The Last Guardian

PS4

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper GenDe­sign Pub­lisher Sony In­ter­ac­tive En­ter­tain­ment For­mat PS4 Re­lease Out now

We’ve been wait­ing a long time for this. Not the near-decade that has passed since work on The Last Guardian be­gan, but rather the 15 years that have elapsed since we first sat through Ico’s cred­its, pro­cess­ing what we’d just ex­pe­ri­enced. In all its brave and some­times rick­ety con­struc­tion, The Last Guardian feels ev­ery bit the Ico se­quel we’ve pined for dur­ing that time. And al­though we share the young pro­tag­o­nist’s trep­i­da­tion at set­ting out into the un­known, our fears are al­layed with each step taken deeper into GenDe­sign’s cap­ti­vat­ing world.

For the most part, that re­as­sur­ance is pro­vided by Trico, the crea­ture that serves as your com­pan­ion through­out this third chap­ter of Ueda’s loosely linked tril­ogy. Trico’s un­usual form is made up from a hotch­potch of recog­nis­able gen­era. There’s avian genealogy in its wind-ruf­fled feathers and three-toed talons. A ca­nine in­flu­ence can be glimpsed in the way it scratches it­self with a hind leg, and heard in the mourn­ful howls it lets out when it loses sight of you. There are other an­i­mals in the squat snout and those big, black eyes, but the dom­i­nant char­ac­ter­is­tics are fe­line. It’s there in the way Trico paws at blocked path­ways, rolls its shoul­ders in prepa­ra­tion for a jump as it stares at a pre­car­i­ous des­ti­na­tion, and sneezes while in­tently watch­ing a but­ter­fly flit­ter­ing about an echoey cham­ber. It’s such a jumble that it shouldn’t work, and yet it all co­heres to cre­ate the most nat­u­ral­is­tic crea­ture to ever ex­ist in a videogame. Un­less you’re try­ing re­ally hard, it’s im­pos­si­ble to view this wil­ful, some­times un­wit­tingly an­tag­o­nis­tic crea­ture as the man­i­fes­ta­tion of code. For all its fan­tas­ti­cal el­e­ments, Trico feels real.

Which is what makes build­ing a re­la­tion­ship with the beast so en­gag­ing. On your first en­counter, Trico is in­jured and re­strained – punc­tured with spears, hun­gry, and shack­led by a metal chain. The crea­ture is ag­i­tated, and dan­ger­ous to ap­proach, its pained roar a warn­ing to leave it alone. Re­mov­ing the bro­ken spear­heads is a del­i­cate op­er­a­tion and elic­its howls of pain, a vi­o­lent re­ac­tion, but ul­ti­mately cau­tious grat­i­tude. It’s a ser­vice you pro­vide of­ten through­out the course of your jour­ney, ex­tract­ing pro­jec­tiles af­ter bat­tles with the an­i­mated suits of ar­mour that guard the tow­ers and cham­bers you ex­plore. You must also soothe the beast – a process for which you’re given no in­struc­tion, re­quir­ing trial and er­ror to get right.

Trico also needs to eat in­ter­mit­tently, and is par­tial to a mys­te­ri­ous blue liq­uid that can be found in bar­rels through­out the game. At first you’ll cau­tiously roll the kegs vaguely into the vicin­ity of its mouth, edg­ing them closer if nec­es­sary but keep­ing hands well out of chomp­ing range. Later, you’ll pop them right into its mouth, and toss them into the air for Trico to snaf­fle mid-flight. When you find your­self apol­o­gis­ing out loud as Trico misses a catch and whim­pers as a bar­rel crashes into its nose, you re­alise just how well The Last Guardian’s spell is work­ing. Ev­ery as­pect of the game is fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing your bond with Trico in this way, to the ex­tent that even learn­ing ba­sic con­trols or mas­ter­ing new abil­i­ties never feels like a game me­chanic, but rather a grow­ing un­der­stand­ing be­tween the pair of you as you grad­u­ally learn how to com­mu­ni­cate more ef­fec­tively. This sym­bio­sis is re­quired in or­der to make your way through this world. In some in­stances it will be a sim­ple leg up to higher plat­forms as Trico stretches out and lets you clam­ber up its back. Other times you’ll leap im­prob­a­bly be­tween perches as the crea­ture’s weight splin­ters wood and sends ma­sonry crum­bling into the abyss be­low. Oc­ca­sion­ally you’ll even use Trico’s dan­gling tail to de­scend into other­wise-un­reach­able spots. The Last Guardian reuses Ico’s con­trol scheme al­most but­ton for but­ton, with Tri­an­gle mapped to jump­ing and climb­ing, and X to de­scend from ledges or let go of Trico. Cir­cle is used to in­ter­act with ob­jects, in­clud­ing pet­ting Trico, but also to grab onto the beast’s feathers (though the boy will au­to­mat­i­cally grab Trico even if you don’t tap the but­ton). It’s a su­per­fi­cially in­tu­itive setup that takes some get­ting used to – years of con­di­tion­ing will cause the oc­ca­sional fa­tal fall when you ac­ci­den­tally hit X to climb up the ledge you’re dan­gling from. The ab­sence of a Shadow Of The Colos­sus- style hold-to-grip but­ton ini­tially makes it hard to jump clear of Trico’s body, un­til you re­alise that you need to hold X in or­der to pre­vent the boy grasp­ing at feathers on the way down.

Even when clam­ber­ing around sep­a­rately to Trico, your move­ment can some­times feel gummy, es­pe­cially when it comes to low­er­ing your­self down over a ledge. It’s partly a re­sult of the in­tri­cate hand­drawn an­i­ma­tion, but it’s so char­ac­ter­ful, and so phys­i­cal – yank­ing switches in­volves hold­ing cir­cle, then pulling down on the left stick, the boy heav­ing the heavy mech­a­nism down – that the oc­ca­sions on which he feels un­re­spon­sive come across as cau­tion on his part even when the root of the is­sue lies in PS4 code func­tion­ing in­el­e­gantly.

It also feels kind of ap­pro­pri­ate, given how other as­pects of the game play out. Trico will of­ten ig­nore your re­quests at first, or sim­ply fail to un­der­stand what you’re get­ting at, and while the beast is ca­pa­ble of mov­ing at ter­ri­fy­ing speed when it needs to, it mostly pads along at a mel­low pace. For any­one ex­pect­ing a com­pli­ant AI com­pan­ion in the typ­i­cal videogame mould, it will be mad­den­ing – es­pe­cially when the so­lu­tion to one of the game’s puz­zles re­mains just out of reach. In­stead you have to give in to Ueda’s ex­per­i­ment, and treat ev­ery de­lay, ev­ery fail­ure to

It shouldn’t work, and yet it all co­heres to cre­ate the most nat­u­ral­is­tic crea­ture to ever ex­ist in a videogame

co­erce Trico, as part of a learn­ing process – on your part as well as the crea­ture’s. Read­ing the body lan­guage and ex­pres­sions of your head­strong ally is es­sen­tial to un­der­stand what it is think­ing, cre­at­ing pas­sages of play that have sim­ply never ex­isted in videogames be­fore now. When we think of con­vinc­ing AI com­pan­ions, we con­sider char­ac­ters such as

BioShock In­fi­nite’s El­iz­a­beth, but against The Last Guardian’s achieve­ments even Ir­ra­tional Games’ cre­ation sud­denly feels blankly ro­botic.

The game also suc­ceeds in pre­sent­ing a num­ber of puz­zles the likes of which we haven’t seen in games be­fore. Though their so­lu­tions aren’t par­tic­u­larly com­plex, the me­chan­ics feel fresh, com­bin­ing imag­i­na­tive physics co­nun­drums with the need for Trico to be­have in cer­tain ways. It’s puz­zle de­sign that feels as though it’s been cre­ated in iso­la­tion from ex­ist­ing rules re­gard­ing the in­ter­ac­tion of char­ac­ters and physics-en­abled ob­jects, and it’s all the bet­ter for it.

Just like Ico, The Last Guardian re­con­fig­ures the tra­di­tional rhythm and stakes of com­bat, too, but here that first game’s for­mula is in­verted. Whereas in Ico shad­owy spec­tres would try to drag Yorda into a dark por­tal un­less you smacked them with a plank, here it is you who is in con­tin­ual dan­ger. The creepy an­i­matedar­mour en­e­mies move slowly enough, but fling runes that grad­u­ally cloud your vi­sion and slow your move­ment. You can shake th­ese off by hit­ting any of the con­troller’s face or shoul­der but­tons, but if an en­emy grabs you, you’re slung over their shoul­der and walked slowly to­wards the bright white obliv­ion of their por­tals. Mash­ing but­tons al­lows you to even­tu­ally wrig­gle free, and you can wrong­foot en­e­mies by barg­ing Though the cam­era can feel un­wieldy at times, and its keen­ness to track back to Trico’s po­si­tion when­ever idle proves a lit­tle com­bat­ive, crank­ing its speed up to al­most max­i­mum re­moves a good amount of frus­tra­tion into them, but you need to knock them off the edges of plat­forms in or­der to re­move them per­ma­nently. More ef­fec­tively, you can rely on Trico to dis­patch them, smash­ing them to pieces with its clawed feet, some­times en­tire groups at a time. GenDe­sign mines sur­pris­ing va­ri­ety from this sim­ple setup, and Trico isn’t al­ways avail­able to of­fer as­sis­tance. The sense of re­lief is con­sid­er­able when, just when you think no help is com­ing, your feath­ered cavalry in­ter­venes pow­er­fully.

While Trico can shake off spears and swords, the crea­ture ex­hibits a crip­pling fear of the stained-glass sym­bols shown in 2016’s E3 trailer. It’s dur­ing th­ese mo­ments of en­forced sep­a­ra­tion that some of the most fret­ful, ex­hil­a­rat­ing plat­form­ing sec­tions take place as you walk across high wires and push heavy mech­a­nisms over huge drops to clear the beast’s path. As well as Ico in­flu­ences, there’s also a hint of Prince Of Per­sia: The Sands Of Time here, in the scale and the stonework, and a tin­gling mag­i­cal vibe through­out.

It’s dif­fi­cult at first to ig­nore is­sues with fram­er­ate (see ‘Cat nap’) and oc­ca­sion­ally sticky con­trols, not to men­tion a cam­era that can strug­gle in less-spa­cious rooms and pas­sage­ways. But it’s not hard to stom­ach them in the con­text of some­thing so gen­er­ous with ideas and en­vi­ron­ments, a game so full of heart and with a char­ac­ter that is un­like any­thing we’ve ever seen be­fore. The Last Guardian doesn’t just live up to its fore­bears’ legacy, it goes fur­ther. De­spite the call­backs to Fu­mito Ueda’s pre­vi­ous works, it is a unique cre­ation. Out­side of in­die ex­per­i­ments, we don’t get to say that about mod­ern videogames of­ten enough.

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