The Last Guardian (version tested: PS4 Pro)

Way way back in the mists of time, when the PS2 was the dominant console on the market and I still used to buy print magazines (though notably only for the demo disks on the cover) I picked up a copy of the Official Playstation 2 magazine featuring a demo of a Studio Japan game I'd never heard of.

That game was Ico, put together by a talented fellah called Fumito Oueda and Team Ico, a bunch of extremely talented developers.

Ico was completely unlike anything else on the market at the time. The demo was long enough to give you a tantalising taste of a game world that was quiet, not busy with screen furniture, with the most eerie atmosphere and almost funereal sound production. I was completely hooked and rushed out to pick the game up on launch.

Some years later, I did the same again with Shadow of the Colossus, Team Ico's next game. Although the two games were not linked by any commonality, SOTC still shared the same atmosphere, and some ingenious game mechanics. Most importantly though, the antagonists in the game were gigantic scaleable 'levels' in their own right and the challenge was to climb them and plunge a sword into their most sensitive bits (owch!), claiming them all before the game's quite affecting conclusion (no spoilers here but damned if that moment doesn't still stick in the mind all these years later).

Things went very quiet after that. Tantalising teaser images and glimpses mysteriously arose of a new game from Team Ico, all that you got to see was a huge moss-covered 'manhole cover' with a chain coming out of it.

...and as "The Last Guardian" opens - nearly 9 years after the game's development began and quite a substantial time after those first teaser images, that's the first thing you'll see as you awake as the main character.

As you become more aware of your surroundings you'll also realise you're not alone. Attached to the other end of that chain is a vast winged cat-like creature known as Trico. The creature is injured, hungry and really dreadfully pissed off (wouldn't you be if you had a bunch of arrows and spears stuck in you?)

Having a gigantic cat-beast following you around is kinda cool, you have to admit it (and as my daughter pointed out, Trico is SO CUTE)
Like the mouse and the lion fable, the story unfolds and your character is swiftly press-ganged into action, taking the spears out of Trico's skin and working out a way to free the beast (the gameplay offers up a mix of Ico and SOTC as you realise that you can scale the cat-beast's feathery fur to pry those spears out and release it).

As you've probably worked out from the game cover and the screenshots here, you do eventually succeed in freeing Trico - and thus begins your quest to escape the gigantic shambling ruin you find yourself trapped in - with the aim of returning home to your village. The game's narrative purposely stays in the background, a Japanese voice cropping up from time to time to flesh out the boy and Trico's story.

One or two slight annoyances early on are the inherited dreadful camera angles we've seen before in Team Ico games - and this time round a new annoyance, the appearance of on-screen controller prompts to tell you to do things at certain times.

I'd have liked the option to switch these off, or at least only have them pop up once to nudge you in the right direction - not every time. Perhaps it's a comment on modern gaming that people rely on being led by the nose more in games now than they did 10 or more years ago.

Those cameras though - I guess it's virtually unavoidable to always have everything in plain sight when you've got a massive on-screen cohort barging its feathery bum in your face at every opportunity (anyone who owns a cat and has tried to stop the thing walking all over their laptop keyboard probably knows what I mean) but if there's one thing I hope Studio Genji does at some point in the future, it's hire someone who understands how in-game cameras should work and should compensate for the movements of the player. Sometimes it's nigh on impossible to know where you are or what you're looking at so you do waste a lot of time fighting with the in-game cam to progress.

Considering the length of development, this is by no means an ugly outdated game IMHO
For a game that began development back at the very beginning of the PS3 era, it's obvious that "The Last Guardian" isn't written for native PS4 hardware, nor does it appear to make much of the PS4 Pro hardware (though I'm guessing the slightly smoother frame rates and more defined in-game textures might be thanks to the more powerful hardware).

Fans of the Team Ico game up till now will know the score - the game is a mix of puzzle-solving, logical thinking, acrobatics and now thrown into the mix, having a gigantic co-protagonist along for the ride that can help (and of course hinder) your progress through the labyrinthine castle innards.

Trico's behaviour is fantastically accurate. Look at the above screenshot to get a sense of the scale you're dealing with here. The thing is massive, and pretty much behaves like a cat most of the time (and if you've ever attempted to get a cat to do what you want you'll understand exactly what Trico acts like most of the time). As the game progresses though, the bond between the boy and the creature grows - and right there is where you'll start to see some commonality with what has gone before. In Ico you spent a lot of time latched-hands with the ethereal princess you're trying to rescue. In Shadow of the Colossus you develop a bond with your horse Agro. In The Last Guardian you do the same with Trico, in fact you begin to rely more and more on the beast as time passes. So there are times when the game will make your jaw drop purely from something the beast has done and the backstory of this strange creature begins to emerge as well as your own.

So far, critical reception for this game has entirely dwelled on the amount of time it's been in development. When you consider how long Duke Nukem Forever was (jokingly) 'in development' for, and the end result of that particular mess, this isn't even in the same league. Personally I guessed that there'd be folk out there who had moved on from the original games, wrapping themselves up in the endless cycle of sequels and cookie-cutter open world experiences who really don't have time to get emotionally involved in a game that feels like it's come from a different era.

I find it particularly infuriating that in sales terms, Dead Rising 4 (a godawful zombie-killing game) outsold The Last Guardian in its launch weekend (part of the reason I stopped caring about games was for the same reason I stopped caring about music. People's tastes have irreparably changed for the worse).

Rant over though, I'm not disappointed by The Last Guardian. It has its claw-like hooks in me and I want (nay, NEED) to see it through to the end. I've waited a long time to do this after all.

Was it worth 9 years of waiting? Well, flip that on its head for a moment - would you want Team Ico spurting out a game every couple of years that had less than a millionth of the commitment and obvious passion this game has had lavished on it? Probably not.

As the game draws to a close (SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD) you may fear that they're going to round off the 'trilogy' by once again breaking your heart in two. In fact the way the last half an hour of the game plays out, you really don't know which way it's going to go. But once you're done you'll be laugh-crying like I was. Stay tuned right until the bitter end of the credits though, you need to.

I have a feeling that this is the last we'll see from Fumito Oueda and his team for a very long while which is a crying shame (in fact looking through the Wikipedia entry for this, it does indeed look like his development future is uncertain - and worse, his next desired project is a first-person shooter a la Half Life - which really isn't what the world needs at all imho). Studio Genji does exist though, born from the ashes of Team Ico so at least we know they're doing SOMETHING even if we're not quite sure what it is (there's a mysterious screenie on their website if you care to google for it).

I guess future generations might encounter these games as a trilogy at some point (personally I'd love to see another remaster of Ico and SOTC penned for the PS4 hardware but it's very unlikely to happen as this was already done for PS3). They might look back on them as favourably as I do. For me though they're games that stand out in a crowd of dross as being exactly what I've always wanted from games. Immersive, involving (emotionally as well as interactively) and atmospheric.

Hookability: Once you've started you just cannot stop until the game is completed. I felt like this about the last two games (even though that dratted piston puzzle in Ico had me shelve the game for a year before I resigned to get back in there and polish it off).

Lastability: Main story will take quite a while to polish off and because Trico is a pernickety beast, the game will make you learn the art of patience. If you're a twitch shooter fan or love games that are a pushover, go somewhere else, this one's not for you.

Playability: Camera frustrations aside, the game is nicely playable and you soon get into the groove of how Trico works. Once it 'clicks' it's actually more fun than you'd imagine.

Overall: Games like this are (sadly) becoming rarer and rarer in a market where consumers demand experiences that are immediate and easy. Critics savage the very things about The Last Guardian that mark it above other third person games around at the moment and sorry, if you expected a fully compliant giant companion in this, you really do deserve a kick in the teeth. Sublime, and worth the wait.


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