A worthy sucessor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus?
The most frequently asked question about The Last Guardian is whether it's worth all those years of waiting. Well, in short, of course not. The Last Guardian is not the greatest game of all time, nor is it a masterpiece capable of breaking barriers. If this was the kind of unrealistic expectation you had for The Last Guardian, then you're in for a massive letdown. On the other hand, there are those that predicted a disaster, a game that would never be able to come together. That assumption is also wrong. Instead, The Last Guardian is "merely" a good game, a special experience that deserves to be played, despite several flaws.
This PS4 exclusive was developed by Team Ico and created by the mind of the great Fumito Ueda - in short, the same people that gave us Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and this heritage is evident throughout the game. In fact, The Last Guardian seems to be almost embedded in a concept between those two games. Like Ico, you will be exploring a huge medieval-inspired structure, tweaked with some bizarre technology, all the while working your way through platforms and puzzles while in control of a young man. The big difference compared to Ico is that, instead of a fragile girl, this time you will be accompanied by Trico, a huge creature that could have been one of the colossi of Shadow of the Colossus.
Trico is the star of The Last Guardian, and possibly the biggest reason for the game's successive delays. This is easily the most vivid creature we've seen in a game, to the point of it almost being scary. The brilliant AI behaviour is accompanied by innumerable details of great quality that help to develop the creature's credibility. Animations and ear-ticks, the way he plays with barrels and objects, how puzzled he sometimes looks at the boy, and the numerous sounds he produces in different contexts - they're all elements that combine to create this fantastic creature.
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The credibility of Trico's animations and sounds is impressive, but it's his behaviour in the game that helps sell the illusion that we're dealing with a living creature. Games rarely have the courage to put AI controlled characters accompanying the player for long periods of time, and when they do, we usually see bizarre behaviour, such as when they get stuck on the scenery, or block the player's path. Now imagine that these characters were the size of a building and had to jump between numerous platforms, interact with objects, and go through small, narrow passages. The fact that Trico's behaviour is so believable, without causing some of the aforementioned problems, is possibly the biggest triumph of The Last Guardian and its creators.
The player can never directly control Trico, but may suggest certain things. The boy has four actions that he can perform - jump, push, crouch, and interact - all executed with the DualShock's face buttons. If you press R1 (alone it calls Trico) and one of the face buttons, you will suggest Trico to perform the same action, like jumping and interacting. There are puzzles that require these actions, and the game doesn't make it very clear that you can make these suggestions, so remember them.
Creating an artificially intelligent character with such credible behavior, following the player, facing opponents, and interacting with objects that are not always fixed, must have been one of the main factors in the delay. Maybe that's why we've never seen an AI character behave so realistically, and that's why it's unlikely that we're going to see anything similar anytime soon, because it's simply not worth the effort. As fantastic as Trico is, it has little impact on the quality of the game. If the gameplay is not interesting or varied, or if the design of the levels is not good, the actions of an AI-controlled character simply won't matter.
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Fortunately that's not the case in The Last Guardian. The gameplay, design, and context are all good and interesting, but no more than that. Although the story and the connection between the boy and Trico are very special, the game itself is not so memorable, except for some moments in which the player is not even controlling the character. It's an extremely linear experience, which follows the path carefully defined by its creators, and with little initial context, and since the game refuses to hold your hand (platforms don't glow and no arrows point the way), there may also be some frustrating moments. The design is usually good enough to suggest what to do next without resorting to cheap tricks, but there are times when the game could have been a bit more obvious, and those moments can be annoying.
The game starts with the boy waking up and finding Trico, a huge and strange creature that has been injured and chained. After helping it escape its shackles, the boy and the beast start to form a bond, and begin helping each other to escape. Only very near the end will you get some context in terms of what Trico is and his function, or where the boy came from. There is no (or at least we didn't find any) kind of collectible or any other device that offers extra context to the player, so all you can do is make theories. In short, all players will have exactly the same experience with The Last Guardian, and there isn't much motivation to replay it. There are no extras, no different levels of difficulty, no secrets, and the game itself lasts between five and seven hours of play.
The gameplay revolves around movement, platforming, and puzzles. There are no weapons or combat, since Trico is the only one that can defeat the few enemies that will appear along the way (the player only has to make sure they are not grabbed and taken), and the only progression for the characters comes via the narrative. The Last Guardian basically plays the same from the first to the last minute, and the only exception is when the boy carries a shield that projects light, but you will only have that for a few moments.
The Last Guardian was born as a PlayStation 3 game, and this is clear when viewed from a technical perspective (and we played it on a PS4 Pro). The boy's model and the scenery is clearly dated, but that doesn't mean that the game looks bad. The very peculiar art style employed by Team Ico is excellent, and the scale of the game is breathtaking. You will walk on tiny wooden bars and look down and marvel (and gasp) at the incredible draw distances, as well as the complexity of the architecture. Unlike many game worlds, which seem to have been built to serve gameplay, the setting here feels organic and plausible. It's as if the player and Trico have to adapt to the world, not the other way around.
The Last Guardian has excellent audio as well, and while the soundtrack itself is not particularly memorable, the sound effects are top notch. The boy's and Trico's footsteps, the jangle of chains, the sound of wind and water, the breathing of Trico, the collapse of stones ... it all combines to form an important pillar in creating the illusion that is this world of The Last Guardian.
Despite the long and arduous process of developing it, The Last Guardian is not one of the best games of all time, as some may have been hoping for. It's not even the best game made by Team Ico, as that's a title that still belongs to Shadow of the Colossus. It is, however, a good game, an adventure special enough to deserve being experienced. By being short, and not including any kind of replay value, The Last Guardian is the kind of experience that is easy to recommend when the price is right. So if you've waited 10 years for it, maybe you can wait a little longer. If not, at least there's a short lived but memorable experience awaiting you.
8 / 10
Trico is brilliant. Delightful relationship between Trico and the boy. Some memorable sequences. Impressive scale.
No replay value. Annoying camera. Lacks variety. It shows its PS3 origins. Some frustrating moments. Intrusive tutorials.