After nine long years in development hell, The Last Guardian is resting peacefully in my PlayStation 4. Dubbed a spiritual successor of the critically acclaimed Ico, The Last Guardian is beautifully flawed. It offers the breathtaking vistas and powerful emotional messages that developer Team Ico has long been lauded for. But a wonky camera, finicky co-star and graphics that saw their best days back in the early 2000s do the game no favors. However, for Team Ico diehards or gamers looking for a nonshooting title, The Last Guardian is a must-play.
Just a Boy and his Beast
If I learned nothing else from this game, it's that children shouldn't touch shiny things lying on the ground. If they do, they might end up like our nameless male protagonist, covered with weird tattoos and regaining consciousness in a strange castle next to a giant monster. After our hero regained his footing, it was time to get this action-adventure platforming puzzler on the road.
Once you free the beast called Trico, it's up to the both of you to find a way out of the castle where you find yourself trapped. As the boy, you're not much of a fighter; that's Trico's job. You're tasked with crawling through all the nooks and crannies that your large companion can't navigate, pulling switches, and finding barrels full of glowing blue material to feed Trico.
Trico is that magical animal friend plucked straight from your imagination. Covered in lush, black feathers, the beast walks on four legs and has big, foreboding talons and a long, cat-like tail. His head is very feline, with a beak-like snout and a pair of glowing blue horns at the top of his head. The creature's wings are withered, preventing him from flying, but the one thing that will stay with you about Trico are those big, soulful eyes. It took less than 3 minutes for me to want to protect this creature and go on more adventures a la The NeverEnding Story.
As you make your way through the game, your connection to Trico quickly intensifies. After engaging enemies, you'll be tasked with pulling spears out of his feathery hide. Each one causes the poor beast to yelp in pain and leaves a blood stain that reminds you of your companion's sacrifice. There comes a point in the game when you'll have to destroy totems that terrify Trico. When I hit that point, I wanted to jump through the screen and give Trico a hug. Who would hurt this gentle giant and why? And what happened that obviously traumatized this poor animal?
A Game of Charades
The boy communicates with his beast by using cajoling yelps and gestures. As time goes on, the bond between boy and beast grows, which is important since you need Trico in order to make it anywhere in this labyrinth. That's why it's annoying when Trico ignores your commands. Despite playing the game for about 11 hours, I never really got a handle on what commands were mapped to the four face buttons.
I sussed out that holding R1 in conjunction with the triangle button would make Trico stand on his hind legs so the boy could access a higher area. Pressing square would make the beast claw an object, while cross made him rush forward like a battering ram. I'm still trying to figure out the circle button's command.
Even if you manage to decipher the command buttons, that doesn't mean you're on easy street. I've literally spent 10 minutes doing everything in my power to get my mythical friend to heed my command, only to have him to stare at me blankly and do his own thing. Eventually, I'd leave the area and come back to find Trico exactly where I was trying to direct him. He'd lock eyes with me and return to his original position, thus restarting the cycle of cat-like petulance.
Working Together Even If It Kills Them
As I made my way through the game, I was astonished at this kid's resiliency. Playing this character, I've jumped from heights that would kill a normal person, only to limp for a few seconds and revert back to my normal childish gait. Then there's climbing aboard Trico. This kid must have an inordinately strong grip, because in my time playing this game, I've watched the boy being whipped around like a wet noodle as Trico shook his head or fought off baddies.
Since the boy can't fight off enemies on his own, you have to either lure them to Trico, or if he's unavailable, run like hell until you can get back to your beast. If you don't, you risk being carried off should you fail to clear the mysterious symbols that pop up once you're captured. Either way, all roads end at Trico.
Beautiful ... for a PS3 Game
If only The Last Guardian had come out in 2007. Then I would have sung the praises of the animation that at times looked like I was maneuvering through a Monet painting. But, alas, the game has PlayStation 3 written all over it. And you can forget about the PlayStation Pro, because no amount of upscaling will make The Last Guardian look as polished as any current-gen games.
I found that textures were often muddy, with rock faces looking smudged and blades of grass resembling giant green needles.
Despite the rough edges, though, the game really shines in some moments. When I first emerged from the gloom of the cave into the ruins proper, I was met by a crystal-clear blue sky, bright green grass and massive, crumbling ruins that were still breathtaking in their deteriorating state. To hammer the point home, the boy stood illuminated in a sunbeam surrounded by electric-blue butterflies. I won't lie. I stood there for a few minutes to take it all in.
Team Ico put a lot of work into Trico's mannerisms, and it shows. Left to his own devices, the beast will scratch behind his ears or roll playfully on the ground. I even caught him relieving himself, much to my chagrin.
Ready for His Close-Up ... or Not
It's rare that you have to worry about the camera in a third-person game nowadays, but The Last Guardian really isn't a game made for 2016, is it? Since the boy is sharing the screen with a giant monster, the camera is often trying to accommodate both characters. That's a big mistake, as there was many a time when the boy's perspective gave me a face full of black feathers. This became a major problem when I was trying to navigate around the beast's legs or climb up or down its back. The wildly swinging camera caused me to get stuck, which pulled me out of the immersive element of the game.
This isn't a Duke Nukem Forever situation: The Last Guardian is definitely worth the wait. Despite its rough spots, the game is executed well and offers gameplay that's a respite from the myriad of shooters that have come out as of late. At its best, the title delivers stunning set pieces that will inspire awe in even the most jaded player. And Team Ico does an excellent job of eliciting an emotional bond to Trico, in the absence of any true dialogue.
As pretty as some of the game is, though, other parts look like they came straight out of the early 2000s. That's because they did, and no amount of remastering is going to change that. It's also frustrating that communicating with Trico is never a sure thing. The Last Guardian is worth experiencing for fans of Team Ico's previous work, but you'll have to live with some pretty archaic blemishes.