“When art is made new, we are made new with it.”
-John Russell, The Meaning of Modern Art
Let’s have ourselves a little bit of an imagining. Imagine that you were put in charge of improving upon some great work of art, by all the trappings of that term: a masterpiece.
What would you do if you were entrusted with improving Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? What about Bach’s Art of Fugue, Escher’s Relativity, Petra in Jordan, Monet’s Impression Sunrise, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Strauss’ Blue Danube, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb? While this might be a lot easier with the baseless oddities of post-modern art where input from the observer is paramount or necessary, I suppose with some certainty that many of us would be left scratching our heads if we were thrust into such a situation with a veritable classic, especially if we had no expertise or experience in that sphere of human creativity. Likely the creative world is better with our criticism but without our active meddling.
Regardless, one of the temptations to avoid with such a hypothetical task would be to prevent oneself from completely revamping and fundamentally changing whatever piece you were charged with improving. For instance, your particular distaste for the Renaissance or the Baroque period may lead you to modernize and thereby inject your own 21st century, cultural mindset eisegetically into the art form, destroying it. Your personality and the ideologies permitted you by your experiences and those discovered on your private search for truth would eradicate whatever original message the original artist intended to convey, you monster. Way to decimate this thought experiment.
Fortunately for all, Bluepoint Games did not stumble into temptation when it fell to them to redress one of the most beloved games of all time, for all intents and purposes: a masterpiece. That game is of course Shadow of the Colossus, one which is frequently cited by those positing that games are an art form. What is most remarkable about Bluepoint’s take on Shadow of the Colossus for the PlayStation 4 is how little appears to have been changed. Playing through this journey once again, thirteen years after it’s original release, felt like going home.
“The game content is the same as the original version, but all the assets are being remade.”
There may be few things on Earth as disappointing as getting together with an old friend after many years only to find that they’ve completely transformed into someone else you no can longer relate to, but Bluepoint avoided fundamentally re-making Shadow of the Colossus into a completely new game. That leads anyone curious about this leap onto the PS4 to ask about the differences which were implemented here, if any of the myriad headlines from journalists and Google search anticipations are any indication.
The most immediate difference anyone will notice are the improvements made to the game’s graphics. Though, as mentioned, Shadow of the Colossus appeared on the PS2 and PS3, the massive improvements made to this remake on the PS4 are stunning by comparison. The triumphant leap forward in terms of graphics in only one generation of consoles was immediately impressive to me right from the very first moments of the game. I have played Shadow enough to vividly remember most of the environments, creatures, and cutscenes, so what it took to floor me, to literally make my jaw drop with just that opening, pre-title sequence is monumental. I felt as if I was experiencing something entirely new, yet familiar, beat for beat.
Music I’ve heard as I’ve fallen in and out of consciousness, on the verge of dreams, cascaded its arpeggios through that dark eventide, the familiar bird now soaring, now gliding at last on detailed, fully realized wings up toward a glorious pale moon. Everything from the clouds, to the lunar aura, to the jagged cliffs, to the familiar steed and rider picking their way among the stones, then to the forests and glades, the moonlight piercing through the dark leaves, and the brightness of dawn and the Forbidden Land with its walls of freshly etched, ancient stones… absolutely everything seems to have been lavished with nothing short but the utmost attention and care. Considering this game is not truly huge anymore in the company of massive, open-world triple A games such as occupy the industry today, maybe the developers truly did turn their skill upon every stone and every chasm and every grain of sand and mote of dust.
Alright so yes that’s clear exaggeration but I was enticed to think that while playing such a gorgeous game.
Underscoring the dramatic improvements to the visuals are a host of filters and settings to adjust the in-game image. You can for example now play through the entire Shadow of the Colossus with a nighttime filter on or in monochromatic gravity. For those of us who have lost count of how many times we’ve played through this game, even subtle changes to the game’s appearance helps add extra replay value. Ensure you do play through it with the normal settings, though, just to take in the raw basis of what Bluepoint has accomplished here.
Veteran players will notice changes to the head-up display. Instead of the familiar pink circle to represent Wander’s stamina, which as you may remember grew larger and larger in the bottom left corner of the screen when his stamina increased, he now has a smaller yellow circle which extends horizontally in a bar toward the right side of the screen. That’s an elegant solution to making the stamina display less invasive upon the rest of the game’s graphics and it now also matches Wander’s health bar and the health bars of the colossi.
The items have always been one of the more mysterious elements in an already rather mysterious game. Here, there are a few new items such as the Life Sword and Ancient Bow (rewards for preordering or purchasing the Digital Deluxe edition, respectively), and other items have had small changes made to their appearances and effects.
The map has been revamped.
There are also minor changes to things like the mechanisms of Wander’s grip strength, the colossi’s shaking, cosmetic options, time attack goals (shortened and lengthened in various cases), new unlockables, new collectibles, and sound effects. Saving can now be done manually from the start menu, making save shrines now healing points instead of save points. When I went through a list of all the changes, which are too numerous and in some cases insignificant to list here, I felt that some of them might not have been really necessary. Bluepoint’s goal however was to bring Shadow’s gameplay up to fall more in line with what current third-person games are doing while still maintaining the game’s uniqueness in this regard, and I can counterbalance the intentions of the developers by reminding myself that if I really wanted the old ways of things I could still go back and play the same game on PS3 and PS2.
Perhaps a relevant question to ask, if not an important one, is whether we needed yet another Shadow of the Colossus remake or remaster? I don’t think so but the world of human activity is certainly more enriched for it.
The 8-bit Review
One thing I have not touched on yet regarding visuals is the new photo mode. This really brings this world to life and further highlights the incredible improvements made to the graphics. At any time in the game, the player can pause and bring up photo mode which allows for readjusting perspectives and angles, lighting, contrast, saturation, distance, filter, and a host of other parameters.
In my initial playthrough of this remake, I used photo mode liberally and constantly. It was as if I could experience this game so near and dear to my heart with fresh eyes. Those mountains I was curious about way back in the PS2 era, lit with the ethereal glow of the Forbidden Land? Now I could turn all my scrutiny upon them, render them into a feast for my eyes. A game which was already so majestic became triply so! Even if graphics were the only improvement made to Shadow of the Colossus for its PS4 debut, that would have been more than enough to wow me.
When I reviewed the original PS2 version of Shadow of the Colossus, I gave it an aggregated score that placed it just a fraction away from perfection: 9.9/10. I cannot say that the improvements Bluepoint made to the graphics in this remake were enough to “just push that number one tenth higher” because it’s obvious that they did so much more than that! The improvements practically break the scale. Observing the comparison images, it’s like night and day. Not only is this one of the most beautiful remakes I’ve ever played, it’s among the most beautiful games I’ve ever played on any platform, new or old. My initial criticisms of the PS2 game’s graphics, which were already very light, have now evaporated with this PS4 re-release. I understand it looks even better on a PS4 Pro, “like staring into the sun”.
I was especially blown away by the detailed movements of the hair and fur on the colossi. Incredible!
Composer Kow Otani discussed in an interview that his goal with returning to the Shadow of the Colossus soundtrack was less to change the original tracks themselves and more to increase the scale of the music. That’s the same underlying philosophy as Bluepoint Games’ approach to bringing Shadow to the PS4. The delicate sense that they should tread lightly trickled down to the composer, who only added extra strings to the original tracks in order to make them bigger.
Not every song has been heightened in this way but you can take note of the changes in the opening and closing of the soundtrack. Here they are for comparison:
The soundtrack for Shadow of the Colossus was noteworthy when it first struck the gaming world back in 2005, with many a writer and fan noting the monstrous scale, grandeur, and sadness of the music. Commenting on the melancholy nature of the soundtrack, the withholding of a musical motif of victory and its replacement with wistful, regretful sounds, Otani said:
“The music feels like you might have saved someone you love, but you couldn’t save everyone you loved.”
The preservation of Shadow’s gameplay seemed to be the chief virtue in undertaking this remake, with improvements made only with the greatest care. The perfectionism attributed to Team Ico seems to have survived into Bluepoint Games.
While there are numerous differences in this remake, I didn’t find any to be too intrusive upon the legacy that is Shadow of the Colossus. Fighting the colossi by scrambling onto their backs and stabbing at their weak points is still central to the gameplay. Wise on the developers’ part. I shudder to imagine the kind of fan outrage which could’ve erupted if this game were too drastically changed. Instead, the changes I found most meaningful (photo mode and new collectible coins among them) seemed to me to bolster the strengths of Shadow of the Colossus and invite players to spend more time in its otherworldly Forbidden Land, an invitation which is nearly impossible to decline.
If you want to avoid SPOILERS for this game, Ctrl+f Replayability to skip this section.
So much has been said about Shadow of the Colossus and its storyline. Its human themes have been analyzed. Theories have been put forth and argued over by its fans. Secrets have been discovered and now they are made anew once more with this remake.
When I originally wrote on Shadow of the Colossus for the PS2, I attempted to encapsulate the crux of the matter thusly:
During the course of the story, as Wander’s hunt intensifies, there is a looming sense of dread and not merely because our hero’s appearance begins to diminish. There’s a sense in which what Wander is doing is illegal, unethical, wrong, however you want to slice it: truly forbidden.
Is it really worth the price Dormin warned of? Can you be sure that the entity will indeed hold up its end of the bargain? Would the woman be happy once revived if she knew the bloodshed that was accomplished? Should a human being be able to really tamper with powers of life and death beyond our control as a race? Is Wander’s quest a noble one or more akin to witchcraft?
As Wander cuts them down one by one, a thematic paradox occurs. Despite the massive and terrifying forms of the colossi, it increasingly feels as if they are prey and Wander is their predator. It feels as if they are innocent creatures somehow, trapped within malignant appearances. Many of them seem like giant, gentle animals until provoked, and the more human ones can seem truly human. When wounded, some of them cry like whales, like living things experiencing an agony they don’t understand. They still seem helpless against Wander’s Ancient Sword, struggling to beat him back or shake him off. Who then is the real monster? Is this simply a task to complete or is it murder?
Not until the final, tragic scene of the game’s excellent and moving story comes full circle is the truth finally revealed, and even then, its “poetic justice” is open to interpretation.
Malus, one of the few colossi to directly attack you without provocation.
Our English word “monster” comes from Old French monstre, denoting a malformed creature afflicted with a birth defect. Through no fault of their own, monsters in this definiton are repulsive not necessarily by deed but by appearance. Monstre itself comes from the Latin word monstrum which meant an object of dread, a divine omen, a portent, an abomination, from a root word which means to warn. In the ancient world, the appearances of strange animals were regarded as supernatural signs. An operative word here would be “perception”. The monsters, the colossi, of Shadow of the Colossus are easily perceived as objects of dread until the slow surprise occurs wherein they almost appear to be victims to the player on the irresistible march toward their complete genocide.
I was a different man when I wrote about those themes of the reversal of villainy in Shadow of the Colossus, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to continue to reflect upon the story. Far from familiarity breeding contempt, further playthroughs of this game, including this remake, have made the story even more personal to me. If I had to boil the entire quest down to one word, I might say “obsession”. I think that’s what Shadow of the Colossus is essentially about: Wander’s obsession to go to any length, violating social, cultural, and religious taboos and laws, and taking the lives of potentially innocent creatures to get what he wants most. That greed drives the game and inhabits the player as you’re forced to step into Wander’s shoes by the very nature of vanquishing the colossi and doing Dormin’s dirty work.
Why does this resonate even more strongly with me now? Back in August of 2017, I happened across reading an article at Polygon called “Why I worship crunch”, which further cemented my distaste for the online publication. This a piece tackling an admittedly controversial subject which was met with swift and decisive backlash from the online gaming
community world. The response to the article from those who read it was so powerful in fact that the writer felt it was necessary to update his work with a preamble setting the piece in a much more redemptive light, despite the ugly title.
When I read it, I perceived it as advocating for an extremely unhealthy (physically, emotionally, socially) methodology for work. I didn’t pick up on much redemption, either. It seemed to me that the author championed harmful and reprehensible practices all for the sake of putting out a video game. Normalization of the crunch isn’t necessary when it’s likely a management issue, beyond of course what seemed to be an employee’s singular obsession with it.
In my response article, “No, Don’t Worship the Crunch, or: Why Health, Love, and Life Matter”, I did more than assault what I perceived to be a terrible, unhealthy, and immoral advocacy. I demonstrated how I had allowed myself to be sucked into the crunch as well. Since beginning my work with The Well-Red Mage, I’ve had late nights, I’ve seen the return of heart palpitations I suffered with in more stressful work years, I’ve wrestled with managing healthy sleeping habits, and most importantly of all, I’ve watched my children grow up from some regrettable distance. Neglecting my own family for the sake of my hobby and loving it would be truly evil, and that is the danger of obsession.
I’m not the hero of my own story. Like Wander, I too have my own colossi to tear down: creating and sustaining a YouTube channel, managing and editing submissions by contributors, growing my influence and impact on social media, creating new avenues through podcasting, merchandise, audio reviews, radio, illustration, photography, and all the other imaginings I may have. These giants are in themselves good and innocent, roaming free, but if I attack them only in the mad and single-minded obsession with whatever it is I’m actually doing all this for, ignoring the facts of life and death in my own health, ignoring the precious social fabric which largely depends on me in my own immediate family, ignoring the years of my kids’ youth which none of us will ever see again… then I risk becoming just like Wander. I risk becoming inhabited by the darkness of Dormin, a plurality of voices promising what I could only dream of. I risk becoming a monster in my own home with mounting impatience and anger if my aspirations aren’t met.
My subjective interpretation of Shadow of the Colossus is that it is a cautionary tale. It is a warning sign against kneeling at the altar of Dormin, where once Satan himself might’ve intoned the sermon: “All this I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me”, that ancient temptation to do evil to reach the good. Shadow of the Colossus reminds me that if I don’t want to become the screaming, helpless, ineffective man-child that Wander becomes at the end of the game, that I’ve got to flee from blind obsession.
Life is about so much more than that. What isn’t included in Shadow of the Colossus is the gift of joy. Wander wanted to bring the girl back to life, whoever she was. But he was bringing her back for him, for his obsession, not for her, her own memory stained with the blood of the colossi and Wander rendered her burden in the end. No thank you.
Why replay a game I’ve already played through dozens of times before? Because it’s just so objectively good, even if you dislike it! New Game Plus that lets you hang on to your extra life and stamina between playthroughs, a new mirrored world mode that reverses everything in the game, an easy mode, unlockable concept art and comparison images, and new collectible coins, oh plus a stats menu that tracks even your step count in the game… there’s more replay value than ever before. The collectible coins for instance (or “enlightenments”, depending on who you ask) are intriguing additions to this version of Shadow. At the time of this writing, nobody appears to know how many are in the game to collect or even what happens when you find them all. Somebody unlock the secret!
No matter how many times I play this game, I will always think of it as one of the hardest, not merely because there are enough colossi in the game that I inevitably forget how to beat one or two of them, but because of hard time attack mode. Yes, this remake has adjusted some of the goals for certain fights (thank God you’re given more time to beat Gaius the Knight), but the scale of the game and its bosses still makes me feel inadequate! Having now played hard time attack on PS4… I can attest to this game still being as challenging as ever.
I fully realize we’re talking about a remake here, one which has now appeared in three subsequent generations of PlayStation consoles, but the fact is that while there are so many pretenders and charlatans aspiring to the Ueda legacy, there is still no game like Shadow of the Colossus. That’s demonstrable in how little needed to be fundamentally changed for this remake. It remains one of the landmarks of this form of entertainment.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
I will never grow tired of this game. It is a part of my DNA. What else could be said about it which hasn’t already been said by its passionate fans, its applauding critics, and the writers who have shed tears over its experiences? Shadow of the Colossus on PS4 is now more capable than ever of reaching across the digital distances to enwrap the human heart with its own humanity, its enchantment, and its command over emotional responses.
I am delighted to give this Shadow of the Colossus remake a perfect score, only the third perfect score to ever appear on this site in our two years of existence. There has never been a better time to live this game. If you’ve never played it before, what are you waiting for?
Aggregated Score: 10.0
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Categories: Game Review