After almost a decade in development, with several false starts and cancellations, the third title by video game auteur (and former Team Ico head) Fumito Ueda has finally made its way to store shelves. Ueda’s two previous titles are a pretty major legacy to measure up to, and it’s been quite a long time since the last one was released. Does the magic still live? Can Ueda’s design philosophy survive the current console generation?
What Is It?
The Last Guardian is a puzzle/platformer adventure game designed by Fumito Ueda, the mastermind behind critically successful cult titles such as Ico and most famously Shadow of the Colossus. Both of these games were known for a handful of common traits: Gorgeous graphics defined by saturated light and a unique fantasy world, dialogue in a fictitious language, an esoteric yet gripping narrative that deconstructs common gaming themes, and a purity of game design that emphasized a handful of mechanics over needless complexity. Ueda’s notorious caginess regarding continuity and lore in his games has left many people debating even the most benign assets of these games and how they relate to the overall narrative being told.
Debuting at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2009, The Last Guardian suffered many false starts, delays, and even the indignity of being canceled (kind of) before popping up again in 2015, in a more completed state. Finally, after one final (and much shorter) delay, it was released to both Japanese and North American gamers on December 6th, 2016.
As for the game itself: You play as a young boy who awakes within the ancient and decaying confines of a massive ruin, and discovers that you have been trapped with an enormous gryphon-like creature called Trico. By befriending, cooperating with, and occasionally feeding the creature, the boy will climb great heights, jump long distances, and traverse numerous ledges and towers, while also solving the occasional puzzle. Along the way, you will encounter creepy possessed statues, strange machines, and maybe even the truth about why you (and Trico) are trapped in this place.
Why Should I Care?
For old-school Team Ico fans, it will be a delight to be in the midst of Ueda’s creativity again. In some ways, it feels as if little time has passed between Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian. The climbing, the traversal, and those absolutely striking graphics are straight out of Ueda’s previous games. In some ways, the design philosophy is very reminiscent of the PS2 era. Whether or not that is a good thing, and whether or not current gamers can dig it, is another thing entirely.
The very first thing any gamer will notice is the enormous Trico. Yes, the world you find yourself in is mysterious and wondrous to experience, but Trico will be first in your mind. This creature, your constant companion for much of the game, is truly a sight to behold. This strange hybrid of mammal and bird, in some ways a gryphon and in some ways not, is not only gorgeous to look at, he is also amazing to simply watch. True, Trico is graphically probably the most elaborate and realistic thing you will see on the screen, but he is also the most uncannily intelligent as well. Trico acts and reacts like a real wild animal would. He does not immediately trust you when you first meet him. In fact, at first it seems he only sort of tolerates you. It takes some time for him to see you as not only friendly, but as a partner as well. You cannot simply treat Trico as a normal escort NPC, as he has a mind of his own and will only do what you tell him when he decides to trust you enough to follow you.
But once he does trust you (after feeding him a number of times, of course), Trico becomes a force of nature. Not only can Trico jump higher than you, swim deeper than you, and even break things you cannot break, he also has an amazing lightning ability that will shatter wood and metal with a single shot. You will need Trico’s protection, too. Because you aren’t alone in this massive ruin you’ve found yourselves in. Not only are there hints that Trico isn’t the only one of his kind in the area, but you will regularly be accosted by possessed statues whose sole purpose is to trap you for whatever purpose. You yourself, being small and unarmed and rather squishy, are powerless against these stone antagonists (save the occasional shove). Trico, however, can turn them into so much gravel and powder with a swipe of his claws, making Trico your primary guardian (get it) against these foes.
Of course, Trico doesn’t just approach these enemies calmly. He will get quite agitated when confronted with these stone soldiers and will need to be physically calmed (via an adorable petting of his hindquarters) for him to become lucid and functional again. He will also react negatively to other things, such as various wards shaped like stained glass eyes that leave him positively spooked, requiring the player to get rid of these ominous icons. Sometimes by pushing them off cliffs, sometimes by smashing them with rocks, and sometimes by physically disconnecting them from a chain so that they will fall to the ground. Even the stone soldiers will have them on occasion, forcing you to incapacitate said craggy meanies until Trico can destroy the statues. Again, Trico is not just your average NPC, he is very much a living and breathing digital life form that must be treated and respected as such.
And that, perhaps, may lead to the flaws of this game. Again, Trico has a mind of his own, and if you go into the game knowing and recognizing this, then you will be fine. However, for many gamers this may serve as needless frustration. It takes time and dedication to get Trico to work with you, and constantly yelling the same command at him while he mills about may drive some gamers away. And even communicating with Trico is somewhat esoteric, as you are never told directly which command is which (the tutorial implies that these commands are mapped to the same buttons you use for your player’s functions, but never made crystal clear). This requires a bit of experimentation as well as trial and error from the player’s part that, while perhaps rewarding in once sense, can also be needlessly frustrating in others.
And that, of course, leads to one of the most common flaws of both The Last Guardian and all of Ueda’s games: the finicky controls. As far back as Ico, things such as vague contact points and precision positioning have dogged his vision, and sadly they are still very much present. Yes, you will have trouble knowing what ledge you can and cannot grab onto. Yes, you will have trouble trying to climb on Trico (and a couple of other things). Yes, you will have to let your character go through his entire animation cycle before he will pick something up (and that’s after you’ve positioned yourself in the EXACT spot necessary). These are the type of problems that Ueda had when his games were on the PS2, and whether or not it is simply an artifact of its long development cycle or (less likely) a stylistic choice by the developers, in the current console generation it can be extremely grating. In fact, the gameplay and experience feels very much like a PS2 game with more current gen graphics, and while that is fine for many, for others it may be a major put off.
Also, as with all of Ueda’s games, it is a finite (if gripping) experience that does not allow for much varied replay value. There are various collectibles and costumes that your character can earn, but once the game has ended, that is pretty much it. If you are the kind of gamer who enjoys the occasional finite experience, and then re-experiencing it again at a later date, this will be no problem. For others, the game may seem all too short.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
After ten years, you’d hope that this game would be worth your cash. And for many, it will be. It’s been far too long since we’ve been able to experience Ueda’s personal universe, and for all of its flaws the experience alone is one of a kind. You will grow to like, and eventually love, Trico as he assists you on your journey. That by itself is an amazing feat of design all by itself. But for modern gamers, the idiosyncratic design choices and problems inherited in Ueda’s games may serve to only be an annoying distraction at best, and a game ending frustration at worse. So if you’re an old-school Ueda fan, this is an essential release. For others who are on the fence, they may perhaps wish to either rent or wait for the price to go down before they make a purchase.
But for this reviewer? Seeing Trico first paw at, and then roll around in an enormous pond of water like a puppy makes the price well worth it.