If having to live up to 10 years of development time wasn’t enough, The Last Guardian also has to follow in the footsteps of the superlative ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. Thankfully it does so, and it does it with confidence and ambition.
The game’s design revolves entirely around the relationship between boy and beast.
Of its two predecessors The Last Guardian is closer in tone and mechanics to ICO. In ICO you led Yorda around by the hand, fending off shadows as you both tried to escape the castle. The Last Guardian is inversion, as the boy must rely on Trico for guidance and protection. It forces you by necessity into a more passive and supportive role.
In the few sequences where you have to fend of suits of animated armour you have to rely on Trico to take them out, while you finish off the occasional survivor, or knock Trico-repelling wards out of the hands of enemies. The game’s design revolves entirely around the relationship between boy and beast, forged in their mutual struggle to escape “The Nest”, a mysterious valley filled with ruins and ancient mechanisms.
The Nest is a beautiful creation. Tightly designed, you’ll spend the game weaving between its many structures. Space never feels cheated, and in the various outdoor sections of the game you can map where you are from the landmarks, mostly the dizzying towers and precarious walkways. It doesn’t just feel like a space for the game to take place in, but a real, though quite bizarre location.
The Nest is a beautiful creation.
Each structure seems to have a purpose, giving hints at The Nest’s mysterious backstory. The amount of detail that’s gone into designing not just the world but the journey through it is unrivalled. When you take shortcuts around ruined pathways, often the other ends of the ruined pathway still exist, ladders you don’t have to use, broken steps.
You can’t break an animal down into a binary list of commands.
It’s likely a large portion of the game’s development time was spent solely on Trico, a stunning combination of unique AI and animation work. You can tell that Fumito Ueda, the auteur behind the series, has a background in animation himself. The way Trico interacts with the player and the environment is beyond that of a simple computer co-op partner. Trico explores and wanders the environment in a way that mimics a real animal, for better or worse.
Exactly how Trico works will probably be the topic of much debate for players far into the future. At times AI and belief blend together. Some players will swear blind removing spears from Trico and making sure to care for the wounds makes Trico follow your commands more closely, others say it has little effect. The different relationship players will build on their own with Trico is more magical than being spoonfed one. Sometimes Trico won’t immediately follow a command, will take a little while to build up the courage to take a leap to another structure, will look at you after a command, unsure — but pat Trico’s head and they’ll do it. If that’s how it actually works? You can’t break an animal down into a binary list of commands.
Some will struggle with Trico’s AI. It will always feel frustrating if the game seems to be actively going against the player. For the most part you simply need to point Trico in the right direction. Constantly repeat a command and Trico will get confused. The game doesn’t do itself many favours in explaining to you how to best interact with Trico, either (though somehow it manages to constantly have annoying command prompts). A short way into the game you’ll be told to command Trico using the face buttons and pointing, but you’ll barely need to ever use these.
You can progress the entire game mostly just by pointing, gently nudging Trico in a specific direction. The Triangle command to jump also seemed handy, but most of the time Trico would know to jump when prompted in the right direction. Impatient players will find themselves becoming their own worst enemy as they delay their own progression more and more. While it is finnicky at times, Trico’s AI is something of a marvel. Less forgivable though is the camera that sometimes self-destructs, and the weird way the boy magnetises to Trico while trying to climb up them. These are annoyances, but don’t really get in the way of the game when it counts, the same with any frame rate dips.
At times the blend of puzzles and platforming is reminiscent of, bizarrely enough, Uncharted.
Most of the game’s puzzles focus on the interplay between the boy and Trico. It’s a co-op game seen from one side. Trico is in effect a moving platform, and a big one at that. You’ll need to convince them to pull chains to raise gates, for instance, or figure out how to get them through a small space. At other times you’ll be split. Some of the most enjoyable sequences see the boy removing stained glass wards that terrify Trico. At times the blend of puzzles and platforming is reminiscent of, bizarrely enough, Uncharted.
The Last Guardian is an uncompromising vision.
During Team Ico’s 10 year absence games like ICO have inspired a tonne of indie games, from the likes of Journey, even to things like Limbo. But The Last Guardian proves that it’s still worth doing as a huge, bigger budget title. The Last Guardian doesn’t just parrot what made its predecessors successful, but pushes game design forward yet again.
The length of the game is just as long as it needs to be, and the difficulty of the puzzles the same. Just as you begin to get to grips with the game’s rhythm it’ll change, adding something new to keep you going. Clues for most puzzles can be found just by observing Trico and the way they’ll interact with the environment. Further help can be sought by making the boy sit down by pushing in the analogue stick, where the narrator (the boy many years in the future) will give you a hint.
A gorgeous experience from beginning to end.
The Last Guardian is a gorgeous experience from beginning to end. The Last Guardian is an uncompromising vision, one that not only stands up next to ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, but stands tall, building not only on lessons learned developing those games, but bold new innovations and inspirations from impressive games. While it does sometimes suffer from technical issues, The Last Guardian is an incredible achievement. It’s every bit worthy of its pedigree, and is a journey that’ll stay with you long after you put the controller down.