Within the first five minutes of playing The Last Guardian, the latest minimalist adventure from Team Ico, I was in love. This is a game that understands its own strength — The bond between its two main characters — and builds an unforgettable experience around it. Released on December 6, 2017 for the PlayStation 4, The Last Guardian is not a title to be missed.
In many ways, The Last Guardian feels like a game out of time. There is no user interface, tutorial, chapter selection, player growth, or explorable open world to speak of. The game is quiet and contemplative, a tightly focused story about a young boy who inexplicably awakes in a dark cave next to a fantastical beast who’s been chained to the floor. It’s clearly wounded and angry; The boy shows little fear. After taking the time to yank the spears from its back and soothe its suspicious temperament, the boy gains the tentative trust of the large beast, and the pair begin their quest to escape the mysterious cave. I’ve taken care to not refer to the boy as the player character because even though he is technically controlled by the player, the beast is equally deserving of the title of protagonist. It’s impossible to not immediately become smitten by the duo, largely thanks to expressive animation and clever artificial intelligence. Every cautious step and careless tumble of the boy is wonderfully exaggerated and full of character, further exemplified by the excellent Japanese voice track that’s not translated because it didn’t need to be. And the beast, who the boy takes to naming as “Trico”, displays the same level of goofy swagger and personality with every action he takes. Early moments are bolstered merely by Trico’s presence, as I would stop to admire his realistic idle animations for minutes at a time. True to life, the creature is never still, with the exception of the few occasions in which settles down for a nap between big cinematic moments.
The gameplay consists of a quaint mix of simple puzzles, Uncharted-esque platforming segments, “combat” arenas, and spectacle set pieces. While no one aspect is particularly engaging from a mechanical perspective, (They can often be quite frustrating, in fact), they greatly benefit from the contextual idea of what’s happening on screen. There’s just something about the way that Trico gracefully leaps atop ancient marble pillars and tumbles down rotted walkways that manages to mask the actual mundanity of the player’s actions. In many ways, it’s more akin to a story book or visual novel than a traditional videogame. Much of this depends on the endlessly enchanting aesthetic and strong overall sense of place. The entire game essentially takes place in a single environment — the Nest, a massive series of stone spires and ancient hallways that wind up thousands of feet in the air, fully surrounded by cliff faces on all sides. It’s breathtaking to say the least, and the game isn’t shy in basking in countless vistas that display large chunks of the Nest in all its glory. Wind quietly tugs against old stone structures and butterflies flit around the wreckage of crumbling mine shafts, all underneath a cloudy slate-grey sky.
But it wasn’t until I was deep in the campaign that I realized why I found it all so absorbing: Trico and his little boy are the only signs of life in the entire Nest. In the age of “living” open world games, it was extremely refreshing to take a break from chatty NPC’s and bustling cityscapes. Even the soundtrack plays with a light touch, reserving grander orchestral beats for major set pieces while accompanying the rest of the game with reserved piano melodies. I relished every second of quiet loneliness as the boy and Trico made their trek across an endless ghost town.
It’s a slight shame, then, that graphical quirks threaten to disrupt this ethereal beauty. Texture quality is a mixed bag and especially stone walls regularly appeared muddied and lacking in detail. And as much as I adored each moment spent climbing to a new sun-bleached overlook, the inconsistent lighting occasionally threatens to disrupt the purity of the scene. Indirect lighting such as torches or sunny windows are lovingly nuanced and realistic, but whenever the sun itself touches a surface, it’s as if a member of the dev team turned the contrast dial to maximum, resulting in a blurry and washed-out image. It’s not sever enough to seriously curb my enjoyment, but for a game that leans so heavily on aesthetics and a sense of place, it’s still quite a bummer.
But as disappointing as the visuals can be, they don’t even approach the mechanical shortcomings, the primary culprit being slippery controls that ensure the player never feels entirely in command of the boy. Only having loose dominion over Trico’s actions feels more than acceptable — he is meant to be an intelligent and conscious creature with his own decisions after all — but the boy is not a mythical animal, and it was beyond infuriating when he routinely refused to complete basic actions like grabbing items or climbing platforms. A strange and inconsistent sense of momentum contributes to the unpolished feel. The camera has no interest in helping with this problem either. It clings too close to the boy, regularly obscuring the environment and getting caught on level geography. This would be an issue in any game, but even more so when the two main characters are of such different sizes. Even during cinematic segments, I was bewildered that I couldn’t see more than half of Trico’s character model in almost any frame. Team Ico is clearly aware of the concept of dynamic cameras, as the focus zooms in and out to accommodate for differing level structures- so I can’t imagine why they would overlook the same camera methods to account for the placement of the playable characters.
These issues are arguably at their height during enemy encounters. While there are no traditional foes present, The Last Guardian often throws hordes of obnoxious statue men at the player. The boy is helpless in combat, as coming into contact with a statue will result in abduction while the player mashes buttons to wriggle free before being sent through an inter-dimensional door and perishing. The stakes are essentially nonexistent because there is no limit to the amount of times that the player can escape the statue’s clutches, and Trico will automatically destroy each statue that he encounters. One nice touch, however, is how the boy must comfort Trico at the end of a fight by climbing on his back and petting his feathers while whispering words of comfort. It’s a simple mechanic, as the player simply needs to press a face button while near the beast, but it makes the combat encounters feel at least slightly more meaningful.
Platforming is similarly one-note — The player just needs to find the predetermined path of ledges and platforms that blend in the rest of the level and hold up on the thumbstick. There is zero opportunity for creativity or drama, and the poor controls have a nasty tendency to rear their head during these bland segments.
Thankfully, The Last Guardian is not an especially long game, and I was relieved to arrive at the conclusion before the gimmicks had begun to wear thin. Even as I approached the better part of ten hours nearing the conclusion, I had yet to grow weary of navigating hauntingly beautiful structures that stretched miles above the ground. I suspect that the general laidback pace and low difficulty quietly kept the frustration and boredom at bay while I completed essentially the same tasks over and over again. Even the puzzles required little more than some patience and willingness to explore the environment. But that’s okay. Once again I will say that The Last Guardian understands what makes it compelling — the relationship between Trico and the boy, and the journey that they undertake together. So I’m perfectly content with simple puzzles and shallow platforming when the context of why they’re occurring is so much more important.
Quite possibly the most impressive aspect of The Last Guardian’s design is how the mechanics shift to reflect the growing intimacy between the main characters. Early on in the campaign a new hazard is introduced in the form of stained-glass windows that brandish an ominous black eye in the center. Trico is deathly terrified of these malicious glass entities and will become paralyzed at the sight of them, forcing the boy to destroy each window before they can progress. As the hours go by, the windows take on more imposing and fortified forms, requiring increasingly elaborate methods by which to destroy them. But in a particular section roughly halfway through the game, the boy becomes trapped in a helpless position, surrounded by statues and watched upon by stained eyes at all angles while Trico looks on helplessly. I initially assumed that I had failed the encounter, as the boy was carried closer and closer to his doom in the far corner of the room. But the boy made a final, desperate call to his paralyzed companion, and all of a sudden Trico was barreling through the room, tackling his oppressors and shattering the windows in an instant.
This was not a plot hole, not a case of broken consistency. Rather, it was a moment, and one that would bury itself in my mind as a perfect example of the unique storytelling powers inherent only in interactive media. Trico is not “cured” of his fears, and the windows remain a dangerous foe throughout the rest of the story. But this moment displayed an inherent truth about Trico: that his affection for the boy trumps the many evils that seek to tear them down. It’s a rather generic message, and one that couldn’t have been nearly as meaningful in a written format. And yet it’s reveal is still monumental because it was delivered in a way that only games are capable of.
After experiencing the peaks that The Last Guardian offers, it’s hard to remain too angry with the valleys. Sure, the controls are inaccurate and the visuals could use some polish. The puzzles require little thought, the combat encounters are limp, and bugs are a common occurrence. I’ve played countless games that look prettier and play tighter than The Last Guardian. But I have never played a game that better demonstrated the sense of love that only comes as a result of fierce companionship in the face of overwhelming challenge. And that’s pretty special, I think.