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The Shadow and The Sword

Brendan Main | 19 Oct 2010 12:04
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But Shadow of the Colossus has a different approach, and it's one that patiently sidesteps all this martial gimcrackery. The sword that Wander wields in his quest to kill the game's sixteen colossi is none of these things - it is not some stray digit in a numbers game, or deus ex machina uberbrand that will cleave his enemies in twain with a single blow. This is not a game where you scatter your foes like leaves, all without mussing your perfectly-feathered hair - rather, it's one that has you scraping along by the skin of your knuckles, clinging desperately to some shaggy forelimb to avoid being dashed to a tacky red smear. In this same way, Wander's weapons have a certain heft to them, a shape and a weight, impressing themselves as tangible objects of wood and metal. Consider how your arrows, beyond working as a distraction, serve as a lesson in scale. There's a distinct sense of helplessness that comes from watching an extended salvo bounce harmlessly off a colossus' tough exterior, or quill its fleshy bits like so many pinpricks. It plays out like a scene from Jaws: We're gonna need a bigger bow.

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Similarly, Wander's sword is simple, understated, a weapon of timing and precision more than raw, showy power. Strike the wrong spot, and it clatters harmlessly off the colossus' flesh. Pause too long with it poised to strike, and you'll lose your balance and ruin the thrust. And though it is undoubtedly magical, it is a restrained, even poetic sort of sorcery. It lights the way, and it leads you there - after that, you're on your own. Limited in this way, the simplicity of Wander's equipment seems to communicate the immensity of his tasks: It may not be much, but it's all he's got.

A sword, a bow, and a horse. Even with all this, there is never the suggestion that the task at hand is impossible. Even in the game's direst moments, with some determination, this toolkit can best the longest odds. There is a long tradition of stories that tell of minscule underdogs throwing themselves at musclebound goliaths, and they all seem to end the same way. Part of it is that your weapons serve in this role, as a small, accurate strike that might fell the heaviest opponent. But part of it, also, is the suggestion that there are things we bring to battle that make us more than ourselves, that temper our sword and our swordarm.

When Wander strikes his bargain to revive his dead maiden and is told, flat-out, that if he succeeds he will pay a terrible price, he shrugs it off. Even as the game progresses, and it begins to hint that in shattering the colossi, Wander is whittling away his very soul one cut at a time, he doesn't stay his hand. The confidence that he wields burns brighter than the glowiest, showiest sword in gamedom, and suggests that there might be more at stake in this story than blood and steel and stone. Shadow of the Colossus, in its elegance and restraint, transforms a hack'n'slash sojourn into a long form ballad about the numinous things that remain when all else falls to dust.

Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where the only chimeric monsters of stone and sinew are the moose. He should give Link a call, because he could really use some blocks right about now.

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