Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The First Colossus, Valus the Minotaur

This is part of an ongoing series about my favorite memories from video games. You can find the original list and table of contents in last month's post or by clicking here. Please be aware that these posts are going to be full of spoilers which may ruin the impact of these events on anyone who wishes to experience them on their own in the future. I’m sorry that my schedule got out of sync. I plan to be back on track for weeks to come, now.

#6 - The First Colossus, Valus the Minotaur

Shadow of the Colossus is by far one of the most amazing games I’ve ever played. Nothing I can say in this article will truly express to a reader how impressive this game is, nor could I predict what any individual would take away from the experience. I do believe the game has a unique ability to connect with any player. It has distinct artistic style and strong literary themes. It’s simple, yet effective, approach to telling a deep, emotional story is remarkable. To say the music is outstanding, I consider an understatement. In all honesty, the entire game experience is one of my most memorable moments, but I will attempt to fine tune my attachment by walking you through the first of sixteen encounters. It truly sets the pace and tone of the entire adventure, and just happens to be the first time the game took my breath away as I found myself toe-to-toe with the first of these giant, earthy monsters.

I played and enjoyed Ico years earlier, the predecessor developed by Team Ico, so I was interested in Shadow of the Colossus initially. A friend somehow convinced me to pick it up shortly after its original release back in 2005. Other than a friend’s trusted recommendation that I would enjoy it, I didn’t have any real expectation for the game. I assumed I would find it fascinating and artistic as I had previously found Ico. That was perhaps my initial reaction, but that would all change as I found myself up against the first colossus, Valus the Minotaur.

This may look like suicide, but this summarizes most of the game nicely.
Much like Ico, the game doesn’t waste time on words. You experience the story through actions and environments mostly. As the game opens with Wander arriving at some ancient temple with his horse Agro carrying the unconscious woman named Mono, this is practically all you will know for sure about them for most of the game. Wander proceeds to contact some powerful being named Dormin and requests he return Mono’s soul back to her body. Dormin replies with a deal. Wander defeats the sixteen colossi spread across the land and he’ll comply if it’s possible. After that, the game starts and the world is yours to explore. This story seems very basic and simple, but it's already sowing the seeds of doubt about the dubious nature of this deal.Wander is willing to risk so much simply for the possibility that Mono may be returned, and he pays no heed to what it may cost. The notion is romantic, but also hauntingly desperate. This game has your mind already turning over the possibilities with just a few lines of simple dialogue.

Are you intimidated yet? Do you feel desperate and alone?
From there you mount Agro and leave the temple to explore this strange, empty land. The first things a player may realize is that this place, called later the Forbidden Land, is mostly green and beautiful, but almost void of life. There’s the occasional splatter of trees, and a lizard may dart here and there, but that’s it. As you rush off to find and fight the first of many giants, you are not met with any resistance. You simply make your way to where the light of your sword guides you and marvel at your beautiful, yet unusually quiet surroundings. The game’s interface itself lends to accessibility of  the environment by being unobtrusive and out-of-sight when not in use. When you switch between your bow and sword, a small icon briefly pops up and then fades away. Wander’s strength is measured by two meters - a stamina gauge to measure how long he can climb or hold back his bowstring, and a health bar for when he takes damage. When they aren't actively being used, it’s just Wander, his horse, and the empty world on the screen. This reinforces some of the game’s primary themes. Although the environment is peaceful and tranquil, it also fills you with a sense of loneliness and despair. The way the game is presented to you is really indicative of what Wander himself feels: alone and desperate.

The light from Wander’s sword leads to a cliff where a brief tutorial teaches how to climb, jump, duck and roll – all the physical skills a budding colossus slayer needs to survive. When Wander finally crests the top of the cliff, there’s a brief cutscene to introduce the player to the first colossus. Each colossus is usually introduced with a rather cinematic scene which clearly illustrates just how gigantic they are compared to Wander. As Valus lumbers past he doesn't notice Wander standing there, as if he were an insignificant insect. Wander appears barely taller than the hoof of this cloven-foot monstrosity. If wandering through the lonely landscape didn’t make you feel alone, desperate and perhaps insignificant then standing at the toes of a giant surely will drive the feeling home. Valus continues on his way, away from Wander.The letter-box frame of the cutscene fades away leaving you to chase after this enormous creature and begin to look for a way to defeat it.

He is not so big and tough from this camera perspective!
The game offers very little in the way of hints on how to topple these monsters or even wound them. If you fumble around long enough Dormin (ever impatient) might offer you some clue as to where to start, or where to strike. I remember my first encounter with Valus didn't go well as I struggled to find a way to climb his massive body and find his hidden weaknesses. What you learn by trial and error on Valus continues to be the main way of fighting all the subsequent colossi. You search for the places on their body you can grip and climb, until you find the glowing sigils that indicate their weak points. However, each new colossus brings a unique challenge. Some fly; some swim; some are covered in seemly impenetrable armor. Discovering how to find their hand-holds, or expose their weakness becomes more and more like a dangerous puzzle. Being the first, Valus is perhaps one of the easiest, but because the game just throws you, your sword, and your wits against this giant being with very little in the ways of instruction - just learning to climb, stab and hold on for dear life is the puzzle with him.

 There are countless games of lone warriors braving all odds against formidable foes or impenetrable fortresses, but they all emphasize action or drama. Shadow of the Colossus really emphasizes emotion. From the art design to the music selection, from the cinematic scenes to the minimal dialogue and character interaction, everything lends to influence the way a player will feel when playing the game. Aside from the loneliness and the despair, there is also a great sense of foreboding, sadness and tragedy. As I played the game, I feel a certain amount of delight in conquering these living mountains, but when I finally plunge Wander’s sword in for the final time, as the behemoth takes its final steps before falling lifeless, I’m not met with a victorious fanfare to celebrate my achievement, but a sorrowful dirge to mourn its passing. I questioned early on whether what Wander was doing was even right. The game makes each victory feel monumentally triumphant, but also tremendously sad. It’s woven together beautifully and because you are Wander, because this story is told as a video game, you truly get to experience it all yourself as if it were you.

How about the power of flight! Does that do anything for you?
I cannot stress enough that this is a game to experience rather than read about, and there has never been a better time. Both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were re-released in HD for the Playstation 3 back in September, 2011. Since then I’ve played through Colossus two more times. Everything is even more breathtaking in high definition. But even if you only have access to a Playstation 2, it’s still worth tracking down a copy of this game and experiencing it for yourself first-hand. This is the one entry in my TOP Ten that I doubt I could spoil because each person will probably take something away from this game that is unique to their own personal experience. Whether you lost someone you cared about, or have felt alone, insignificant, or desperate in some other fashion, the game really speaks to human emotions. As long as you’re not expecting an action packed adventure game, I believe it’s a game that anyone (with emotions) can appreciate.


 Related Links
TOP Ten Memorable Moments
Shadow of the Colossus soundtrack on Grooveshark
Valus the Minotaur on YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cbqt_XlXRl4

1 comment:

  1. The last song in the widget gives me goosebumps.