NINE YEARS AND one change of con­sole plat­form into its lin­ger­ing de­vel­op­ment, the re­lease of The Last Guardian has been bur­dened with seem­ingly un­man­age­able ex­pec­ta­tions. The third ti­tle from the cre­ator of Ico and Shadow

Of The Colos­sus had be­come almost myth­i­cal, a game play­ers feared they might never see at all. You play as a san­dal-wear­ing boy (Ishikawa) who awak­ens cov­ered in tribal tat­toos in an un­der­ground dun­geon next to a hulk­ing crea­ture — seem­ingly once a pro­tec­tor of this place — chained and bleed­ing, on the cob­ble­stones be­side him. To­gether, the pair must bond and col­lab­o­rate to es­cape the over­grown city in which they find them­selves, with its ghoul­ish pa­trolling knights, and tow­er­ing ma­sonry. To pro­ceed you must lure and coax Trico, as the com­pos­ite an­i­mal is called, us­ing waves of the hand and treats, in this way con­vinc­ing the AI to bat­ter down gates, leap tall build­ings while you cling to his feath­ers, or pro­vide an im­promptu plat­form to a nar­row ledge. It’s this as­pect of the de­vel­op­ment that must have pro­vided the headaches and de­lays. Com­pan­ion AI has been the scourge of many a block­buster. And yet, in the fi­nal reck­on­ing, Trico’s be­hav­iour is noth­ing short of a rev­e­la­tion.

Won­der is found first in Trico’s an­i­ma­tion. While he is a fic­tional beast — part bird, cat, dog and rat — he moves with the el­e­gance and char­ac­ter of a beloved pet (the way he rolls in pud­dles then shakes the rain drops from his back; the wag­gle of the ears; the sniffs of the wind; the pained yelp and cringe when­ever a foe’s spear finds its way into his flesh). The nat­u­ral, well-ob­served an­i­ma­tion is not mere dress­ing: it helps cre­ate a close bond be­tween player and an­i­mal. While, in the sub­stan­tial game’s open­ing min­utes there is dis­trust, fear and even some an­tag­o­nism, in time the boy and his beast come to rely upon each other not only to progress but also to sur­vive. The first time you make an im­pos­si­ble leap into the air in the hope that Trico will snatch you from cer­tain death is set to be­come one of mod­ern gam­ing’s defin­ing mo­ments.

Ueda has a tal­ent, not only for cin­e­matic pac­ing and drama (aided here by Takeshi Fu­rukawa’s taste­ful or­ches­tral sound­track), but also for won­der­fully or­ganic puzzle de­sign. There is lit­tle of the typ­i­cal video-game de­signer’s con­trivance here. Rather, Ueda uses the en­vi­ron­ment to give cues for puzzles and so­lu­tions. You might need to lure Trico into a body of wa­ter, in or­der to raise its level and en­able the boy to reach a lad­der. Or, at times you will find your­self star­ing at the ar­chi­tec­ture, try­ing to fig­ure out a pos­si­ble way to climb, Lara Croft-like, to the next place, only for Trico to leap over the en­tire struc­ture in one bound. The an­i­mal’s power to up­set the usual rhythms and ex­pec­ta­tions of video games can­not be un­der­stated. He is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary force let loose in Ueda’s playpen.

An af­fect­ing one, too. Through co-op­er­a­tion a deep and car­ing bond de­vel­ops be­tween Trico, you and your avatar. The an­i­mal, so clearly abused and ne­glected, must be reg­u­larly fed in or­der to keep his en­ergy lev­els up, and when star­tled, he must be calmed with back rubs and coo­ing words. By the game’s con­clu­sion, the bond is un­break­able. You are his guardian, as much as he is yours. And in that con­nec­tion, an un­for­get­table game is made.

VER­DICT The Last Guardian’s in­ter­minable de­lays have ul­ti­mately proven to be time well spent; this is as­ton­ish­ing, ground­break­ing game-mak­ing.

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