Platforms PS4
Developer Team ICO, SIE Japan Studio
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date December 9, 2016

The Last Guardian is the long awaited next game from Fumito Ueda and Team ICO, first announced in 2007 for Playstation 3 before disappearing and re-emerging at E3 last year for the Playstation 4. The game casts you in the role of a small boy who wakes up in a cavern with no idea how he got there. Beside him is a wounded and chained up creature, and the pair must work together to survive and escape a strange and dangerous environment.

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The Last Guardian can be called many things. A puzzle game. A platformer. An adventure title. It pulls together many different and often disparate elements from a small variety of genres to create its core gameplay. What it’s ultimately about is having its players work together with an AI controlled creature to progress through a huge gauntlet of different puzzles, environments and challenges. And it’s because of Trico that this game works and succeeds beyond even my wildest expectations.

In The Last Guardian, Trico is much more than an AI companion, at least to the extent that I’ve ever seen in a video game. He’s not some gigantic beast of burden you control or marshall around levels to solve puzzles. He’s a living, breathing character in his own right and is a true companion, something you work alongside with to survive and progress as opposed to lord it over (I’m also not sure whether Trico is a he or she, I just took to using “he” during gameplay and think that “it” is way to formal).

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It starts from the beginning. When you first wake up in control of The Boy in this cavern, completely unsure of how you got there or what you’re supposed to do next, Trico is there. He’s chained up, clearly wounded and incredibly distrustful of you. Any attempt to even get near him is met with a roar or a swipe of a claw. This is where the tutorial begins – you’re taught how the controls work, but The Last Guardian also subtly teaches you about Trico himself.

In those first moments you set about finding barrels for Trico, which he promptly devours to regain his strength. You remove the spears from his torso and search around looking for the lever that will release the chain around his neck. As you search for a way out, quickly confronted with the reality that you need to work together to escape, the game teaches you how to call him to your location and shows you some of the ways he can aid your exploration of the environment.

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Obviously there’s a lot more to the way you interact with Trico, and a lot more things that you and he can do for each other, but this is a very, very clever opening section of gameplay. It teaches you how to treat Trico – how to figure out what he’s thinking, when something is wrong and a few basic ways to manipulate your feathered companion into aiding you both in moving forward. It’s teaching you fundamentals that you’ll carry with you throughout the rest of the game without force feeding a laborious tutorial down your throat.

You don’t become instant besties once you’re out of the cave either. Despite it becoming blindingly obvious that you’ll need each other for a lot more than escaping on cavern, the initial relationship between boy and beast is one of wary distrust and sometimes outright hostility. The bond that forms between these two characters is the main narrative of the game. Despite the mystery and intrigue that forms a very cool minimalistic story, the main point of The Last Guardian is watching the relationship between these two grow.

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It’s a bond you’ll actually feel as you play, too. Brilliantly, this isn’t accomplished through any kind of meter or XP bar (there’s no HUD of any kind in this game aside from the occasional button prompts) – it’s a relationship you see developing before your very eyes. It’s obvious in the way Trico acts around your character – his attempts you follow you through Human-sized passages, his cries when you leave him to solve a puzzle, how hard he fights for you when the need arises and his general interactions with you.

There are moments of sheer joy and beauty in these interactions, as well as of pure heartbreak. I formed a deeper connection with Trico than with any other video game character in the history of the medium. I shouted at him when he misbehaved, I laughed when he started splashing around in a puddle of water, I cheered when he smashed his gigantic head through a locked door to save my life and I smiled when he cooed contentedly as I pet him after an intense encounter. I also bawled my eyes out more than once.

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Quite how Team ICO and Team Japan managed to elicit these reactions from me over a cat/bird/rat/dog creature is something I can only attribute to sorcery. I should hate Trico. He’s frequently unhelpful, has trouble following my basic commands to help us progress to the next part of the game and is generally a misbehaving AI partner. He’s all of this and more. But I just don’t care. He’s Trico.

There were times in The Last Guardian when I’d try to direct Trico to make a jump or move in a certain direction only for him to lazily walk away, or sit and start scratching himself. He’s been programmed as a real creature as opposed to an AI puppet who is at your beck and call. This is why The Last Guardian works as well as it does. And it’s why Trico is such a memorable character, or how it’s possible to form such a deep connection with him. He’s a living animal.

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This will probably put some people off The Last Guardian. I totally get it and I expect that the game will end up being quite divisive. Similarly, there are issues with both the camera and the controls. The camera feels like a relic from the bygone PS2-era – it doesn’t handle tight spaces very well and it has momentum (for some reason) which can make it quite difficult to have it pointing where you need it to point. The controls feel similarly weird. The buttons don’t feel particularly well assigned, especially Circle, which appears to have been used as a catch-all to do about seventeen different things

You’ll infrequently be caught trying to pet Trico when you’re trying to aim the mirror shield, or trying to pick up a barrel when you want to push a box. This spreads to the platforming sections, which are generally fine, except when you’ve got your back to a wall or are in a tight space. Every now and again you’ll find that jump you thought you lined up perfectly was far from it, with plenty of time to consider your mistake as you careen into a seemingly endless pit to your death (the checkpoints are generally extremely forgiving, however).

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In the moment to moment of playing the game there were a fair few times I was hampered or frustrated by the camera and controls and Trico’s general disobedience. Looking back on the game, however, I have nothing but positive memories about the entire thing. These issues were never game breaking and they never affected my enjoyment of the title. I even managed to get used to the camera, which may have been my early-2000s gaming reflexes kicking back in.

Would I have preferred it to be better? Yes. But in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t bother me. I only reference it because this is a review and it may bother you. This magnificent journey, and the creature you undertake it with, is all that sticks in my head when I think about The Last Guardian and every time I try to speak down about the game or nitpick its issues I struggle. And this is coming from someone who is very critical of games that mess up on gameplay elements.

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That journey really is magnificent. While not the greatest graphics we’ve seen this generation, The Last Guardian’s stylistic art is gorgeous, especially outdoors in environments on a truly stunning scale. As the game progresses you’ll keep weaving in and out of the various crumbling buildings and the games areas somehow keep getting bigger and bigger. The scale of this game is pretty jaw dropping at times and The Last Guardian always has ways of making sure you know just how big your surroundings truly are.

These environments lend The Last Guardian a very deep sense of variety. There are only a handful of things you’ll actually be doing in the game to make progress, but thanks to some incredibly inventive set piece and level design, you never feel like you’re doing the same thing twice. Puzzles generally see you finding a lever to pull that allow Trico access to the next area. The Last Guardian never changes this mechanic throughout, rather it gives you about 5,000 truly different ways to actually approach and pull that lever.

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You’ll also need to clear a path through the world for Trico by removing strange, mural-like mirrors from his path. For some reason he’s deathly afraid of these mirrors and won’t venture anywhere near them until you’ve platformed your way over to them to smash them. Once you’ve cleared one or both of these obstacles it’s usually time to climb onto Trico and hold on tight to let him leap and bound his way across the precarious perches and footholds he can use to get you both moving.

Describing these tasks makes them sound arbitrary or quite dull. They’re not. They’re not particularly difficult either once you’ve gotten the game’s internal logic down. What they are, however, is satisfying to solve. There’s always a new twist or a new way of approaching them that feels good to figure out. Being mindful of your surroundings and of Trico himself is the number one way to solving just about everything you’ll come across in The Last Guardian.

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There are enemies that will need to be dispatched. Combat, if you can even really call it that, is something that you’ll never be an active participant in. The valley is populated by Knight statues that come alive and attempt to carry The Boy off through a mysterious door. You have no weapons and no way to fight back against them. Your only option is to avoid them, if you’re caught these Knights will pick you up and try to carry you off, though you can squirm free of their grasp with an intense bout of button mashing.

In a reverse of the situation in Ico, it’s Trico who will be doing all of the fighting in The Last Guardian, unleashing a chaotic whirlwind of claws and teeth as you do your best to steer clear. You can bash into Knights to stagger them momentarily, which you’ll need to do in the latter stages of the game to make them drop shields made of the mural-mirrors that will cow Trico into a fearful paralysis, but by and large you’ll mostly need to stay out of the way and pet Trico to calm him down (and wash off the blood) once the fighting has stopped.

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Much like everything else in The Last Guardian, these encounters are incredibly varied in how you’ll approach them. Sometimes you’ll be separated from Trico as the game takes a short turn into almost survival horror-like territory. Sometimes you’ll have to accomplish some kind of task while avoiding these automatons to tag your feathered companion into the fight. And sometimes you simply get to bear witness to an absolutely epic smackdown. As with everything else in The Last Guardian, there’s a great deal of variety to these situations.


Summary

After almost ten years it gives me great pleasure to say that The Last Guardian is most certainly worth the wait. While there are some control issues (some by design, others not so much) that will preclude some from enjoying it, I can categorically say that I absolutely fell in love with the game. And with Trico. In Trico, Team Japan and Team ICO have created a truly living creature. He’s not merely an AI companion or a puppet for you to control, he’s your partner, and one you’re going to need to make it through the game. The emotional connection that forms between the protagonists extends to the player, making you truly care for the bird/dog/cat/rat hybrid. The Last Guardian is a true epic, an instant classic and one of the most satisfying games I’ve played this generation, eliciting emotions that I didn’t know a video game was capable of making me feel so strongly.

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