For a time, it almost seemed like we would never see the release of the Last Guardian. Through so many delays, and even a generational swap, its development time was akin to most vapourware titles that were simply lost in history. Team Ico originally began development for The Last Guardian way back in 2007, under the direction of Fumio Ueda – who was previously known for his cult hits Ico and Shadows of the Colossus; the latter went on to garnering critical acclaim for its simplistic design executed through the marvellous gameplay of scaling your bosses. There are many parallels to it and The Last Guardian; Ueda’s mantra is most notably coined as “design through subtraction” which is a distinct style present in his games. Sparse landscapes, a minimalist story and controls that have a flat learning curve; the idea is to separate theses works from the norm, in hopes of the player to fully embrace the atmosphere and world they’re placed in. Shadows of the Colossus was very much like that, with a story as simple as saving someone by slaying the Colossi, and those beings were the only ones in the entire game. These games certainly do not appeal to everyone, as the idea of a game with only bosses and no other creatures might sound boring to some; it’s the experience within each boss that made Shadows of the Colossus what it was. Each boss was not only intimidatingly gargantuan, but each had a puzzle associated to the actual scaling process. That’s why I have so much respect for Ueda; his ability to weave puzzles organically within the world he’s created truly feels like a one of a kind experience. With The Last Guardian, the same ideologies are in tact; stripped from the game are conventional mechanics and what we are left with are the roots of a game. A story that isn’t over saturated with too much plot and a gameplay mechanic that is easy enough to not distract oneself from the stars of the show. The true nature of The Last Guardian is to have you genuinely feel a connection between Trico, and the boy.
As mentioned earlier, The Last Guardian is devoid of a typical story you would come to expect in a video game. The experience itself rests on the luscious settings and locales you traverse through, as well as the camaraderie you develop and continue to grow and flourish between the boy, and Trico. It’s a rather risky move since this may turn off those who may prefer a more concise storyline to make everything tie together. However in this carefully deliberate way the game was executed, your primary experience as a player coincides with the boy; stumbling as you go without much in the way of context save your character’s future self, narrating every so often. I personally quite enjoyed the organic discovery of the world around you, rather than being told of events through various cutscenes or in-game dialogue. Despite not having an overarching story, you can expect a wealth of lore you can uncover as you progress. The settings are rich with patterns and structures that all seem to hint at a civilization and yet it is still very much a mystery throughout most of your journey. I can’t stress enough that this particular type of style may not be appealing to most gamers; that being said for those interested in broadening your experiences with a very different type of game I would say this experience is well worth it.
The game begins with a brief introductory cutscene that hints at your main character falling down what looks like a well or hole in the ground. As he comes to, he swiftly realizes he is not there alone and is greeted by a very startled and cautiously warding creature with what looks like a metal mask covering all but its horns and eyes. You notice quickly that the creature is both injured and tied up. As per the previous narration, you understand that this may be the man-eating beast that you were once warned of in your life before the events of the game. And that is it; that is what starts the gears turning about the game’s journey. You are left with the puzzle of calming the creature and feeding it with whatever you can find. As it turns out, Trico’s appetite consists primarily of barrels of what look like blue goo, surrounded by butterflies. Without spoiling anything, I will refrain from revealing what the contents actually are, however it was something I wasn’t quite expecting.
As you and your companion (who very slowly warms up to you) travel throughout the depths of these mysterious ruins, you also encounter statues that animate and will immediately target Trico. If you happen to be in sight, they will pick you up and try to take you to an exit, ending the game and forcing you to restart from the recent checkpoint. One thing that wasn’t made entirely clear was that you need to mash buttons in order to break free. The only visual cue you are given are what look like hieroglyphs or patterns that clutter the screen. By pressing various buttons you’ll quickly see that the screen begins to clear. That is one thing that is quite present throughout The Last Guardian; there are barely any tutorials for the actual controls, and what is present is fairly limited. Despite the ease of control, the lack of a tutorial provides a steeper learning curve than most, as you are fumbling about the mechanics – much in the same way as the boy is discovering what he can do with Trico.
Early on in the game, you will learn that you can control Trico to a certain extent. Much like an actual animal, Trico responds to gestures and sounds; as such, you can call out for Trico by holding R1. While holding R1 and are stationary, you can position the left analog stick in four directions to usher Trico in that direction. This works most of the time; other times Trico will need repeated prompts. Sometimes it is because I am simply not in the position the game wants me to be in for any contextual moment to happen – which is an unfortunate side effect of this very trial-and-error type of game. Similarly, the same results exist for the expanded controls, which have you holding R1 and selecting any one of the face buttons to command Trico to jump and stomp, stand and praise, swipe and attack, and sit and scold. Doing any one of these are very relevant in particular instances of the game, most notably in situations or puzzles that have you interacting with a certain area of the environment or a specific physics-based puzzle. That being said, because of the exactness of some of these areas, and without any concrete direction, you are left exhausting all other options and even then you need to be sure you are in a place where Trico understands what needs to be done to progress.
A perfect example of this is a certain water level, where you need to lift a gate but cannot reach the lever. In most cases, Trico tends to follow you in the water and play around in it; what you need to do is to allow Trico the time to get to shore, jump in once more so the water level can rise in order to let you reach where you need to be. The problem is Trico can be unpredictable, so you may be left waiting and it might not happen until Trico is at a spot in the game that triggers the event. When all’s said and done, it ends up being a minor albeit very annoying grievance that persists. The counterpoint to this is that you really are left to your own devices, with no help or direction, letting you find out what to do on your own. In that respect, I’ll take the annoyances as they comes. It’s certainly not at the same degree of difficulty but the premise of this philosophy of game design bears similarities to the original Legend of Zelda, or most games of that era. It’s like a weird blend of a hardcore mentality that allows minimal handholding but no genuine difficulty outside of the puzzles you require some sense of cleverness.
When it comes right down to it, the story, or rather adventure behind The Last Guardian is unashamedly one of a kind. It’s different in the best possible way. I have been on this hype train for nearly a decade, and even after holding the controller for the first time as a dove right in I had no idea what to expect of the final product. What you learn to discover of the story is equal parts philosophical and thoughtful. It’s a bonding exercise that, even for a glimpse of a moment, let’s you take a step back and truly enjoy this simulated companionship with a completely fictional beast. That a game even evokes that kind of emotion is very telling behind the amount of care that went into the realism of Trico.
I want to saw The Last Guardian’s visuals are flawless, but they unfortunately come at an alarming cost for those who have not yet upgraded to a Pro model Playstation 4. The visual fidelity is sheer brilliance; the lighting is top notch, and you can really feel it the moment you step outside from having been underground. The trees are rich and volumetric and blow wildly, as do the patches of grass. Small critters and other wildlife are there to view and behold, and the ruins themselves have a wonderful dreariness to them. Trico is without a doubt a visual tour-de-force all on its own; I lost count at the number of animations it has, all to make it appear like it is an actual, living, breathing, animal. It may resemble a sort of feathered dog with wings and a beak, but its behaviour is very much like a cat. It swats and pounces its enemies, the way it prepares to jump, lowering its posture and harnessing its hind paws before the mighty leap, and even the sillier animations that have it appear like it is trying to figure out its food before it eats it – pawing the barrel curiously. All of these, and many more, truly add that extra level of believability to The Last Guardian; and it’s also a strong reason why one would get so attached to a game with minimal story. The way Trico was designed to be almost forces you to want to pay attention, and to care for it. Trico’s eyes change colour in different situations: black or almost hallow is typically when Trico is happy; blue or white is typically in the presence of the barrels, and a reddish pink is when Trico is excited or upset. It’s important to pay attention to, especially because it may shed some subtle light on what needs to be done in certain instances.
The downside to all of this visual marvel is that the framerate chugs, and quite frequently. It’s most visible during the settings with open landscapes, where the game is processing the scenery, the foliage blowing around and then the very unpredictable NPC by your side. It is no surprise that this would have never seen the light of day on a Playstation 3. The textures can also be a bit of a mixed bag, which - like the framerate - is remedied on a Pro model. There is also another performance issue that rears its ugly head more often than not – the camera. Most of the time, you have full liberty of the camera’s controls to take in the wonderful world Team Ico has crafted. In other instances, there are fixed camera moments that really put you at a disadvantage. Worse yet, sometimes the camera will take on a mind of its own and swing about in a perspective you can’t make sense of. I do understand that a lot of the time there is almost like a soft-locking on Trico, to kind of nudge you in its direction. But certainly in heated moments where you are trying to fend off other enemies in the game, it can be quite distracting.
Just before the end of the year, Team Ico drops the game many have been waiting for since the early years of last generation, and the end result is something I wholeheartedly recommend, with a small caveat; despite the general ease of use when you understand the fundamental control scheme, The Last Guardian requires your patience. It’s not as unforgiving as say Dark Souls, but at the same time it is a Puzzle game that is heavily built on trial-and-error. The puzzles themselves can range from simplistic to genuinely clever. If you feel your style of play can enjoy something like that, then I absolutely recommend it. There are some nagging issues with the camera, and some staggering framerate drops if you happen to have an original PS4 model, but that being said, when the game moves fluidly it genuinely is a sight to behold.
|Trico is an incredibly designed, thoughtfully animated NPC that makes you feel and care for it.|
|The organic puzzle design is quite clever, especially when they rely on interactions with Trico or with the game’s physics.|
|The game visuals, sound, and atmosphere are all top notch.|
|The camera can be as big an enemy as the actual enemies.|
|The framerate chugs at a very slow rate in large environments – on a regular PS4.|
|The game’s trial-and-error approach is not for everyone; that being said there are definitely instances where areas of progression are almost unreasonably obscure.|