It’s always been you, Shadow, it was never anyone else. How could I possibly even think about anyone else? Sure it was nice to get God of War, Sly and a bunch of other PS2 hits in HD form, but getting last generation’s classic Shadow of the Colossus in HD is something else entirely. It’s not nice, it’s essential.
And in that sense, it’s kind of a shame that publishers have already spoiled us on the HD Classics line. What seemed like a fantastic idea when the God of War Collection was announced has gradually lost its lustre thanks to ho-hum ports of other games that really didn’t need HD updates. Splinter Cell is a game drenched in shadows 99% of the time, so why did that need a port? And why on earth did the Tomb Raider Trilogy feature two PS2 ports of games that were on 360?
Answer? Cash-in. Everyone’s doing it now and that makes this ICO/Shadow of the Colossus set seem less special, less sacred than it would have been had it release two years ago. In fairness, Sony itself has still done right by the company’s own franchises, highlighting the finest PS2 tech with God of War, answering fan prayers with God of War: Origins, and bringing Sly back into the spotlight with his set. But you can’t help but feel that this one should have come first.
It’s come too late then, but it’s still the best HD set we’ve seen so far. These are ports of two of PS2’s finest games. ICO, a Zelda-esque artistic masterpiece, is admittedly showing its age having made the jump to PS3, but Shadow of the Colossus, a game that’s so unique, so beautiful and so downright special that it’s hard to overstate its brilliance, masterfully retains what made it so wonderful.
ICO turned heads ten years ago (ten!) with its stunning setting and unique approach to story that hasn’t quite been seen again since. If you missed out on it the first time, the closest thing I can think of that begins to give you an idea of the wondrous atmosphere the game creates is Limbo. Granted gameplay differs quite a bit, but if you were engulfed in Playdead’s puzzler from the off then it’s a safe bet ICO will be up your street.
You play a boy in his young teens, taken to a colossal castle by fellow villagers that consider him to be a bad omen. He’s left for dead but manages to break free and find Yorda, an older girl who is hunted by strange shadow creatures. To explain anymore would be to ruin the game’s compelling sense of discovery, but it’s a tale that will engulf you throughout thanks to the stunning environment that the game is set in.
The first time you step onto a wind-swept bridge, leading Yorda by hand is a moment rarely found in games. Even to this day looking out upon the crumbling ruins sends a chill down the spine, and the silent yet trusting relationship between the boy and Yorda is a memorable thing to experience.
It’s the gameplay that hasn’t held up quite as much, then. The one-button combat feels like a lucky dip when going up against enemies, and Yorda’s AI starts to crack at the atmosphere a little when she seemingly ignores your calls and wanders into trouble. Platforming isn’t a tight as it could be, though the floaty feeling in the boy’s step helps evoke the slippery feeling of being out of your depth rather than a battle-hardened warrior.
Regardless, ICO is a game I will always recommend to anyone and everyone. If you look to the likes of BioShock and Heavy Rain as this generation’s truly ‘out there’ games then consider ICO the PS2’s equivalent. It highlights what can make the medium so special with its Metroid-like isolation and amazing sense of place.
Though while I sing the praises of ICO, let’s not forget that Shadow of the Colossus is everything that ICO is and more. In Team ICO’s 2005 successor a 20-something Wander (possibly the slightly older hero of ICO) brings the body of his lost love (presumably) to a sacred temple where legend tells of a god that can bring back the dead. He learns that it is indeed possible to restore his companion, but not without defeating 16 Colossi – huge majestic beasts that roam the barren land around the temple.
There are no standard enemies, no side-quests, no mini-games, just you, your trusty horse, Agro, an enormous world to discover, and 16 of the most memorable boss fights you’ll ever come across.
Finding the Colossi takes up a bulk of the time, as your sword points you in the right direction. It’s at these times, when you roam across the land with nothing but the clunk of Agro’s hooves to fill the silence, that ICO’s atmosphere isn’t just rediscovered, it’s all-round bested. The game does a remarkable job of breaking down the barriers between you and the experience. There’s no cumbersome HUD or artificial waypoint, only your own traversal abilities to rely on. You’ll discover some of the most incredible visuals that the PS2 gave us, which haven’t aged a bit in the HD update.
But when you do find those Colossi the game turns into an intense struggle to bring them down. Each fight is a case of scaling the enemy and finding a weak spot. A constantly-decreasing grip meter lays on the pressure while the amazing character design means that no two fights are the same. The strange sense of stress mixed with the undeniable satisfaction of simply progressing further up the beasts makes for an experience that no other game has given.
The further twists and turns in the story – that bring morality and guilt into the equation in innovative ways – only help to secure Shadow as one of the PS2 and gaming’s greatest. If you missed it back then, then you really have no excuse not to try it out here.
And yet, for the reasons I mentioned above, this HD set doesn’t hold quite the same amount of awe that it would have had it been first in line. It’s a brilliant conversion; sharper textures and stable framerates make this undoubtedly the best option for playing both games, but it’s not as exciting to see it upscaled now that so many have come before it.
It was always you, Shadow, I never thought of anyone else. But I have to confess, I was unfaithful. I played around with some other ports a bit. It’s spoiled what we had a little, but I’m willing to work and make it better. Why? Because you’re worth it Shadow, you’re worth it.
+ Two of PS2 (and gaming’s) best bundled into one
+ The best HD conversions we’ve seen set
– Spoiled by the string of lacklustre ports that have come before it
– ICO has aged in terms of gameplay.