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Casting Long Shadows on the RPG Genre

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For decades now, RPG fans around the world have demanded their fantasies in one form or another. The Final Fantasy series exploded onto the gaming scene in the late 1980s and in many ways revolutionizing the industry. Among the most well-known and respected franchises in gaming history (most noteworthy is its flagship seventh installment, released in 1997), the Final Fantasy saga endures to this day, with a number of promising works currently in development at Square Enix.

In 2004, the online world was rocked by the massive multiplayer phenomenon World of Warcraft, featuring extensive interaction among fellow gamers around the globe. Through the godsend of worldwide communications, U.S. gamers soon found themselves thrust into battle with giants from Fiji, dwarves from India, and wood nymphs from Nicaragua. Players could choose from a plethora of fantastic races and journey through a seemingly endless virtual realm.

Though the lands featured in these grand tales may differ and the magic within them may vary, the overall focal point remains steady and unchanging: scope. At the heart of every role playing game is an epic scope. Fans in this genus of gaming wish, above all else, to be swept up into the realms of an impossible world, to lose themselves in the conflicts of an age unknown. With the 2005 production Shadow of the Colossus, these sentiments materialized in the forms of 16 moss-ridden colossi, wandering the ruins of an inestimably ancient land.

The plot to this game was wonderfully simplistic — in the hopes of reviving a beautiful young girl, a wanderer seeks out the god of an antiquated temple. His request is met with an ultimatum: for the girl to reawaken, the young wanderer must first find and destroy the 16 colossal creatures roaming the empty landscape.

Directly opposing the conventions of mainstream videogaming, Shadow of the Colossus presented a revolutionizing concept to the medium: an experience exclusively of boss battles. At last, the gamer could forego the monotony of superfluous melee with uninteresting underlings and cut straight to the soul of the genre. In place of fighting a thousand trivial skirmishes, the wanderer must travel to the ends of this world to rouse each magnificent giant from its slumber. This alteration in game layout was very refreshing.

However, introducing such a novel element is far from this production’s finest triumph. Helmed by Fumito Ueda (director of the 2001 videogame Ico), Shadow of the Colossus is arguably the greatest cry in support of artistic consideration for the videogaming medium to date.

Through development of one of the most beautiful, barren environments ever created by the industry, Shadow evokes a somber loneliness in its player (one that may very well be unrivaled in intensity). And yet, in all its lonely air, the player finds something inexplicably rousing. Perhaps it lies in what could fill the voids, the possibilities waiting to be discovered in such expanses. We come to find these wondrous possibilities embodied by the earth-shattering emergence of the colossi.

The colossi tower over us, so grand in scale as to make us feel inconsequential, and yet, there appears to be no inherent malice in them. They symbolize our highest fantasies, our hopes and aspirations. It is for this reason that vanquishing the gentle giants evokes regret instead of pride (unless it’s the gamer’s fifth or sixth attempt). We watch them crash to earth, splaying lifelessly over the landscape like so many dying dreams. This may be a peculiarly romantic way to view a videogame, but the medium’s perhaps frivolous history should not doom all of its products to lowly statuses of contempt.

Of course, the game is not without its faults, which on occasion can be simply maddening. The basic concept of scaling the giants is unique and imaginative, but the control scheme feels awkward and at times pits the gamer in a vicious battle with the controls (Shadow thus suffers from a somewhat difficult learning curve). For example, the horse may gallop one direction while the gamer is left to gaze hopelessly into the other.

Another weak spot concerns the graphics, which were not outstanding even at the time. The massive beasts can appear choppy in design, the landscapes,  while vivid, hint at their pixilated nature. This latter fault may be minimal as a substantial theme provides the driving force for this story rather than a sleek and shallow array of graphics.

These weak points notwithstanding, Shadow of the Colossus provides an overall gaming experience that’s both poignant and very enjoyable. Yes, this is a PlayStation 2 videogame, and yes it is lacking in any online features. But I urge the reader to step away from the sheen and graphic splendor of this newest generation's consoles and immerse himself in a truly romantic fairy tale.

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About Jon Erbar

  • David West

    This is a good article on a fantastic game. But I have to say, by the normal definition, Shadow of the Colossus is not an RPG. It would usually be referred to as an action-adventure game.

  • Jon

    Thinking about it, you’re right. I should have given that closer consideration. Oh well. Thanks for the comment.

  • Jake

    I agree that the controls are difficult but I would think climbing something that huge and that moves around that much shouldn’t be easy.

    I played this game years ago and while sometimes frustrating, the difficulty made the game that much more satisfying and rewarding than it would have been if the controls and climbing up the colossi were easy.

  • Jon

    That’s a good point. I suppose if the learning curve had been really easy, it could have taken away from the overall experience. It could have even distanced the player from the struggle of bringing down each colossi.

  • Jon

    *colossus.

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