Originally slated to launch way back in 2011, The Last Guardian is now just days from release. If you’ve preordered a copy, it’s already wending its way across the globe to reach you. The discs have been printed, the boxes have been touched by real life human beings. That’s it, no more delays – the journey is finally coming to an end. After what feels like an eternity, Trico will finally be released into the wild for all to (hopefully) enjoy.
Much has changed since the game’s 2009 E3 reveal and the release of Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus. As gamers our collective transient tastes have help to sculpt and reform entire genres while games, as a whole, have continued to push boundaries, whether through lifelike visuals or innovative online features.
It’s hard not to get excited about The Last Guardian but, at the same time, it finds itself in quite a precarious position. Having skipped an entire generation, each passing year since the original delay has only helped to pile on the pressure for Fumito Ueda and his studio. By virtue of it being a first party exclusive, even those without an appreciation for the loosely held series still feel as though they have a stake in it doing well. Then we have the impatient naysayers, ready and waiting with the Metacritic tab open.
If anything, it will be one of the most intriguing launches for the current console generation and is perhaps even more notable than that of Final Fantasy XV, which has has a similarly arduous journey through development. Although fans will be elated to finally have a copy of The Last Guardian, such a long development cycle leaves a lot of questions, number one being: was it worth the wait?
Our review will naturally have to wait, but now’s as good a time as any to revisit Team Ico’s series history to date.
Whether you play the PlayStation 2 originals or happen to have the remastered duo on PS3, both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have stood the test of time. The foundation these games are built upon has held firm despite being largely unconventional, at least in the way we look at games today. Instead of mesmerising players with an abundance of information and choices, Team Ico would peel away these layers of complexity until it had something that felt pure yet playable – fantastical yet fun. In a way, it’s a minimalistic approach that has been adopted in more recent games like Flower, Limbo, Journey, and Abzu.
While Shadow of the Colossus feels more fleshed out as a whole, Ico’s sheer simplicity and atmosphere makes it just as notable. For those unfamiliar, Ico originally released on PlayStation 2 way back in 2001, roughly a year after the system’s launch. It’s only when you look back to this time that you realise just how good a year it was for video games. Instead of conforming to power selling templates, studios could afford to be much more creative with their ideas. While that same kind of innovation continues to exist, the amount of money that goes into development nowadays means that major publishers take fewer risks when green-lighting new games.
One quick glance at Ico’s sublime cover art (not the gross US variant) tells you just about everything you need to know about its premise. Throughout, you play as a horned boy with little to no backstory whatsoever as he stumbles upon a lost girl trapped in a cage. With only a handful of words spoken between them in Ico’s pseudo language, an inseparable bond takes root, acting as the game’s core focus.
This is bolstered by the interactions between Ico and Yorda as they explore its lonely castle complex. As the horned protagonist, you’ll scout ahead for swinging chains, levers, and other mechanical objects, effectively creating a path for Yorda to travel along. Shade-like enemies will appear at regular intervals, threatening to drag her into an abyss, triggering Ico’s admittedly ropey combat sequences. With only one attack, things can get a bit button mashy though it’s serviceable enough – most fights can be avoided completely.
Even today, having been spoiled by the likes of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us, Ico and Yorda are just as compelling despite the disparity in production values. As we see in Shadow of the Colossus (and hopefully will see again in The Last Guardian) our love for these characters stems almost purely from game mechanics and level designs, not pages of brilliantly-voiced dialogue and acting.
Being the newer of the two, Shadow of the Colossus is the one that garners more attention. Not only is it longer than Ico, it also feels more game-like by comparison with an actual heads-up display, health bars, and a world map. Still, Fumito Ueda and his team managed to strip away some extra layers that could easily have made the cut. The story here is also fairly ambiguous, with no preamble despite there being evident links to Ico.
The way players go about hunting the colossi in a vast open world sets it apart, too. The Forbidden Land is a deliberately barren, empty expanse that has few points of interest beyond its sixteen hulking colossi and a handful of hidden collectibles. Travelling between them can take several minutes at a time while riding Agro, yet these segments don’t feel as bland and boring as they really should. Like Ico, the music and ambient sound effects give the game such an atmospheric touch. There’s also a sense of excitement during these interim periods as you try and guess what shape the next colossi will take.
Even when rubbing against a particularly vague sequence in Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, I’m often far too immersed to care about this the same way I would in most other games. Of course, such feelings won’t be universal. I know a great many gamers who’d barely make it through the opening of either one, let alone play them to completion.
These aren’t games intended for the masses and now, more than ever, occupy an incredibly niche corner of the market. At the same time, with Sony having bankrolled The Last Guardian for more than eight years, it comes tagged with the same kind of lofty expectations that are applied to any AAA video game.