Updated: Feb 3
After almost a decade of waiting, acclaimed video game creator Fumito Ueda and Team Ico (who morphed into genDESIGN over the course of development), finally release their third game on a hugely excited gaming populous. Is the Last Guardian a long gestating dud that time has forgot or a much needed artistic masterpiece gamers need to save them from seemingly endless shooters?
The Last Guardian is a third-person perspective game that combines action-adventure and puzzle elements in which the player controls an unnamed boy who must work together with Trico, a giant, feathered creature, to solve puzzles and explore a seemingly abandoned tower/castle complex.
The story unfolds via flashback narrative told by an older man recounting his experience as a young boy meeting the aforementioned Trico after awaking in a mysterious abandoned castle.
Similar to previous Team Ico titles very little is explained and the developer's minimalist approach to storytelling and lack of a complex narrative has allowed them (and in turn the player) to focus on flushing out the relationship between the two main characters and pure exploration. Like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus the game touches on themes of isolation, companionship and character relationships.
While cut-scenes and traditional exposition are slight the game does employ a voice-over that serves as part exposition and part clever hints system. This use of narration to help the player at certain points seems organic and clever.
After the initial few hours there could be the potential for the castle navigation and puzzle solving to become repetitive and tedious but as the game goes on your affection for Trico and your concern for his well-being (as he does get pulled from pillar to post in his attempts to protect the boy) and desire to reach the top of the seemingly endless tower will see you through the more frustrating puzzle sections.
While the actual gameplay isn’t overly original (simple exploration and puzzle solving) the game world in which it is encased is beautifully realised and refreshingly peaceful that is a joy to explore even if controlling Trico has its frustrations.
The gameplay, which some may feel is dated and antiquated, harks back to a time when players had to put the time into explore their surroundings if they wished to progress and simply weren’t led from A to B via an arrow or waypoint. Some players that pine for instant gratification and the ability to simply move to the next section or area will find the game frustrating but others will savour the need to explore and experiment if there are to be successful in their puzzle solving – something not seen regularly in AAA games for quite some years. In hindsight this has probably just as much to do with the time it has taken to develop the game as much as a conscious design choice; indicative of the time when the game was at conceptual/preproduction stage (circa ’07)
By far and away the game’s biggest asset (and also at times its biggest gripe) is Trico. The success of the game (commercially and critically) will be/is determined by the execution of games main, non-human protagonist – a 50ft long half bird/half cat mammal. The creature has been so well realised and implemented that only the most stone hearted of players will fail to instantly fall in love with the beast. From his soppy cat-like facial features (that give him the appearance of continually being in a state of tears) to his occasional playful nature (he possesses many traits found in a domesticated cat) through to his savage paternal-esque defence of the boy during times of peril Trico must surely be one of the most endearing, loveable and believable video game animal in game history. The emotional impact of the final scenes depends wholly on the affections the player has garnered for the duo over the game's 15 hour play time and in this respect the game is a resounding success.
However controlling Trico can be a frustrating affair as he has a tendency to meander around the game world – albeit in many circumstances this results in the player reaching areas that were hitherto inaccessible – or simply ignore player instructions that some people may find frustrating and testing of their patience.
Your inability to make Trico do everything at the drop of a hat maybe the developer’s way of bestowing an element of reality. As Trico is a wild animal with nothing suggesting that he domesticated or tame in anyway and while a strong bond forms between the two protagonists this wouldn’t necessarily translate to your immediate ability to control and command such a large mammal.
Moments of ultimate frustration occurred when after spending several minutes coercing Trico into traversing a vertical section of the castle he would, without warning, turn round and return to the start point while you desperately waggled the joystick in an attempt to prevent him undoing your hard-earned exploration.
The game is gorgeous to look at and lovely lighting, feather effects and masses of detail bring Trico to life. The game world in general is lovingly crafted with vast draw distances, a great atmosphere and heavy 'Ico' influences.
There is a tranquility and sereneness to the game that is a wondrous antithesis to the modern gaming obsession for AAA titles to be big, loud and frantic. When an experience like this comes along players should embrace it and champion it with the goal to encourage big developers to take more chances with their large projects.
The camera is controlled in game by the now traditional right analogue stick configuration. However, the way the camera behaves and some of the awkward/far from useful angles really do feel outdated. This is compounded by the fact that the restricted fields of vision have not been implemented with the aim to hide treasures or secret locations (a la God of War) but simply down to outdated game design/programming.
In addition to some perceived camera issues there are also some performance issues with noticeable frame drops. This is inexcusable in this day and age and with such a long developmental cycle (the game suffered many publicised delays during development which led to it skipping a whole console generation and being almost a decade between its announcement and its eventual release) they surely had time to optimize performance and eliminate any issues. That said it didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the game and the issue seemingly became less the deeper into the game the player gets.
The OST is beautiful but is criminally underused and only makes a few noticeable appearances during key narrative junctures or emotive moments. Furukawa’s work is amazing and while he takes inspiration from the soundtracks of Ueda's former work, he brilliantly crafts his own moving, distinct and haunting piece of work that one needs to listen to in isolation to grasp the full majesty of his compositions. The soundtrack is scheduled to be released on vinyl by Iam8bit in Q1 of 2017 and let’s all hope the pressing does it justice (*Editor - Click here to read TFTV's review of the vinyl).
While the game offers an experience rarely seen in today’s gaming landscape its comparisons to Team Ico’s previous work (especially ‘Ico’) are glaringly apparent. Similar to 2015’s ‘The Force Awakens’ while taking well established story/game beats and reimagining them for a new audience can have great results the suspicion is the game may not have the same impact on players 'Shadow of the Colossus' or 'Ico' did in the early 00’s – game experiences that are in many ways still unparalleled to this day.
That said the game has dodged the fate that has befallen many games in the past (here’s looking at you Duke Nukem!) that have experienced excruciatingly long development cycles and can proudly sit beside Ueda’s previous work as another example of video games artistry that pushes the medium forward. Unfortunately, a handful of technical issues and a gameplay style some may find a little outdated will perhaps prevent the game from reaching the audience it deserves…
Highly emotional, beautiful to look at, tranquil and gut-wrenching in equal measure; The Last Guardian is a game that has definitely been worth the wait and an artistic masterpiece even if a few technical elements may feel outdated and lacking polish. Let’s just hope we don't have to wait a further decade for another game from Ueda-san.