I’m still finding it somewhat surreal that I now live in a world where I have played and completed The Last Guardian. During the seven or so years it took this game to see the light of day, the title had almost taken on a mythical quality; what we saw during those development years felt like trailers for a game that had become lost in time and the perpetual generational shifts of console hardware. In a lot of ways, The Last Guardian had become lost in time: development started in 2007; it was unveiled in 2009; it then disappeared for so long people thought it’d been quietly canned; and then finally it was re-announced for the PlayStation 4. Development was so slow and difficult that The Last Guardian literally missed an entire console generation.
Team ICO created two masterpieces for the PlayStation 2: the almost self-titled ICO and the cult hit Shadow of the Colossus. During the arduous development of The Last Guardian, Team ICO suffered internal problems. Creative director Fumito Ueda ended up leaving, but later returned on a consultative basis to assist Japan Studio in finishing up the game. He resumed under a new studio label, genDESIGN. Much of Team ICO made the move with him, so despite the tumultuous development and lack of Team ICO on the box of The Last Guardian, it’s essentially the same team, just bolstered by SIE Japan Studio. That means the DNA of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus is still everywhere to be seen in The Last Guardian, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to be able to write.
Naturally the question everyone wants answered is: “was the seven-year-long wait worth it?” Yes, it was worth it. For fans of Team ICO’s work on the PlayStation 2, playing The Last Guardian will evoke all those emotions you felt while exploring ICO’s enormous castle, or galloping among the giants of Shadow of the Colossus. In a lot of ways, The Last Guardian FEELS like you’re playing a game from ten years ago. To some that’ll be all they need to hear to be fully on board, and to others it’ll be a turn-off.
In The Last Guardian you take on the role of a young boy who wakes up in an unfamiliar place alongside an enormous creature known as the Trico. The creature is initially quite fearsome and dangerous, but it isn’t long before the boy and the Trico form a bond. They’re both in the same position: they’re both lost in the ruins of this enormous castle, and both want to escape.
Just like in Team ICO’s previous games you’re given no narrative context, but the further you progress the clearer things start to become. I found that the longer I played the game, the more enthralled I became by the minimalist, focused narrative. To discuss it any further would ruin one of the driving forces that propels gameplay, but suffice it to say that the game’s ending satisfies. You are, however, left with enough questions to ensure that the world and characters of The Last Guardian retain their mythical qualities, and I absolutely loved that about the whole experience.
Navigating your way through the ruins of the castle can be both rewarding and a little frustrating. The biggest issues The Last Guardian has are its controls and its camera. As I previously mentioned, it very often feels like you’re playing a game that should have been out nearly ten years ago, and a lot of the time that is because of the camera. To a large extent, camera issues are rare to find in contemporary action adventure games, so being presented with an unreliable camera in The Last Guardian is a little jarring. That being said, the camera controls and the floaty character animation are instantly reminiscent of ICO, but more readily Shadow of the Colossus. Personally, while I found the camera and controls occasionally irritating, I found them more often creating a legacy feel to The Last Guardian, and as a fan of Team ICO’s previous work, I really appreciated that. Still, many people are going to be put off by the camera and controls, especially considering most of gameplay is navigation-based puzzles and platforming sequences. For someone coming into The Last Guardian without any experience with Team ICO’s older work, the game is going to feel dated and clunky insofar as technical control is concerned. I would still recommend it to anyone however, as the uniqueness of the overall experience of The Last Guardian easily overshadows its biggest technical issues.
There is a lot of climbing and figuring out the right paths to take to progress. Fortunately, the player’s character is very sure-footed, so don’t think that the platforming sequences rely on precise timing and pin-point accurate landings. In fact, the climbing and platforming parts are some of my favourite sections in the game, and there are enormous set-pieces with bum-clenching climbing runs that made me dizzy with vertigo. Things get even more interesting when you’re clinging to the back of the Trico while he (she? It?) makes enormous leaps from precarious perch to precarious perch. It makes for some thrilling navigational gameplay that is unique to the whole experience.
Occasionally progress is blocked by some puzzle elements. One puzzle type sees you needing to find barrels of food before the Trico will continue the journey. Finding the barrels is easy enough, but then getting them back to the Trico is where the puzzle part comes in.
About a third of the way into the game you can start giving the Trico movement orders, and there are a couple of traversal puzzles that rely on getting the Trico to move to the correct spot, or to lift you up to a specific ledge. This is where the aforementioned control issues return, because there’s no indication that what you’re trying to get the Trico to do is necessarily the correct thing in order to progress. Furthermore, there’s no feedback given that the Trico has understood your order, so you’re never sure if you’re on the right track. I did find myself getting a little frustrated by this on one or two occasions, but more often than not my progress wasn’t being hampered by perceived finicky controls, but rather by me not having realised what the solution to a puzzle was. There were numerous lightbulb moments in this game, which made overcoming the occasional frustrations even more rewarding.
Central to the entire game is the Trico and its relationship with the boy. It is easy to see that most of development creativity was ploughed into making this creature as believable as possible. The Trico is an amazing thing to behold, not only because of its size, but also because of its character and how it engages with the game world and the player. There are moments of such staggering believability that I almost felt as if I could look out of my window and spot a Trico in the real world.
Interestingly, The Last Guardian has no GUI or HUD, so you’re playing in a completely clean window with nothing overlaid aside from occasional narrator text (which, incidentally, provides you with hints if you’ve been stuck in an area for too long; very clever). In order for you to get information on the game, the game world and the Trico give you player feedback of sorts. Instead of a map of your environment, tiny blue tiles will highlight the path you need to take in areas where it might not be that obvious. Similarly, the Trico will very often stare in the direction you need to go, or will paw at a chain that you need to climb. The minimalist signposting, and a screen that’s devoid of a HUD tie together with the uncluttered plot to create an experience that’s wholly focused on the two central characters of the boy and his Trico. It works so well.
I can remember the exact moment when I fell hopelessly in love with The Last Guardian: the Trico and I had just made it through a particularly harrowing gameplay sequence, and found ourselves perched high up on a crumbling viaduct of sorts. Our vantage point offered a momentary respite, and together we took in the expanse of the environment that unfolded before us. Below us soft clouds swirled, and great towers jutted out in hard and foreboding shapes. The wind had picked up and was beginning to drown out the perpetual calls from the birds that wheeled in flocks around the buildings that made even the enormous Trico seem diminutive. The Trico’s feathers were ruffling gently, and we just stood there together and took it all in. It was at that point when I realised that the game had completely immersed me in its world, and that I had wholly bought in to the relationship between this boy and the Trico. In that moment, I was the boy. I love it when games are so carefully and intricately designed that they have the ability to dissolve the inherent disconnect between player and avatar. And when a game gets that right, I know the experience will be with me for the rest of my life. The experience of The Last Guardian will stay with me for the rest of my life in spite of the technical hiccups. This is the game that fans of Team ICO’s work were hoping for; it is ICO and Shadow of the Colossus rolled into one, and I’m thrilled to say that I unreservedly loved my time with it.