An extraordinary tale of trust and companionship
History lessons are rarely the best place to start, but it is important to understand the genesis of The Last Guardian, an extraordinary video game a decade in the making. Fumito Ueda’s adventure about a boy and his beast has been oft-delayed and rarely glimpsed, its creator curiously shuffling roles mid-development. At times it seemed to vanish entirely, giving the impression that this follow-up to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus was, like its gryphon-esque cover star, nothing but a myth.
The backstory is important because, now it is here after shifting platforms to PS4, The Last Guardian inevitably bears the scars of a lengthy development. Its frame-rate can chug, some textures can be flat and you will find yourself wrestling with an insubordinate camera more often than you would like.
These technical indiscretions are initially unmissable, yet eventually dissipate, drowned out by The Last Guardian’s heart and ambition. This is a singular game about trust and companionship, an almost wordless symphony of bonding as you, as a young boy, form an extraordinary relationship with a great beast the size of a building. While it shares thematic and aesthetic similarities with Ueda’s other works, you will not have played anything like it. And quite possibly never will again.
The boy wakes in a mosswreathed cave next to the weakened Trico, a giant beast that is part-bird, part-mammal. Trico is wheezing and injured, his horns sheared and spears protruding from his back. The first task sets the tone, as you gently clamber over Trico’s feathered back and yank the spears from his flesh, feeding him barrels (filled with his favourite snack) to nurse him back to health. Trico is unsure, snapping and bellowing a monstrous shriek if you get too close.
This initial encounter builds empathy with both boy and beast. You are a gangly thing, stumbling and scrambling over crumbled ruins. Trico, meanwhile, is a fascinating creature. His hybrid nature should make him seem weird and fantastical, but his animation and behaviour build an affectingly believable animal complete with his own quirks and mores.
He shivers and ponders the boy quizzically, scratching at his giant ears and sitting down in a posture that will be familiar to any cat or dog owner. His clawed feet patter as he shuffles himself around, he walks with a languid, clumsy lope and bats at things that interest him. He is a treasure before you even set off.
As the tentative relationship blossoms, Trico continues to surprise. At its mechanical core, The Last Guardian is a game of elaborate room escape, figuring out how to leave your immediate surroundings by combining the boy’s sleight nimbleness and Trico’s size and strength. It is never as modular or contained as that; the game’s designers are too clever, its splendid world of crumbled temples and lost civilization too well crafted. There no levels or seams as you explore, just a mystical sense of place, squirreling through tight chambers or scampering across bridges that hang over a vast green valley. One minute you will be figuring out how to open the rusted drawbridges of crumbling palaces, the next diving deep into a flooded catacomb clinging on to Trico’s feathers.
That relationship is the nucleus everything The Last Guardian is built upon, from the mechanics to the narrative. Trico is often a piece of the puzzle, you clambering up his back to reach higher platforms, or coaxing him into whacking contraptions or bashing in doors.
‘Coax’ is a good word. If you could just order Trico around like a tool, The Last Guardian would not be nearly as effective. Instead you must build trust with an autonomous animal, finding the beast food when he gets hungry, keeping him healthy and finally finding a way to commu- nicate. At the beginning there is no way of ordering Trico about at all, aside from yelling his name; instead he will do what he feels like. Whether that’s leaping over walls to get to where you need to go, batting a chain as a cat would a ribbon, or simply sitting down and scratching behind his enormous ears.
It is a remarkable thing. And done with no little boldness. To place a player at the whims of an imaginary beast is opening a door to frustration. Sometimes Trico will simply not do what you want him to, leaving you to wait for him to prowl around until he decides to move on. Occassionally you are left wondering if this is indeed emergent behaviour or the AI failing to catch up, but the effect is largely the same: Trico feels like a living creature.
As the game progresses, you find a way to communicate, the boy delightfully stamping his feet and pointing in a direction, or acting out a jump as an order to go higher. Yet still don’t expect Trico to bend to your whim, he will often stop and try to take it in, looking at you with glossy black eyes while figuring out what you’re trying say.
Occassionally it can be frustrating, but when Trico makes that jump or grabs that lever after a few minutes of frantic yelling and pointing, there is an errant thrill that must greet any beleagured dog trainer. And the more the trust between the two builds, the more Trico acqueisces. In a sense it is unlocking and improving skills like you would in any video game, but it is done beautifully, invisibly, a natural progression of the relationship between the two.
And the pair become indebted to each other. Take “combat”, for want of a better word. Occassionally patrolling these ruins are ghostly suits of armour, which stomp in and pick up the boy and try to carry him away. The boy can wriggle free with enough button-mashing, but relies on Trico to wallop the ghostly knights away. For your part, you must clamber on his back, removing spears and soothing him with a gentle stroke at the end of a battle to calm his nerves.
Reading Trico is as important as traversing the environment, looking into those doleful eyes which sometimes flash with colour when he is afraid or spots a barrel of chum. One recurring mechanic has Trico cowering at a certain glass artefact, and it is your job to separate and smash About the game:
TheLastGuardian What is it?
The long-awaited fol- low-up to
that follows the adventures of a boy and his companion — a giant gryphon-esque beast PS4
Sony Japan Studios/ GenDesign Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Age rating: PEGI 12 Release date: Dec 9, 2016
it to pieces, often by pushing it off a towering ledge as Trico peers up at you with a tender mixture of fear and concern. And as you do so, it paints a compelling picture of this world and the clearly traumatic conditioning the beast was under until he came to be in your care.
What a pleasure it is to find a video game with such warmth and fascination with companionship. And what a joy it is for it to be found in a game with such an elegant sense of exploration. Some of its technical quirks cannot be ignored — errant frame-rates and inept camerawork especially — and some may find Trico’s capriciousness anathema to seamless adventure. But that is also what makes him and The Last Guardian so remarkable. Things that any animal lover can relate to — it is beautiful, heartfelt, unique and infuriating. And I adore it.
Trico is useful for clambering on to reach higher ground. Squeezing through tight gaps? Not so much.