Games Review: Shadow of the Colossus (PS4, 2018): Improving on a masterpiece

Thirteen years after its release on the PlayStation 2, Shadow of the Colossus remains one of the greatest and most successful experiments in the history of game design.

Shadow of the Colossus follows a young man named Wander, on a quest to resurrect a girl named Mono, wrongly sacrificed in the distant past because her people believed her destiny to be cursed. Wander enters a barren landscape called The Forbidden Lands seeking the aid of the mysterious, disembodied entity called Dormin. Dormin offers Wander a bargain: If Wander can destroy the sixteen colossi that stalk The Forbidden Lands, they will assist him in Mono’s resurrection. Wander agrees and, with his faithful horse Agro, sets out to bring these lumbering giants down.

The silent and desolate Forbidden Lands are as much a character in Shadow of the Colossus as any of its speaking roles. Beautifully realised in the PS2 era, this latest remaster transforms the land into something truly otherworldly. Running the game in 4K HDR on the PlayStation 4 Pro is a true treat, transforming the experience from an image on your screen to something more akin to a window on a living pocket dimension. Every possible biome is represented — mountains loom, casting shadows that feel supernaturally dark. Desert sands shift and blind you. Grassy fields are buffeted by the breeze in hypnotic patterns. It feels real, and that’s about as high a compliment as its possible to give a video game environment.

It also feels rather like a tomb. The Forbidden Lands are empty but for the crumbling ruins of a dead civilisation. Through these ruins, the whole game instills a feeling of quiet reverence, not unlike the sensation one feels upon entering a building of massive religious significance. The atmosphere throughout the entire game is one of sourceless mourning. There’s an immutable sadness clinging to every molecule.

This sadness is transferred to the battles against the colossi. Each colossus is a monument unto itself, towering creatures that defy belief. Wander’s job is to find a way to climb aboard, locate their weak spots without being thrown off and bring them to their end. The colossi are unique, ambulatory puzzles to be solved. Clambering over them as they move about, shaking and shuddering with each attempt to throw you off, is still as exciting and dramatic as its ever been, thirteen years after their introduction, but there’s a come-down to each of these fights. With each one you fell, you find yourself feeling more and more like a monster. The game doesn’t present their deaths as heroic, laudable deeds as much as the regrettable casualties of a bigger plan.

It makes you realise just how much of a rarity real empathy is in video games. We get used to mowing down hordes of faceless enemies but rarely are we asked to weigh the impact of those actions on a personal level. Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t want these thoughts to occur to you and then be dismissed. It wants you to ruminate on them in the quiet moments, as you ride for long periods across its hushed and desolate world.

It’s easy to call this latest PS4 edition of Shadow of the Colossus a remaster but the truth is its more of a ground-up rebuild. Bluepoint Games has been charged with unenviable task of updating a masterpiece for a new generation and, probably to their own surprise as much as anyone else’s, they’ve not just knocked the ball out the park, they’ve sent it into the parking lot three blocks from the stadium. They’ve brought the original game into the modern era by crafting new visual flourishes like fur and shifting stone, rebuilt the world from scratch without changing the overall layout, updated the controls to feel less clunky and more fluid, and have even gone through both the original and PS3 remaster with a fine-tooth comb looking for bugs and player complaints to address. There’s a level of dedication, attention-to-detail and polish here that you don’t see in many other remasters and this is largely down to the title’s legendary pedigree — no-one wants to be the team that tarnished a work of art.

For those with the PS4 Pro hardware, the usual perks apply. Running the game in Graphics mode does drop the frame rate to a locked 30fps for stability, but its a small price to pay to have the game look this beautiful. Those who prefer framerate can opt to drop the res back to 1080p and enjoy a slightly lower-fi version of the game at 60fps.

When I received my press kit for this review, my first thought was that Shadow of the Colossus must be starting to show its age by now. If anything, it’s only gotten better with time, each return playthrough a chance to discover some new aspect of its mythology. Remasters like this — ones that not only pay respect to the original but also update it in clever ways that make it feel more like the game you remember playing — don’t come along very often. Bluepoint have pulled off something of a miracle — they’ve improved on a masterpiece.

Score: 9.5 out of 10
Highlights: Visuals; Atmosphere; The quality of the restoration
Lowlights: Not being able to play it for the first time ever again
Developer: Bluepoint Games, SIE Japan Studio, Team ICO
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4
Available: February 7, 2018

Review conducted on PlayStation 4 Pro with pre-release review code provided by the publisher.