It’s a game that I actually never thought I’d see released, the third instalment of Fumito Ueda’s series of games exploring solitude, companionship, loss and the grey areas of morality that we all live in. Yet, despite the decade in limbo, The Last Guardian has finally made it out of concept and into our hands, ready for us to embark on a tale about a boy and his giant cat/dog/griffin hybrid monster. Has the delay dulled any of the impact the game would have had, or is still relevant even though we’re two generations of hardware on from the start of development? Really though, we just don’t want it to be like Duke Nukem Forever or Aliens: Colonial Marines, where high profile games have languished in several studios hands only to hit the world as broken or just plain out of date.
The Last Guardian is set in the same mysterious, largely abandoned world as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. A world filled with vast spaces of flora and decaying ruins. A hauntingly beautiful fantasy setting that manages to build a picture of a once great and powerful civilisation without providing any backstory, either spoken or written. We don’t know where we are, when we are, or why we are – we only know that we’re a boy and we shouldn’t really be there. Feeling like a logical combination of the previous two games, The Last Guardian fuses the co-op AI aided castle exploration from Ico with the ability to climb and conquer the beasts from Shadow of the Colossus. You awake in a dark cave with a monster unconscious nearby and no idea of how you got there. That monster is the Trico and your key to escape from this strange place, once you’ve convinced it you’re a friend of course.
Your journey is one of simply finding your way out of the huge, crumbling ruins with the help of the Trico and its special abilities, The Last Guardian doesn’t really ask much more of you than that, though it obviously comes with a hefty dose of exploration, puzzle solving, and some very light combat. There’s no item collecting, no side quests and no levelling up, what you have at the beginning is pretty much what you take with you to the end; and everything you need to solve a puzzle is either in yours or the Trico’s capability, or lying around in the rooms, so there’s no backtracking and needless errand running. It sounds linear, and it is, though the scale and size of the environment hide that fact well. It’s more akin to an open world where your path is dictated by the twists and turns of the adventure than a truly “A to B” route – the way it’s designed tricks you into thinking you’ve a free choice in where to go next. Part of it is down to the mix of tight corridors opening out into expansive areas where everything feels like it’s in reach; and part of it is that fact your main means of transport is the huge, yet nimble, Trico.
If there’s anything that’s obvious immediately it’s the juxtaposition of the boy and the Trico, and that they have very specific roles. The boy fetches and carries, scouts and squeezes through small gaps, and provides aiming for lightning that comes out of the Trico’s tail (just ‘cos). The Trico is a ladder, protector, leaps across large gaps, and is a soft landing spot. On their own they’re unable to escape, but together they can overcome anything put in their path, which is the environment, strange suits of armour intent on kidnapping the boy, and even other Trico’s. Character progression isn’t handled in a traditional sense either, it’s all about the relationship between boy and beast. As they both progress the bond between the two becomes stronger and the ability to communicate develops. Going from simply having the Trico following you around to being able to command him opens up a new layer of gameplay that’s essential to getting away from the prison, and for increasing the emotional connection between you as the player and the events onscreen. This bond also seems to heal the injured Trico (along with feeding it), and capabilities that were limited early in the game start to show themselves. Indeed, it’s so subtle at times it takes a double take to realise that certain physical features have changed, such as horns regrowing over time.
Where The Last Guardian succeeds or fails isn’t in the overall presentation of the game (which is gorgeous), but in how the two main characters interact, and how well the Trico responds to your commands. For me this is one of the most subtle achievements, and unless I’ve massively misinterpreted it, it a brilliant piece of design. The Trico initially will do what you want with some heavy prompting and persistent instruction – it’s a wild animal, you wouldn’t expect it to immediately understand and follow guidance from a tiny creature clinging to its back. Sometimes there’ll be no response, sometimes it’ll wander off and do its own thing, very much giving the impression of a distinct and individual personality (reminding me a lot of Yorda from Ico, especially when she got distracted by butterflies). As you keep moving through the ruins and hit certain stages of the game that cement the relationship between the pair, the Trico becomes more responsive and even starts to perform actions and movements before you need to shout them out. That bond between characters extends beyond to the other end of the controller too, and you start to feel a connection with the Trico as well – sometimes it’s frustration when it won’t go the way you need it to, and other times it’s surprise when it demonstrates to you how to solve a particular puzzle. Mostly it’s just a childlike joy at having your own giant feathered companion doing what you tell it to.
Visually, the aesthetic is straight out of the previous titles, and whilst it’s not the most sophisticated graphically (what do you expect from a game that started development on the PS2?), it’s definitely a great looking game. The environments aren’t complex, but are stunning; lighting, shadow and a bleached out world when you’re in sunlight help build atmosphere; and the Trico’s feathers react and respond to movement, wind and your passage over them in a realistic looking way. It’s not a rock solid 30 fps throughout, and the camera is not as tight by current gen standards – you’ll end up looking at a black screen at times when it slips into the Trico’s body – but at no point does it become unplayable, or unenjoyable. The audio is understated with most of the focus being the boy’s shouts of encouragement, or the Trico’s Wookie-like brays, and action is punctuated by music that’s in turn tragic and uplifting depending on how the tide of battle is flowing. The Last Guardian isn’t about showboating bombastic audio and cutting edge particle effects, it’s about telling a story and getting you to buy into it with as little intrusion as possible, and so eschews the need for a HUD outside the odd prompt to let you know what button does what. It’s simple and effective.
Ueda’s vision for the game appears to be intact if the finished article is anything to go by. The Last Guardian delivers on the promise started in 2001 with Ico, followed up in 2005 by Shadow of the Colossus, and in my opinion is one of the most perfectly executed examples of game design in recent years. Yes, we’ve had to wait 10 years and endure much speculation around whether it was cancelled or not, and then there was the concern that it just wouldn’t be any good. The gameplay is there, the world is there, the unique storytelling is there, and the emotional connection is there too. That last one is the most important, it’s what gives these games their personality, the critical acclaim, and their cult status. You might not notice how it’s grabbing you during the play time, but it would take a really cold hearted individual not to have a lump in their throat during the end of the game, and that’s as a minimum – I’m willing to bet there are few dry eyes once the credits have finished rolling. There’s only one way to sum it up… The Last Guardian is superb.
The Last Guardian is a PS4 exclusive and is out now at retail or on PSN.