The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection is a fitting remastering of two outstanding games. Years after their releases, the two games continue to demonstrate a masterful understanding of scope, subtlety, and interactive storytelling.
Reviewing a re-released game is a tricky business: Should one focus on describing the experience to first time players? Is it better to look take a historical approach and evaluate how the game has aged? What should be said about commemorative packaging and bonus features? In reviewing The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection, I’ll choose the easy way out and do a little bit of everything. Whether you are interested in playing Ico and Shadow of the Colossus for the first time or are eager to revisit two of the most revered games ever made, the collection is a rare treat. For those folks interested in the practice of preserving and modernizing older games, The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection demonstrates an approach that respects the past while also making additions that deepen our understanding of the games.
In an art form defined by multimedia experiences, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus stand out as titles that gracefully combine visual, audio, scripted, and interactive storytelling techniques. The windswept castle walls and saturated lighting effects speak to the isolated world, isolated work in which Ico and Yorda find themselves and serve to highlight the subtle warmth of their relationship. Shadow of Colossus‘s lonely, rugged terrain is a perfect backdrop for Wander’s melancholy quest. Fighting a Colossi is like waging war with a force of nature. The camera angles and intense orchestral soundtrack add artistic power to each swipe that they make at Wander.
However, the true strength of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus resides in their ability to convey messages interactively. Each button press is both meaningful and mandatory; holding on to Yorda’s hand means holding down the shoulder button and feeling the controller subtly vibrate as she and Ico step on each other’s heels while running together. This gesture of companionship is crucial to escaping the castle. In Shadow of the Colossus, your grip is your life. Wander’s perilous climb up a colossus and his desperate attacks on its weak points are mirrored to specific button presses. The game’s animation puts most others to shame, but its beauty is not meant to be passively observed. Every second spent clinging to a colossus’s back, every ledge scaled, and every sword blow must be executed with deliberate intention. In a Team Ico game, the player is physically drawn into the experience.
Of course, the games are not without their blemishes. Ico‘s devotion to cinematography and animation often come at the expense of precise control. Even the most beautiful environments grow tiresome after having to repeat them after missing an obscure jump. Shadow of the Colossus‘s magnificent enemies make for epic battles, but some colossi are prone to repetitive movement and dim AI. When the game originally came out, it pushed the PlayStatiion 2 to its technical breaking point, and while most of the frame rate issues have been fixed, occasional clipping and pop in errors are still present. But these things are akin to small continuity errors in a great film or the odd typo in a literary masterpiece. To focus on the few rough edges would be missing the point regarding what makes the games special.
Replaying the games after the end of another console generation illustrates how unique Ico and Shadow of the Colossus remain. The games are simultaneously bold and subtle. They cover sweeping territory in both thematic and artistic regards but are restrained enough to let the important moments breathe. God of War fills its enormous environments with relentless action and Uncharted goes to incredible lengths to fill every corner of the screen with detail. The Team Ico games deal with scope in a more nuanced, stately manner. Tone is communicated through subtle architectural details and quiet, yet majestic scenes that bookend action scenes. Rather than being carried from set peice to set piece, the Team Ico games let the player take the games at their own pace. Their mysterious worlds leave room for contemplation and reflection.
Ico and Shadow of the Colossus respect the player. The games do not hold your hand through didactic tutorial missions. Much of the storytelling is handled without dialog and instead conveyed through character interactions that the player controls. In an industry dominated by automated actions, quicktime events, and broad storytelling, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus offer the gift of minimalism. Ico explores themes of family, obligation, and courage without long winded soliloquies or heavy handed exposition. Shadow of the Colossus examines the nature of personal responsibility, justice, and love while still letting the player draw their own conclusions as to the story’s ultimate message. The games have unique faith in the players’ abilities to handle both complex gameplay and narrative themes.
It is fitting that the philosophy of respectful minimalism pervades the entire remastered package. Reversing the disk jacket reveals a gorgeous alternate cover that ditches the usual “back of the box” quotes for a landscape poster comprised of only artwork and the two games’ titles. The games themselves remain largely untouched. Aside from optimized aspect ratios, consistent frame rates, and high resolution assets, they remain the same games that were originally released. This gives them a purity other remakes like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D lack. The only major addition comes in the form of an understated menu screen allowing the player to choose between Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Even the menu is a fitting homage to games. While panning between the cover art of each game, you can catch a fleeting glimpse at landscape connecting the two. As is the case in the games, you get the sense that there is a connection between the two stories, but you are left to your own imagination as to its exact nature.
A handful of short interviews and documentaries with Team Ico members accompany the games. They aren’t long or particularly deep, but careful viewing reveals valuable insight into Fumito Ueda’s design philosophy as well as Team Ico’s studio culture. We learn that the team who started working on Ico were largely a group of industry outsiders. Ueda himself came from a graphic design and animation background, which helps explain the studio’s dedication to striking visual language. Time and again we hear about Team Ico’s attempts to simplify their games to their most important components, cutting away traditional video game trappings and extraneous story material. We learn that they think the North American Ico box art was as bad as everyone else thought it was. We learn that Shadow of the Colossus started off as a multiplayer game. We hear Team Ico talk about the goals for The Last Gaurdian and are introduced to their philosophy of trying to hide the designer’s influence in their games.
With this knowledge, the relative paucity of extra material is more understandable. Team Ico’s understated philosophy doesn’t lend itself to in-depth production documentaries or developer commentary. Their dedication to a clear, unified artistic vision thankfully precludes significant alteration to the original material. Their disdain for overwrought design is apparent in their games. Just as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus represent outstanding artistry and a respect for the player, the remastered collection demonstrates a respect for the past and an eagerness for players to immerse themselves in the two amazing games.