Developer: Team Ico, genDESIGN, Japan Studio
The story of the creation of Fumito Ueda and Team Ico/genDESIGN's The Last Guardian is a long and complicated one and probably a tale which is better told via Wikipedia to be honest. The short version: development on the anticipated PS3 follow-up to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus began in 2007, which was then excitedly revealed to the public in 2009, and now 7 years later, it is finally available for the PS4. Over this 9 year period I wouldn't be surprised if there were as many twists, turns and tears shed during game's design and development cycle than there is in the stories which span the entire Ico trilogy. But I digress.
Just to put it out there, I'm one of those PlayStation gamers who have a lot of respect and love for both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus so there was no doubt that I have certain expectations for The Last Guardian — even after writing it off as vaporware a few years back. Even after taking my time playing through the title, I'm still pretty amazed (and appreciative) that after all the delays and complications during its development that fans can finally experience Ueda-san's long-awaited adventure. At long last, and for better or for worse, The Last Guardian is now available and I couldn't be happier.
As with Team Ico's previous releases, it's a bit difficult to separate the emotional experience that is The Last Guardian from the videogame that is The Last Guardian, though I'll make an effort for this review — even if it will still color my opinion of the game. Fans of this type of videogame (in which I also include Journey more recently) surely know what what I'm talking about.
The Last Guardian begins with the player, a boy with mysterious markings on his body, waking up trapped in a cave alongside a rather large, injured and chained up mythological beast. The creature, which the nameless boy calls Trico after a short time, shares physical and behavioral traits of a cat, a dog and a bird and really is a magnificent (albeit confusing) creature. After spending some time tending to Trico's wounds and trying to break the beast free, the pair embark on a fantastic journey to escape the strange environment they have found themselves in. Thus the bond between boy and the beast (and the player) begins.
After spending just a short time with Trico, it's all but impossible to not immediately feel deeply attached to her (or him, but I'll stick with “her” for simplicity), which is certainly the intention in The Last Guardian. Trico looks and behaves like a living, breathing entity, and the amount of time and effort that Team Ico and genDESIGN put into designing and creating the beast must have been extensive. The animation and awareness, and dynamic responses to the boy's interactions and the environments are so impressive that they can approach the uncanny valley on occasion. The way Trico moves, looks at the boy and reacts and responds to his “commands” is pretty unreal, especially when you take into consideration how large and detailed of a creature Trico is. As an animal lover, to say that the game will tug at your heartstrings a few times during the adventure would be an understatement.
Communicating with Trico and watching his expressive eyes, face and cat and dog-like mannerisms and sounds, or having the boy pet her to show affection or help calm her down will melt even the coldest of hearts. I can't count the number of times that I've spoken out loud to Trico while playing the game. It's really an amazing accomplishment by the game developers and designers to bring such an interesting creature to life, and leads to The Last Guardian being an emotional rollercoaster at times.
From my discussions with friends and fellow gamers, fans of Team Ico's previous releases seem to be fairly evenly divided in deciding if Ico or Shadow of the Colossus is the “better” game. With the The Last Guardian, you're definitely getting influences from both titles, although it skews much more towards Ico thanks to the more linear environments and puzzle solving. Those who have played Shadow of the Colossus will quickly adapt to climbing, riding and interacting with Trico, just as if he were one of the colossi. With that comes some of the complaints that gamers had with the previous game — that being the occasional finicky controls of climbing along a large, moving creature. Whereas the boy is relatively quick and nimble, and can run, jump and navigate the environment without much hangups, “controlling” Trico is done via the boy making what amounts to suggestions to do perform an action. If you'd like Trico to jump, climb or crawl somewhere or interact with something, you ask her and hope for the best. A good 95% of the time, Trico intelligently figures things out, though there are a few instances where it's difficult to make progress because there's something about the environment that causes some confusion. Even with those challenges cropping up here and there, what Team Ico did with Trico, as a character, is still incredible.
Like Ico, many of the environments and puzzles require some exploration and research and in The Last Guardian the name of the game is teamwork. The boy is adept at climbing, crawling and exploring (and flipping switches of course), whereas Trico is more about brute force solutions or overcoming large environmental obstacles. While the game features several gameplay hints throughout the adventure via on-screen prompts (which overstay their welcome quickly) or narration, it leaves most of the actual puzzle-solving and experimentation up to the player. Beyond just progressing through the labyrinth of dusty ruins, towers, bridges and obstacles, there are mysterious enemies that attempt to harm Trico and aggressively come after the boy to try to drag him through a portal. Ico fans will surely get that same feeling of dread the first couple of times that this happens, except with the boy needing to escape instead of Yorda.
Not many things in the world of The Last Guardian are explained, though there are very occasional pieces of narration or flashbacks which kind of help piece things together. As with past Fumito Ueda and Team Ico productions, the narrative of the game will frequently leave the player with more questions than answers. It's difficult to mention much of anything story-related that happens in the game without potentially spoiling the events, so excuse the vagueness. I did not come across any obvious connections with either Ico or SoTC (not to say there aren't any easter eggs), but I'm particularly excited to discuss theories with other fans once they make their way through the game. Taking my time I was able to get through The Last Guardian in under 15 hours, for those interested in that sort of thing.
The Last Guardian is an absolutely gorgeous game and is very much in line with the style of other Team Ico releases. Ethereal lighting, detailed ruins and caverns, and gorgeous animation all throughout. Neither the boy or Trico's movements are overly scripted and both react to the the environments in very dynamic ways. Seeing Trico gently paw at a food barrel to position it better, or stop and scratch behind his ears, or get progressively angry and agitated due to being harassed goes a long way in giving the character life. Trico is obviously the star of the show with his incredible animation and a luxurious coat of feathers which react to the wind, the environment and the boy's interactions. It's like a whole level of complexity above "fur shading". You can see some PS3 influences in the textures and level geometry on occasion, and even on a PlayStation 4 Pro (which was used for this playthrough and review) there's a little shimmering of the foliage and frame drops, though there is nothing really worth complaining extensively about. Regular PS4 owners may find the performance to be a little more rough in comparison. Some of the environments and scenes in The Last Guardian seem far too large and/or complex for the PS3 to render so I can certainly see why they made the jump to the PS4. The haunting, beautiful soundtrack is used sparingly, so players get to mostly enjoy the ambient sounds of the world, which include those by Trico too of course.
Returning to an earlier point I was trying to make, a game such as this is more about the journey than the gameplay, and The Last Guardian totally jives with that philosophy. I'm the type of gamer who can forgive simplistic or imprecise controls, or imperfect visuals for a great story or overall experience, as I can and do here. With that being said, as much as I enjoyed the game from start to end, I would have preferred that the puzzle solving and exploration didn't tail-off towards the final act of the game. While it doesn't come to a screeching halt by any means, it's noticeable enough to point out. For those looking for replayability, there's not much beyond a couple of optional food barrels to locate in subsequent runs (and PlayStation Trophies), and there is neither a chapter select nor additional in-game options. So take that as you will.
Even if it will likely not live up to nine years' worth of bottled-up expectations for everyone, The Last Guardian was honestly worth the wait for me, and I expect that most Fumito Ueda/Team Ico fans will agree. The journey is a special and unique one, and very much worth taking for any and all PS4 owners.