If you’ve had a pet, odds are you know how special that bond is. More often than not, the furry creature will do whatever it takes to please you, protect you, and make sure you’re okay… while also stubbornly ignoring you from time to time. The complex relationship has always been tough to put into words, much less translate into the video game format. After nearly a decade in development, genDESIGN’s PlayStation 4 exclusive, The Last Guardian, not only nails the emotional experience of having a pet, but also brings a unique (yet flawed) title to the table that is unlike anything I’ve ever played.
Just in case you managed to avoid news of the game all these years, The Last Guardian centers around the budding friendship between a young boy and a puppy/kitten/bird-inspired beast named Trico. After the boy finds and essentially tames Trico at the beginning of the game, the duo embark on a special journey brimming with breathtaking action sequences, emotional moments, and charm. For the most part, that’s about as deep as the story goes, which is by no means a bad thing; the game is more about developing and maintaining that partnership with Trico so that the two of you can explore the world together, solve puzzles, and progress.
As Creative Director Fumito Ueda previously explained, the goal was to make Trico feel real to the players. The team managed to accomplish that through careful design and AI programming. By far the stand-out aspect of the game was how realistic Trico’s reactions to situations were. As someone who has both a cat and a dog, I saw a bit of each in The Last Guardian‘s majestic creature. While agile like a cat, Trico was as loyal and playful as your average dog. As I progressed throughout the game, I was constantly surprised by the intricate mannerisms (like nuzzling the boy, and picking him up by the shirt) that were incorporated.
The game’s controls were relatively simple, but admittedly a bit wonky at times. Like most games, the left and right toggles were used to navigate the map and move the camera angle. Simple moves like jumping, dashing, and dropping were tied to face buttons on the controller. Once the player is able to direct Trico, the same buttons are used for his movement, albeit in company with the right bumper. Though generally easy, there were times when I was trying to get Trico to go in a certain direction or jump, and he took a few minutes to follow through. Most of the time, the reason Trico didn’t want to perform an action was because he was distracted by something he wanted to play with or smell, or that he was afraid of; other instances were because he was stubborn or wouldn’t face the correct way. It required an extreme amount of patience, but was always worth it once my newfound pal and I were able to overcome the next obstacle.
Speaking of obstacles, the environmental puzzles in the game are plentiful and fun to figure out. I got stuck more times than I’m willing to admit, but that’s part of the fun. Aside from basic platforming, I also had to deal with creepy soldiers who I was for the most part defenseless against. Encountering them usually meant dodging their grabs and magic long enough to reach a lever that would open a nearby door and unleash Trico on the unsuspecting forces. Watching him pounce on the strange group to protect me as the epic score played in the background was a unique experience.
One of the most fascinating things about the game is how quickly I came to care for Trico and dismiss the fact that he’s not actually real. Moments in this game tugged on my heartstrings in ways that I’ve never experienced in a video game. As the narrator pointed out several times, both the boy and Trico recognized that they needed and depended on one another to escape. It would have been simple enough to allow players to control Trico entirely, or have him respond immediately to every command, but then he would have felt like a tool. Instead, he felt like an independent animal, making the experience feel all the more special.
The playground or “Nest” as it is referred to in the game is wonderfully detailed and gorgeous. I often found myself standing with Trico on a high ledge watching the grass and trees flow in the breeze and taking it all in. Unfortunately, that attention to detail doesn’t exactly translate well to the interior of the buildings. Most of those sections looked nearly identical and were crippled by awful camera angles. With Trico being so large, and the hallways and entrances so narrow, I often lost my sense of direction and found myself staring at odd angles of Trico’s feathered body.
After waiting a decade to get our hands on The Last Guardian, the developer’s spiritual successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Fumito Ueda’s highly anticipated title has finally spread its wings and taken flight. Though the wonky controls, awkward camera angles, and framerate issues lead me to think the title could have benefitted from a few more months of tweaking, the unique end result was something I’m glad I experienced, and hope others get a chance to do as well. At the end of the day, genDESIGN has crafted a beautiful tale and brought the bond between a boy and his (puppy/kitten/bird) pet to life better than any other medium I’ve seen.
Rating: 4 out of 5
This review was completed using a PS4 copy of The Last Guardian provided by Sony Computer Entertainment. The game is set to launch on December 6, 2016.