It'll come as little surprise that Shadow of the Colossus is one of my favourite games of all time. What can be said about SotC that hasn't already been examined and deconstructed exhaustively by hundreds of writers and designers over the years? It's simple, elegant, unique, beautifully crafted and utterly engrossing. It was also extremely impressive and innovative for its time in how it tackled the considerable tech challenges it posed, despite some performance drops as the game at times pushed the limits of the PS2 hardware. I've played through it at least six times now (spread across both PS2 and HD versions of the game), unlocked most of the secret items and have spent at least 30 hours exploring and wandering the overworld. As cliche and overdone as it is to say, Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece and far beyond its time.
However, having played the game again recently and having the benefit of an outsider's retrospect and hindsight, there are some things I'd like to talk about in regards to things I would experiment with changing or adjusting pertaining to its design and formula. These points are going to be pretty subjective for the most part, and are generally going to be changes to cater more to my own taste in design and gameplay. Most of these will relate to gameplay mechanics and how I feel things could have been switched around or implemented differently to create an even more engaging experience than what we already have.
1 - More risk, player damage and consequence
I can probably count on my hands the amount of times I've died in SotC from actual contact and battle with the colossus. I understand that the game is more about environmental puzzles and execution rather than action, but there is a vast disconnect for me between what the game is trying to convince me of and what I'm experiencing. When Wander's little human body can be crushed by a giant stone hatchet or stomped into the dirt by a hundred-ton stone behemoth and his health bar is barely even cut down by a third, it can feel unchallenging, thematically disconnected and slightly boring. The falling damage is extremely minimal too, which is one source of damage I personally would think would be intensified above anything else, given the theme of the game.
Team Ico most likely did not want to make an excessively hard game, and frustration could certainly be a difficult to balance issue. However, the buildup of the situations the player is thrust into, the ensuing struggle and the ultimate payoff can be a little disappointing at times. I'm a fan of games that fairly challenge the player and reward them accordingly, and a reward for the most part is only appreciated as much as was required to achieve it. To make it clear, I don't mean I want the player to be constantly one-shot and have to restart the fight as they wander around trying to figure out what to do. I would just have liked to see a little more consequence for making mistakes. More risk would also add to the feeling, intensity and potency of the scenario. It would help me at least feel more engaged and immersed on a thematic and gameplay level. As it is, the colossus can at times feel (gameplay-wise at least) like they are made of packing foam and the ground is covered in feathers and pillows. The colossi are built up as these majestic and intimidating beings, but instead of being powerful foes they are for the most part easy to avoid being killed by (with a couple of rare exceptions). Hard mode is slightly better, but still not quite where I would like it and lacks the contextual overall gameplay adjustments that would be required for a change like this to work and not turn the game into a frustrating, tedious slog. Speaking of such adjustments:
2 - Colossi sigils break from one fully-charged strike
The 'wrestling' segment of killing a colossus, as I tend to call it, is the part during which you cling onto a colossus' weak point as they thrash around, repeatedly looking for sufficient openings in which to charge up and unleash an attack as often as you can. If the colossi move around sufficiently as you are charging, the attack is cancelled and the charge lost. I find these sections of the fights pretty anticlimactic and, at times, tedious. They can drag on for ages. You find yourself sitting around on top of a colossus' head as it swings or shakes around, becoming frustrated as you charge an attack only for Wander to stumble a little repeatedly, then being forced to go to a safe spot to recharge stamina before trying again. I would personally find it a lot more punchy, climactic and engaging if I found the colossus' weakness, disabled it accordingly, scaled its body as it thrashed around trying to throw me off, reached the very top, read the Colossi's movement and behaviour, found my opening between their shakes and flails and broke the sigil with one fully charged strike rather than stumbling and fumbling around for the next couple of minutes trying to stab it over and over again, bleeding away all the adrenaline, excitement and momentum I had built up to that point.
To balance how much time and weight this removes from the battles I would add two to three more sigils on the bodies of the colossi. This would require more examination, scaling, puzzle-solving and active pathfinding from the player, which are generally the more entertaining parts of killing a colossus. I feel that these sections of the fight would be a lot more engaging, tight, poignant and rewarding than they currently are without losing much more than slightly tedious and awkward fluff. Design-wise, this would require some adjustments to the behaviour of some colossi, requiring that there be adequate and telegraphed space in which to perform a fully charged attack. In regards to partially charged attacks, I would make it so that the power gained from charging scales exponentially, making a charged attack considerably more powerful than a partially charged one. A sigil would require, say, six or seven half-charged attacks to break it compared to one fully charged strike. This wouldn't require much adjustment to the way damage increase items behave either, as the concept remains the same.
3 - More direct use of the sword
Wander is obviously not a swordsman, but I would have liked to be able to use the sword more often in a more direct sense. I don't mean I want to turn the game into a hack & slash, but I would like, for instance, to be able to strike at disabling points on the colossi with the sword instead of being restricted to using the bow, and for more of the game to be designed around occasional direct melee assaults and general use of the sword. As it is, the neutral sword swing animation is only used in one instance in the entire game (striking the teeth on top of colossus number 12). It feels a little bit like wasted potential and a wasted tool in both the player's arsenal and the designer's toolkit for creating interesting situations. It could be argued that this unorthodox way the game's sword is used in contrast with every other game out there lends SotC part of its unique identity, but I would argue that there is more value in what could have been done to create more exciting instances for the player.
4 - Colossus specific changes
The mix of individual colossi you face over the course of the game is excellent. Well designed, visually striking and distinctive, varied, unique and offering diverse challenges. I have a couple of issues with some of them though. The way the player learns how to beat the colossi for the most part is quite fluid and organic, giving the player clues through colour, distinct elements, observation, experimentation and clever object positioning. There are some however that just miss the mark, requiring some obscure or miscommunicated action that needs to be performed or inconsistent behaviour on the part of the colossus.
The worst culprit I can think of in regards to inconsistent behaviour is that of colossus number four, the horse-like one in the grassy field. The player has to know exactly how to position the colossus before going into hiding, they can be mislead by one of the 'searching' animations causing them to think they just weren't fast enough, and the amount of time the player must remain in hiding is inconsistent, at least from my experience. I spent a very long time on my first playthrough trying to figure out what to do. I knew it had something to do with the underground tunnels, and I knew I had to get the colossus to lean in and look for me, but I had no indication that I was doing anything wrong, and just thought I wasn't being fast or sneaky enough when I emerged from underground and approached the colossus.
The very last boss of the game is odd too. At this point the player is being fairly challenged by everything they have learned from the game up until this point, but the problem arises when the player reaches the colossus' right hand. The player is required to fire an arrow at a partially concealed and hard to see vulnerable spot on the opposite shoulder which can be highlighted by the sword. This is all stuff they have done before, but in this instance it is quite badly communicated and focus is instead drawn to half a dozen other, brighter elements on the screen at the same time (the electrical bracelets, the climbable looking structures along the colossus' arm, the way the colossus is moving, etc.)
The small, fast lion-like colossi can be a little tedious to fight as well. They have the ability to stunlock the player in a way that takes away control for a very long time, even if you do speed up the process by mashing buttons. Even once you are on their back and able to damage them they run around and shake so much it's difficult to find a space to charge up multiple attacks with any decent amount of damage, a process I've already expressed my misgivings about. It often requires that you jump off them and repeat most of the sequences over again. Additionally, the fight with colossus eleven (the small one that resides in the ravine and is afraid of fire) also utilises a tool, the stick, which is introduced in the middle of a very intense scene. It can be confusing to figure out how to pick the stick up and put it down while also avoiding the very fast and aggressive boss.
These are only minor arguments though overall. For the most part the colossus themselves are brilliantly designed and ordered in a way that spaces the game out with a lot of variety and keeps up the momentum. On my first playthrough of the game I found myself constantly being excited about what I was going to be faced with next.
5 - The ending (spoiler alert)
This is only a very small tweak, and fairly inconsequential overall. The ending of SotC is quite beautiful, integrating some very emotive cutscenes along with some great interactive sequences. The one that stands out in a lot of people's minds in particular is the sequence in which you play as Wander while he is being pulled inexorably into the pool as he desperately tries to reach Mono. It's a fantastic example of gameplay/story interactivity. I do have one small gripe with it though. It lasts a little too long and just scrapes the point at which the emotion of the situation begins to bleed away as you stumble and roll around or grip onto the staircase for an overly long time. To adjust this, I personally would have made the wind that pulls Wander into the pool become stronger over time, and temporarily cut down the player's stamina meter to a very small amount.
6 - More please
For what it is, Shadow of the Colossus takes a core concept and handles it with a lot of elegance and sophistication. The story, the music, the art direction and aesthetic, the little details, the hidden secrets and corners and the yawning, empty beauty of the Forbidden Lands combine to create a fascinating experience. There's little doubt in my mind as to why this game is lauded almost universally by designers across the board as an inspiration or influence.
The game certainly does not outstay its welcome. It's a very good, manageable length overall with a satisfying conclusion and interesting extra content, but it often leaves me wanting just a little bit more. More colossi, more hidden corners and artifacts buried in the wastelands, more dark, empty cities to explore, more story, more music and secrets. I can't help but think about the colossi that were developed but cut from the final version of the game, or of Fumito Ueda's original plan to have 48 different colossi overall. This idea was obviously impractical and a little overly-ambitious, and any cut content in a game so sparse was obviously removed for good reason, but one can dream.
Perhaps one day we'll see a remake of the game that addresses some of the design and technical issues and includes some of the content that never made it into the final version. Until then, Shadow of the Colossus is an incredible experience and a truly masterful piece of work.