After nearly a decade of delays, disappointment and doubts, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Japan Studio defy all lowered expectations and finally deliver the spiritual successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. In a move that can only be described as miraculous, THE LAST GUARDIAN manages to deftly avoid the mediocrity that so often befalls long-delayed games, and proves itself to be as heart wrenching and uplifting as it’s predecessors, albeit while inheriting their performance issues in kind.
The game opens in a dark cave. There is moss on the walls and a large, dry well in the centre with a thick spool of chain snaking out of it. Around the well are two creatures. One, a young boy covered in mysterious tattoos. The player is handed control of him as he stirs, dazed and sluggish into consciousness. He looks up and finds himself face to face with the other creature in the cave. Part dog, part bird, with a little bit of cat thrown in for good measure, Trico is first introduced as a whining, wounded behemoth that snarls and screeches at the boy when he tries to come near. However, after pulling a few spears from the beast’s back, loosening the chains around his neck and feeding him a couple of glowing barrels (his favourite food for reasons that are never really explored), Trico warms to the boy, and the two set off on an epic adventure to return to their respective homes.
Coming from the minds of Fumito Ueda and Team Ico, it’s no surprise that the story of THE LAST GUARDIAN revolves heavily around the symbiotic bond between Trico and the boy, with the majority of gameplay revolving around one of the pair being in trouble, and the other needing to come to the rescue. The most common threat comes in the forms of enchanted suits of armour, animated by some unknown power, that shamble after the boy, seeking to drag him to conveniently placed glowing doors that cause a game over. If captured by these guardians, the player must button mash as quickly as possible to wriggle free. While the boy is being held, the screen is plagued by dozens of symbols – presumably the written version of the pseudo-language used in the game world – that disappear one by one with each button pressed. While a simple inclusion, this feature lends a feeling of “by the skin of your teeth” success when the boy wriggles free on the precipice of the glowing doorway, making the escape feel that much greater.
The majority of gameplay revolves around one of the pair being in trouble, and the other needing to come to the rescue.
While it’s exhilarating to see Trico going toe-to-toe with these stone soldiers in your defence, swiping his taloned paws left and right, scattering the suits like so many bowling pins, the true depths that this story reaches are never more prevalent than in the moments when the great beast needs to be rescued by you. Used sparsely enough to ensure that each occurrence carries maximum weight, these set pieces are fuelled by an intense desperation to prevent any further harm from befalling your feathered friend. There is no countdown timer telling you how long he can suffer before he just gives out, and it’s not needed. In most cases, it is necessary to solve a puzzle in order to rescue Trico, and the combination of seeing him whimper in pain and the tense orchestral score lend a sense of urgency that never needs to be clarified.
Without a properly developed character arc and precise, believable AI, the threat of Trico being in peril simply wouldn’t be strong enough to carry the game, therefore it is all the more impressive that Team Ico managed to configure such a lifelike character while developing this game across two seperate platforms (first for PS3, then PS4 due to the delays). Trico moves and behaves with mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that are typical of of the handful of creatures he is an amalgam of; be it the rustling of his feathers when he is feeling confrontational, or the way he uses his nose to push his food around before gobbling it down. This Frankenstein-like mishmash of popular pets feels so believably alive, that when his life is in danger, you damn sure want to save him.
Unfortunately, Trico’s similarity to real world pets isn’t always a positive inclusion. When the two of you aren’t back to back fending off a myriad of meanies, gameplay consists of a simple “get both of you from here to there” type system. It’s simplicity doesn’t by any means denote laziness, as the puzzles are mostly a delight to navigate and offer some great interactions between boy and beast, but there are more than a few occasions in which Trico simply refuses to acknowledge what you want him to do. Not going so far as to give the player direct control over Trico – a wise decision that helps make him feel more like an independent creature – Team Ico opted instead for a command system, not unlike those found in squad based games.
With the right combination of buttons, the player can, theoretically, command Trico to run in a certain direction, jump for a far away ledge, and even swipe at bad guys. In practise, however, Trico will often disregard an order, run in the wrong direction or just sit and stare at you like you’re asking him to explain the meaning of life. Whether this is an intentional inclusion intending to expand the lifelike nature of Trico, or merely a design flaw that was never worked out, having to spend upwards of twenty minutes trying to make your AI counterpart participate in the puzzle that you’ve already figured the solution to is a major mood killer and really breaks the otherwise immersive experience.
Having to spend upwards of twenty minutes trying to make your AI counterpart participate in puzzles is a major mood killer.
Trico isn’t the only issue that plagues THE LAST GUARDIAN. Issues that were present in previous entries from Team Ico return to remind us that the heritage of this game isn’t just deeply moving stories and beautiful sweeping landscapes. Camera angles can often become problematic, especially when confined to a tight corner, and the screen is prone to going black for a few seconds while it sorts itself out. In certain scenes, the boy will be required to do some solo platforming, usually to open the path for Trico to proceed.. However, when jumping to a ledge or a dangling chain, if the analogue stick isn’t pushed in precisely the right direction, then chances are the boy will leap to his death, or at the very least give himself a nasty concussion. Which leads to the last, and smallest, of the issues. Over the course of a twelve hour story, a scene begins with the boy waking from being knocked unconscious no less than five times. Granted it is difficult to manage a scene change in a game with so little narrative, but spread throughout an otherwise elegantly told story, these occurrences feel sloppy and underdeveloped.
Despite a few minor stumbles, THE LAST GUARDIAN carries the key components that made it’s predecessors such beloved classics within it’s DNA: beautifully bleak landscapes, a haunting, melancholic score, and a rich, heartfelt story, all building up to a satisfying, bittersweet ending that will stay with you longer than any of the technical issues ever could. It took nearly ten years for Team Ico to bring their third outing to shelves, but the final product proves that each delay was worth it, leading to what could be their best work yet.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles