An ex­tra­or­di­nary tale of trust and com­pan­ion­ship

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - GAMING - By TOM HOGGINS

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?

IcoandShad­owofthe Colos­sus

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

For­mats: De­vel­oper:

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.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Trico is use­ful for clam­ber­ing on to reach higher ground. Squeezing through tight gaps? Not so much.

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