Whether it’s petting Monster Hunter’s adorable piggies or exploring Fallout’s wastelands with Dogmeat at our side, we have a collective soft spot for animal companions. Unlike human sidekicks or their increasingly abundant robot counterparts, animals are imbued with an endearing innocence and an unbreakable loyalty that isn’t contingent on pages of dialogue or a character’s choices.
The Last Guardian is very much dedicated to this theme. As a young boy, you awake to find yourself lying next to an enormous creature shackled in chains. Trico feels like a mythical beast, melding both feline and avian features together to create something unique. Just like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, there’s little to no preamble, no explanation as to how you got here and what your real purpose is. As you progress, these blanks are filled in though ultimately bear little importance. As in Fumito Ueda’s previous work, the surrounding context comes second to the journey itself.
It’s one of many aspects that could knock players off balance coming into The Last Guardian, especially if they’ve yet to sample Ueda-san’s approach to game design. Compared to your typical AAA action adventure, a great many layers have been peeled away to expose something pure yet ambiguous at the same time. Bar the occasional tutorial window, there’s no user interface of which to speak. No maps, markers, or health bars. Every attempt has been made to declutter what’s on screen, never drawing focus away from the two companions and their surroundings. This works to great effect and helps The Last Guardian create a sense of identity shared by other games such as Journey, Inside, and of course, Ico.
The fact that there’s no combat system or any clear sense of character progression also feel strange in the context of where the genre stands today. Instead, the whole game revolves around this growing relationship between Trico and his master, conveyed through exploration and puzzle solving. No matter what challenge The Last Guardian presents, your goal is to always to move forward and find a way to the next area.
In truth, the puzzles are far from complex, simply playing on the contrast in size between the boy and his pet-like protector. Only the boy can access the many ladders, tunnels, ropes, and walkways that often lead to a gate winch or some other mechanism obstructing Trico’s path, but then clambering up Trico is often the only way to reach a high up ledge, and you can sometimes ride the fantastical creature as it moves through the world with a surprising amount of grace. It can feel a tad repetitive to start with, as though you’re caught in a constant cycle, though more elements are gradually phased in.
Enemies are still present in The Last Guardian despite there being no direct combat. When separated from Trico, they’ll chase you around, yanking you away from levers and pulleys as the beast waits impatiently just out of reach. Being able to finally unleash him on these animated suits of armour is immensely satisfying. Although they can gouge Trico with spears, this only infuriates the creature as it swats them with a magnificent force, littering the floor with debris.
It’s also refreshing to see a game that puts an emphasis on logic and observation instead of signposting where to go every step of the way. On more than one occasion I found myself stuck behind a gate with seemingly no way forward only to find, several minutes later, that the boy could easily squeeze between its bars. There was also one particular puzzle that had me racking my brain for a short while. I had a solution in mind but quickly assured myself such a logical approach wouldn’t work with the game’s set of tools. After expending just about every other option I decided to go for it and, would you believe it? It actually worked!
The more you progress, the stronger that bond grows, to the point that Trico will take direct commands. The game does a deliberately poor job of communicating exactly how this is done and for a lot of players this will cause some early frustrations. Without a heads up display or interface, you don’t get the same instant feedback you’d expect when playing a game, informing you that an action has been triggered. Instead, you’ll need to carefully watch Trico’s behaviours and body movement which can, at time, be slow to react. If the beast looks towards a perch while crouching, for instance, you know he’s about to attempt a jump.
It’s a cumbersome mechanic to say the least and one that isn’t helped by the The Last Guardian’s camera, which almost completely fails to cope with the size of Trico and confined spaces. However, it’s intention isn’t to simply transport the game’s duo from one area to the next. It’s about building story and character development through simple interactions instead of relying on dialogue and cutscenes. As a result, when those final scenes play out, it almost feels as though the adventure was of your own making instead being an idle passenger.
Browsing early footage of the game from 2009, The Last Guardian doesn’t look that much different now than it did back then. Having skipped an entire console generation during its development, there are bound to be plenty of technical improvements such as enhanced resolution and draw distance, but those aren’t the real focus. As in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, it’s the art direction that triumphs here, immersing players in a world that has such a unique character.
Still, players will delight at just how life-like Trico is despite being a completely fictional being. The way it moves and interacts with its surroundings is like watching a masterclass in animation playing on repeat. It helps cement that feeling of empathy and companionship, even more so when Trico finds itself feeling vulnerable, threatened or injured and his animal sounds of distress drive you to find ways to help. Takeshi Furukawa’s soundtrack for the game is just as impactful, employed sparingly throughout the player’s journey.
All round, The Last Guardian feels meticulously pieced together and is easily one of the PlayStation 4’s stronger exclusive titles. It’s risky and unconventional, flouting modern design practices in a way that few other AAA game would dare to in 2016. Although far from perfect and a little worn from age, it’s a one of a kind experience and hopefully won’t be the last we see from Fumito Ueda and this enchanting world.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro