You’ve waited 10 years for this, so I’ll get right to the point: Yes, The Last Guardian is a wonderful game.
The long-awaited follow-up to Sony’s acclaimed PlayStation 2 masterpieces Ico and Shadow of the Colossus has been in the works ever since Shadow wrapped in 2005, and went through an agonizing period of development hell. Originally slated for PlayStation 3, the game ran into insurmountable technical issues on the console, and would have likely been cancelled outright if not for the fact that fans of the series kept up a continuous outcry for its release. The more powerful PlayStation 4 finally proved a suitable technological environment for the game’s vision, although it necessitated another four years of development; as of tomorrow, December 6, the wait will finally be over.
And what is the technological beast that felled even the mighty PS3? Why, it’s a simple puzzle-platformer in which a young boy slowly picks his way through abandoned ruins, mossy brick to splintered plank. The big twist, and the monster that devoured the Cell processor whole, is Trico, a colossal mythical beast with the feathers of a bird, the face of a cat, the personality of a dog and the body mass of a mid-sized ranch home. He’s your constant AI companion, and the game is all about building and getting you to feel that emotional connection between the boy and his sort-of-dog. And puzzles!
As the game begins, you wake up at the bottom of a deep hole, with Trico chained up next to you. Like the lion and the mouse, you’ll soon befriend the behemoth by ripping some spears from his body, feeding him his favorite food (a barrel full of glowing mystery chow), and finally releasing him from bondage in a moment that feels like one of those climactic boss fights against huge monsters in Shadow of the Colossus but ends with a friendly belly-rub instead of driving a sword into its guts. From that angle, the whole game feels almost like a little apology for Shadow, an extended friendly encounter with a colossus to make up for forcing you to kill so many of them the last go-round.
Trico is friend, protector, vehicle, and platform. He’s imperfect at all four. You need Trico to do things: get into position near a goal so you can clamber up his back and jump off his snout to reach it, or simply jump over a gap with you as a passenger. The challenge of the game isn’t so much doing these things with pixel-precision (although that is important, too), but in looking around its serene, natural, intricately detailed environments and figuring out how to get where you’re going. Observing Trico can be a help, to see where he naturally goes to. Or not. And just because you ask him to do something, that doesn’t mean he will. Maybe he’ll take his time. Maybe he’ll ignore you.
The Last Guardian‘s director Fumito Ueda has always emphasized “design by subtraction,” the ruthless removal of all but the most essential gameplay elements. This game has no heads-up display of any kind, no life bars, no counters, no collectibles, no nothing. There is one model of enemy with one set of behaviors. The complexity is underneath. This means that the tiniest details can be extremely powerful. You’re so used to seeing nothing that a single feather floating on the air, carefully placed there but otherwise not acknowledged, will grab your attention. Everything here is here for a reason. The beautiful ruined-paradise aesthetic and perfectly placed orchestral sound cues compound the exactingly deliberate design.
Trico dominates every scene he’s in, and he’s programmed to surprise you at every turn, just when you think you’ve got him totally figured out. Once I accidentally fell off a cliff and was already mentally resigned to restarting from the last checkpoint when Trico swatted his tail over to my plummeting body and caught me. My jaw dropped. I’d seen this in the carefully-choreographed action sequences, but never randomly. Even mentioning this small interaction feels like I’m revealing a massive plot spoiler. This is the impact of tiny actions in a world stripped of all superfluity.
This is a simple game in many respects. There is no multiplayer, no extra content after seeing the ending, no bonus whatsits–a clean, straightforward single-player adventure of about 12 to 15 hours in length, or what we used to call “a videogame.” The structural design is similarly clean and simple: You progress from puzzle room to puzzle room in a linear fashion, the world blocking itself off behind you as you go.There’s no backtracking, no world map. The puzzles aren’t about moving a green sphere into its proper receptacle or turning a sundial or anything like that; it’s just about figuring out how to get from here to there.
The Last Guardian does occasionally do the one thing I feared, which is this: You hit upon an obvious potential solution that requires you to tell Trico to do something. He doesn’t. You try again. It doesn’t work. You try a few more times with little differences. Nothing. You think, “hmm, I guess that’s not it,” and go spend a half hour doing increasingly less likely solutions, only to find out much later that the thing you originally thought of was the right thing. This is the conflict between the concept of a stubborn AI and the fact that a player of a puzzle game needs to be able to rule out solutions in some sort of methodical manner. Last Guardian walks this tightrope fairly well, on balance, but I don’t think such a feat can ever truly be pulled off without a misstep here and there.
That one enemy type I mentioned? It’s a magical suit of armor that chases the boy when he gets too close, trying to drag him back into a door in the wall. At first, you find that Trico is excellent at messing these dudes up with extreme prejudice, but soon the game throws you into a variety of situations in which Trico needs help, or isn’t around at all. It’s another deceptively simple design: The enemy never changes, only the situation, and we see every possible permutation of that throughout the course of the adventure.
What really carries The Last Guardian along from puzzle to puzzle is its excellent pacing and variety. Serenity follows action, time together follows time apart, indoor follows outdoor, war follows peace. You’re never doing the same thing for too long. It is fairly strictly linear, although much like the way you can discover some off-the-path secrets in Ico and Colossus, I did stumble into a secret butterfly garden at one point. This too is design by subtraction; you can appreciate the tiny secret for what it is, not for what collectibles you find there (there are none). Will you find it?
The Last Guardian was never meant to have such weight on its shoulders as a “long-anticipated” game. It was never meant to have been “worth the long wait.” And yet it is. Those who have followed the progress of this game since the first trailer in 2009 have likely built up in their heads what this adventure with Trico will be like, and this final product does its best to live up to those impossible dreams, from enigmatic start to grand and glorious finish.
Games with similar developmental issues (the ones that aren’t cancelled, at least) often end up released as pastiches of whatever assets and concepts could be conceivably glued together and called a shippable game. They can often have redeeming qualities, but the compromises and hasty fixes are visible, the cutting-room floor content copious. Sometimes they bear little resemblance to what was originally announced.
Meanwhile, once you’re done playing The Last Guardian, go watch that first trailer again. Nearly all of those conceptual scenes are in the final game. The miracle of The Last Guardian is not that it escaped development hell, but that it did so with an unwavering vision as clear and uncompromised as it was on its first day. Not only is there a game available this week called The Last Guardian, that game is The Last Guardian.