Sony’s The Last Guardian had some very high expectations to live up to, being the spiritual successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both cult classics in their own right. A ten-year development cycle didn’t help matters any. Using a similar minimalist design approach as its predecessors and focused on creating a meaningful relationship between the unnamed player character and a giant cat-bird-rodent hybrid, The Last Guardian is intended to provide a unique experience for all gamers, while offering returning players an immediate sense of familiarity. The PlayStation 4 exclusive isn’t entirely without its hiccups, but it succeeds spectacularly in most areas and turns out to have been well worth the wait.
Seeing how fans of Shadow of the Colossus related to the bond between silent protagonist Wander and his horse Agro, The Last Guardian’s designer and director Fumito Ueda set out to create a game that revolves around the emotional attachment between the player character and a digital companion. The result is essentially just that: a vehicle to build a sense of connection and make players really care about their on-screen ally. To that end, and in keeping with the style of the previous two games, the narrative is fairly limited and unobtrusive. It’s not a mystery, a thriller, or a comedy; it’s a game about a bond of friendship, pure and simple.
The adventure opens as the nameless player-controlled boy awakens in a cave, his skin covered with mysterious tattoos. There’s no explanation of who he is or how he got there; not until much later anyway. The game is actually a flashback, with occasional narration by the boy, now grown into a man. There’s little time to wonder about the backstory, though, as an immense, slumbering creature chained up right next to the boy is immediately revealed. Described as a man-eating beast by the narrator, the creature named Trico is wounded, with spear-ends still implanted in his leg and shoulder, and behaving aggressively and hostile like any cornered animal would.
The initial thirty minutes or so serve to teach you how to control the boy and interact with Trico. More importantly, they allow a relationship to form right away. The first several actions that need to be performed include feeding Trico and tending to his wounds, before freeing him from his chains. This builds up trust between the two, and made me feel like I was bonding with the monstrous-yet-cuddly behemoth. As the game progresses, the two become an inseparable pair, and Trico will cry out loud in distress if you move too far away from him. There’s a real sense of boy and beast needing each other, and not just for the platforming’s sake. I would often turn the camera after passing an obstacle to make absolutely sure Trico was getting past it safely, too. The pair help each other overcome environmental obstacles and rely on each other to survive, though sometimes the way past an impediment is to simply clamber onto Trico’s back and let him carry you.
The Last Guardian often defies genre classifications. Some platforming is required, as navigating the environments is what’s normally needed to progress. This includes jumping, running, crawling, balancing, and climbing, as well as some light combat. This is easily my least favorite aspect of gameplay: the boy is small, weak, and for the most part unarmed, and is a poor match for the stone statue soldiers that come to life to harangue him and Trico throughout the game. Luckily, Trico is the proverbial muscle, and does the lion’s share of fighting, with the exception of a few annoying sections when the boy has gone off on his own and it becomes easier to simply dodge around the enemies rather than engage them. Puzzle-solving also factors in, generally involving figuring out how to open a gate, getting to a switch, or clearing a path to move on. Considering the two very differently-sized protagonists, multiple routes must sometimes be found to let each of them continue.
There are numerous instances when this combination of platforming/puzzle-solving is done under pressure, if one or both of the companions find themselves in immediate peril. As the game moves along, both Trico and the boy discover new ways to deal with obstacles: early on, you will find that Trico is able to shoot lightning from his tail to destroy certain obstacles when ordered to do so, while the boy can ride on Trico to cross great chasms and even give Trico commands after they’ve developed a high enough level of trust. What remains first and foremost at all times, though, is the shared experience between the two, making this a sort of narrative-based game without much actual spoken narrative.
Platforming in a three-dimensional space, as slow-paced as it often is in this game, has always come with its own unique challenges, primarily focused around wonky camera controls. The Last Guardian is not immune to this fault, and some tight, enclosed spaces, combined with Trico’s considerable bulk, often make camera control a pesky nuisance to deal with. It’s not an insurmountable challenge, but angling the view correctly to find the path ahead or stick a tricky jump requires a finessed camera manipulation that shouldn’t exist after such an extended development cycle. Luckily, Trico is smart enough to be able to act on his own, so micro-managing his behavior and movements is rarely an added challenge.
Clambering onto Trico’s back and being taken along for a ride is an exhilarating feeling. For most of the game this option is available, and it usually beats running around; in fact, sometimes it’s the only way to get where you need to go. It’s more than a mere convenience, however: grabbing onto Trico’s fur or tail is sometimes the only thing saving the boy from falling to his death, and climbing around on him is the only way to remove any spears that have lanced him during battle. But the controls for these interactions, and to a lesser degree for The Last Guardian in general, are in need of heavy tweaking. Trico is always in motion, which makes it hard to effectively move around on him, especially in the heat of battle. The game’s stripped-down design approach means the boy catches onto things automatically if they’re within reach, but this means disentangling him from Trico can be unnecessarily difficult. I didn’t find the controls as prohibitive during actual platforming – and the respawning system upon death is very forgiving when they do interfere – but to call them tight would be an overstatement.Continued on the next page...