When something has been in development for a long time, there's a bunch of pitfalls to watch out for. The first thing, obviously, is whether the end product feels laboured, whether it has managed to contain that creative spark that is at the core of every artistic expression, games included. The second pitfall is a bit more obscure, and something that has slowly happened to The Last Guardian; the story of the development of the game is a more interesting subject than the actual game itself.
Because of these pitfalls, The Last Guardian stands at the precipice of a difficult challenge. How can the game transcend the troubled tale of its development, and deliver an experience that lives up to the massive expectations from Team ICO fans?
We recently got to play something akin to two and half hours, starting from the very beginning of the game, and were left with mixed emotions. It was a deeply cerebral experience to play something that's been so long underway, something that has been a subject of controversy simply by not having launched, something that has had the weight of what must feel like an entire world resting on its shoulders.
What we walked away with was a completely split opinion on The Last Guardian, because in one particular aspect, we strongly believe the game will deliver on the difficult promise of its legacy, and in another, we think fans will be thoroughly disappointed.
Let's get the negative out of the way, to pave the way for its more promising qualities: the technical side of things. The game has switched platforms, initially planned for PlayStation 3, but still, 10 years of what we assume has been on and off development should have ensured that both mechanically and in terms of polish, The Last Guardian should hold up. Well, prepare to be disappointed. First off: the controls. Whereas Team ICO isn't particularly known for having tight mechanics and easy to manoeuvre characters, The Last Guardian seems to very much uphold that legacy. The main character has several core abilities, such as carrying objects, throwing them, jumping, climbing. Putting these together does give the game a sense of mobility, but stringing them together is far more troubling. The core movement resembles that of Shadow of the Colossus mechanically, where you never quite know how your character will physically react to a given challenge or control input. You can never quite grasp how far you'll jump, in which direction you'll throw your object, or how and where you can latch on to the environment.
It's confusing to say the least, and pair that with with a frustrating camera, and you've got yourself a title which handles itself like a PlayStation 2 game, and not in a particularly good way.
However, the game also does something else, something that's more difficult to describe, difficult to fathom when you're wearing your cynical game reviewers goggles; there's some magic here, the same magic that permeates Team ICO as a studio, a feeling, an atmosphere.
The cinematic expression, and all of the various aspects that this contains, is quite unique in The Last Guardian, and it quickly becomes apparent once you awake in the sunlight filled cave, the very first area of the game, that despite the fact that this took 10 years to develop, no other studio has managed to mimic their way of presenting a world to you. Even the smallest of actions are soaked in meaning and refinement, so something as trivial as removing spears from Trico's back become quite an iconic moment, despite the fact that the interaction itself is simple.
The game starts with an expertly designed cinematic walk-through of the various species which combined to create the giant creature that is Trico. Hand drawn sketches of different animals float across the screen, while soft, gentle music sets the scene. There's no doubt that the game is all about emotion, the bond with Trico, and the game sets to establish this bond from the get-go. You awake in a cave, which is completely lit thanks to bright rays of sunshine falling through the roof. Remnants of various structures are everywhere, it's got a dystopian undertone, no doubt this is what remains of a once thriving civilisation that is no more. Before you lies the massive animal, wounded, gasping for air.
It needs your help. Whereas other preview coverage paints the picture of you needing the animal in order to progress, this is a case where Trico is in desperate need of you. You can then grab on to its feathery fur and pull out the aforementioned spears from its body. It's excruciating to witness, but with every removed spear, Trico regains composure and strength. In this opening moment, you save its life and gains its trust.
Beyond the first chamber lies a couple of puzzles, which often centre around positioning Trico so that you may use the beast to get to higher ground and across ledges. You may call upon him with the press of a button, but like any unruly animal, there's no guarantee that he listens. This makes for frustration at times, but it makes sense within the context of the game. Trico trusts you, but he does not serve you.
There's a sense of presence in The Last Guardian, a constant feeling about the amount of care that has gone into its development, and that's what makes it enjoyable to play, and more importantly, it makes it pretty easy to forgive its many technical shortcomings. It transcends them.
It's a combination of the relationship between the boy and Trico, the brilliant heartfelt music, and the mysterious environments you explore. Somehow, like smaller indie classics of recent years, the simplicity of the mechanics, even badly designed and executed ones, becomes background static as you simply enjoy existing in this world and being a part of this difficult but fascinating relationship with the towering animal before you.
We spent three hours with The Last Guardian, and walked away concerned. Because while the game does display the magic that has earned the studio's previous efforts their spots as modern classics, players may be unable to forget the technical and mechanical shortcomings after a decade worth of iteration. The tale of the troubled development is constantly there, a dark cloak over the experience, and it does, despite our best efforts, have an effect on the way you perceive it.
We do hope that players around the world will be able to forgive and overlook these flaws come December 6th, for the reward is quite spectacular and quite possibly something that has been worth the wait.