Few games in recent memory have suffered such a beleaguered development, whilst still managing to capture the hearts and minds of impatient gamers. The Last Guardian has massive stable mates in ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, and under the weight of that pedigree and 10 years of anticipation, it was never going to live up to all that hyped expectation…but I gotta say, it has come pretty damn close.
The Last Guardian is very simple at heart and in fact that’s where its strength lies. Aside from the odd Japanese voice over (with subtitles), there is no proper dialogue. The game manages to tell a story of trust between a child and a feathered beast though subtle story telling techniques. In the opening “the Boy” wakes up covered in strange tattoos, lying amidst the ruins of a lost city. Sleeping nearby is a huge beast…. bird, dog thing.
His name is ‘Trico’. Amazingly, Trico is completely A.I controlled and is an impressive piece of video game design. Aside from his unusual outward appearance, deep down in both movement and emotions, he is a faithful dog. A really, really, big dog. The developers have captured in computer code, ‘Mans best friend’ to a tee.
Trico and Boy are stuck and the only way out of the mysterious, ruined city, is to work together. This is the core of The Last Guardian, environmental puzzles which are unfortunately a bit antiquated and hints to the long development cycle. Boy can crawl through a gaps, carry barrels or climb along fragile hand holds to find pathways for Trico. Once the way is open and Boy is holding on tight, Trico makes huge jumps to other areas of the ruins. This is how the game progresses and leads to some amazing cinematic seat of the pants action sequences.
There is no real combat to speak of, except for magical statues which wake up and try to carry Boy off to his doom. But thankfully, Trico with some help from Boy will make short work of them. After a skirmish, Trico still needs Boy to stroke and console him, so he has calmed down enough for the pair to move on. That simple mechanic seems so minor, but I found myself giving him a pat after big jumps or after pulling spears out of his skin…… or hell, just because it seemed like a nice thing to do for him.
Over time trust builds and Trico begins to pine for Boy when he goes off to solve a puzzle. Trico will also listen to Boy when he says simple one word commands in Japanese. It’s actually really charming, just listening to a child’s voice twitter away to such a goliath. I could make Boy point or act out jumps and Trico would generally oblige with the correct action, until he didn’t and a frustrating trial and error period followed. Its a great mechanic that relies on Tricos A.I and unfortunately it would create tension between the three of us when his inaction would halt our progression.
The game oozes a minimalist class, making a concerted effort not to cloud the game world with UI, needless spoken dialogue or exposition. This is reflected in the games core too, its puzzles. Many of the puzzle types gamers would have seen before, but the developers don’t break the world with flashing prompts, or splashes of garish colour to help the player solve it. I often found myself stumped, then Trico would start looking or sniffing in an area which turned out was worth exploring further. I would say aloud to myself, “Thanks buddy, nice one” and make Boy give him a pat and we would all move on together.
Calling to Trico and asking him to do something feels very organic, as he doesn’t just switch like a robot and start the desired task. Trico’s AI really sells the uncertainty an animal would be feeling. Trico will look around, paw at the ground, flick his ears and make subtle sounds, clearly working out if what I was asking him to do is a good idea. Later on though this can be frustrating, as I could see what needed to happen, but I couldn’t get Trico into the right spot for him to agree to climb or jump.
Controlling Boy on the other hand is pretty straight forward, except for feeling little a bit clunky in tight spaces or when platforming. He is sticky enough to avoid pointless deaths from falling on ledges and when being a passenger on a jumping Trico, he thankfully has the grip of a bodybuilder, never falling off. It can look a bit silly when the rag-doll physics take over though. The biggest issue which I faced was having to forever manage the camera. Being inside castle ruins and hallways with a massive beast meant I was forever loosing Boy in a blur of walls and feathers. Suffice to say, when busily trying to find paths and solve puzzles it was a real pain.
From a technical aspect the game has some frustrating issues, particularly with the camera control and Tricos commands. But over the hours, I couldn’t help but look past all that and build a bond with Trico. Initially, I had just felt sorry for him because of his treatment at the hands of others. However after he had protected me from harm and we had worked together to move forward, it was then because he was my faithful companion.
It’s hard to put my finger on, but I think the title seems to actually benefit from not being contaminated with modern gaming tropes. The Last Guardian is simple and heartfelt, with clever puzzles and an endearing tale of a boy and a beast.