The Last Guardian
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.