And so, another of the fabled ‘never to be released’ games has stumbled into the cold light of day. But recent history seems to have taught us, these things are best pined for, and never actually received. As once it reaches the mythos of game industry folklore and garners urban legend-like status, what is eventually delivered is inevitably a disappointment.
As is exactly the case of The Last Guardian; how can a game that has been stuck in development limbo since 2007 hope to impress the audience of such a quickly progressing industry? Especially for a studio as shrouded in artsy mystery as Team Ico. With their minuscule library of just two games, both highlights of a console generation that concluded over a decade ago, that occupy the same bleakly beautiful universe and are the pillars of any ‘games as art’ discussions. Can they recreate the magic for a third time with such a handicap?
• Developer: SIE Japan Studio
• Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
• Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
• Release Date: Available Now
The Last Guardian’s plot follows blueprints laid down by both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Playing on the themes of companionship and co-dependency in a stark and hostile world. we find our protagonist, a young nameless boy, awakening in the dungeon of a mysterious castle with no memory of how he got there, or attained the tattoos that now cover his body. To make things more interesting, sharing the space is a huge man-eating beast which many have struggled to categorise (dog-eagle? Cat-griffon?) who appears to have been on the losing end of a pretty serious scrape. Once spears have been pulled from among his bristling feathers and a hesitant trust cemented, the pair set off through the Escheresque castle in pursuit of freedom.
Game-play is part-puzzler part-platformer, part-stealth, part-dog training, with each aspect working to develop your bond with your new companion, officially dubbed Trico, as you cooperate to progress through the environment. You scurry underfoot, dodging possessed suits of armour that patrol the castle, and accessing areas too small and pokey for Trico, who in turn, can move you to places that would be otherwise out of reach, and defend you from said suits of armour. The latter being a welcome subversion of the escort mission.
Ok, no smug observation points for pointing out that a game that’s been in active development since before the first iPhone was released feels slightly dated. But while it’s fun to figure out how your drastically differing physical forms can help each other progress, much of the moment to moment game-play does feel reminiscent of the PS2 era. There’s a whole lot of switch flipping, chain pulling and gap jumping that doesn’t feel like it’s progressed much farther than Ico. Not helped at all by the dizzyingly uncooperative camera and Trico-climbing mechanics that seem to shift on their axis whenever they feel like it. And don’t get me started on the barrel throwing puzzles that seems to have based their physics on an Inception dream sequence.
The more interesting puzzles are the ones in which you need to coax Trico into doing something for you; pulling a chain he’s batting at, reluctantly jumping into water to raise the levels and carry you to higher ground etc. Interesting being the key word here – not necessarily enjoyable. Trico is, for better or for worse, a staggeringly faithful as a representation of the animals he has been wrought from. As anyone who has ever tried to train a cat/dog/bird/amalgamation of all three can attest there’s only so many times you can point and repeat a command before patience starts to wear thin as you watch your companion sitting and staring at you with a bemused confusion. Though all was largely forgiven in those heart stopping moments where you’re forced by collapsing architecture to make an ungainly leap of faith, and just as cinematic slow-mo kicks in and it looks like you’ll plunge to your death, Trico daintily plucks you out of the air and carries you to safety.
Though there were just as many times when he ignored me and I was left freewheeling into the abyss.
Game-play, due in part to its dated familiarity, plays second fiddle to the emotional journey and narrative progression of the game. As mentioned, Team Ico is fond of sparse exposition and storytelling that is notably low on dialogue, allowing for player to naturally develop connections through wordless interactions and piece together the speculations over the nature of the unfamiliar world they find themselves in. And this is a trick that worked wonders with its predecessors and is perhaps at its apex in The Last Guardian. To go from tentatively nursing Trico back to health in the bowels of a dungeon to clinging to his feathers while he leaps majestically between tower tops through the beautifully realised castle exteriors or giving him a reassuring pat and pulling spears from his back after successfully decimating a platoon of sentient armour suits is one of the most effective relationship developments from a game of recent memory. And despite The Last Guardian’s many niggling flaws, it’s very easy to come away with this highlight being the strongest impression left.
Whether it was worth the wait or not will no doubt be a question that hangs above The Last Guardian for a long time to come, but it’s worth a play through to decide for yourself. It’s certainly not a game that will please everyone, and just as with the feathery beast himself, it can take a lot to look past the frustrating behaviour and begin to develop a connection. But those who are willing and patient will be rewarded with a truly remarkable experience.