When Sony first announced its plans to roll out HD collections of prior generation classics fans called out to Team ICO for the much needed HD collection of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. It’s no surprise then that Team ICO heeded this call and got to work. The result is a labour of love, a collection which contains two of the very best offerings from the past generation and perhaps of all time.
For those that have never heard of either game, the first is ICO, a platform adventure in which you play the role of a young boy imprisoned in a mysterious castle for having horns. Shortly after breaking free and attempting to flee the castle you encounter Yorda, a captured girl who speaks an unknown language, whom you free and form a friendship with. Strange black spirits pursuit Yorda and continually try to capture her from you, needing you to protect her at all times with help by a trusty plank of wood.
In essence ICO is a straightforward platfomer in which you need progress through each room in order to escape the castle, with the added twist of needing escort the less agile Yorda along with you. Leading her by the hand or calling her to your side, you’ll have to overcome a wealth of puzzles as you progress through the rooms of the castle in order to create a path Yorda can take. Puzzles range from moving crates for her to climb upon in order to reach a ledge, all the way to breaking down sections of the to create new paths accessible for Yorda. Whilst she may spend most of her time admiring nearby birds or struggling to climb ladders, she also opens up doors otherwise inaccessible meaning you need her by your side to escape.
Whilst attempting to solve puzzles, often needing you to leave Yorda behind in a nearby room, you’ll constantly be hounded by the black spirits that pursuit her needing you to remain close to her side in order to either run away to safety or fight them off. Combat takes a back seat to the puzzle solving and platforming, rarely being a challenge to fight off the spirits and instead more of a deterrent for leaving Yorda too far away.
The brilliance of ICO comes in the presentation, with its magnificent level design that you want to explore, looking absolutely stunning thanks to a unique and beautiful art style. The world begs to be explored, from the mysterious and mechanic rooms of the castle to the view of freedom sitting on the other side of a gaping chasm. Throughout it’s a peaceful and tranquil experience set in an idyllic world, almost relaxing to play supported by some stellar music tracks aiding the ambience. It’s one of the strongest cases of video games being an art form that can be argued.
Shadow of the Colossus, considered a spiritual successor to ICO, has a similarly simple premise with a mysterious world and story which avoids a typical narrative. This time around you play as Wander, a young sword and bow wielding man, whom starts the game riding towards a temple on his horse Agro (this is where the Link comparisons end) carrying the corpse of a young woman called Mono. As with ICO the characters, their background and the world remains a mystery. All you’re made aware of is the temple that Wander has arrived at contains the power to bring a dead soul back to life, at a heavy price and only after defeating sixteen colossi. Whilst you may be essentially slaughtering sad faced giants, at its essence it’s a romance story and by its close one filled with emotion.
Jumping on the back of your trusty steed you locate each colossus by reflecting the sun upon your sword, which results in a beam of light that is strongest when looking in the right direction. Riding to a colossus’s location can take anything up to five minutes and whilst the world is vast and gorgeous in its tranquillity, unlike ICO it’s mostly baron and plain, giving way for the colossi to follow in a seemingly abandoned paradise. Upon reaching a colossus you’re greeted by a short cutscene and then you’re off, standing at the feet (and typically smaller than it) contemplating how on earth you’re going to hurt the thing.
Damaging the colossus is as straightforward as striking your sword into its strangely magical weak spot, which you can unveil by being close to or shining light upon via your sword. The trouble is getting there, however, as they’ll be located in the most inconvenient locations such as the top of their head or palm of their hands. You’ll have to determine a method of navigating your way, be it by climbing up from their toes, waiting for it to strike and going up its arm, hiding and hoping that it bends down to find you or even using your bow to anger it into a state where you can make use of your sword; each colossus is a puzzle in itself with different triggers and methods for getting to their weak spot.
Clambering around the colossi you’ll be hanging on to their fur or a sharp ledge for dear life as it attempts to throw you from it, and with a grip value that is constantly draining if you don’t find flat areas such as a shoulder or chink in armour to take frequent breaks you’ll by flung right off in no time. You need to be fast and careful to get to the weak spot, and even then need to prudently raise your sword for a plunge whilst being consistently throw around, often clinging on desperately with one hand. If that wasn’t enough having sixteen colossi to defeat over varied landscapes each one bring a new challenge, including flying through the sky being flipped upside down or even in and out of a lake where movement is limited.
As with ICO the games art style is utterly fantastic, with a more darker and gritty realism this time around particularly when it comes to the stone and fur giants, grand in their stature and oozing cumulative brilliance in both animated level design and art design at the same time. The sound design, particularly the tension building music tracks, is some of the best you’ll find to date with orchestral splendour belting out upon your desperate clinging to the gigantic beasts. The atmosphere and immersion erupts at these points where you find ambience being thrown about liberally, such as leaping from horseback to grasp onto the wing of a flying colossus that then takes to the air, furiously cutting through the sky. With moments like these, and many more, I found my jaw firmly on the floor.
For newcomers to these games you’ll need to remember whilst these have had the HD treatment, they are re-releases and not remakes. For those that have the support, you’ll also be able to run the collection with 3D enabled. The visuals, whilst touched up and improved, are still using dated assets sitting on an engine limited by its time, something which also creeps into the gameplay with an often awkward camera struggling with close quarter or clunky controls common of its era, particularly seen by the sheer stubbornness of Wander’s horse Agro who can control like a tank. If you can’t overcome these factors and desire for a modernised take on a similar formula you’ll have to wait for Team ICO’s upcoming The Last Guardian.
ICO and Shadow of the Colossus will both take around 7 hours each to complete, and whilst there isn’t much in the way of replayability (outside of some time trials and hard mode for Shadow of the Colossus) the sheer value of the experiences on offer here makes the game worth its weight in gold. Both start off with a light story and focus on brilliant gameplay, but their respective closes end with more emotion and character than you’d find most anywhere else. If you’ve yet to experience either, you owe it to yourself to rectify this at the earliest convenience.