Review: The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection (Sony PS3)

The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Bluepoint Games
Genre: Compilation/Action/Adventure
Release Date: 09/27/2011

What defines a classic game? Is it a story that transcends the limited hardware of the time and is still enjoyable despite archaic game design? Is it simply just gameplay that can be revisited many years down the road and is still as fun as the day it was released? It’s not an easy answer, and one of the reasons the DHGF Hall of Fame is such an uphill climb for most games. Some games that are both critically and commercially successful are only so because of the design trends of the time. You might think Game A is awesome now because it has Feature B, but will it still be relevant to newcomers after five or ten years? Will veterans of said title still enjoy it after going back and playing it? Or perhaps will they realize that it wasn’t as enjoyable as it used to be?

The reason I bring all this up is because reviewing a title that the gaming populace considers to be a “classic” is often a challenge for these reasons. I felt The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D maintained its classic status after the re-release, because I still liked the game and I felt as though newcomers and veterans alike would come to appreciate the core game as well as the enhancements. It was also one of my favorite games of all time growing up, so sometimes nostalgia can mask flaws that the average person might notice. No, I’m not having regrets about the score (I stand behind it), but sometimes a fresh perspective is just as, if not more, valuable than that of someone close to the source material.

So what does all this mean?

If you haven’t figured it out already, it means I’ve never played either ICO or Shadow of the Colossus prior to this collection. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in them. ICO released at a time when I did not own a PS2, and Shadow of the Colossus came out during my World of Warcraft phase, so I missed the boat on either of them completely. So when it came time for this collection to release, I vowed that I would play through them or at least try them out. If you’re like me and missed out on one or both of these games and are wondering if you should pick them up, then you are in the right place. And if you have, well, you can see what’s it like for a newcomer to experience them for the first time.

Let’s Review

Story/Modes

ICO places you in the role of a boy sharing the same name, who is being escorted by his village to a rundown fortress. He had the misfortune of being born with horns, you see, so they regard him as a bad omen. Once there, he is locked inside a tiny cell to be forever encased with the other dead and offered as a sacrifice. To his luck though, an earthquake knocks over his capsule and sets him free. As he escapes, he discovers a young girl named Yorda who appears to be trapped within a cell herself. She doesn’t speak the same language as Ico, but despite their inability to communicate, he frees her and together they try to make their escape from the fortress.

Despite being a supposed prequel to ICO, Shadow of the Colossus tells a much different tale than its predecessor. This time, you play as a warrior named Wander who travels to a forbidden land where it is possible to bring back the souls of the dead. He carries with him the body of a girl named Mono, whom he lays upon an altar inside of a shrine where the being Dormin resides. Dormin offers to restore Mono’s life if Wander is able to successfully destroy all 16 statues within the shrine. The catch, of course, is that said statues only crumble when their corresponding Colossus is destroyed.

The premises of both games are as simple as they come, yet are just as if not more captivating than a novel’s worth of exposition. There are also no towns to visit, no people to talk to, and very little in the way of cutscenes save maybe a few short ones sprinkled throughout each game. You feel very isolated, much like the characters you assume the role of, and in time you begin to appreciate the predicaments that they are really in. Much like the Zelda franchise, the beauty is in the use of subtlety where the gameplay itself tells the story rather than drawn out scenes. Though, even that comparison is a bit of a stretch as even Zelda had people to talk to and help you along your journey.

It’s difficult to convey exactly why either adventure has such a good story with actually experiencing it for yourself, as they are stories told with emotions and not words. Just know that as a newcomer to both of them, I was captivated from the beginning until the very end and enjoyed them immensely.

Story/Modes Rating: Classic

Graphics
Honestly speaking, I’d never have guessed that these titles were originally on the Playstation 2 had no one told me. Just for kicks, I fired up my previously unplayed discs of both games and compared them with the high def visuals of the PS3 version. I couldn’t believe how much of a difference there is (and if you want to compare for yourself, the special features run a comparison too). For starters, everything looks less pixelated now and the edges of the models are much smoother. The environments in particular are much more vibrant and you can pick out details that would likely have slipped your gaze the first time around. The collection also offers 3D support, but I did not have the equipment in which to experience this at the time of writing.

It’s important to note that the original releases were still very impressive visually when compared to other games on the system at the time. Particularly Shadow of the Colossus that had some very realistic animals running around as well as some lifelike looking Colossi inhabiting the land. The visuals were very taxing to the hardware, and now it seems like the original vision of the developers could finally be realized. Even without the graphical power, the art direction in itself is spectacular. Regardless of how much stock you put in the games as art argument, it seems as though both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus are referenced when discussing said topic and it’s easy to see why. Both games are like a painting come to life and were such back when they originally released. The HD upgrades just drive home that fact.

If there was one thing I had to nitpick about visually, it’s that the characters in ICO, when viewed up close most definitely have features that look very last gen. In particular, the hands and feet look a bit like polygons, as they still maintain their somewhat rectangular shape even after the enhanced visuals. Shadow of the Colossus had some issues with draw distance too, as environments would just all of a sudden pop up in my face as I was getting close. Again, minor things that bear mentioning.

Graphics Rating: Great

Sounds
Both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus adopt the philosophy of less is more, and one can argue are all the better for it. In ICO, much of what you’ll be hearing is the environment as you try to figure out where to go next. Musical queues will play if you manage to find something that helps you progress, and there is also some savepoint music, but for the most part it’s very quiet. Both Ico and Yorda speak in a different language, though only Ico’s words are subtitles so that you can understand. They communicate briefly during scenes, but otherwise their bond is formed mostly through action as you navigate the fortress together. There is a vocal theme that plays during the ending that is very catchy, and is probably the most standout song on the whole soundtrack.

Shadow of the Colossus is also a very quiet game outside of the few short cutscenes you get, though in addition to the sounds of nature, you’ll also hear much of the clomping and neighing of your horse Agro. However, when you do manage to find a Colossus, the soundtrack turns from 0 to 11 as the most epic boss music plays. It’s not the same every single time either, so not only do you get to wonder what kinds of dangers you face with each encounter, you’ll also get to see what kind of dramatic tune will blast your speakers as you fight for your life.

Sound Rating: Classic

Control/Gameplay
Despite being action/adventure titles, both games in this collection are very limited in terms of actual hack and slash combat and instead rely more on your puzzle solving ability. This is especially true of ICO due to its lack of inventory system. Pick up a shiny new sword? Well, too bad because there’s a torch that needs lighting and you’re going to have to use a stick to do it. In fact, there are no meters in ICO at all. Your character can’t actually die from enemies (though I found out the hard way that falling off a cliff will do it). The shadow creatures that assault you are actually after Yorda, and they will shove you to the ground in order to make an opening and kidnap her. The game over actually occurs when they successfully pull her into one of the dark portals that spring up during one of these encounters.

The controls in ICO took some getting used to at first, and it didn’t help that there was no built in tutorial. That aside, once you learn the buttons you will grow accustomed to them as the game goes on. Square is your attack button that will let you swing whatever you have in your hands. You can pick up objects with circle and jump and climb with triangle. The X button is what I’m normally used to using when jumping, which is instead delegated to releasing things, hence my period of adjustment using triangle instead. R1 allows you to call Yorda to you, or if you hold it down when close to her, you can grab her hand and lead her around. And you’ll be doing this a lot, as she moves very slowly on her own, and her pathfinding skills leave something to be desired. If you hate escort missions, this might set off some alarms in your head, but I would encourage you to give it a chance all the same.

Despite being a somewhat more traditional game, the controls in Shadow of the Colossus were even more of an obstacle than they were in ICO. Some of them match up though. You still have square as your attack and triangle as your jump. Circle is used to hold your sword out to find the next Colossus, and this time X is used to make your horse gallop faster. You’ll still be using R1 a lot in this game, as it allows you to grip things. This took some adjustment on my part. When you jump to a ledge, you don’t just automatically “glue” to it like you would in most modern day platformers. No, you have to hold the button down if you want to hang on. This seems like a ludicrous design choice until you realize that the Colossi themselves are made up of platforms and things to grip, then it begins to make more sense.

You see, on the lower right hand corner you have a stamina meter that measures how long you can hang on to things. Since most of the Colossi are incredibly huge in size, you’ll be spending a lot of time climbing around on them, such as tufts of hair that act as a climbing wall or things on their body that serve as platforms. When you stab them or get close to their weak points, often times they will shake their bodies in an attempt to throw you off. This shaking reduces your stamina and if you’re in the middle of a trying to stab or move around too much when they do, it lowers your meter even more. If you lose all your stamina, you’ll be thrown off and you’ll have to stand around for awhile in order to recover.

You also have a health meter that measures how much you can be shot at or stepped on before you fail and have to retry. Honestly though, you’re in more danger of dying from a long fall due to lack of stamina than you are of attacks, as the majority of the Colossi just mind their own business if they don’t sense the danger of you trying to kill them. And their attacks usually can’t reach you while you are attached to their body. Both stamina and health can be extended if you manage to find some fruit or shining lizards during your trek, but they’re not necessary to finish the game.

In order to kill a Colossus, you have to stab the glowing weak points on its body. If you’re not sure where they are, holding out your sword will shine a beam of light on them and illuminate these points if you pass the light over them. They’ll also appear if you are climbing on their body and happen to get very close to one. Some of the bosses will have multiple weak points, so after stabbing one and dropping its health to a certain point, it will disappear and you’ll have to move on to a different area. It’s not always as simple as just waiting for it to get close and jumping on either. Some Colossi will require you to set traps for them or perform some other action to create an opening for you to advance. Still others will require you to work in tandem with your horse, such as shooting arrows while on horseback or jumping onto them while galloping after them at full speed.

As exciting as the horseback battles are, they are marred by requiring you to hold down too many buttons at once while in pursuit. The horse doesn’t just move by you pushing the joystick, you need to be constantly using the X button as well. If you want to aim your bow while riding the horse, you’ll have to simultaneously be holding L1. Finally, if you want to fire, you’ll be hitting the square button. If you’re not firing arrows and just want to jump on, replace the last two buttons with R1 and triangle and you get the idea. It’s very unintuitive and hampers an otherwise exciting confrontation. It doesn’t help that sometimes hitting the triangle button to mount your horse doesn’t always work unless you are in the exact spot that the game wants you to be.

Both games also have camera controls mapped to the right thumbstick that you have to fight with in order to work properly. Shadow of the Colossus gives you a little more freedom with the camera as there isn’t as much of a view that the game thinks is “correct” as there is with ICO, though during certain boss battles it will sometimes move the camera to suit whatever action is happening onscreen at the moment. ICO has almost always fixed and although you can move the camera ahead to get a better look at things, it’s way too sensitive and will often spring back to its original position.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Good

Replayability
Depending on how good of a puzzle solver you are, both titles are fairly short. From discussing it with others who have played it and based on my own experience, ICO can be finished on average in about seven hours and Shadows of the Colossus will be slightly more than that. Once you complete them though, there are a few bonuses that are unlocked.

ICO‘s North American release originally had a few features cut due to time constraints, so the version of the game on this collection is actually the European version. That means that the second time around, Yorda’s speech will actually be translated for the player. Also, a second player can take control of Yorda, which should make getting those time crunch trophies a bit easier to swallow. Which is good since completing ICO in two hours, even knowing what to do, is a hell of an ordeal.

Shadows of the Colossus is also not without a few extras. Upon your initial completion, you will unlock access to a Time Attack mode as well as a Hard mode, both which are pretty self-explanatory. There’s also the trophy support that comes standard with PS3 re-releases, so there’s also that.

Replayability Rating: Good

Balance
Both games are fairly forgiving in their design, though ICO is slightly less so since upon death you are sent back to either the last idol door you opened or the last stone seat you saved at. There are areas where these stone seats are plentiful, but later in the game, I sometimes didn’t see one for a good 30 minutes or more. And since the jumping can be a bit wonky at times, it can be a little frustrating to get sent back to repeat puzzles you had already done a long time ago. The game itself is already quite short, but artificially extending play time by widening the gap between saves is a bit much.

Shadows of the Colossus on the other hand seems to have save points everywhere. They are scattered throughout the land and the game will also prompt you to save your progress after you kill a Colossus. If you fail while fighting one, it will also give you the option to retry from the beginning of the fight. The difficulty comes more so from figuring out what to do than it does actually doing it, though the final battle made me want to scream.

Balance Rating: Good

Originality
While the base mechanics of both of these games have been replicated many times before, I haven’t ever seen them used quite like this. Take ICO for example. It’s full of platforming as well as being one long escort mission, but presents the idea in a unique way that isn’t as frustrating as it is in other titles. Yes, it’s irritating when Yorda decides to wander off a pressure switch or climb the opposite way on a ladder than what you intended, but since your life is tied to hers you form a bond with the character and learn to accept it. This is the exact opposite of say Natalya from Goldeneye whom you’d wish would die in a fire for constantly running in front of everyone’s bullets.

Shadow of the Colossus managed to do something I didn’t expect anyone to try with a game of this genre: trim the fat. I always felt that boss battles were the most climactic points of pretty much any video game that has them, and that’s all this game is. There are no random enemies, just straight up boss fights. It’s like a greatest hits compilation of the best parts of the game and that IS the whole game. It’s a ballsy design decision, but one I think that works to its benefit, and I’ve never seen another game pull it off quite the same.

On the other hand, this is the second release of both of these games, and neither of them are all that old. So if you have played them before, there isn’t much here that will be new to you. Aside from restoring lost features to ICO and the bonus materials, not much has changed besides graphics, so something to keep in mind.

Originality Rating: Very Good

Addictiveness
Both games had me hooked from beginning to end, simple as that. The plot in both games is subtle and simplistic, but still manages to behave like the narrative carrot on a stick that drives the player forward to the completion of the game. This, for me, was the biggest driving force behind finishing ICO, as I cared what was going to happen to the characters. I also wanted to know what the hell was going on in this crazy world placed before me and although I didn’t get all of my questions answered, I still felt better for the experience. While I cared just as much of what became of Wander and Mono from Shadows of the Colossus, every boss battle was so incredibly epic that I couldn’t compel myself to stop. Aside from the initial Colossus battle, I played the game from beginning to the very end in one go and only after I completed it did I realize it was almost six in the morning.

Addictiveness Rating: Unparalleled

Appeal Factor
I think both games’ unique approach to standard genre conventions may be a bit of a turn off for a lot of people, despite the amazing end product. One look at ICO‘s North American sales seems to confirm that, despite the high critical acclaim it had been receiving at the time. Although, Shadow of the Colossus was marketed pretty heavily during its release and managed to land itself Greatest Hits status during its initial run on the PS2, so the appeal of both of these games seems to balance each other out.

I think the announcement of The Last Guardian has a lot of people excited as well, as the after market value for ICO seemed to have risen to almost what the original MSRP was during its initial release. Only time will tell if the hype just had a lot of people curious or if the original releases are really that interesting to people.

Appeal Rating: Above Average

Miscellaneous
This is a well done package, regardless if you’re a newcomer or a veteran of either game. It’s retailing for $40 which in a lot of cases is less than what you’d find the PS2 originals for used, and they are arguably better versions of both games. They look fantastic in HD, and the material that was cut from ICO was restored. The disc also contains a number of bonus materials such as background themes and making of videos. I actually watched all of the bonus material and it’s all quite interesting. You can see what ICO originally looked like when it was being developed for the PS1 as well as Shadow of the Colossus‘ original status as an online multiplayer game. There are even some segments that discuss the upcoming The Last Guardian, so if you are interested in that title, you will dig this as well.

I don’t normally endorse companies double dipping for extra cash, but with the right additions it can be a worthwhile addition for fans. In this case, I’d definitely say this is a stellar package at the price they are offering it for. Yes, some additional content would have been nice, but you’re getting updated versions of two great games for cheaper than what you’d find them used. It’s hard to argue with that value.

Miscellaneous Rating: Amazing

The Scores
Story/Modes: Classic
Graphics: Great
Sounds: Classic
Controls/Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Very Good
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Amazing

Final Score: Great Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Reviewing updated versions of revered games is a delicate process, especially if you’ve played them before. Well, I can say that I’ve never played either of the games on The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection prior to this release, and I enjoyed both immensely. The controls are a little unfriendly and take some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be running and galloping through the well designed environments with the best of them. The updated visuals really do the original art direction justice and brings the worlds featured in either game alive, and the sound effects further enhance the atmosphere. The version of ICO presented here is based on the European release, so some lost features were restored, and there are also some bonus materials on the disc if you are interested in the behind the scenes aspects of Team ICO. It was all incredibly interesting as a newcomer, but veterans should appreciate the new additions just as much. And at $40, it will likely cost you less to track down the original PS2 releases of these games. This collection may not be for everybody, but it’s at least worth trying out to see their unique take on standard genre conventions. It may be a flooded market this fall, but it’s hard to be disappointed with such a unique collection of games that seem to stand up well, even today.

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