Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Play-by-play revisit: Shadow of the Colossus

The recent social justice eruption in nerd culture has left me feeling extremely privileged for being straight, white, male, non-religious, and whatever else isn't popularly segregated. There is, however, one cold matter of prejudice that I face on a regular basis, and it's the chilling truth that the gaming environment presents a harsh climate for those who do not like Shadow of the Colossus.

The Last Guardian was officially re-unveiled this weekend during Sony's E3 press conference, just as I astutely predicted. Now, I don't like to be the curmudgeon. I really don't. I love video games, and to see so much sudden, passionate outpouring for various projects that many of my fellow nerds long dismissed as lost with the Library of Alexandria (we also got Shenmue III, don't forget) is heartwarming to me. But I look at the excitement for a game that we've known virtually nothing about for eight years, and I look at the universal respect that Team Ico commands for a mere pair of games (the most recent of of which released a decade ago), and I develop concern and bafflement over the fact that I, a hardcore gamer and resolute champion of all things artsy-fartsy, didn't enjoy either of those games.

Shadow of the Colossus isn't merely popular among the gaming community. It's sacred. It's untouchable. Speaking ill of it on the internet is like expressing discontent with Kim Jong-Un in Northa Korea; everyone in the room nervously twitches and then the offending individual is erased from the consensus the next day. You can call Ocarina of Time a feature-length fetch quest, or Final Fantasy VII a typo marathon, or Half-Life 2 a dull series of one-way conversations. But not liking Shadow of the Colossus? Whoa, man. Whoa.

Which is why it's always struck me as kinda bizarre that Shadow of the Colossus isn't very good. Oh, sure, the soundtrack is incredible, the creature designs are exquisite, and the title as a whole is an ambitious benchmark for interactive storytelling. By all means, when I first played it years ago, I expected to love it. And then, like a punch in the face: awful controls, hideous framerate problems and a succession of would-be epic moments dismantled by adventure-game-logic puzzles. I admire the hell out of the game, but at the end of the day, I'd rather play something fun. And yes, to turn the footscrew just a little tighter, I think Watch Dogs is a bazillion times better.

This isn't normal thinking. That's what I've been told to believe, and that's what I started believing myself just yesterday when, in rare form, I decided to give Shadow of the Colossus a second chance. And since the game is rather cleanly divided into parts (sixteen battles), I figured I'd try something new and record my thoughts as I play. Except for this intro, of course. I'm writing this after the fact. But never mind.

Colossus #1: Big humanoid guy with a hammer

This one's pretty inoffensive, as it's meant to introduce you to the concept of colossus-murdering. I should mention that since I did play through this game to completion once, I do remember quite a bit of it, and I don't recall having any problems with him the first time. Actually, on this run, I got a bit frustrated when I settled on the idea that I'm supposed to be climbing his hammer after I stun him, but I guess that's my own fault for being dumb. Okay, well, I don't hate this game yet.

Colossus #2: Bull

You know, I can't say it won't grate on me by the time I'm finished, but I'm actually A-okay with the open-world treks in between fights, even though there's very little to do in Shadow of the Colossus. It's atmosphere-building, and despite the dated technology, the art direction for this game will never lose its luster. Just look at that giant bridge towering over you as you travel to this arena. Terrifying and awe-inspiring in equal measure, which sums up a lot of this game well.

I specifically remember a friend of mine instructing me how to beat this colossus the first time through, so I have no idea how obvious it would be to shoot the bottoms of its feet otherwise, but I guess this fight went smoothly enough. I'm beginning to recall that a great deal of Shadow's gameplay is just spent holding the R1 button while the colossi try to shake you off, which makes this battle feel unnecessarily prolonged, and I don't see that changing.

Bigger problem: Oh my god I forgot how bad the horse controls are. It hasn't figured into the combat yet, but I know it's going to and I'm dreading it. Probably doesn't help that I've been playing so much of The Witcher 3 lately, and the horse tends to actually go where I want him to go in that game.

Colossus #3: Big humanoid guy with sword

I mentioned that I had a friend coaching me the first time I played Shadow. This was the battle where he forgot the solution, and I spent (I swear) two hours running around this platform in the sky trying to figure out how to climb this goddamn guy. The ethereal voice keeps pointing out that there's a weakness in the colossus's wrist armor, but neither of us could determine how to use that to our advantage. Eventually, we looked it up on GameFAQs.

The answer's etched into my brain now, of course. You need to get the colossus to strike a big stone plate on the ground, and the impact causes the band on his arm to break, I guess, and then you climb it. This battle is the first (though definitely not the worst) instance of a recurring nuisance I recall through Shadow: getting the colossi to maneuver in such-and-such way. Not only does that make you a slave to the AI, but these big, elegant creatures almost come across as bumblers who more or less bring about their own destruction.

This battle went smoothly enough, I guess, but I'm remembering now why I hated this game's controls. They're awfully sluggish, and the physics surrounding whether or not Wander keeps his balance while standing on a colossus seems unreliable.

Colossus #4: Horse

Okay, this is what I'm talking about when I say "adventure game logic." You have to lure this thing over to a structure that you encounter earlier, draw it close to one of the openings from a certain direction, enter the structure, exit from a different door, and then jump on its back while it's crouched over in a scripted position. Never would have figured this out initially had my one friend not given me the answer years ago. Another battle that's straightforward once you know the solution, but the solution itself is obtuse and unsatisfying. Blegh.

Colossus #5: Bird

First of all, I was stuck while looking for this one because I didn't know you could hold R1 to dive underwater. Did the game ever formally tell you that? If not, shame on Team Ico. If it did, hush my mouth.

Anyway. Yeah, this is a terrific battle. They came to work this day. I think there are only two flying colossi in the game, and my memory is that they're Shadow's highlights. It's just exhilarating to lead a battle at great heights and high speeds like this. Also, it's smart that you need to shoot the bird to officially commence the battle, since that move is vital for "boarding" it. The first genuinely great colossus battle in the game.

Colossus #6: Big bearded guy

Okay, I'm really starting to get sick of this R1 function. Yeah, I know it adds a strategic element to battles, since you have to actually conserve your energy and make gambles regarding how much you're going to charge a stab, but it's a waiting game. I swear, 95% of the time you're actually riding a colossus, you're just sitting there, holding R1 and waiting for the damned thing to stop shaking so you can get on with the game. This is boring.

Colossus #7: Eel

Okay, another good one. I actually remember naming this my favorite battle after my first run, though I did find it a bit tedious having to just sort of sit on the surface of the lake waiting for this colossus to finish his breakfast and come pick a fight with you. There's a very narrow window for actually boarding this one, and if my reflexes had been slower today, I may have grown frustrated with him.

But yeah, another battle that more or less equates to a highway chase as this thing speeds through the water with you climbing along its back. The main threat, its electricity, is easy to read but also difficult to maneuver. Satisfying and thrilling. The second genuinely great colossus battle in the game.

Colossus #8: Lizard

Another one where I enter with the advantage of remembering the solution from my previous play, not that its glowing feet are subtle. The thing at irritates me about this fight is the insanely small window that you have to nail its weak point after knocking it off the wall. Seems like the only efficient thing to do is just leap off from several stories, and I find it hard to do that after so much of The Witcher 3 (a game with some of the most punishing fall damage I've ever seen).

Unremarkable fight, and probably the first one that's not even visually impressive (a reminder that not all of the colossi are indeed colossal). Also marks the first appearance of the lasers, and yes, I remember the lasers.

Colossus #9: Turtle

Forget if I mentioned this, but the first time I played Shadow, I ranked all of the colossi in terms of enjoyability, and this one came in dead last. Yeah, remember how I said I hated the horse controls and was dreading when they'd become necessary? They're necessary now. Remember how I said I didn't like having to wrestle with the AI? That's required for this one. Also oh my god why are the colossi shooting lasers.

So you have to draw this guy over one of the generously-spaced geysers in the area, shoot the bottoms of two of its feet to knock it over, climb its belly, vault over onto its back, and run up and stab it in the head once it stands back up. The thing I hated then and now about this battle is that Shadow's physics engine can't keep up during that transition; I'll get most of the way through the process, and then when the colossus is flipping back over while I'm standing on it, Wander goes haywire and topples off. And not in the bumbling, least-physically-competent-video-game-protagonist-of-all-time way that he usually does, but in an unintentional-physics-malfunction way.

Also, my god, these horse controls. What I hate is that they seem to change depending on which way the camera is facing. If you're just riding forward, fine, I guess. But if you're riding with the camera facing backwards or to the side, there's no science to it. Sometimes tilting the analog stick left means the horse runs in that direction on-screen; sometimes it means the horse turns to its left regardless of which way it's facing.

I've been told that the unwieldy horse controls are deliberate, "realistic" and part of the experience, which is ridiculous because (a) controls always need to be consistent regardless of the intent behind them, (b) realism has no place in a game like this, and (c) they're not realistic controls, anyway, because no actual horse would just crash dumbly into walls like this.

I don't like this game right now.

Colossus #10: Sand snake


I have no memory of this, which is surprising, because when you consider how much I hate the way your horse controls in this game, you'd think a horseback battle would be branded onto my brain. I remember that the horse dies at the end and I can't wait.

So it turns out the horse actually can be steered in a consistent manner, but for some reason, it's only when you're using L1 to look at the colossus. That's required for this fight because you need to actually lead a chase and then fire an arrow backward when it reveals its eyes, which it only does after it's seen your horse's rear end for a while. Aiming's a bit too springy when you're using L1, and you can't actually see where you're going, so this one took a lot of trial-and-error and I did not enjoy it at all no sir not one bit.

Colossus #11: Bull pig

I was wrong. The turtle was not the worst boss in Shadow. This is the worst boss in Shadow. Unless something comes along that's even more tedious, and I shudder at the thought.

So first of all, this colossi is tiny. Like, this could be a boss in any game. Secondly, it's the only time in Shadow (to my memory) in which you need to actually pick up and use an environmental object; there's no indication that you're supposed to be doing this, or even suggestion as to how. And it's silly adventure game logic again: climb pillar, get bull to ram pillar, pillar drops torch, pick up torch with R1, climb pillar again, light torch that for some reason wasn't lit even though it just fell out of a fire, wave the torch around until the bull backs off of a ledge and breaks its armor. A contrived, linear sequence of point-and-click misadventures that probably made sense in the designers' minds.

Also, if you miss leaping directly onto the bull's weak point after it falls, it's basically impossible to jump back on from where you are thanks entirely to wonky physics. And when you do board it, again, it shakes like mad and thus begins the R1 waiting game again.

Colossus #12: Water buffalo

First of all, I don't know what else to call this thing.

Second of all, more adventure game logic! This time, board a nearby platform with a roof (the ones without roofs won't work!), shoot the colossus in the horns until it lowers its head while it's firing goddamned lasers at you, climb the head, then guide it around by striking the teeth sticking out of its scalp (?!), jump onto one of said roofs, get it to pull itself up onto the roof by shooting its horns again, strike exposed belly.

I want to go into more detail about how much I hate this game's controls but I'm really tired.

Colossus #13: Flying snake.

Yes. Finally the good one.

Drawing the snake down to ground level is a concise process, since the sacs on its underside make for very clear targets. Once it dips its fins down to your level, that's when you need to race up beside it on your horse and grab on. Yes, this battle does require some horseback maneuvering, but you have plenty of room, and thankfully, most of the danger comes when you're actually riding the colossus.

Again, Shadow's two flying colossi are amazing, and this battle in particular combines the two previous highlights on the game, #5 and #7. It's fast-paced, large-scale and visually magnificent. You can see why it's the favorite. The third genuinely great colossus battle in the game. [Edit: Also the last.]

Colossus #14: Bull pig returns



You know something I forgot to mention about the bull-pig the first time around? It has this one ram attack that knocks Wander out for at least five seconds, and it's actually quite easy to get locked into a loop of such attacks. Thankfully, this time you actually have to spend most of the fight off the ground, avoiding the thing, so it's not quite as painful now.

This may, however, be the game's most contrived and drawn-out battle. You have to get the colossus to knock down, what, a dozen of these pillars? All of which fall down in precisely such a position that they allow you to continue maneuvering along a series of linear platforms? And then it's the same bucking-bull nonsense where you spend an eternity holding R1 while waiting for Wander to decide to maybe attack the thing that's trying to kill him?

I hate this game.

Colossus #15: Big humanoid guy with cleaver

It's more of that thing I love where I have to get a colossus to do a specific thing. This one's dopey, too; I had to absolutely pop him full of arrows throughout the fight to keep him from just wandering off. I actually thought that destroying the bridges would actually break his sword (since I remember that he loses it at some point), but no: that's just a way for Shadow to reset your progress and pull you back to ground level.

Also, his final weak point is on his palm, and you can only get to that after he does a very specific ground pound move that it took me forever to trigger.

I'm tired.

Colossus #16: A mountain wearing a dress, basically

I'm tired.