Waking up in a dark cave and covered in mysterious tattoos, we begin The Last Guardian with a degree of uncertainty. Fitting, given the game’s nine plus year development cycle that we as gamers have that exact same mentality when we start off. Where we are, how did we get there and will this adventure live up to its expectations are questions we rummage through our minds at the outset of Fumito Ueda’s latest foray into the video game world that joins ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. With its themes of light and dark, loss and hope and companionship, the next 10+ hours I spent with The Last Guardian made me proud to say that the answers to the prior questions do get answered and then some.
Alongside you when you begin this journey is the giant part dog, part bird beast named Trico. Easily the biggest highlight of the game, Trico is an achievement in video game animation, AI and creature design. In the beginning he is just as unsure of you as you are of it, and is content to snarl and swipe at you as you try to give it compassion and help it to its feet. You pull spears out of its body to have its strength return to it and then find glowing barrels that can feed it and increase his power and responsiveness. You free it from its shackles and eventually it realizes you are here to help as you will need it and it will need you. That entire scenario is literally the opening of the game and cements the adventure the duo will go on. Together you and Trico solve environmental puzzles to traverse a crumbling city in the middle of a large valley. Shattered bridges, haunted suits of armor that come to life and even some strange foreign iconography litter the caverns and walls of the place. It is a sight to behold and often leaves you breathless.
Being a puzzle platformer at heart, most of the tricks to figuring out how to progress rely on the size disparity of the little boy you play as and Trico. As the boy you can fit through small holes, pull switches and boxes and climb on small ledges. Trico can jump great distances and is also your only means of offense against the stone armor soldiers that sometimes come after you. Trico is also a mobile platform itself as you can climb its feathers and utilize its size to reach high up ledges or traverse chasms. Often you will leave Trico behind to figure out how to get it to you usually via a switch and gate puzzle. For the most part the puzzles aren’t exactly difficult but that is not the point. Their existence is chiefly to showcase the growing bond between the beast and the boy, and that bond becomes more useful later on when you are given the opportunity to issue it commands. Holding R1 and pressing a corresponding face button will let Trico know you want it to jump, climb or come down and it being a marvel of AI, it will determine with its own intelligence whether or not it can make the jump or if it’s safe to progress. It will occasionally sniff and paw at things of interest and in most of the puzzles if you leave it alone enough, it will jump between the areas you need to go, indicating you should climb on it to go forward. I loved that it is treated as an actual living breathing entity rather than a mechanic that was simply placed in. The decision to have Trico be independent of the game’s core lends a lot to you feeling for both the boy and beast. The team could have easily just given you a “Trico Button,” but instead wisely chose that you must understand the creature and it in turn will understand you.
I could write essays on the marvelous scale and brilliance of Trico itself as it is amazing to spend time with it. From the subtle changes in its eye color to let you know whether its angry or hungry, to changes in body language when danger is around the corner are all things easily missed, but if any of us have been or are pet owners, these expressions tell most of the story. There are even times Trico sneezes or even does its business (took me a few play-throughs to get that Trophy!) and some funny moments when you throw a barrel at it in the hopes that it will catch it in its mouth, only for the barrel to hit it in the face and then hear it whimper in response. There is even a button dedicated to just petting the beast, a necessary mechanic especially after it battles the armored enemies and needs to be calmed down, but even one just fit to be done randomly as it nuzzles and yawns in response and occasionally will just lie down and yawn and stretch in relaxation until you stop.
I could perhaps stop there on the incredible design and aesthetic that went into Trico alone but doing so would be a disservice to the overall game. It is simply extraordinary watching this creature move in-game, evoking a sense of fear, wonder and respect all at the same time. The times my heart was in my throat as Trico lept over wide chasms in what appeared to be seemingly impossible jumps, or when I was shaking with nervousness as a small army of soldiers came out and nearly captured me, only to have Trico barge in and save me and swipe and crush them beneath its mighty power. It is a marvelous aspect of design and combined with the beautiful fields of grass and sprawling architecture and mysterious caves it was enough to have me forgive the game for its minor technical issues.
Surprisingly, there are a few instances where it appears the PlayStation 4 just cannot handle The Last Guardian. Some outdoor sections feature bridges that break and stone structures that crumble and in trying to juggle both the falling architecture and the creature’s physics and rendering it all so that it makes sense to the gamer while also trying to position the camera so that you can view it all clearly lead to some noticeable framerate dips and slowdown. Combine that with an already weighty control scheme, it makes the game feel outright sluggish during these sections which can evoke some frustration. That feeling comes two-fold in that the game would be a damn near perfect masterpiece if this problem didn’t exist, and secondly, in what has been known to be a nine-year development cycle between two console generations this wasn’t nailed down prior to launch.
Despite all that, I am extremely proud that the game released and highly recommend it to all. I haven’t even mentioned the game’s narrative and even stayed away from revealing some small mechanical changes that happen in the game. These are best kept secret and for you to discover when you play, but do go into the game knowing full well there is a grand story here complete with surprises. Keen-eyed fans of Ueda-sans work will definitely notice some connections across the other games he has worked on and will probably go on for a lifetime coming up with fan theories and the like. The Last Guardian is an incredibly emotional and compelling adventure, an achievement in the ongoing debate on whether or not video games are art and is one of the grandest experiences I have played through this generation.