Remaking a game can be a dangerous affair. Upgrading the visuals can steal away part of the charm of the older work. Tweaking controls can alter some of the nuances of how the game played. It’s an extremely fine line, one the Shadow of the Colossus effortlessly dances along, knowing exactly what to fix and what to leave alone.
The stark, sun-drenched visuals of the original seemed like they might be a tipping point when word got out that Shadow of the Colossus was being remade. Would the developers want to add more detail to the world? Color? It seemed like the sort of thing that might get changed to look ‘prettier’ despite the thematic meaning behind the game’s visual style.
Somehow, though it has been made prettier, the team managed to preserve that sense of being dried out, abandoned, and barren. Striking mountain ranges tower above the player, all while grasses sway beneath their feet or sand whirls up around Agro’s hooves. Players can see for miles, looking out onto broken bridges and remnants of lost civilizations tucked into hidden alcoves. All of these places existed in the original, but the finer details of the new visuals make the land seem to breathe new life into Shadow of the Colossus, even as it is dying.
Shadow of the Colossus’ colossi were given a similar treatment in this remake: their details enhanced to make their beauty all the sadder. The stone armour seems harder and more unforgiving in its new detail, the cracks and breaks in the plates hinting at ages of life. Their hair no longer looks coarse but seems fine and soft. It’s the sort of detail that might seem out of place given the age hinted at by the armour, but it indicates a gentleness in these giant creatures that they’re trying to protect. It was a nice touch and helped strengthen a powerful thematic element of the game.
Nowhere was this visual detail more powerful than in the colossi’s eyes. Shadow of the Colossus isn’t filled with giant monsters bent on killing the player, but colossal creatures that simply wish to continue existing. Most of them have no interest in the player’s presence, and will, at most, try to shoo them away. Many only turn violent when the player is stabbing them, and even then, the most many of them do is just try to shake him off. They’re docile creatures despite their size and power.
This is made abundantly clear with a single look in their eyes. The creatures of Shadow of the Colossus possess that same empty, gentle look in those glassy orbs, at most curious or indifferent to the player. Even when some get angry, their eyes glowing red, it only lasts until the player stops bothering them. They simply wish to exist, possessing little malice in them, and certainly none worth killing them over. All of this is felt by watching any of these creatures focus their soft gaze on the player, and the effect is emotionally staggering. One look tells the player who the monster is.
But we are here to overcome, are we not?
Tackling the colossi is no less thrilling than it was before, with the colossi preserved exactly how they acted before. Players who know the original well can apply old tactics to take these creatures down, and new players will be struck by the thrill of climbing up a creature the size of a skyscraper. Looking at these giant bodies like puzzles to solve, then navigating them with limited grip strength is exciting and compelling, and the variety of creatures makes for endless fun. Well, depressing fun.
The music, carried over (but obviously re-recorded/cleaned up) from the original that accompanies these battles is stirring, carrying Shadow of the Colossus’ emotional resonance to incredible heights. Yes, killing these beasts is sad, but that’s forgotten in the thrill of the fight. The music rises along with the player as they climb a swinging arm, grasping for any handhold as the colossus bucks and whips at them. It swells as the player plunges their blade into a weak point of the giant beast they are riding through the skies.
And when the creature falls, and you remember the look of fear in its eyes as you swung a torch toward their face – the way it shivered as you approached – and the music falls to gentle, somber notes, you realize the gravity of what you’ve done.
The controls were the final point where a remake may have floundered. Shadow of the Colossus has a very particular control scheme that, at first, seems fussy. The camera angles tend to stick to a cinematic viewpoint that tends not to be helpful when things get rough in a fight, swirling around uncontrollably. The protagonist can be clumsy, his movements taking time to adjust no matter what the player is trying to make him do. Riding the horse, Agro, also feels closer to guiding rather than controlling, coaxing them to go when you need to move.
For some, these controls may turn the remake into an exercise in frustration. However, the game isn’t especially hard and often factors these limitations in, so most will be fine. They seem like something many developers should have fixed, but they’re part of the themes of Shadow of the Colossus. The player struggles along with the protagonist with the clumsy movements, and Agro is a companion, not a vehicle – someone to ask for help rather than control. Many companies might have tried to ‘clean up’ these controls, but, annoying as they can be, are a key part of the game’s emotional power.
The Shadow of the Colossus remake could have tried to make everything smooth and modern, but its developers knew what made the original game special and preserved it. In doing so, they’ve enhanced its themes, stirring up a crushing sadness in the player in their actions only moments after taking them to heights of excitement. It’s a master class in how to remake a true classic.