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the-last-guardian-8PlayStation’s newest gaming masterpiece

Long before games like Journey, Undertale, and Ori and the Blind Forest amazed us with their bold artistry, Sony’s Fumito Ueda and his development studio at Team Ico gave us arguably the most influential pair of artistic video games in history: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. These games transported us to immersive, mystical worlds to experience inspiring and emotional stories of love and sacrifice, all conveyed through minimalist storytelling and the clever use of lighting and sound to accentuate mood. Now, 11 years since the release of his last game, Ueda is back with his most ambitious project yet, The Last Guardian on PlayStation 4.

The Last Guardian originally started out as a PS3 title, but due to the console’s technical limitations, Ueda was simply unable to realize his creative vision. Development then shifted over to Sony’s newer, more powerful PS4, and Ueda’s new development studio, genDESIGN, two factors that help explain why there was more than a decade gap since the release of Shadow of the Colossus on PS2 (the Ico and SotC HD Collection on PS3 also contributed.) The Last Guardian is, in many ways, an amazing technical accomplish, and one of the most endearing video games I’ve ever played—without question it was worth the long wait.

the-last-guardian-3Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Release Date: Out now
Developer: genDESIGN, SIE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Genre: Action-adventure
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: T (Teen, 13 years and up)

A boy and his beast companion

The adventure begins with you, playing the role of an everyday boy, waking up in a mysterious underground dungeon and finding strange, foreign markings all over you skin. Lying next to you is an enormous half-bird, half-dog, griffin-like creature, clearly in agonizing pain and hostile towards you, having several spears lodged in its body. Like in past Team Ico games, very little backstory is explained to you, freeing you to interpret situations such as these the way you want, and leaving it completely in your hands as to how to react to them. How this beast (which the boy later names Trico) came to be in this wretched condition I couldn’t say, but certainly I felt the need to help it out.

The remedy, as it turned out, was to feed Trico glowing barrels that somehow revitalized the beast, and calmed it enough to allow me to get near and pull the spears out. This was a touching moment between boy and beast, one of dozens I would encounter over this twelve hour journey, and it was absolutely heartwarming to witness our bond gradually grow stronger. What’s truly captivating about The Last Guardian is how all of its action-adventure elements—from its discovery of new areas, to platforming segments, to combat segments—all serve to reinforce the core idea that every moment is about the strengthening connection between the boy and his guardian beast.

the-last-guardian-4Teaming with Trico

I’ve played tons of games where you have non-playable companions that aid you, but Trico stands apart as one of the most endearing, original, and helpful AI characters I’ve ever teamed with. It’s not just his size that makes Trico unique (he’s about as large as the massive Colossi from Shadow of the Colossus), but it’s how he’s been designed with realistic animal qualities, behaviours and instincts. Trico will affectionately howl if you get out of sight, it will come racing towards you if you shout its name, and it will even poke its head through small doorways just to keep you in sight for as long as possible. Like a dog to its owner, you can sense the genuine love Trico has for you (especially when he fondly stares at you with those deep black eyes), and so its every action is interpreted as genuine care for your safety and well-being; not simply an AI teammate doing its part.

From a gameplay perspective, there are numerous different ways that Trico will support you, from acting as a bridge to higher levels, to jumping between platforms with you on his back, to attacking stone soldiers that attempt to kidnap you. The caveat, however, is that Trico usually must be commanded to perform these actions, and that requires you to mimic the desired behavior, such as jumping on the spot to convey the message it’s time to leap. In the absence of commands, Trico’s animal instincts will often kick in and the beast is apt to wander off and do its own thing. These moments can be incredibly adorable, like the time Trico stopped following me to go roll around in shallow water, or extremely helpful, such as the times the creature would wander off and find ledges to new areas it wanted to jump to.

the-last-guardian-5Solving puzzles together

The premise of The Last Guardian is quite simple: you and your beast companion are looking for a way to escape from a gigantic fortress in a faraway valley surrounded by sky-high walls. Throughout your journey you’ll encounter an onslaught of puzzle after puzzle, ranging from garden variety hit a switch to open a door, to move clever scenarios where you and Trico have to work independently to overcome challenges. More often than not solving puzzles is a matter of paying attention to your surroundings, as the developers often employ shrewd ways to draw your attention to the right place, such as curious landmarks or intriguing sources of light. In the odd time you do get stuck, short narration can sometimes provide clues; however, these hints are sparse and sometimes vague, so mainly you and Trico have to rely on your wits to figure out how to proceed.

the-last-guardian-6Beautiful presentation

As you’d expect from a game by the creators of Ico and SotC, The Last Guardian offers breathtaking graphics at every turn. Stunning use of atmospheric lighting and blur effects emphasize the surreal nature of this mystical realm, and the gargantuan stone castle will leave you in awe of its magnificent size and grandeur. Trico, too, is a marvel to behold with its seemingly thousands of feathers that all move independently as they sway elegantly in the wind. All this eye-catching scenery is further accentuated with subtle, beautiful music from composer Takeshi Furukawa (GoldenEye 007, Star Wars: The Clone Wars), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Trinity Boys Choir.

the-last-guardian-7Clunky controls and camera

As much as I enjoyed The Last Guardian (it’s amazing), the game is not without its faults. Controlling the boy is occasionally cumbersome due to his insistence on running with excessive gusto and large stop distance, which can result in your momentum sending you careening off ledges. Thankfully, the boy tends to grab onto edges at the last minute, enabling you to pull yourself back up, so these occasional tumbles are more often a nuisance than a life-threatening mistake.

Adding to the frustration is an awkward camera that tends to distort at the worst possible moments, leaving you no choice but to wrestle with it until you regain your bearings. The wonky camera is especially egregious when you’re riding Trico, who can be performing any number of actions such as running, leaping, or attacking, and there were more than a few occurrences where I completely lost sight of where the boy was positioned on his beast. It’s worth noting too that since Trico is an autonomous creature with a mind of its own, you’re sure to encounter several times where he simply doesn’t understand how to properly translate your commands into actions. If you’re the type without the patience to teach a real-life dog to properly behave, know that at times Trico can be just as unruly.

Final Thoughts

The Last Guardian is more than just a video game, it’s a moving experience you’ll remember for a lifetime. This warm, touching, and emotional story focuses on a young boy’s powerful bond with a majestic beast and their incredible journey together through a mystical land. Every element of the game reinforces their magical connection, from the soft music that plays during tender moments with the beast, to the action-packed gameplay sequences where they risk life and limb to save one another. A few niggling technical faults may occasionally take you out of the experience, but overall this is one of the most endearing and heartwarming games ever produced.

+ Powerful relationship between the boy and Trico
+ Animation of Trico is top-notch
+ Presentation is carefully crafted to enhance the mood
+ Puzzles are well-designed and rewarding to complete

– Cumbersome controls at times
– Camera issues
– Trico doesn’t always do what you want

OVERALL

Gameplay: 3.5/5
Graphics: 5/5
Sound: 4.5/5
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 4/5

Overall Rating: 4.25/5 (85%)

Get The Last Guardian on PlayStation 4