Shadow of the Colossus has one of the greatest endings in history. Within days of its US release, internet message boards were hotly debating its meaning in posts spanning tens of thousands of words. The agony is, we can't even hint at what happens, because not only would we spoil the shuddering emotional impact, its significance would be lost on anyone who hasn't toiled, struggled and sworn their way through the ambiguous - but tragically inevitable - events that precede it.
Trying to define the magic of Shadow of Colossus is like trying to dissect a butterfly with pliers; words are simply too clumsy to isolate its delicate, ethereal charms.
Odd, then, that the game consists almost entirely of climbing hugely unsubtle 200ft beasts and plunging swords into their brains. But the genius isn't in the width of the colossi's footprints. The open vistas are staggering, but it's the delicate touches that resonate: the sunlight flickering holistically through brutish stone pillars, the whisper of birds, or the way your horse casts sorrowful - at least, that's what you think - glances at the object of your affection.
It's not for everyone. "How do you know where you're going?" asked one team member, perplexed. "And why are you always doing the same thing?" The game follows a simple three act structure: 1) Search a sprawling field for monsters, 2) Die repeatedly trying to find its weak spot, and 3) Murder it, get knocked out by weird black tentacles and magically reappear at the temple to start again.
A mysterious God-like voice gives you hints, but the only way to find each monster is to hold aloft your sword, strafe around until the pad buzzes, and ride in that direction. The design is clever - you normally stumble upon the monster through intuition - but there'll be occasions when you blunder into cul-de-sacs, or into uncharted turf.
And so it goes. Sixteen colossi must be killed. The only crumb of plot is the intro movie, where our hero travels a barren land and lays a girl on a temple altar. We know she's dead, but can only presume that killing the monsters will bring her back. Who is she? Who or what killed her? Why must you kill the colossi? Who - or what - is the mysterious voice that guides you? The answers are only resolved, albeit partially, by that stunning conclusion. And the impact is shuddering.
Halfway through you start to suspect that you are the force of evil. What have these beasts done to you? Few strike the first blow, and some are tragically cuddly, with acres of teddy bear fur and sad eyes. As you hover above a creature's weak spot, sword raised, you start to question the notion of killing in any game. But the chilling realization is that you have to kill him to proceed, if only to learn the truth. And you do. And it gets easier every time.
The colossi are unique but consistently phenomenal, deliberately subverting your knowledge of the previous monster's attack patterns and weak spots. One is tall, the next small. One lumbers, the next sprints. On occasions you'll clamber over the colossus like a mobile platform, in others you'll use fixed platforms as a weapon against it. We'd love to talk about individual bosses in detail, but it'd ruin the surprise - the thrill is trying, and failing, to find a weak spot until, finally, it clicks. One minute you're a powerless victim, the next you pity your towering foes.
The balance is divine. While enemies can decimate your energy bar, it'll replenish if you stay out of reach. Climbing is challenging, as your grip bar (a shrinking pink circle) slowly depletes until you let go to recharge. Problem is, the weak spots are sometimes so well hidden - like on the small of a giant's back - you've usually exhausted your grip by the time you've reached it, leaving you one chance to stab it before you tumble 200ft and start again. At times, as your foe thrashes to break your grip, you've got to let go for a split second and pray he won't move in order to charge your grip. It's thrilling.