Written by Karl Koebke and Craig Snow.
Few developers have the ability to inspire such strong, positive emotions in those who play their games as Team Ico. With just two titles to their name, Team Ico have already managed to acquire an almost mythical status as a fantastic and truly artistic development team; they are, perhaps, Sony’s most beloved first party studio. Both of those titles – Ico and Shadow of the Colossus – are already considered true classics; the latter frequently reaching the top echelons of many a ‘best video games of all time’ list. It’s now just over 10 years since Ico was first released, and almost six in the case of Shadow of the Colossus, and now both of these titles come to us in a single package – a package which includes graphical improvements, 3D support, and bonus content.
Ico is one of the simplest and yet most beloved stories in all of gaming. You play as a young boy who has been abandoned in a desolate castle because of the horns coming out of his head. He soon meets a mysterious girl in a cage and decides to become her protector, and thus begins the longest escort mission you've probably ever played.
Often, when gamers think of escort missions, dread is the first thing that comes to mind, but Ico is the escort mission perfected. Where most games make you escort someone you barely have any connection to, or reason to care about, Ico has some of the most well-loved characters of all time thanks to their interactions with one another and the environment. There’s a minimalist story, but what is there is told superbly. Escorting the girl (Yorda) isn’t a chore because you actually find yourself wanting to keep her around.
Ico fixes a common criticism of escort missions: that is, the way the person you're escorting will often dart recklessly ahead, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, trudge along painfully slowly. By pressing R1, you can have the two characters hold hands, forcing Yorda to follow you just as quickly as you can run. Unfortunately, the HD re-release seems to have changed the strength of the rumble effect while dragging Yorda around, which is a shame because what was perhaps the most effective use of controller vibration in a game has been weakened almost to the point that it’s barely worth mentioning.
The other significantly unique aspect to Ico is its approach to puzzle-platforming. You're never told where to go, or how to do anything. Your hand is never held by the game - you are the solely responsible for your child-like protection of Yorda - which means you genuinely explore the castle by your own devices. Completion of even the simplest of puzzles evokes a feeling of accomplishment thanks to this context and the game's atmosphere. There are drawbacks to this design, however - sometimes you may find yourself hopelessly stuck on puzzles that you can't wrap your head around, leaving you truly stuck.
Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection features the PAL version of Ico, which means it includes the ability to access a cooperative mode, translation for the dialogue and additional visual effects once you've completed the game. There are also changes to a couple of the puzzles from the NA version. Since Ico is a relatively short game (it can be completed in around five hours or so), these extras add some much-needed replayability.
The main change, though, comes in the form of the visual update. Textures are clearer and the screen is sharper, but it still falls below the technical standards of most games this generation, so don't come into it expecting to be wowed by the visuals on a technical level. That said, aesthetically it is still one of the best games out there, and the sweeping visuals you're treated to when you get outside of the castle walls are still almost breath-taking. The sound design remains unchanged, which is a godsend because both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus feature exceptional soundtracks, still standing tall by modern standards; “You Were There” is easily the most emotionally resonant song I’ve ever heard in a video game, bringing a tear to my eye every time.
Shadow of the Colossus, in contrast with Ico, takes you on an epic journey to defeat 16 often-enormous giants, called Colossi. Shadow eschews the traditional set-up of most action/adventure games which have you battling hundreds of minor enemies and a handful of sub-bosses on your quest to defeat the main antagonist. Instead, Shadow is all about you, your horse (Agro), the massive, desolate world around you, and the 16 Colossi, each of which will puzzle and amaze you in your quest to defeat them.
It’s a solitary journey, made all the more atmospheric by the barren plains you traverse with Agro. Agro is your one and only companion - a loyal sidekick who will walk through hellfire with you - and you’ll need a heart of stone not to become attached over the course of your adventures together. Everything in Shadow works together to create a beautiful and touching game - not just the friendship you form with Agro, but also the guilt you feel for felling these often gentle-looking creatures. Shadow has a remarkable ability to often make you feel for the creatures you’re tasked with murdering; it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced in gaming before.
For all of its genius, however, Shadow of the Colossus is certainly not without its faults. Collection doesn’t alter Shadow of the Colossus’ gameplay in any way, so flaws related to that facet of the game remain as prescient as ever. That means, amongst other things, the return of awkward camera angles, and an all-too familiar sense of frustration when attempting to transition between different patches of fur on a colossus. Also untouched is the quirky control scheme, which takes some time to get used to (and even longer to master).
Critics of Shadow of the Colossus are often quick to point to the inconsistent and often poor framerate in the original as reason to rein in enthusiasm for the game. The game is undoubtedly an epic, but if the framerate is all over the place when you’re in the heat of battle then your sense of immersion is going to take a hit. In short: the graphics, on a strictly technical level, can detract from the experience. It’s a somewhat valid criticism – there’s no doubting that the framerate is an issue in Shadow, though one that’s easy to overlook if the game has already hooked you in with its unique concept and otherwise masterful execution. This is one area of the game which Collection has changed. The framerate is now far more stable, which makes for a much more enjoyable experience, particularly in the heat of battles.
Shadow seems so far ahead of its time that technical graphical issues were perhaps the inevitable downside. It’s one reason why a HD re-mastering was so widely called for – it’s hard to think of single other game from the PS2-era that would have benefited more from having been made during the current HD generation. As such, it’s great to finally see Shadow of the Colossus in all its HD (and 3D, for those with the set-up to support it) glory. The foggy haze that clouded the original has been lifted, replaced by a much clearer picture. Colours are now lush and crisp, the lighting looks better, and everything can be seen in so much more detail than before. It may now be in HD but it’s not quite up to PS3 standards - the poor quality of many of the textures, environmental pop-in, and occasional clipping all serve to highlight the fact that you can very much still tell this is a PS2 game. Nonetheless, Shadow of the Colossus now looks significantly better than it did originally.
For just $40 you get two of the greatest and most unique gaming experiences of all time. Collection also includes two dynamic themes for your PS3, as well as behind-the-scenes videos, and some new footage for the highly anticipated The Last Guardian (in the case of the PAL release these are, somewhat annoyingly, not on the disc – instead you have to download them from the PSN). The box art is also reversible, so you can get rid of all those annoying little “Only on PlayStation” signs and ratings that get plastered all over boxes these days. Of course, that’s a minimal extra, but it will be considered a thoughtful and much-appreciated bonus by many a fan of these two titles.
Unfortunately, neither of these games comes with much new and, whilst both titles look significantly better, the graphical improvements aren’t as fundamental as some fans will have hoped. Nonetheless, if you haven’t played these two games already then this is your one shot at redemption; there’s no reason not to play two of the greatest games ever made now that they’ve been re-mastered for the HD era. Games as awe-inspiring as this don’t come around very often, and this is now the definitive way to play both of them.
Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection - Review
Written by Karl Koebke and Craig Snow.
The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection - PS3
Gameplay - 9.5
Value - 8.5
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