This is the second part of my series of articles about Shadow of the Colossus. You can find the first part here.
Note: If you have not played this game, do not read this article. Play the game, enjoy it, and then read this article. It could mess up (a little) the joy of discovery (contains spoilers).
One of the most striking aspects of the game is its pace. Each "chapter" (the destruction of a colossus) consists of three distinct parts:
Between each of these phases a cinematic is played concluding the previous phase and introducing the following one, so that the changes in pace are carried out smoothly. The end of a chapter then follows on the start of the next one without pause.
Now that we have briefly overviewed the fightings, we will discuss what makes them unforgettably fun moments but also what's so unique about them.
Generally speaking, the level-design of a boss-fight is not made by the boss himself, but mainly by its environment (where can we hide? How to use the setting to create openings? How to get closer to his weak point?). The boss also complies with a character-design that should make it more impressive than other "standard" enemies. In Shadow of the Colossus, the battle system (which consists of climbing and moving on the colossus) actually merges the level- and chara-design of the boss. With the exception of two bosses on the sixteen of the game, they all require the player to climb onto the colossus to reach his weak spot(s), in order to destroy them with his sword.
With each boss, the challenge is different. The first three giants provide an introduction to various game mechanics used throughout the game. The first one ony requires the use of the sword and climbing abilities to kill him. The second one shows no visible way to climb onto him. The use of the bow is then required to touch the giant's soles to make him stumble. The third one requires the study of his actions to find a way to get to him. Not only do we have to wait until he hits the floor to mount on his weapon, but, realizing that we can not climb up his arm, it will require the player to set a trap to get rid of this obstacle . The game then adds a very important concept of this game: reflection. It is this reflection which creates tremendous immersion in combat. The hero needs intelligence to overcome the colossal power of these giant living statues. This intelligence is not integrated into gameplay (as is often the case in RPGs) or partially guided by the game (which is the case of boss-fights in Zelda games, for example). Here, the player's own intelligence is the key that will help the hero bring down the colossus, the game becoming a circumstantial way of turning into pictures the solving of the given problem. The hero / player's triumph over the Colossus is driven by his superior intelligence, which reminds us of this human feeling of superioriority over any other species, regardless of their raw strength. The puzzles grow more complex gradually, interacting with larger environments, as well as air, marine and underground giants, an calling on more powerful and varied weapons.
(here, defeating the boss requires the use of the environment to trap and flip him, and then to find a way to be over him when he will recover)
This puzzle/action feature of the game's fightings could come close to those found in the Zelda games for example, but it seems to me that a major difference makes it a unique game: Never does the game introduce a new weapon or a new power to destroy the boss; the player alone must find his way to solve the challenge. Thus we face puzzle-game challenge, packed in an action-game presentation. This combination in the boss-fight design contributes greatly to the special feel of this game.
I personally believe that a work of art in general, or an element of it, is worth more for the power and the depth of its mark onto our memory than for the emotion we feel at the time we experience it. The scenario of the game answers perfectly to this paradigm. Indeed, it is only told in the introduction and epilogue of the game, with the notable exception of a short cutscene after the death of the 13th colossus. This ensures that the game is played in one go, without pausing the game flow to tell the story, where most games regularly put gameplay in "pause" to progress through the plot (using cutscenes or dialogue) . Some game designers (Shigeru Miyamoto, especially in 2D marios) prefer to completely avoid intrigue not to impact the pace of the game.
The genius of Fumito Ueda not only consists of splitting the plot between the introduction and the epilogue, but also of coming up with a conclusion that drives the player to rethink, or even judge, everything he has done during the game. He even goes so far as to make it playable, giving the player the imporession that he might change the doom of the hero, and let him fight as long as his willing against his fate, until he eventually decides to submit to it. As surprising as this ending is, we think again about the scenes of the giants' death, struck down by the hero's sword, heavily collapsing in a music which at the time let us catch a glimpse of the tragic outcome of this adventure.
De facto, by the second time you play the game, your actions are not performed with the same level of motivation, because we know at this point that a choice will have to be made between saving our beloved one and saving entities with quite commendable fate. Obviously, and this is a limitation of the game, there is no alternative, and refusing to kill the colossi is as good as refusing to play the game.
In the third part of this article, we will look deeper into the role of Agro and the relationship that the hero (and the player) creates with him.
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