Shadow of the Colossus is a maximalist minimalist work, a game built around pushing a single concept to its greatest form. This is an action-adventure game with no common enemies to slay, no towns to visit for upgrading your gear, no dungeons to trudge through. This is purely a gauntlet of sixteen magnificent boss fights of ever greater scale.
The story starts simply enough. Protagonist Wander has brought a dead girl to a shrine, where a mysterious voice has told him that she may be revived if he were to slay the sixteen colossi dotting this land. With little more than a sword and his trusty horse, Agro, Wander sets out. The rest of the story is told largely through implication. Something feels a bit off as Wander slays each colossus, as a strange darkness shoots from their body and enters his; what this could mean is never explicated in the moment.
Before I get into the details of the gameplay, this is another game where I need to stop and highlight the soundtrack. Every song perfectly captures the atmosphere of the moment, and the game effortlessly transitions between intimidating boss music and victorious fanfare as Wander finally closes in on a weak point. This is the sort of orchestral music which would fit perfectly in a classic kaiju film. Which, it’s important to note that, outside of cutscenes, fighting the colossi is the only time music plays.
While the game can be boiled down to a string of boss fights, large portions of the player’s time will involve travelling this barren land. Plenty of games with large maps can be criticized if their world is too empty, but Shadow of the Colossus makes an art out of nothingness. The lack of creatures outside of the colossi and a few scattered lizards does as much to suggest a forbidden land as any Soulsborne game with their endless gauntlet of tough enemies. The lack of music during exploration adds to this sense. There’s nothing there to comfort the player as they make the long journey from shrine to colossus. With the realization Wander is there purely to end the only creatures calling this land home, there’s a pervasively melancholy atmosphere.
Wandering up the cliff-side and laying eyes on the first colossus was an experience like no other. Many of the best games work by capturing a sense of confronting what at first seems impossible. This fight in particular offers little challenge (it is essentially the tutorial, after all), yet it captures an undeniably intimidating atmosphere by having us look over and realizing we are being asked to fight something that big. While the game lacks dungeons, this battle makes it clear these colossi and their arenas operate as gigantic puzzles, with an extra sense of urgency since the puzzle is actively trying to kill the player. Yet these colossi are difficult to classify as monsters – there’s beauty in their presence, adding to the feeling that your actions in this game aren’t quite right.
The colossi keep getting bigger and the challenges more complex. It is the way Shadow of the Colossus mixes pure spectacle with truly engaging gameplay that makes it so compelling. The highest points of this experience are the two avian colossi. While most of the colossi present an initial sense of befuddlement, figuring out how to even get a flying enemy in range to jump atop adds another layer. This is where the fanfare really comes into play, as there’s nothing quite like landing a perfectly-timed jump and then being lifted high into the air. This is a game all about climbing and clinging, and that clinging never feels more essential than in these moments.
Shadow of the Colossus succeeds in making each colossi a unique experience. While many are as simple as getting to the head, it is how these arenas allow access that makes each climb different. There are also plenty of colossi which operate in completely different capacities. A few of the colossi are small but quick, their battles more a navigational challenge around an arena. One particularly memorable battle requires Wander to flee atop Agro while turning back to shoot the pursuing colossus in the eye. Most of these colossi achieve a perfect balance of logic and skill, featuring puzzling designs which require great skill even once the player figures out what to do next.
Shadow of the Colossus seemingly strips out every feature but the boss fights – but the truth of the matter is that it pulls off everything expected of an action-adventure game during the fights. This is a game without fluff, focused around one grand idea. Despite this surface simplicity, this is a game of phenomenal depth, hitting upon emotional strands few would expect from a mere boss rush. It says a lot that Sony spent the following decade and a half creating ever more cinematic action-adventure games – and don’t get me wrong, they have done this quite well – yet it is this minimalist story of theirs told largely through subtle changes that hits me the hardest.