It was at E3 2009 when we heard the first official word on The Last Guardian.
As the latest game from Fumito Ueda it was hotly anticipated. He and his team were the masterworkers behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and it was expected that the new game would explode onto the PS3 by the end of 2011.
Then seasons came and went, the years changed and the PS3 system itself fell by the wayside. More than seven years on from that first whisper, and the game is finally here.
That’s a hell of a preamble for a release, and it’s also an impossible legacy for any title to live up to. So let’s forget the history and examine The Last Guardian on its own merits in space year 2016.
Firstly, it is a strange and gorgeous thing. That’s not to say these are the best-looking, most high definition graphics you’ll ever see but the overall sense of stylish stylisation works more effectively than if it were photo-real. It transports you to another place, to an almost painterly world that’s half mystical and magical and the other half cold and callow and dangerous.
And the world that you see is vital to the storytelling. While there’s some voice over translated in subtitles most of the story is untold, measured in the spaces in between. The ancient buildings and shattered facades, glimpses of once-great civilisations.
And then there’s the tale of Trico, and the nameless child. This boy and beast meet in the very first moments of the game and their connection is really what the entirety of The Last Guardian is about.
It’s not just a story about the way their relationship develops (though that’s undoubtedly vital) their connection is also intrinsic to every part of what you’ll play for the 12-15 hour stretch.
That’s because Trico will be the key to solving most of the puzzles you find in the game. That’s not entirely new, NPC characters have been getting involved in player adventures for years. The big difference is a matter of agency.
Cat-bird thing Trico pretty much does whatever it wants. This AI controlled beast will happily potter in the background while you explore the area, figuring out what to do next. It will play with things in the environment, wander into your path or just sit down and scratch itself.
Sometimes Trico will give you a bit of a hint at where to go next but more often than not the game does a remarkable job at making it seem like a real creature, and one not bound to your whims.
This means that once you do want to accomplish something together, things can get a lot more complicated. For example Trico really doesn’t like water initially so if you need to get across some you’re going to have to come up with something tempting.
This mechanic is at the core of everything you’ll do in The Last Guardian, and it’s a curious mix of frustrating and fascinating. The best moments come from feeling like a real interaction with a wondrous (and potentially dangerous) beast. You figure out what needs to be done and manage to put the pieces in place to coax the best possible reaction.
This is how the game wants to be played and it is capable of giving you a hand from time to time. It’s not always a success though, and you can find moments where it feels like you’re stuck in an endlessly recurring loop. This is a feeling that’s quite unusual in games - knowing exactly what you need to do, even the steps and materials you need, but not being quite able to convince the mechanics to work with you.
In my experience, the truly frustrating elements were fairly limited but it’s reasonable to issue a warning ahead of time - this isn’t a straightforward puzzle-platformer. And that’s a pretty marvellous thing because when you do manage to pull off those complex maneuvers, no matter how long the setup has taken, it’s because you worked together with Trico, surviving as a twosome.
That’s the real genius of the design here. Every time you make a daring leap or even exit a room it’s another tiny facet built into your relationship with Trico. You truly live through all of these adventures together, and you learn to not only appreciate but also understand the strange beast. The initially broad and odd mannerisms become like shorthand, and a fierce bond develops.
Naturally enough, the story also adds to this connection, building to a final act that’s stupendously well-wrought - tying into that closeness and tweaking at those heartstrings.
The Last Guardian is an utterly rare thing in a crowded gaming landscape filled with first-person murdering and massive online melees. This is all about a relationship with a totally alien creature and one that becomes one of the most touching stories of the year.
There are frustrations to be found but The Last Guardian is still a unique and unmissable experience.