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After nearly 10 years in development, I don't think any of us were sure if we'd ever actually play The Last Guardian. But the plucky team at JAPAN Studio have rolled with the punches and now, a decade later, we can finally experience the tale of Trico and his human companion. The only question left is whether or not it was worth the wait.
Needless to say, The Last Guardian is carrying a lot of baggage. Built across multiple console generations, through shake-ups at the studio and even periods where it was assumed the entire project had been canned, it's something of a small miracle that we're finally able to play it today.
The Last Guardian's biggest issue is that it clearly shows the signs of a tumultuous development. It's lacking a coat of polish, which is a little surprising after all these years and even one final delay from June 2016 to December 2016. It also boasts a frustrating camera that occasionally makes the player work especially hard to get a good view of the world around them. This is amplified when you move into tight spaces, especially if Trico is at your side.
As for the game world, it's as grand, beautiful and mysterious as either of its predecessors. It has a unique art style that I can't help but think is one part artistry and one part bridging the gap between the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation 4. These aren't bleeding edge graphics, but they sure look lovely. Couple that with fantastic animations and several small touches -- like the boy resting his hand on objects or the way the wind affects his robe or Trioc's feathers -- and you've got a game that's frequently awe-inspiring just to look at. Unfortunately, frequent dips in framerate can make it more difficult to take in all of the pretty sights.
Finally, there are the controls. While I will later explain why some of the control issues actually fit the game well, there's no denying that a lot of instances arose where I was fighting to have the game perform as intended. But much like with training a new pet, a little patience and care moved things along in the end.
Luckily, I'm the kind of person who is more interested in the experience a game gives me than a handful of technical issues, and nothing mentioned above was enough to really hamper what The Last Guardian has to offer. It's hard to believe that a game's vision can stay intact after a decade of development hell but, in the end, we're left with a game that serves as a perfect compliment to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus while also adding a unique chapter to that impressive legacy.
The game opens on a young boy, covered in tattoos and unconscious next to a slumbering beast. Unaware of how he got here, the boy decides that he must figure out a way to return to his village. He's not going to be able to do that without the help of the man-eating monster, though, and so the player must figure out a way to build a bond between the two.
You'll have to excuse me if it seems like I'm tiptoeing around particulars here, as I feel that many of the game's big moments of discovery are necessary in order to give this budding relationship an emotional punch. Just rest assured that, by about the two-hour mark, you will feel utterly attached to Trico and, just as important, he is equally attached to you.
Just like with Team Ico's previous games, there aren't a lot of systems or mechanics at play here. You can make the boy climb, duck and shimmy all over the place and, outside of collecting some tasty barrels for the character to munch on, you aren't going to be on the lookout for collectibles, better weapons or any such nonsense. As always, it's impressive what this team can do with so little, making yet another argument that a strong idea can carry a game just as far as over-the-top action and explosive cutscenes.
At its core, The Last Guardian is one massive puzzle. Each area requires some clever thinking to work your way through but, thankfully, you won't have to do all of the heavy lifting on your own. As Trico grows to trust you, he can be given commands to help you move from one area to the next. From serving as a feather-covered ladder to jumping to a high ledge, there're all sorts of ways he will help you make your way through these ancient ruins.
And that brings us back to some of the control frustrations I was talking about earlier. For example, sometimes you want Trico to jump up to a ledge but, no matter how hard you try, your commands only result in a confused look or a frustrated companion. In those moments, I sometimes found it was best to let Trico figure things out for himself or reposition myself and try the commands again. In the end, we always made it work, which is actually really appropriate. If you've ever tried to tell a cat to get off of the table, then you know that the results can be mixed.
What I'm saying is, these types of relationships require a careful hand and a healthy dose of patience. Whether or not that was a happy side effect in The Last Guardian is unclear, but it certainly made the bond between the boy and the monster feel more realistic. I mean, after a particularly trying section, I always felt the need to climb up on Trico's back and pet him to reassure him everything was going to be okay. I was genuinely worried about the guy and, thanks to those fantastic animations and his frequent roars and whimpers, I got to understand his emotional state, too. Trico, if nothing else, is a rather marvelous bit of technological achievement.
In the end, we're left with a Rubik's cube of a world that gives the player all of the tools necessary to explore the dynamics of a growing relationship. Sure, there are loads of puzzles to solve, heart-stopping moments peppered here and there and even a bit of confrontation, but the love that's building between the boy and Trico is what beats at the heart of this experience.
The Last Guardian has its fair share of technical issues, but it's also one of those rare games that tells a story you won't easily forget. Ten years on and I couldn't tell you if Ico or Shadow of the Colossus had similar issues, but I sure as hell remember how those games made me feel. Amidst a year of some pretty phenomenal games, in another decade, I doubt any of them will stand out in my mind quite like The Last Guardian. It's taken a long time to get here and it shows the scars of that journey, but it was definitely worth the wait.
This review based on a PlayStation 4 copy of the game provided by the publisher.
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