It’s safe to say that Fumito Ueda’s third game was one of my most anticipated titles of the previous generation. Announced in 2009, I eagerly watched every gameplay trailer and read up every snippet of information I could. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus remain two of my most beloved games, and I found the idea of another game by the same studio a mouth-watering temptation. A multitude of delays and long periods of silence from both Sony and the developers led many to believe it would never see the light of day, not to mention the troubling news that Ueda himself had left the project due to creative differences with Sony. The game lingered in development hell for several years and its fate was uncertain. Ueda and his team remained with the project as consultants and the game eventually had a release date set for December 2016. My excitement rekindled and I wondered how it could ever live up to 7 years of anticipation. So, was it worth the wait?
Yes. It really was.
I played through the entire game alongside a couple of friends this weekend. Taking turns with the controller, we completed it in two lengthy sessions and had a brilliant time. The Last Guardian is a beautiful game in every sense of the word, and fans of either Ico or Shadow of the Colossus need not read any further to know that they will enjoy it. You control a nameless young boy as he explores an ancient derelict ruin of towers, gardens, tunnels and caverns, accompanied at all times by the majestic creature known as Trico. A huge, lumbering beast the size of a house, that appears to be a mythological blend of dog, cat and bird. He is the star of the show.
Trico is a bit like a griffon, but is original in his visual design. He has four legs, a sort-of beak, scraggly wings, a long thick tail similar to that of a monkey, fur on his underbelly and thousands of individually rendered feathers across his back and legs, which ripple and shudder in the wind or whenever he moves. The attention to detail on the creature extends beyond his aesthetics, because as you progress through the game and he watches you run, climb and explore the surroundings, Trico appears to learn from you, to the point where you can start giving him commands. He becomes an adorable companion who whines in worry when he loses sight of you, purrs like a cat when you pet him (pressing the ‘use’ button when next to or on him) and will defend you with brutal savagery when the game’s enemies threaten you. He’s a versatile living tool for you to use to navigate gaping chasms and climb impossibly high towers. But first and foremost, he is an expressive beast full of personality, the best incarnation of a living, breathing animal that you will find in a video game to date. Trico is wonderful.
The game makes the relationship between you and Trico the core central theme and gameplay mechanic. You rely on him just as much as he relies on you, and you often cannot progress without helping each other. Sometimes, it’s a simple case of finding a hidden switch to open a gate, which only you can do as the boy. Likewise, when dealing with reanimated suits of armour that try to kidnap and kill the boy, you must rely on Trico to attack and smash them because your only method of fighting is a feeble shove. More interestingly, you will come across these mysterious colourful glass mirrors that for some reason render Trico immobilised with fear. His eyes turn red, and he refuses to go near them. You must navigate the environment to reach the mirrors and smash them before Trico will continue. This reliance on each other is what really sells the idea of a bond growing between the two characters and its gradual evolution feels natural and believable.
One of the most memorable moments in the game for me occurred when the armour suits showed up weilding miniature versions of these mirrors as shields, and suddenly it was up to me to try and disarm them in order for Trico to then fight the soldiers. However, after disarming one soldier, another one captured me and slung him over his back. Trico, still fearful of the second mirror, appeared to make the conscious decision to leap into the fray regardless to save me, smashing the second soldier’s mirror in the process. The bond between the two characters was growing so strong that he was now willing to fight through his fear to save me. And this was all presented in realtime, without the use of a cutscene or spoken dialogue, and its moments like that which make The Last Guardian stand out as something truly special.
Navigating the gorgeous environments is usually quite fun, if a little clumsy. The boy can clamber over obstacles, shimmy along precarious ledges and squeeze through small holes. He automatically clings onto ledges, and Trico’s body so you don’t have to manage a stamina ‘grip’ bar like you do in Shadow of the Colossus. In this regard, the climbing has been simplified, but it feels like the right decision. By jumping onto Trico and clinging to his back, he can leap and carry you over huge gaps, and carry you up into the upper reaches of the crumbling towers and ruins. You’re in control of the camera at all times, and even though it often gets stuck in scenery and tries its best to point in the wrong direction, you can usually manually rotate it into a more useful position with relative ease. This micro-managing of the camera will undoubtedly frustrate some players.
Likewise, Trico has been designed to simulate realistic animal behaviour, which can sometimes make him feel a bit unresponsive. Just like a dog in real life, when you tell him to do something, he doesn’t always understand what you mean. He might cock his head curiously, or search the area in an effort to see what you are pointing at. Other times, he’ll ignore you completely and sniff for barrels of food that you can feed to him. While I found it immersive and engaging to issue commands to the creature, only to have him misunderstand and wander off in the opposite direction, or occasionally jump onto the wrong ledge, others will wonder why the game designers didn’t just make him listen to you properly. It is a risky design decision, but one that pulled me into the context of the game’s story.
This experience would be very different if Trico behaved like an obedient robotic AI that he obviously is. I found an easy solution to getting him to do what I want: his curiosity is always on you the player, so by getting down from his body and running over to the spot where you want to go, he almost always follows you, and from there its pretty straightforward to nudge him in the right direction. Other times, if you are stuck and unsure of where to go, Trico is helpful at finding the route by himself, and he’ll look towards a ledge, or play with a chain dangling from the ceiling, displaying an adorably cute and playful curiosity, which happens to serve nicely as an in-game hint as to what you should be doing next. I came away from the game with a strange longing to play with Trico some more, because he really does feel like a living creature, and so I can forgive the way he sometimes misbehaves or misinterprets what I needed him to do.
It’s a beautiful game from a visual standpoint. Each area is carefully crafted to make you feel like you are traversing a real place. Reminiscent of Ico, you can often see areas that you have explored previously, and scanning the distant surroundings hints at where you might end up next. Huge towers adorn the horizon, nestled within a vast crater. The lighting system casts a soft hue over everything, giving the game a fairytale feel, and watching trees with hundreds of individual leaves swaying in the breeze is hypnotically pretty. This is some of the best use of dynamic animation I have seen in a game, as the young boy reacts fluidly to his surroundings – he’ll put a hand out to hold onto a wall or railing while balancing on a ledge, and if you take a nasty fall, he’ll temporarily limp on an injured leg, or rub his sore head after bashing it against a rock. But it’s Trico who stands out as a feat of animation genius. He is enormous and sometimes fills up entire spaces with his body. Watching him traverse the environments as agile (and often clumsy) as a cat never fails to bring a smile to my face. He’ll carefully plant his feet on ledges and steps, scrambling for footholds and leaping across huge gaps to land atop tiny pillars, then pounce onwards again. The creator’s did not use any motion capture – every animation is done with keyframes and gives it a handmade feel that you rarely see in videogames these days. It’s the result of countless hours carefully recreating the subtle movements of a living creature and deserves to be recognised for the labour of love it surely is.
I have purposely avoided speaking about the plot, which is subtle in its presentation. All you really need to know is that you wake up in a cave with Trico, who is chained up and badly wounded. Without any idea of how you got there, your only choice is to help the creature, who is mistrustful and scared of you at first, but soon realises you are not there to hurt him. The rest of the game is spent simply trying to escape from the crater, and as you explore, the bond between the boy and Trico blossoms into something beautiful. It’s a story of friendship and companionship, trust and loyalty, and is told with a subtle and natural progression that only a videogame can replicate.
I know that this game will not appeal to everyone, but if you are a fan of Fumito Ueda’s previous games, you will undoubtedly want to experience this. If you can tolerate a camera that tries its best to get stuck in scenery and have the patience for Trico that any real life pet owner will understand, the uniqueness of developing a bond between man and beast in a videogame is a rare treat and creates a gaming experience like no other. Crafted with exceptional attention to detail, The Last Guardian is the sort of game I will remember for a long time and wish to replay at regular intervals in the future.