The game's storyline focuses on a young man named Wander who enters a forbidden land. Wander must travel across a vast expanse on horseback and defeat sixteen massive beings, known simply as colossi, in order to restore the life of a girl named Mono. The game is unusual within the action-adventure genre in that there are no towns or dungeons to explore, no characters with which to interact, and no enemies to defeat other than the colossi. Shadow of the Colossus has been described as a puzzle game, as each colossus' weakness must be identified and exploited before it can be defeated.
Cited as an influential title in the video game industry, Shadow of the Colossus is often regarded as an important example of video game art due to its minimalist landscape designs, immersive gameplay and emotional journey. It received wide critical acclaim by the media and was met with strong sales compared to ICO, due in part to a larger marketing campaign. The soundtrack was also widely praised. The game won several awards for its audio, design, and overall quality. Shadow of the Colossus is also referenced numerous times in debates regarding the art quality and emotional perspectives of video games.
Shadow of the Colossus follows Wander, Wander enters the forbidden land, traveling across the long bridge at its entrance on his horse, Agro. According to Lord Emon later in the game, prior to entering the forbidden land Wander had stolen an ancient sword, perhaps of Emon's possession, which is the only weapon capable of slaying the colossi of the forbidden land.
Led to the massive Shrine of Worship at the center of the region, Wander carries with him a body wrapped in a cloak, which he lays upon an altar in the shrine. Removing the cloak, the body of a barefoot maiden named "Mono" is revealed. A moment later, several shadow-like creatures with humanoid forms appear and prepare to attack Wander, but he easily dismisses them with a wave of the ancient sword in his possession, which emits strong beams of light. After vanquishing the shadow creatures, the voice of the disembodied entity known as "Dormin" echoes from above, expressing surprise that Wander possesses the weapon. Wander requests that Dormin return Mono's soul to her body, which it states may be possible, but only if the sixteen idols lining the temple's hall are destroyed. It explains that this task can only be accomplished by using the ancient sword to kill sixteen colossi located throughout the land. Each contains a portion of Dormin's own essence, though this is not revealed until late in the game.
Despite a warning from Dormin that he may have to pay a great price to revive Mono, Wander sets out to search the land for the colossi and destroy them. In a sequence after the eighth's slaying, a deterioration of Wander's body is shown clearly—his skin becoming paler, his hair darker, and dark streaks growing across his face. After the death of the twelfth colossus, it is revealed to the player that Wander is being pursued by a group of warriors led by Emon.
Urged to hurry with his task by Dormin, Wander soon heads off to defeat the sixteenth and final colossus. On the way to this confrontation, he travels on horseback across a long bridge, which begins to collapse as he is halfway across. As Agro jumps over the last gap in the bridge, the portion she lands on begins to separate from its foundation, causing her to nearly lose her footing. Sensing the impending fall, Agro jerks forward to throw Wander to safety on the other side, sacrificing herself and falling into the river hundreds of feet below as the bridge finally gives way. Wander goes on to defeat the final colossus, and Emon's company arrives in the Shrine of Worship just as the last temple idol crumbles; Wander appears soon afterwards, his eyes and skin now both entirely pale, and two small horns protruding from his head. Declaring that Wander has been "possesed by the dead", Lord Emon orders his warriors to kill him. While he struggles to reach Mono, one warrior shoots Wander in the leg with a crossbow, while another stabs him through his heart with a sword. Black blood sprays from the wound as Wander's body becomes covered in darkness and falls to the floor—a death identical to those suffered by the colossi.
Afterward, Dormin's spirit possesses Wander's body, transforming it into a shadowy giant. Dormin, now speaking in its masculine voice, explains that it had been separated to sixteen pieces—the colossi—to seal away its power, and that by entering Wander, who absorbed physical form from defeating each colossus, it is now whole again. While his men flee, Lord Emon casts the ancient sword into a small pool at the back of the temple's hall, creating a whirlwind of light that consumes Dormin and Wander. Emon and his men flee the forbidden land as the bridge connecting to the temple collapses behind them. As they safely arrive at the entrance to the forbidden land, Emon expresses hope that if Wander survived, someday he may be able to atone for his crimes.
In the temple, Mono awakens, restored by Dormin in accordance with its agreement with Wander, and Agro limps into the temple with an injured hind leg. Mono follows her to the pool into which Wander and Dormin were pulled by Emon's spell, finding a male infant with tiny horns on his head. She takes the child with her, following the horse to higher levels of the Shrine of Worship, and arrives at a secret garden within the shrine as the game ends.
The protagonist of the game is Wander, a young man whose goal is to resurrect a girl named Mono. Little is known about Mono other than that she was a maiden who was somehow sacrificed because she was believed to have a cursed destiny. Wander and Mono were designed with long hair from the start of the design process, with Mono's long hair specifically as a contrast to Yorda of Ico, who has short hair. Assisting Wander in his quest to revive her is his loyal horse, Agro, who serves as his only ally in defeating the colossi. Wander also receives aid from an entity called Dormin. The story revolves around these characters, but features a small supporting cast including Lord Emon.
Speaking with two voices at once (one male and one female), Dormin is a mysterious, disembodied entity. In legends of the game's world, it is said that Dormin has the power to revive the dead, and it is for this reason that Wander enters the forbidden land, seeking its assistance in reviving Mono. Dormin offers to revive her in exchange for Wander destroying the sixteen colossi. "Dormin", which spells "Nimrod" backwards, has been speculated to be a reference to the body of the biblical King Nimrod which was cut up and scattered.
Lord Emon is a shaman who narrates a vision in the game's introduction, vaguely explaining the origin of the land Wander has come to, and emphasising that entry to this place is forbidden. He is portrayed as having extensive knowledge regarding the containment of Dormin, and the ability to use powerful magic. He has a small group of warriors at his command, and is pursuing Wander to prevent the use of "the forbidden spell", the ritual involving the destruction of the sixteen colossi and the restoration of Dormin's power.
The colossi are armored, most often enormous creatures with forms ranging from various humanoids to predatory animals, and live in all manner of surroundings and environments including beneath water and flying through the air. Their bodies are a fusion of organic and inorganic parts such as rock, earth, fur, and architectural elements, some of which are weathered or fractured. Some colossi ignore Wander and will only attack when provoked, while others will attack on sight. Inhabiting specific locations in the forbidden land, they do not venture outside their own territory. Once slain they will remain where fallen as a mound of earth and rock vaguely resembling the original colossus.
- Shadow of the Colossus is considered both a spiritual successor and prequel to Ico. For several months during and after the game's release, the game's director and lead designer, Fumito Ueda, maintained that the game's status as a prequel was simply his personal take on the game and not necessarily its canon nature, as he largely intended for players to decide the specifics of the story for themselves, but he confirmed the two do have a connection. Moreover, the shadowy figures which appear in the Shrine of Worship are connected to the shadows which the player must fight in Ico. Both games feature "horned" characters for protagonists (Wander sprouts horns at the end of the game). The Queen's Sword from Ico is also available as a bonus unlockable item. Both games also use unique fictional languages.
- In Japan, the game is known as Wander to Kyozō (ワンダと巨像 which translates to: Wander and the Colossus)
- Along with the Ico development video, the bonus DVD that came with the Japanese version of Shadow of the Colossus came with the development video for Shadow of the Colossus known as NICO. (A anagram for Next Ico)
- In the beginning tutorial in the english version of the game, the Horse is referred to with male pronouns, leading many american fans to believe that the horse is male. However, this is actually a mistranslation, as 'Fumito Ueda' has confirmed Agro as female.
- In the Japanese version, Wander is called "Wanda". The European manual refers Wander as Wanda though it was a misprint.
- If the player plays the game several times, eats enough lizard tails and maxes out Wander's stamina, they will be able to reach the secret garden up high in the shrine of worship. The garden is very difficult to reach, but if the player climbs up the front of the temple and makes it to the top of the bridge, the garden can be found. This is in fact, the same garden that Mono and Agro take the infant up to at the end of the game.
- This game plays a significant role in the 2007 Mike Bender film Reign Over Me. In the film, Charlie Fineman plays the game to cope with the death of his family in the 9/11 attacks, as the imagery of each Colossus falling to the ground was considered reminiscent to the collapse of the World Trade Center. With the approval of Fumito Ueda, the game was included in the movie.
- A theory exists beleving that Mono grew to become the Queen from Ico.