"An atmospheric, brooding tale set in mysterious lands". Sound familiar? Sounds like the perfect high concept for the next game from the team that brought you ICO.
ICO? The merest mention of ICO around these parts is enough to make even the most cynical, fed up gamer perspire with excitement. But while some wear their love for this cruelly overlooked title (that Sony apologetically released in Europe in March 2002 to zero fanfare) like a badge of honour, others almost take a demented pride in their disdain for it, reasoning that it somehow deserved to be marginalised; that the mass market wouldn't have got it whether it had have been advertised to death and splashed over the front covers of hysterical magazines or not.
It's one of those futile topics that no one will ever get to the bottom of. We'll never know whether it would have been a success if Sony had have thrown its weight behind it. What we do know is it's probably one of the most revered titles of this generation and that you need to have deep pockets to buy a copy on eBay.
That the pseudo sequel Shadow Of The Colossus is coming soon will only add further fuel to this intense fire (and probably send its eBay value sky high), not to mention polarise opinions still further. But it's a debate we'll be sure to enjoy all over again when it finally emerges from its development cocoon, shielding its eyes from the blinding glare of attention that is certain to be lavished upon it by the world's gaming press. Last week's E3 gave visitors to the traditionally elaborate Sony stand the chance to play through a predictably enigmatic playable demo that showed that the spirit of ICO is indeed alive and well in this hugely anticipated title.
Save the girl... again
As you might expect, the background to the game is shrouded in a certain amount of secrecy, but the first official press materials released a week ago clarified details we'd seen only in magazine articles and the Japanese press: "As a lone horseback traveller, your destiny is entwined with that of a lifeless young girl who lies on an altar within a vast temple. The girl is helpless, her soul has been lost and there is only one way to retrieve it..."
And how's that, you might ask? As luck would have it, this lonely unnamed young chap hears a "voice from the heavens" that tells him to venture forth on a "dark and dangerous" quest to go and find the "enormous wandering monsters" that trudge around the beautiful mountainous locale that form the setting for the game. For reasons left unexplained, only killing these "formidable" Colossi will you be able to revive the girl lying on the altar.
So, off you go on horseback leaving the lifeless girl behind you on the crumbling altar, riding for several minutes across a desolate plain armed with only a sword and your wits. As you gallop across the landscape on your trusty steed Agro (evoking memories of The Ocarina Of Time's beautiful intro), the game advises you to press the circle button to hold your sword up in the air in a sunny place and look to where the light beam focuses and follow it.
The controls feel unresponsive and a tad stiff, and the frame rate isn't quite there yet. We're keeping our fingers crossed this will all be optimised for its September release in the US (Q1 2006, alarmingly, for Europe Sony announced last week). With the game evidently running in super-sharp 480 progressive scan it's possible this was pushing the PS2 just that little bit too hard, but we fully expect the finished article will be a different story. Regardless, it's shaping up to be a truly beautiful looking game, and if Sony can pull off this amount of detail without compromise we'll all be very happy indeed.
Overlooking technical issues for the time being, during your ride you can kick the horse with the X button to get some speed up and control the horse with the left analogue stick, stop altogether by pulling the reins towards you, or hit triangle to get off altogether. Once you finally get your bearings regarding where to head to, you dismount and begin climbing the vegetation on the side of a mountain, leaping across gaps, hauling yourself up from level to level before your first encounter with a Colossus.
As Sony's official info says: "Each beast is immense in size and strength, the team's new and unique motion control system giving an incredible depth of motion density. The 'Organic Collision Deformation' system enables the player to grasp and climb the Colossi with precision." Indeed, running up to a Colossi gives a terrifying impression of scale, and it soon becomes obvious that you have to work out how to bring them down to Earth with a bump.
Beast of burden
"Stealth is also essential in navigating these ever changing, moving and dangerous terrains," we're told. "You must climb these terrifying beasts and strike the deathblow that will bring them crashing to the ground. However, slaying such fearsome opponents is no easy task - before these enemies can be toppled, you must first discover how to defeat them."
Fortunately, in what amounts to a tutorial, it's fairly self-evident that you first have to find their weakness by again raising your sword into the air, and right on cue the sun's beams shine down on precisely where you need to strike. In this case it's right at the top of his head, so climbing up the beast's vast frame is in order - not an easy task. The first thing to do is jump onto his attractively hairy left calf, cling on by holding down the R1 button and try and stab it a few times so he kneels down in pain. From here you get an opportunity to climb up the frame attached to his back, and so on until you're finally on his back and in range of the weak spot that you seek.
All the while, this deadly behemoth will thrash around unpredictably, and if you're not careful you'll lose grip and fall perilously to the ground, losing energy in the process and running the risk of being stomped on. But play it carefully and you'll be able to see off the giant with a handful of well placed blows to its cranium, send him screaming in agony to the dirt and end the demo in the process.
Who needs next-gen?
In what amounts to a mere teaser of what's to come, this ten-minute journey already marks out Shadow Of The Colossus as another reason why fans of the current generation of gaming systems have plenty of reasons to remain excited as we reach the dreaded transitional period between machines.
The remainder of Sony's information on the game only makes us want it more: "You must explore lonely plains, mountains, lush countrysides, sinister lakes, great caves and ancient ruins," it says. "Each Colossi is unique, organically reflecting the environment in which they reside (we're told to expect airborne or even aquatic Colossi, and some that you even get to fight on horseback). Each one you track down takes you one step closer to discovering your destiny and the fate of the girl who remains motionless and oblivious throughout."
If that doesn't whet your appetite, Sony is also promising "an intense journey of exploration, puzzle solving and eerie battle." More games should be eerie. Eerie should be a genre all of its own. When Sony says "this is an absorbing voyage of discovery with some of the most picturesque landscapes and formidable enemies ever to be seen on PlayStation 2," we're inclined to believe them.
Wishing the days away
When it says that Shadow Of The Colossus is "oozing atmosphere and depth," and is "set to challenge perceptions and push the borders of action adventure gaming even further," we're counting the days until it arrives.
To hear their PR gush that it's "beautiful, unusual and absorbing" and "sets subtlety within a cinematic scope and creates a new standard in mythical action adventures," we'd better hope it delivers. Could this be the game of the year?
Shadow Of The Colossus is due for release exclusively on the PlayStation 2 in Europe in Q1 2006. The US version is due out in September 2005. We filmed the demo: download it here.