing to that erasure of life itself.

That’s something similarly emphasised at the end of each fight. Where a typical action game would see its boss fights conclude with plenty of fanfare and excitement—a sense of achievement, of victory, of conquest—in Shadow of the Colossus, there’s a profound sense of sadness. There’s this slow collapse of the felled titan, the light gone from its eyes, and all that’s left is a mountain of rock, flesh, and fur. It’s hard not to feel like the villain in this story, and that’s precisely the point.

Each “victory” also sees a strange black mist fly out of the colossus and infect Wander. This happens after the cutscene’s ended, so you can try to outrun the plague, but you’ll never succeed—the dark cloud always catches you, and each time, Wander grows a little bit more sickly.

Shadow of the Colossus PS4 review

Put this all together, and you’ve got a piece of art that’s overflowing with metaphor and things to think about. There’s a clear environmentalist angle: you’re destroying the natural world, in the most literal sense, out of a selfish desire to unwind fate, and you’re destroying yourself in the process. There’s an existentialist angle in Wander’s seemingly futile efforts to undo the past and find meaning in his life. There’s a religious angle in Wander’s appeal to a higher power to cope with his grief, and in Dormin’s apparent inspiration from the biblical Nimrod.

Any way you look at it, Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece of a game, and one of the best examples of the medium’s artistic power.

The PlayStation 4 remake takes that all to another level. This isn’t a simple remaster; rather, all the game’s assets have been remade from the ground up, giving everything a level of detail that would never have been possible on older consoles. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have said this was a brand new PS4 game, such is the visual fidelity this time around. In a game that draws so much from the awe and beauty of the natural world, that makes a world of difference. Whether you’re gazing into the distance from a colossus’ shoulder or getting lost in the maze of the fur on its hide, it’s hard not get swept away.

Shadow of the Colossus PS4 review

The PS4 release also adds a photo mode—something that really ought to be mandatory for all games. At the press of a button you can pause the game, turn off the UI, and play with a wide range of settings to create the perfect shot. Again, Shadow of the Colossus is a game that carries so much meaning in its beauty, so a photo mode isn’t just a neat touch; it’s a way of engaging and interacting with the world, and preserving some of that beauty despite Wander’s solemn quest.

Finally, the remake seems to smooth out the controls somewhat. It’s been a long time since I’ve played the PS2 or even PS3 versions of Shadow of the Colossus, but the PS4 controls felt a lot smoother and more reliable than I recall them being in earlier releases. For all its accomplishments, the original could get frustrating when it felt like the game itself was getting in your way, but that’s not a problem I ever had this time around.

In short, what I’m saying is that Shadow of the Colossus is a must-buy for anyone with a PlayStation 4. This is the best version of one of the most noteworthy video games ever made, and now’s as good a time as any to play through it again. And for those lucky few who have yet to experience the sombre beauty of Wander’s journey, this PS4 remake is the perfect introduction.

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Shadow of the Colossus is developed by Team Ico and Bluepoint Games, and is published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. This remake is available now for PlayStation 4.

A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.