It’s been a long six years since fans first saw a massive feather drift towards the ground in a trailer at E3 2009, and it’s been even longer since The Last Guardian first entered development. Originally slated for release on the PlayStation 3, the spiritual successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus had to wait for technology to catch up before it could present its vision of a boy and his titanic cat-bird-dog companion.
When the story opens, the boy and the beast—a mythical creature called a Trico—are confined in an underground cavern. The boy, at least, has no memory of how he arrived there, and Trico’s been severely wounded. Through offerings of food and the removal of the spears and chains that keep Trico trapped, the two slowly begin to work together to escape, forging a bond of trust.
Getting out of the caves and caverns isn’t easy, however, even for an animal as powerful as Trico. The ruins aren’t always accessible for a creature of Trico’s size, and the player must find ways to clear a path, solving puzzles to open gates or coaxing Trico to jump down into bodies of water. Other obstacles have been deliberately set by the ruins’ inhabitants to hamper the beast’s passage; mysterious stained glass eyes, pots of intriguing scents, and noisemakers would halt Trico in its tracks if not removed. The boy would just as soon be stuck without Trico’s abilities to jump and climb, and has no defense on his own against the magically-powered suits of armor that guard the ruins.
It’s this bond between the boy and Trico that’s at the core of the game, and it’s presented beautifully. Trico acts like a real animal, at first refusing to budge if pestered too much or wandering off on its own, but slowly growing to listen more over time. A few hours in, the player gains the ability to issue Trico commands, but Trico retains its autonomy—you, the player, are not pressing triangle to make Trico jump; you’re pressing triangle for the boy to ask Trico to jump. At first, Trico may ignore the order or take initiative on its own, but over time responds more quickly and with more concern for the boy’s well-being. The late-game is packed with moments where you’ll be inching along a narrow ledge over a long drop, only to see Trico’s concerned face peering up at you, ready to catch you from a fall. And it’s always adorable to be venturing on ahead only to look back and see Trico, head jammed into an impossibly small gap between pillars, trying so very hard to squeeze through and follow.
On the other hand, that communication gap between the boy and Trico can get annoying. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if Trico isn’t jumping up somewhere because it’s not part of the puzzle and Trico can’t, or because it is part of the puzzle and Trico won’t. The boy—and the game in general—controls very clumsily. This is familiar territory for long-time Team Ico fans, and most of it’s intentional. You’re controlling a young boy struggling to get over a ledge, not a well-trained warrior or action hero. When every tiny drop is met with an exaggerated arms-wheeling struggle to regain balance, though, jumping over a series of platforms can get old fast.
Similarly, some of the controls are just plain mapped out badly. For example, swinging across a gap on a rope, which isn’t even worth a comment in most games, is made much more difficult here because pressing forward (to maintain momentum) causes the boy to climb upwards, and pressing jump at the far end of the swing (to let go) causes the boy to leap farther up the rope. The combination makes it nearly impossible to both swing in the correct direction and leap off the rope at the right time. Thankfully, that particular puzzle element didn’t pop up too often.
There are similar issues with trying to jump off of Trico, since the boy tries to cling to his massive beast companion as much as possible. It makes sense when you’re falling and need a bit of game-developer saving grace to grab hold of Trico’s tail, but not when you’re just using Trico as a convenient ladder. Many times I tried to leap off the top of Trico’s head towards a nearby ledge, only to end up climbing all over Trico’s face.
On the bright side, these control issues aren’t ones that make the game unplayable. The Last Guardian isn’t a platformer or a shooter where precision is needed to progress. Most of the time, if you fall, you’ll be able to climb back up again without any penalties, and if not, death isn’t punishing. The game’s designed for the player to be able to walk around, explore, and take in the scenery, and that means that there’s ample time to clamber back up Trico’s leg (even if you end up doing so at an awkward angle) or to take a few extra tries to line up a puzzle element.
A few graphics connoisseurs may also take issue with some parts of the game. The framerate can absolutely tank at times, especially in wide-open areas with lots of grass. And between the grass, all of Trico’s feathers, and the boy’s billowing clothes, there’s a lot of clipping. That said, the overall look of the game is gorgeous, though many of the overgrown ruins look fairly similar.
That said, most fans of Team Ico’s past games don’t necessarily play looking for tight controls or the latest, sharpest graphics—they play for the story and the world presented. There, at least, the game succeeds, though it’s not a story that’s told outright. There’s occasional narration that kicks in as a rather clever hint mechanic: spend too long in any one area and you’ll hear the grown-up voice of the boy, speaking of the current puzzle as if recounting an old story. (“I realized that the beast could not fit through the gap, so I sought to find another way.”) Apart from that, though, many of the mysteries of the world are left open for the player to form their own theories, looking at broken statues and stained glass in the ruins for clues.
And, of course, there’s the main reason many are interested in the game in the first place: Trico. If the goal of The Last Guardianis for players to fall in love with the massive hybrid creature by the end of the game, then it’s a goal that’s easily achieved. Though interactions are occasionally frustrating or a little heavy-handed, the moments where Trico overcomes its natural fear to come charging to your defense, accepts a barrel of food straight from your hand, or gives a loving little nudge out of nowhere can make it all worthwhile.
A heartwarming story, a mysterious world, and a slowly-growing bond between two unlikely companions ensure that fans of Team Ico's past work won't be disappointed. Clunky controls and a handful of graphical issues, however, mean that The Last Guardian may not be an enjoyable game for everyone—though, either way, Trico is adorable.
genDESIGN, SIE Japan Studio
Sony Interactive Entertainment
T - Teen
|The Last Guardian is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Code/hardware was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Emma’s early gaming was mostly done in secret, as the only gamer in a family of normal people. She still retains skills from this dark period in her life, such as the ability to teleport instantly across the house away from the computer, and holds a gold medal in the Olympic sport of “Hide the Gameboy.” Sorry, Mom, now you know.