Truth be told, we count ourselves as fortunate to be playing Shadow of the Colossus, let alone reviewing it. After all, just mentally rewind four years to the PAL release of Ico, the so-called 'spiritual predecessor' to the game you see reviewed here. Remind yourself of the meagre 25,000 copies Ico sold in the UK, to the 85,000 sold over the whole of Europe and, most of all, try and recall the non-existent marketing that accompanied the release of the title four years ago. The neglect of that game by Sony was a travesty, though the arrival of Shadow goes some way to redressing that injustice.
So, let's set a few things straight now: should you buy Shadow of the Colossus? In a nutshell: yes. Not just because it would be a farce to see such a game head down the same slippery slope as Ico, but also because this is undoubtedly the first essential game of 2006, and an early, serious contender for all those end-of-year lists everyone loves so much nowadays. Will everyone enjoy it? Almost. Shadow's more action-oriented approach means the appeal of the game will almost certainly stretch farther than that of Ico which, for all its beauty and subtlety, is an utterly pedestrian experience when compared to the breathless adventure presented to gamers by Shadow. Is it flawed? Yes. But this is a game partially undone by the scale of it's own ambition. But we'll come back to that later.
For now though, the backdrop to the game seems as good a place to start as any. Filling the shoes of a lone horseback traveller known as the Wanderer (a hero as understated as Ico himself), players are given the task of bringing a young girl back to life. It's a goal that can only be achieved by defeating sixteen colossi - huge beasts of stone, fur, armour, flesh and bone - that stalk the lands that surround the temple where the lifeless girl lies. As in the case of Ico, the story is barely told in any significant detail, with the snippets of narrative taking a back seat to the real highlight of the show: the Colossi themselves.
In every respect, these formidable beasts are a success story for the team behind Shadow, and will surely provide gamers with some of the most memorable moments from any game of this generation. Standing hundreds of feet high, the sheer scale of the creatures is bewildering, and encountering the first Colossus in the game is a genuine, jaw-on-the-floor moment. Despite their awesome size however, they're not invincible - each of the Colossi possesses a weak point (more than one on harder difficulty levels), a glowing green marker located at some point (and often partially concealed) on the body of the Colossus. Plunging your weapon repeatedly into this spot is the only way to take down the beasts, yet actually finding the weak point can be a much trickier affair.
Pleasingly, the visual style borrows heavily from Ico. The results are often exemplary.
Infact, it's literally a hands-on job, which means you'll have to scale each Colossus, clinging grimly onto the fur or armour of these giant creatures as they urgently try and shake you off. Fall or lose your grip, and it's back to square one. The act of clambering up each Colossus both looks and feels hugely impressive (a good thing, as you'll be doing a lot of clambering), and is one that requires patience, stealth and good timing in equal measure. As you scale the limbs and torso of each Colossus, a 'grip meter' appears and gradually fills up (note: any concerns about the clear, HUD-less display of Ico being no more should be forgotten, incidentally - Shadow's HUD is anything but intrusive, and essential to play); once full, our hero loses his grip and plummets back down to the ground below, usually followed by a gigantic foot as your foe attempts to stomp you into the earth.
The resulting struggles between the Wanderer and Colossi make for compelling viewing and playing alike, and this is largely thanks to some magnificent art design on the Colossi, not to mention the technical achievements on display here - even up close, the textures of each monster are brilliantly detailed, with every strand of fur and each square inch of leathery skin depicted with incredible sharpness. Even the way the Colossi move - lumbering, yet powerful - is a sight to behold. And, just to emphasise this again: the sheer scale of the Colossi is staggering. One Colossus in particular, a dragon-like creature that flies and swoops above a desert as you pursue it thrillingly on horseback, is simply immense. Stand on it's back near the head and you can see it's tail - half a kilometre away. Amazing stuff and, hyperbole aside, these are some of the greatest, most impressive enemies we've ever had the joy of encountering in a game. They're a stunning achievement.
Which is fortunate, as there's little in the way of meaningful gameplay between fighting each of the sixteen Colossi. Primarily it's a matter of locating the beasts, and holding your sword aloft makes the job a lot easier, with a ray of light emanating from the blade and pointing out to the horizon, to where your next foe lies in wait. From there, it's a case of galloping in the right direction on Agro, your trusty steed. These treks are made infinitely more enjoyable by some of the most picturesque landscapes seen in a game to date, with mountain passes, valleys, deserts, lakes, caves, ancient ruins and rocky cliff-faces all expertly portrayed. At times, it feels very much like galloping through a particularly wonderful and ghoulish landscape painting, such is the depth and richness of the vistas, and it's yet another example of how fabulous art design seems to come so easily to Fumito Ueda's team.
This kind of lovingly crafted game world sadly comes at a price however, and it's blatantly clear that the PlayStation 2 occasionally struggles to keep up, with the odd frame or three being dropped. Worse still, there's been two or three occasions (in our forty hours of play) where whole polygons have sporadically disappeared beneath the hooves of Agro. It doesn't happen often at all, but it's worth mentioning, and is a shame considering how fantastically immersive the rest of the game is. The camera is another component of the game that suffers due to the sheer ambition and scale of the project, if only because squeezing many of the bigger Colossi into shot whilst maintaining a decent, playable angle proves a little too tricky. And on a couple of the Colossi you'll face (particularly the final Colossus), it makes things thoroughly infuriating. So although it's still a considerable technical showcase, it's not a flawless one either, even if criticising it feels churlish considering the huge scale of, well, everything in the game.
It's not just a visual tour-de-force. Shadow is a game blessed with one of the greatest soundtracks we've heard in goodness knows how long, an audio feast that really comes to the fore when you're fighting the Colossi, with grand sweeps of orchestral music that feel suitably heroic and epic. The hairs on the back of your neck will quite rightly stand up, and those of you with a decent sound system will be in for an irresistible treat, as will those with progressive scan displays. Away from fighting, the soundtrack is decidedly minimalist, generating an atmosphere that shares a great deal in common with Ico - eerie, haunting, melancholy. Frankly, we couldn't imagine this part of the game being any more perfect, as our mark below suggests.
But perhaps the most impressive feat here is that finally, for probably the first time since Ico itself, we have an adventure game that dares to do things differently, and succeeds with aplomb. Unike so many other modern adventure games, this is not a title thoughtlessly divided and compartmentalised into levels punctuated by bosses. If anything, the bosses have become the levels, extensions of the terrain that need to be tamed and conquered. Nor is Shadow a game that insists on force-feeding us a patronising, clichÃ©d narrative with cringeworthy dialogue. Instead, it's a title that dilutes the adventure game back down to what it should really be about: gripping combat, an absorbing atmosphere and a sense of being totally in control (if we, y'know, ignore the occasionally dodgy camera).
So on paper, this is a game that's simple: one hero, sixteen bosses, mere fragments of a storyline and a large world to meander about in. Yet despite this apparent bare-bones approach, Shadow is almost certainly one of the most unforgettable, colourful and varied experiences we've had with a Dual Shock in our hands. Indeed, we're now on our fourth playthrough, a testament if ever there was one to the diversity and imaginative design the game consistently exhibits. Admittedly it's a flawed beast at times, and the nagging camera issues and occasional graphical glitch do prevent the game from reaching perfection.
Consequently, Shadow is a frustrating game to mark. As a game that stretches the aging PlayStation 2 hardware slightly too far for its own good, it's an eight. As a signpost to the potentially thrilling future of videogaming and an experience like no other title before it, it's almost unquestionably a ten. Heck - eight, ten, whatever; this is a game everyone should play. Just make sure you don't miss out this time, eh?