In Borja, Spain in 2012, an elderly woman took it upon herself to restore a fresco painting of Jesus Christ, originally painted in 1930 by Spanish artist Elías García Martínez. Before this, the particular painting had grown worn. White speckles had warped it, showing all the normal signs of aging as old paintings left untaken care of often do. The fresco "Ecce Homo (Behold the Man)" of Christ had seen better days. But the "restoration" went very, very wrong.
Instead of careful painting, every brushstroke of the original work was seemingly painted over, blurring the original's intent. The result is more akin to a monster than the humanity of Christ. The eyes are haunting dark orbs; the mouth looks agape (wherein the original, it is not), like some sort of creepy reimagining of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." It's a horrifying sight.
But the restoration was done with good intentions, of course. When it was discovered by a photographer who came to take photos of "Ecce Homo," it was a shock. The woman has since apologized, claiming that her amateur self-restoration "had gotten out of hand." She didn't mean to ruin it.
This is an overblown example of art preservation going awry, but it's one of the first things I thought of while playing Bluepoint Games' new Shadow of the Colossus remake for PlayStation 4. Unlike the realigned "Ecce Homo," from a pure technical perspective, this new remake is astounding. The vistas have never been more clear when seen from a distance; the foliage more lush. The colossi never more enormous; the fur on their backs never more cuddle-worthy. Our friends at Digital Foundry are salivating just thinking about that 4K. And yet, it's missing the magic of the original.
Shadow of the Colossus first released on the PlayStation 2 in 2005 at the tail end of the console's lifespan. Just a year later, the PlayStation 3 would be announced and launched. A couple years later The Last Guardian, Team Ico's once-follow-up to Shadow of the Colossus would be announced too. But before even then, Shadow of the Colossus was the follow-up to the studio's previous title Ico. Unlike Ico, Shadow of the Colossus had a weight of hype from Sony propelling it forward. Shadow of the Colossus ended up performing well, both critically and commercially. It was firmly established as a classic, and is still regarded as one of the greatest games ever made today.
That legacy still stands in this remake. The game hasn't been tampered with much mechanically. It still controls like a PS2 game. Your horse Agro is still trying to buck you off at every turn, like a real horse. The colossi remain thrilling to climb. But the lens we see all this through has changed. The mountains are crisper, no longer clouded with a grainy haze. The playable hero Wander's face is smoother than it's ever been, like he just wiped off a Lush face mask on the long journey to the temple with Agro and the deceased Mono (who he is on a quest to resurrect), discarding the soft blur of his old face. Everything is refined, clean.
The character of the world feels as if it's gone. You get the feeling that if Shadow of the Colossus were made by another studio, as it technically has been here, this is how it would look. It doesn't look like a Team Ico game anymore. It's no longer astonishing how it's able to run on a system at all. Instead of Shadow of the Colossus' world feeling alien and melancholy to the medium of video games, it now just feels like any other video game world.
It's another facet of what it means to remake a game, in comparison to remastering a game. Shadow of the Colossus underwent a remaster for PlayStation 3 back in 2011, also helmed by Bluepoint Games (the remaster kings of the biz, seemingly; they've also helmed remasters of Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid, among others). This remaster was masterful: Shadow of the Colossus looked as it was truly intended, before it was crammed into the final year of a less-powerful console's lifespan. The character of Shadow of the Colossus' world remained. The colossi remained massive and awe-inspiring; the dusty grain, that precious blur, all the visual ticks that made the game feel even more lonely was still there. And it still controlled clumsily, like a PS2 game.
Whereas of all the jankiness of Shadow of the Colossus to change, the first I would suspect would be its mechanical irksomeness, not the scene-setting of its persistent foggy atmosphere. I remember this especially when I'm battling an early colossi in this remake, the giant bird-thing that swoops down over a deep lake. I bait it towards me with an arrow like clockwork—I've played this game numerous times before—and soon it's swooping down. I leap in the air to grab onto its wing. Soon we're flying high above the lake, with its wings tipping to all sorts of angles, making it hard to stand to regain my stamina. This was only one moment of many moments that were awe-inspiring in the original Shadow of the Colossus. Here I was now tackling the bird, it feeling just as slightly annoying but still exhilarating as it ever was. I stab the bird one final time, and we spiral downwards toward the water. Soon I'm in the lake, the water itself lapping back and forth. It looks real. Almost too real.
It is too real. Shadow of the Colossus looks less like some tortured, interactive fairy tale now that the player is fighting with to make work; it looks like a video game. As smooth as any other PS4 game, distorted only by togglable filters buried in a menu that fail to capture the same essence of the original. That's all.
It's not going to replace the original. The original is still there on the PS2, as is the less-buggy remaster on the PS3 (alongside the underrated Ico). The remake is paving its own path instead, for better or worse, showing what Shadow of the Colossus has the capacity to be on current hardware, not squeezed into the end of a console that couldn't handle it. With Bluepoint's reimagining of history, Shadow of the Colossus runs just fine, as it was always probably dreamed to, where the only stylistic flourish that really remains is the fact that it feels exactly the same, right down to that ledge you can't quite grasp for some unknown reason.
Looking back to its original edition, the game looked aged from the jump. The fur was not very impressive. The world, while expansive, lacked texture. Yet it all felt like it fell according to director Fumito Ueda's vision: a world that's unlike our own, a world that has more in common with a Giorgio de Chirico painting if nothing else (that artist, Ueda would go on to say, directly inspired Ico's cover art). Shadow of the Colossus' identity was more singular than Ico's though. The architecture of its world felt like it was inspired by many greats, just as The Last Guardian's, but found root in its own uniquely realized, desolate world.
Playing Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian not much farther apart now, they feel truly comparable again, like they were likely once intended to be before a near-decade of delays, Team Ico's studio closure, and the latter game's eventual release in late 2016. They're both worlds in which you, the player, feel like you're too small for it. In Shadow of the Colossus, it's a world made for giants who live in the rubble. In The Last Guardian, it's a world made for the giant griffin-like creature Trico and others like him—you're just intruding. Visually, as critic Gareth Damian Martin wrote for Eurogamer, "The Last Guardian's architecture, draped in mist, coated in detail, aged with moss, manages to escape pastiche and instead feel like the structures of a half-remembered dream, brought to life."
Even without the Team Ico moniker, The Last Guardian was wholly, unabashedly, a Fumito Ueda game. Directing Trico was a pain, but it felt startlingly real in terms of the boundaries of what we imagine artificial intelligence to be in games. Trico felt like a living creature, which is part of what made the game so moving by its end, even with its overly padded length. But the long-awaited and doubly underrated follow-up wouldn't be here without its predecessor: Shadow of the Colossus.
And that leads us here, with Bluepoint's remake, which reenters Team Ico's classic back into the same breath as The Last Guardian. The remake itself seems comfortable sitting alongside the original; embellishing the scale of its world with softer-looking fur on the beasts and foliage that waves with the wind, while admonishing the essential aesthetics of the painterly vision of Ueda's original work. It's not as quarrelsome as, say, Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho, nor is it is robustly horrid as the fresco restoration gone terribly wrong. It's just a reimagining for a new generation that glosses over a central visual conceit of the game, washing it away like it's an old coat of paint.
Bluepoint's rendering of Shadow of the Colossus may feel more realistic, but it underserves the inherent loneliness that permeates through every surface of the original's world. Grass barely brushed as you moved through it. The lighting framed structures before you yourself. You were alien to this world, ridding of what's probably its protectors for a selfish reason—resurrecting a loved one. You were killing the only living things in the world for another's gain.
It's a harrowing set-up, and by HD-ifying it to oblivion, the atmosphere has dissipated. Like the fog cast over the original has cleared. When Ueda gave Bluepoint a list of changes he'd like to see in the remake, it's possible that maybe these visual imperfections were among them. I hope not. After all, bigger is not always better, especially when it comes to graphics.
The addition of a new Photo Mode feels adequate in the current era. When activated, the action all around you pauses, and you're free to zoom in and out and tinker with other settings. If you finagle with the robust settings enough, you can almost capture Shadow of the Colossus like it once was. Grainy, blurry, not beige, imperfect in all the imprecise ways. While shedding those assets away isn't necessarily round two of art preservation being horribly botched (not that Shadow of the Colossus is in any immediate danger of being lost to time like some older games), it ends up feeling like a lesser reimagining of what could have been if the style was preserved.
And now when I gaze up at those fuzzy, intimidating colossi and the music swells, I feel nothing. I only remember the memories I once had.