Tick, followed tock, followed tick, followed tock…
Where do you start with a game like The Last Guardian? A title with almost a decade in the public consciousness, from a developer and his team famed for making two of the PS2’s most classic and unique games. It became one of pop culture’s long running jokes, sitting alongside the likes of Duke Nukem Forever, Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy” and Final Fantasy XV as products that would never see the light of day. Finally emerging from development hell, does the third title from Team Ico live up to the monumental expectation that rests upon its shoulders?
Game: The Last Guardian
Developer: Team Ico
(Review copy provided by publisher)
The Last Guardian, at its core, is a tale about a boy and his beast. The boy, never named, and the winged dog/cat/bird-thing named Trico, that’s been in our thoughts ever since E3 2009, form an inimitable bond that is forged in minutes, then strengthened and tested throughout the events of the game. If you’ve played a Team Ico game before, you’ll know exactly what to expect. The Last Guardian takes elements from both the themes and gameplay of both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, combining them into a truly unique experience that still somehow feels familiar.
One of the most immediately apparent things is just how incredible The Last Guardian looks. It is an astonishingly beautiful game, with textures and environments looking sharp and atmospheric throughout. The sense of scale is immediate and startling, with Trico towering above the boy, and still feeling at times that the world the game is set dwarfs even the creature you come to know and love. It’s a gorgeous world, with crumbling towers, dilapidated ruins and lush greenery all thrown together to provide an atmosphere that is as welcoming as it is daunting. Animation on the character of the boy, and indeed Trico, is stunning, with the boy’s cel-shaded look providing stark contrast to the almost photo-real stonework and fauna that you come across. The option is there to sit and stare at the world around you, with TLG offering up a “contemplation” button, similar to Abzu’s Meditation option. One of the great things about The Last Guardian is the complete lack of a HUD, save for the odd button prompt in the top right hand corner. It’s a throwback to a period in gaming where things weren’t over-tutorialised, and you had to find your own way through environments.
Truth be told, it’s not the only thing that feels a bit “old” in the game. Given the length of development, it’s to be expected that some things feel a little bit dated. Things like the camera movement feels a little out of sorts, and there are occasions when the weight of the boy reacts in some strange ways, leading to some frustrating moments in gameplay. These aren’t overwhelmingly common, however, and when they do crop up, they serve to remind you that “Oh yeah, this has been a while coming, hasn’t it?” rather than “Oh well this is broken”. One area that I will highlight, however, is the frame rate. I played through the entire game on a PS4 Pro and didn’t encounter many issues, only experiencing dips in the busiest of areas. On the base PS4, I did notice more frequent and pronounced drops, but it holds up a steady 30 for the majority of the time. Other than that, the game holds up really well. I encountered next to no bugs throughout my 12 or so hours with the game, and the only time I found myself frustrated was with myself after sussing out yet another puzzle had an incredibly simple answer. It was a trope that existed throughout the game, and just as I was about to give up, I’d see something that I’d previously missed, and then be fine again. The Last Guardian takes you to the brink of feeling incredibly stupid, then lets relief wash over you like a tidal wave when you figure it out. In fact, there were discussions with some journalists who were stuck on the game as well, such is the nature of the game. Whilst some would say that the lack of a HUD exacerbates the struggle with finding your way, I found it refreshing to not have my hand held and shown the answers, instead using the time to explore the world a little more and eventually figure it out myself.
I don’t want to go into story details in this review, because I really don’t want to spoil the game for anyone who wants to experience it, but it’s safe to say that the story plays out in some really impressive ways. The narrative is conveyed through gameplay, primarily, but there is also a voiceover from an older iteration of the boy, as if regaling a friend over a drink with his extraordinary tale. It’s a mechanic that works well, and at times does give you a subtle hint as to what needs to be done next, without being overly obvious. As for the other main character? Well, Trico becomes not just an integral part of the game, but a character that you truly start to feel a bond with. I’m not just talking about the boy in the game either, as there were times I felt myself breaking into a smile whilst Trico danced around in a pond, and felt pangs of anxiety as I heard the subtle whimpers, the beast clearly missing me as I rounded a corner to allow us to both progress. It was a moment that tugged on the heart strings, and definitely wasn’t the last. As the game progresses, you get the ability to issue commands to Trico. This is somewhat of a learning curve, as there will be times when the beast will be as stubborn as ever and refuse to do what you’re asking, but will then follow another path entirely, leading you to your destination. It really feels like you’re training an animal, rather than playing a video game. Trico is so much more than a character, and by the end of the game I had started to feel more attached to the horned cat/bird hybrid than I do my own cat at times. I didn’t think we’d get a better ‘buddy’ character than BT in Titanfall 2 this year, but Trico has flown way ahead and perched atop the list, for sure, and all without saying a word.
For all of the expectation, all of the hype, and all of the anticipation, The Last Guardian is a wonderful game. Infusing the best elements of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Fumito Ueda and his team have created something gloriously unique, with unparalleled ambition that has been realised almost perfectly. If you don’t find yourself falling head over heels for Trico, then there’s something wrong with you. Whilst there are a few moments in the game that do make it feel slightly dated, and the frame rate dips here and there, the scope, narrative and sheer beauty elevate this above anything that Team Ico have put out before. Does it live up to the impossible hype? To me, it comes exceptionally close.