Ueda Fumito first revealed The Last Guardian to audiences at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). After the sublime, yet narratively recherché Shadow of the Colossus (2005) and ICO (2001), the title, centred around the aquiline-feline Trico and an unknown young boy, reiterated the previous core themes of companionship and isolation in the face of an alien and hostile environment. With development having commenced in 2007, and posited for a PlayStation 3 release in 2011, The Last Guardian was meant to serve as a denouement, of sorts, to Ueda’s already classic titles.
However, hindrances arose. Ueda and selected other Team Ico members left Sony, and although the game was said to still be in production, nothing new eventuated. The Playstation 4 was launched in late 2014, and despite assuagement that development had been shifted to the new console, no new footage or gameplay was divulged.
Then, out of nowhere, at the 2015 E3, whatever dances, rituals, sacrifices and prayers gamers had offered up were answered. The Last Guardian finally had a release date, slated for 2016, and was finally playable, although my first up-and-close brush was at PAXAUS 2016, and it sadly wasn’t available for attendees to try.
Having bought the Limited Collector’s Edition at launch, and having postponed playing it for several months, I finally had the opportunity to play through the entire game just this week.
Well, well, well.
Never have I walked away from a gaming experience feeling so profoundly moved by virtue of simultaneous joy and anger. Never have I wept at something so anomalously beautiful and atrocious. Never have I wanted to hug a fictional animal more tightly, whilst also wishing to throw them into the sun. Ueda has again succeeded in creating an empathetic bond between player avatar, player, and companion, but it is one fraught with frustration.
The Last Guardian hearkens back to its predecessors in terms of plot, and, like them succeeds in remaining investing yet abstruse. Conveyed via his resonant narration as an older man, the narrative focuses on the adventures of a young boy, left abandoned and far from his village in the depths of a fortress. Waking to a newly-inked torso, a head full of questions, and the company of the creature he comes to call Trico, the boy swiftly attempts to pacify the injured and enraged animal, and seek a means to escape with his provisional friend. Naturally, in the vein of Team Ico’s previous entries, malevolent entities seek to stop them, and in this instance, supernatural suits of armour attempt to seize the boy and carry him off to their disembodied master. Should they be unable to grab our precocious hero, yet still be in relatively close proximity, they send magic spells after him, activating his tattoos and distorting the player’s HUD.
In many ways, The Last Guardian is a reversal of the character dynamic found in ICO’s eponymous character and Yorda, as here, the controllable hero is the more helpless and vulnerable figure, reliant on Trico to carry him to new areas, solve puzzles and dispatch enemies. In other ways, the boy is the more active and demonstrably intelligent hero, and Trico’s AI is so glacial that he makes Yorda look quick-witted (although the latter’s only sin was being confused by ladders, and who hasn’t been confused by a ladder before?). Without being facetious, it’s amongst one of the most abysmally programmed NPCs I’ve ever encountered, and often left me stuck on puzzles for intervals of five to ten minutes, as I reiterated my futile attempts to direct Trico to do something.
The protagonist doesn’t fare much better either. Overall, the controls should feel very familiar to veterans of Shadow of the Colossus and ICO, right down to feeling a decade older than they ought to. Even though commands aren’t complex, movement doesn’t feel fluid, and the game makes a point of displaying a movement hint at almost every instance in which said movement is required. If Trico’s failure to save the boy at inopportune moments comprised 40% of my deaths, unresponsive and flawed movement mechanics comprised the remaining percentage. I also lost count of the instances in which this, in tandem with the camera, led me to miss a critical jump, or be captured by an enemy due to being “too slow” to escape. Trico can either trample armoured enemies underfoot, or, at times, zap them with magic of his own, channelled through an enigmatic mirror the boy finds. However, the latter is all but ineffective in large groups, which occur with increasing frequency as the game progresses, and it disappears for a significant proportion of the game. Whilst the boy can attempt to leap onto enemies to slow them, shove them or throw discarded objects at them, it’s one of the few mechanics the game explains inadequately, and any misses (as will be all but inevitable) can prove fatal.
Where the game does succeed, even in spite of the barely repressed rage felt at the latter’s apparent stupidity, is developing the bond between the boy and Trico. Trico acts very much like a real pet, brimming with curiosity, with gravitas and heft to his movements; highly responsive to environmental features and actions. The protagonist can pat him whenever the fancy strikes, and it is a mechanic that is necessary to soothe Trico in more tense moments, albeit one that doesn’t feel as clumsily executed as others. Trico also gets hungry, and adores consuming luminescent barrels, which can be placed in front of him to gobble or thrown towards him to catch, assuming, that is, you don’t hit him in his big, dumb face. Any misfortune that befalls Trico remains harrowing, and there are many moments that evoke genuine fear for his survival.
In recompense for saving the boy’s similarly inept ass from enemies, Trico has been conditioned to fear stained glass eyes dispersed through the surrounds, which the boy must break or remove. Initially, their presence is a straightforward matter of simply climbing up and pushing them away into the abyss, but as the game progresses, the path to their removal becomes more convoluted and perilous. Furthermore, certain armoured enemies will wield miniaturized versions as shields with which to drive Trico back with, forcing the boy to finds a means to disarm them before Trico can dispatch them. The mirror can make short work of both, and despite its inefficaciousness at times, it’s imperative to banish the eyes that hang precariously from the many towers and turrets and cannot be reached via conventional means.
Whilst visuals are hardly what anyone would call cutting edging, and the fluidity of Trico’s feathers is juxtaposed against the cell-shaded look of the protagonist, they are, nevertheless, striking and effective. I am one who would, in the face of better judgement, still call ICO and Shadow of the Colossus’ graphics beautiful, in spite of their blockiness, and the aesthetics of three largely come down to great design. Areas are designed with verticality and an amalgamation of wilderness and ethereal stone, and the result is an awe-inspiring, and, at times, acrophobia-inducing, spectacle. Despite the tenuous and ambiguous connection between The Last Guardian and Ueda’s other games, the intricate edifices, populated with naught else but familiar inky lizards, echo of a time and place few but the players have tread before.
In light of remaining immune to the detriments of release hype and despair from unfulfilled expectations of such a long development process, it’s difficult to surmise my feelings about The Last Guardian. I can’t verily call it a disappointment, and leave it at that, regardless of how dated it feels to play, as it’s not. However, it’s still not great, by any empirical means. Good, perhaps, but tragically not as worthy of adulation as its near- sublime brethren. If characters overcoming adversity together and narrative minimalism are up your alley, and you can forgive hapless controls and woeful AI, then I’d give The Last Guardian a hearty recommendation. If you have slightly less patience than the likes of my idiotic self, if you’re not a diehard Team Ico fan, and you value keeping your PS4 in one piece, think twice.
The Last Guardian is currently available for digital download and physical release, although given that it’s been out since December 2016, and I’m six months late playing it, that goes almost without saying.
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