We last wrote a preview of The Last Guardian back in September of 2010. At that time Fumito Ueda was confident that they would be able to deliver the game in time for holiday 2011 on PlayStation 3. That was the last time that we saw anything, that was until last week at E3 when it was re-announced for PS4 with an unspecified 2016 release date.
Much has come to pass in the years between the demos. The game's creative director Fumito Ueda has departed from Sony Japan, but his new studio Gen Design is co-operating with Studio Japan on the project and it was Ueda who sat next to the screen narrating the extended E3 demo in Meeting Room 506 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Earlier in the week we had the chance to talk to Sony Worldwide Studios' Shuhei Yoshida about the game. We noted that we were surprised at how true to the original vision the game had remained, not common when a project spends five years on the sidelines, in development hell or whatever you want to call it.
Yoshida explained that it has to do with Ueda's creative process. He makes a video with the vision for the game that he shares with the team early on in development. He did it for Ico and Shadow of the Colossus as well, and the games wound up very close to that initial vision and the same is true for The Last Guardian.
This is a game about a boy and his dog. While Ueda says that pets like cats, birds and dogs have all contributed to Trico's design, it is very obvious that its behaviour mimics that of a dog. The whelping sounds it makes, how it scratches itself, and the way it interacts with the boy taking commands while remaining independent is very telling. Trico may be infinitely more powerful and much bigger than the boy, yet it still craves direction and companionship.
The demo shown at E3 is about one third into the game. The boy and Trico have already established something of a bond, and Trico is fairly open to accepting commands. The boy climbs on top of Trico to pull out spears that are stuck in the back of the creature. It may look like a simple one button action, but in fact it involves two buttons and pushing an analog stick, something that adds to the experience. Hold on to the creature, grab the spear, and pull it out.
As the spears are pulled out feathers from the creature are released and fall to the ground. It's a visually stunning scene, but the design choice to cover the creature with feathers and having the boy climb is one that may not have been ideal for player immersion as there is a bit of clipping. It's nothing too jarring, but as the rest of the game appears so incredibly organic and realistic it does stand out a little. There is a great use of particle effects (and butterflies) as well as lighting that elevates this version of The Last Guardian over the one we saw on PlayStation 3 all those years ago. And in fact it was the technical limitations of PS3 that ultimately saw the project move to PS4 - the vision simply couldn't be fully realised on old-gen hardware.
As a dog owner it is easy to connect with Trico. The large eyes seem foreign yet familiar and full of expression. There is an instant sense of wanting to nurture and care for the beast. Of course, knowing the history of the developer one of the journalists in attendance felt the urge to utter: "You know it's going to die at the end, right? It's going to sacrifice itself to save you and you're going to feel horrible." And it is perhaps the likeliest outcome, but hopefully the journey will make up for the expected and dreaded end station.
While the boy and Trico get most of the attention, as with Ueda's previous games the location and surrounding environment are also vitally important. Ueda spoke of verticality and scale. There is a true sense of exposure and danger as bridges are traversed and gaps bridged. Ueda suggests that this adds to the "psychological stress" the player feels, and also that it helps to further strengthen the bond between the boy and Trico.
The developers were also keen to point out that the entire demo features real-time action. You can miss when grabbing for Trico's tail as the bridge is collapsing, and for some puzzles there are multiple solutions. For instance you can jump on to Trico's back as he jumps across a gap in the demo or (as shown) wait for him to cross and then jump and allow Trico to catch you as you fall.
There is one button to call for Trico (if you're close enough you use the same button to pet it) and one to tell Trico to stop doing whatever he or she is doing. Key here is that you're not in control of Trico. The creature is wholly independent and during the game you'll progressively build a greater trust and tighter bond that in theory should allow for more daring collaborations between the two.
The journey with The Last Guardian has been long. It lasted the entirety of the last console generation, and it's not over yet. The original concept has remained untouched and it feels as unique and different today as it did five years ago. Here's hoping that the next time we play it is in 2016, and not several years down the line.
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