Cover songs tend to serve one of two main purposes. On the more extreme end, they re-envision what a song is, taking it in new directions that the original never even hinted at. Think of when Sinéad O’Connor completely transformed Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” into a heart-wrenching power ballad, or when Johnny Cash imbued NIN’s “Hurt” with the fierce kind of honesty that comes from a long, difficult life. But covers don’t always have to be so transformative. Sometimes the goal is simply to introduce a classic song to a new audience, making a few small changes to make it more palatable to modern ears.
Though it’s technically a remake, the new PlayStation 4 version of the iconic 2005 game Shadow of the Colossus performs that same kind of introductory role. Texas studio Bluepoint Games has rebuilt the decade-old game from the ground up for today’s hardware, but it hasn’t used the opportunity to change much about Shadow of the Colossus aside from how it looks. There are a few tweaks that streamline the controls, but otherwise this remake slavishly follows the blueprint laid down by director Fumito Ueda and the developers at Team Ico.
The result is a game that looks as groundbreaking as it felt a decade ago. Shadow of the Colossus was always ahead of its time, and now the technology has finally caught up.
For those who haven’t played the PS2 original, Shadow of the Colossus is a typical fantasy epic stripped down to its fundamentals, one that reimagines your role in such a quest. You play as a young boy named Wander, who arrives in a mysterious, empty land carrying the body of a young girl on horseback. After placing her on an altar in a crumbling temple, a booming, disembodied voice explains to Wander that if he can kill 16 colossi spread out across the land, there’s a chance of bringing the girl back to life.
That sets up the whole game. You spend the entirety of Shadow of the Colossus searching for these 16 creatures, and then figuring out how to destroy them. After each kill, you’re sent back to the temple, where the voice details your next target. There are no other enemies to defeat, no experience points to gather, and no gear to unlock and equip. Wander has a sword and bow, along with his horse Agro, and that’s it.
This complete focus is part of what makes Shadow of the Colossus so powerful. When it starts out, there’s little reason to question that you’re playing the hero. Here you are, a man with a sword, on a quest to save a dead girl. But that perspective gets a little more complex as you progress. In most cases, when you approach a colossi, they won’t attack you. You’re often little more than a nuisance. You need to actively agitate them. You pester and torture, and when you do eventually kill them, it feels more tragic than triumphant.
Part of this comes down to the battles themselves. They’re often long and exhausting. You first need to find a way to climb the creature’s body. Sometimes that means annoying a giant bird with arrows until it flies down to attack. Other times, you’ll need to injure a towering beast’s leg so they’ll kneel down, giving you the chance to grab its furry hide. Once you’re on, you need to hold on for dear life; the beasts will do everything they can to shake you off, while you desperately find something to cling on to. You then slowly make your way across their body in search of a glowing symbol, which you need to stab repeatedly until the beast falls. Watching a colossi collapse is heartbreaking every single time it happens. It feels as though something has been lost from this world.
This structure — get instructions, then follow them to kill something — is incredibly common in video games. It’s how basically every role-playing game quest works. But games rarely give you the chance to really dwell on your actions; you don’t usually have time to question why you’re doing something, you’re too busy doing other things. But because the world of Shadow of the Colossus is both vast and empty, you have a lot of time to think. As you ride across the beautiful, washed-out wasteland on horseback, it’s hard not to feel guilty pondering your actions and motivations. Here is a land populated entirely by large, majestic colossi, who seem to want nothing more than to be left alone. And here you are with the single-minded goal of killing them all — just because a voice told you to.
This was all true of the 2005 original, and Shadow of the Colossus on PS4 makes no changes to the structure of its predecessor. You follow the exact same path and kill the exact same mystical creatures. You feel the same pangs of guilt as you do so. But this time, things are rendered with a much more realistic style. Ueda’s works — whether it’s his debut Ico on the PS2, or the more recent The Last Guardian on PS4 — all have a dreamlike quality, one that’s enhanced by the visuals. Muted color palettes and hazy filters turn these worlds into something surreal and mysterious.
Shadow of the Colossus on PS4, meanwhile, utilizes some of the most detailed video game graphics I’ve ever seen, fused with this ethereal world to create something different yet familiar. The crumbling ruins look like architectural marvels from a long-lost civilization; intricate symbols are carved into stone columns, while grass and weeds jut out from ancient bricks. The landscape feels lifelike and vibrant, whether it’s the swampy forests or the arid desert. Each leaf and blade of grass has been lovingly rendered. But this isn’t some cold and clinical remake. It retains the same mystery as the original, but fleshes out the world just enough to make it feel more alive.
This is especially true of the colossi themselves. You spend a great deal of the game simply clinging to their backs, so it’s hard not to spot the small details. The scars on their bodies, the dirty tufts of hair that move in the breeze. They look and feel like ancient creatures, ones with an enduring history. Their stories are implied by their bodies, whether it’s the scraggly beard of a towering giant, or the pockmarked armor of a bull-like creature the size of a small bus. Whereas many of these details were blurry or hazy in the original, in this remake they’re unmistakable.
Outside of the visual upgrade, there are few other changes. The default control scheme modernizes things a bit, most notably shifting the oft-used grab button to R2, where it feels more comfortable. But you can also go back and use the standard controls if you want. The addition of a photo mode rounds out the package, and it’s very welcome: this is a game that was designed to be photographed. The world itself feels like a strange filter has been draped over it, and now you have the ability to catch the many moments of beauty — a ride on horseback across a sprawling stone bridge, the silhouette of a towering stone knight far off in the distance — and keep or share them.
Shadow of the Colossus on the PS4 doesn’t feel exactly like the original. That’s not possible; you can’t remake the time a game was released in, nor the expectations of its audience. There’s no replicating what it’s like playing a completely new type of minimalist adventure while huddled in front of a glowing CRT screen. But the remake does something very important. More so than any other form of media, games often age poorly. Playing the original Shadow of the Colossus can be difficult from a practical standpoint — you need the original hardware and game — while also presenting challenges for an audience used to more modern games, who may find the PS2 release clunky by comparison. The same is true of the 2011 remaster of the game, which upgraded Shadow of the Colossus with high-definition visuals for the PS3.
The PS4 remake, meanwhile, feels surprisingly modern. With a new look and some tweaked controls, I actually found it more approachable than Ueda’s The Last Guardian, which came out a decade after the original Shadow of the Colossus. The core of the game is timeless; it just needed a few changes to help its world come alive in 2018.
It’s the same song, with a slightly different tune.
Shadow of the Colossus is available today on the PlayStation 4.