I honestly thought this review would have come a lot faster, considering how many years I’ve been waiting to play it.
For those not in the know, the PS4 exclusive The Last Guardian has suffered a very long and complicated production cycle. Originally planned for the Playstation 3, Fumito Ueda and his team spent years on their follow-up to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It’s a simple story about a boy and his giant cat-bird-dog-thing, Trico, trying to escape from a cursed valley. Exquisitely rendered, incredibly heartfelt, and set to an amazing score by Takeshi Furukawa, the game is an enormous accomplishment.
That said, I’m not sure I liked the “game” part of it.
The hardest part of playing was finding the right mood for it. Overwatch or Dark Souls this is not. What I mean by that is that the general pace of this game proved to be one of the toughest aspects to overcome. Dark Souls is all about conquering the world. The Last Guardian is more about slowly working your way through it with your friend that doesn’t always communicate so well.
One of the main factors of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus’ appeal comes from working with and protecting a character that is completely AI. In Ico, you were responsible for a vulnerable girl named Yorda, literally grabbing her by the hand to lead her around. In Shadow of the Colossus, your companion was an obedient, indestructible horse named Agro. Their AI minds may not have been the most sophisticated, but Yorda and Agro convinced me that these were lives I was working with. It created an affectionate bond between you and them, both of you needing each other to survive.
In The Last Guardian, that ethos is taken to the next level with a fully realized giant pet. And just like a real pet, Trico simply will not listen sometimes, instead just staring back blankly. And in those moments we both seemed to be wondering, “What the hell do you want me to do here?” As in the Uncharted games, I felt like I was spending a lot of my time wondering if I’d done something wrong, or if the game wasn’t working correctly. I sometimes couldn’t tell if I had misunderstood a puzzle, or if my friend Trico was just being stubborn. And to the game’s credit, that added difficulty does help to further the illusion that Trico is a real living creature, all the way down to the fact that he sometimes poops.
The thing is, a great deal of the gameplay comes from how you experience the story and these moments with Trico. It felt like the game was instructing me to play a certain way, but user error frequently prevented me. Moments of terror were rendered meaningless when I got caught on the game’s geometry. I also noticed that when I was angry, or in a rush, the game was simply less fun. Like a real animal, Trico requires patience, and when I could allow myself to surrender to that notion, the game was a rollercoaster of genuine emotion.
And that’s the biggest accomplishment of the game. Because whenever Trico and I finally got on the same page and solved a puzzle, or he saved me, I’d pet him. I didn’t have to. You get no points or extra credit for doing it. But the feature existed, and you know what? I WANTED to pet him. I wanted to show him affection. And that, to me, is no small feat in a game. In a game like Dark Souls, you take risks and explore new areas and enemies for new gear or lore. But in The Last Guardian, unlocking new stuff wasn’t my motivation. I just wanted to pet my cat-thing. And that’s what makes this game special.
That, and the ending. I won’t go into details, but I will say that it turned my wife and I into blubbering messes. Video games don’t often elicit that kind of emotion. It was the most I’d felt this way since my grandma passed, and in a way it was cathartic: someone you can’t understand, someone frustrating who won’t listen to you about what’s best, but someone with whom you form a bond, the possible severing of which is a constant threat. I spent most of the game just hoping, praying that Trico and I would make it through because I genuinely loved him.
If you’ve ever loved an animal, play this game. If you like gorgeous music and visuals, play this game. And if you’re still questioning whether video games are art – I dare you to play through this game and try to defend that position.