Few games have expectations as high as The Last Guardian. Only Half-Life 3, if it ever actually emerges from Valve's development pits, could rival it. The latest from celebrated Ico and Shadow of the Colossus designer Fumito Ueda, it’s been over ten years in development, switching studios and console generations in its painstaking journey to players’ hands. But talking about expectations is to be unfair on The Last Guardian, which - much like Avatar or The Force Awakens in the world of cinema - was never going to be anything more than a video game.
The Last Guardian revolves almost entirely around the relationship between two characters: the unnamed boy controlled by the player, and Trico, the cat-dog-bird-dragon he befriends. Like a child's dream animal, Trico is close to the perfect companion, by turns loyal, badass, noble, and snuggly. It (no gender is ever specified) can be read as analogous to any domestic animal, given its wide range of behaviours. It can shoot lightning bolts from its tail. It can fly. It is my friend.
I can’t overstate what a triumph of AI, visual and audio design, and animation Trico represents. It feels like a big, heavy, dangerous animal, and yet treats its young companion with almost dainty care. Keeping its own schedule, it rolls about in puddles, looks at and plays with objects, naps, poops, sneezes, stretches, scratches itself, and comes looking for you. It’s a thrill just to see Trico navigating the game’s buttresses and tunnels with the curiosity of a kitty or a doggu. While the programming logic is there if you look for it, I’ve rarely believed in a computer-controlled character this completely.
That belief is key to the game’s principal goal: forging a meaningful connection with Trico. While The Last Guardian is not exclusively about patting Trico, I spent a goodly portion of my playthrough patting the beast, or clinging to its feathers as we explored the game’s ruined setting. Treat Trico well, and you’ll get head-nuzzles and helpful hints in return. Its vocalisations, built up of more animal noises than Chewbacca, are extraordinarily emotive, further incentivising interaction. You’ll quickly get a sense of what scares Trico, what makes Trico sad, and what makes it happy. You’ll be sad when Trico gets hurt, and scared when it gets angry. You'll pat Trico, like, all the time.
Key to Trico's believability is that can’t be directly controlled. You can point and shout at things, or pat or scold it, but ultimately it’ll do what it wants. Much of the gameplay involves trying things and seeing how Trico reacts, which feels refreshingly unpatronising in today’s age of constant tutorials. Gameplay mostly involves clambering around and solving puzzles, with the occasional combat sequence (in which only Trico can damage enemies), but it’s all driven by interactions with your feathered friend. Communication is key to solving The Last Guardian’s collaborative puzzles. Sometimes it’s as simple as clambering up Trico’s tail or body to reach a tricky ledge. Elsewhere, you’ll need to convince Trico to do more specific tasks - or you’ll do things for Trico, like finding food or getting rid of things that scare it. Ueda and Japan Studio really committed to this core concept, and the result is a character with true emotional resonance.
These two characters' adventure is told simply, with few video game cliches, with only the occasional voiceover clarifying story beats. It’s a grand ol’ fantasy tale of magic and beasts, concerning how Trico’s species relates to the universe. The journey takes Trico and friend through intricate, interconnected ruins inside an enormous crater, comprised of pillars, halls, caves, towers, and aqueducts. As they uncover the mystery of Trico’s purpose, the pair’s relationship goes through highs and lows both emotional and literal, with spectacular high-wire setpieces offering heart-pounding thrills only enhanced by their bond. My only quibble is that it’s marginally too long: a little tighter, and Iron Giant-level tears would be a given.
It’ll feel longer than it is, too, thanks to some horrifically uncooperative controls. The Last Guardian provides clear evidence that games don’t go through decade-long production periods without gathering their share of old ideas and clunky code. The camera, for example, is by turns sluggish and outright disobedient, adhering more to PS2-era conventions than today’s expectations of third-person camera controls. Basic mechanics like jumping and ledge-grabbing are frustratingly unreliable and imprecise for a game with so much jumping and ledge-grabbing. Likewise, the boy’s fluid, expressive character animation comes at the cost of responsiveness. Trico’s buddy just doesn’t control as tightly as most modern game characters. It takes a while to get used to.
Also coming at a cost are the game’s spectacular graphics. The Last Guardian employs beautiful lighting, expansive environments, and next-level feather and destruction physics, resulting in a game that frequently astounds, but does so at a severely compromised level of performance. I’m not the kind of person to quibble over frame rates, but some sections of The Last Guardian really hammer the PlayStation 4's hardware capabilities. It may be the first PS4 game (and, I suspect, the first of many) that requires a PS4 Pro for an uncompromised experience. Luckily, the odd frame rate drop doesn’t severely hamper the gameplay here, but if that kind of thing annoys you, get ready to be annoyed.
The Last Guardian is shaggy and frustrating in ways that aren’t surprising, given its development history. But like a three-legged dog or a cycloptic cat, it’s almost endearing in its jankiness: there’s nothing that ruins the experience, and the frustration curve is appropriately similar to that of training an animal. A better way to put it: this is Dark Souls, but the boss is your friend. Take the time to work with it, and you’ll witness sights so majestic you’ll forget all about the camera troubles. I’ve no issue with calling The Last Guardian a flawed, innovative masterpiece - and one worth the wait.