Written by Derrick Smith
At long last the development of The Last Guardian is complete and the game is available to be played and enjoyed. Interestingly, because the game has been in development for so long I have heard the question asked, was it worth the wait? To be honest, I don’t believe there will ever be a game worth almost a decade of development due to today’s rapidly changing landscape of impressive new titles, as innovations wait for no one. However, in the case of The Last Guardian, instead of aiming to break new ground from a technological position, the brilliance of visionary Fumito Ueda and SIE Japan Studios lands firmly on its feet with an expressive experience as the most unique title of 2016.
Similar to its predecessors, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian combines action-adventure and puzzle elements alongside an emotionally charged affair. Players take on the role of a vulnerable and nameless little boy who must embark on an impossible journey of escape, alongside the AI-controlled hybrid beast known as Trico. Together the boy and Trico solve elaborate puzzles while exploring the beautifully depicted new environments. With the ability to climb certain structures and ledges, as well as carry objects such as barrels, and operate mechanisms such as levers, in addition to weilding a magical mirror with explosive resolve, the core gameplay operates around the boy’s interaction with Trico.
As a hybrid form of animal, Trico’s appearance resembles a variety of animals. Trico’s large size and agility allows it to reach heights and distances otherwise impossible for the boy. For most of the epic journey the boy will climb and ride Trico. While the player initially has little command over Trico, who acts on its own accord, eventually a bridge of communication is established, allowing the boy to issue Trico commands such as leaping up on ledges or heading in a certain direction.
One of the most particular experiences within the effort of commanding Trico to follow your commands is found in how players are consistently reminded of how Trico is also an independent thinker, and not a robot. Unlike most games where the human protagonist has complete autonomy over the animal under their control, this is not the case with The Last Guardian. Based on the emotional weight which the foundation of the game is founded, sometimes players are forced to take in the sights and sounds of games gorgeous palette, while trying to figure out how to get Trico to follow your commands. This might cause some to get frustrated, yet for myself I was quickly able to find this awkward dynamic a seemingly purposeful development angle as it added more depth to the ever maturing relationship between the boy and Trico. While Trico would eventually follow your commands there were times where Trico was completely incapable of assisting you forward unless given fuel to push forward.
Always willing and able to eat a barrel or two, or three, Trico received energy from a certain essence within the barrels, with which once discovered added to the games wonderful narrative.
Progression through the game will often rely on the brain-teasing cooperation between the boy and Trico to reach areas, as well as fight off guards who will attempt to capture the boy.
Conversely, certain obstacles, such as gates or glass eyes that divert Trico’s gaze, will prevent the beast from progressing, which then requires the boy to traverse the environment and solve puzzles in order to move on. Certain actions may also be required on the boy’s part to get Trico’s cooperation depending on its mood, indicated by his eye color. For example, the boy will need to locate barrels to feed Trico with when he’s hungry, pet him to calm him down following a battle, and remove spears that get thrown at him by enemies. Although players are encouraged to train Trico to move in the right direction, new areas can be discovered from letting Trico wander around naturally.
At various points in the game and as mentioned earlier the boy is able to wield a light-reflecting mirror that causes Trico’s tail to shoot lightning, which can be used to break wooden objects and destroy enemies. The player will be sent to the last checkpoint if the boy is captured by guards and dragged through a blue door or falls from too great a height. For your pleasure additional costumes based on previous games by the developer can be unlocked through multiple playthroughs, but this is something we have yet to experience.
If there was a problem with The Last Guardian it would be supported by the games sometimes frustrating camera angles. This was due to the scale and size of Trico in comparison to the games many environment. It was tricky to gain camera vantage points while climbing Trico as the boy. There were time where the boy was lost in between Trico and a massive wall, so in order to find the boy I had to literally imagine where the boy could be on Trico and hopefully maneuver him into view. I was actually very good at doing this when needed. Hopefully you will to.
During certain points within the campaign more of the games purpose and reasoning are discovered from the boys flashback’s, who is in fact the games voice narrator from time to time. The initial flashback reveals the boy who is kidnapped under mysterious circumstances and taken to a large expansive castle. After waking the boy finds that his body has been body covered with detailed tattoos and laying next to a larger than life beast who is chained and injured from spear attacks.
As the boy and Trico progress through their journey, they come to learn that the castle holds a malevolent force that is able to brainwash living creatures like Trico and that controls the castle guards. Both battered and bruised, eventually you both discover that there are other creatures similar to Trico, but they are all under the force’s control and whenever the other creatures attack the boy, Trico rushes in to aid the boy at all cost. The Last Guardian forces both the boy and Trico to push themselves to incredible lengths in order to be freed of the endless castle, which begins to feel like a endless prison. Working together you can’t help but fall in love with Trico and it you. Communicative sounds made by Trico when you are in danger seem like the concerns of a nurturing parent who willing to risk their life for the safety of their child. Yet, there is also this sense that the boy and Trico are the best of friends looking out for the welfare of each other.
Epic moments of life and death might have you holding your breath when the brave and fearless little boy takes several impossible leaps of faith, only to be rescued at the last moment by the tail of Trico. For the majority of this thought-provoking ride I was compelled by the games bold presentation and attractive visuals, which invited the players attention to always be centered around the boy and Trico. Even the more drab and hollow environments, while fun to look at, as the vibrant sun rays pierced their openings, the weighted gravity of the games two star always took center stage. The tighter the bold grew with the boy and Trico the more you never wanted them to be apart. Not to sound too corny, however I found myself calling for Trico more frequent whenever I went off looking for ways of helping my partner and I unlock the hidden lever or figure our way from each increasingly challenging puzzle. Ultimately, both the boy and Trico were incomplete without each other and it is truly amazing witnessing this heart felt affair.
The boy, although less detailed than his creature counterpart, is animated with similar fluidity through key frame animation. The boy will naturally place a hand on a nearby wall if close, and will reach out to pet the creature without any player interaction adding to the organic process of the relationship. These animations, mimicking what real-life people would do, seemed most necessary in helping players to believe the game world to be almost real.
The Last Guardians art and architect approach follows closely to the influence used in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Having experienced both acclaimed games, you can sometimes feel as though you have been in this world before, however The Last Guardian distinctly separates itself for the better and that says much about this experience. The Last Guardians soundtrack is an emotionally charged compliment to overall experience. As much as I wanted to progress through until the end in order to free the boy and Trico from this malevolent castle, in my heart I truly did not want the journey to end.
I enjoyed The Last Guardian immensely. As I mentioned before, no game should ever be valued on its lengthy development cycle, yet it seems to be the natural compulsion. Thankfully The Last Guardian has moved my emotional compass like no other game before it in several years. The camera will be a problem for some, yet the full dose of the ride far outweighed this shortcoming.
While my heart ached at what would be the inevitable end of this journey, I was delighted to discover the games promising conclusion. The Last Guardian is an epic journey of just how far the video game industry has come, in bringing the interactive world to life with expression and emotions.