After being in development for a full decade, Fumito Ueda's third game is finally upon us. It was worth the wait. The Last Guardian is an achingly beautiful fairytale that ably captures the special love a human can share with an animal and presents it in a fascinating fantasy world. While the gameplay is disappointingly a little rough around the edges, this is a unique, gorgeous experience that is thoroughly satisfying.
You take control of a small boy who awakens in a strange cave by a huge, injured, sleeping beast. Her name is Trico and she's a weird griffin thing, with cat, bird, dog and rodent features. The first task is waking her up, healing her as best you can and then getting out of the odd cell the pair are trapped in. The boy's actions are narrated by an old man remembering his mythical adventure and fairly quickly, he and Trico start becoming fond of each other. They must rely on one another to navigate the strange, enormous, Studio Ghibli-esque valley littered with castle ruins they find themselves in. Working together, they meticulously progress through one area after another, solving puzzles and encountering mythological adversaries.
And that's pretty much it. Whether or not you like this game depends entirely on whether you fall for the joy of experiencing Trico and the boy's growing connection. There's only a very slim narrative, no open world to explore or anything like that – just a mythical beast and a boychild making their way through bizarre fantasy world together.
Fortunately, I fell for it pretty hard.
Portraying such a bond is a supremely simple concept, but supremely hard to get right. The Team Ico / genDESIGN crew has nailed it. Perhaps some of those years lost in development were spent polishing the animations repeatedly. And boy they sure do look pretty. But I'd like to think that most of them were spent going over and over the minutia of the central characters' relationship and getting it just right.
Trico has a wide variety of animations, and particularly for players who have owned pets, they stir up something primal. The way she cocks her head, inquisitively toys with her food, scratches herself, expresses affection or annoyance with her ears; it all adds up to a brilliant realisation of what makes an animal companion just so adorable. But this is a fantasy world and Trico is a magical creature, more intelligent than a cat or dog, perhaps closer to a dragon.
She's wounded at the start of the game not only physically, but emotionally. Over the course of what they go through together, the boy will heal Trico's soul as well as her body. Watching that unfurl is beautiful and made all the more joyful to experience as it happens through the gameplay. Getting Trico and the boy to work as one is very gratifying and forms the heart of this game.
The gameplay that isn't spent communicating with Trico consists of climbing and obstacle negotiation like a lot of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted games. There's not much combat. Scary mythical castle guards do attack fairly frequently, but the boy is powerless to defeat them. Instead, he's just got to be manoeuvred so Trico can lay waste to their adversaries. There are some tougher enemies that take a lot more to overcome, which I won't say much about so as not to spoil, but the bulk of the game is about friendship rather than fighting. If that's not refreshing enough an idea, controlling the boy but having Trico – the NPC companion – do all the fighting is the exact opposite of most games, too. It's really wonderful.
The puzzle-solving is somewhat repetitive despite a nice amount of variation, but what keeps it constantly engaging is the bizarre magic of this game world, and the dual-scope factor. Unlike the aforementioned games which also have you climbing up and over spaces, looking for ledges to grab and so on, The Last Guardian isn't restricted to human movement only. Trico's size and own peculiar set of movement abilities open up several new ways of getting through different areas, challenging my pre-programmed thinking in that sort of gameplay.
Trico's animal behaviour will test the patience of every player. You're frequently forced to sit back and drink in the view as she repositions herself and susses out what to do. Fortunately, the view is always great. But there are two types of frustration in this game: the good and the bad. The good has Trico behaving like the beast she is, acting unpredictably and doing what you want her to in her own time, if at all. The bad has you knowing what you should do to progress past a certain point, but not being able to due to the somewhat clunky controls.
When you're running around a cavern for what feels like an hour, trying desperately to find a crack in the wall or a ledge you can grab hold of, it's very annoying to realise it was the very first thing you tried to interact with that's the key to passing a point – you just didn't approach it from exactly the right angle or something. Directing the boy when he's swimming underwater is also particularly awkward.
As stunning as the game looks and as cool as it is when the floating camera ends up framing Trico looking down at the boy just right, it often moves into a terrible position too. Often when the guards and Trico are going at it, the camera will move into a really uncomfortable spot where you can't see what's going on. There is a lot of vertical movement in the game, sometimes at speed, and often the camera auto-positioning is far from ideal then too.
These imperfections in the gameplay are surprising given how long the developers must have had to iron them out. They feel like previous-generation stuff we used to have to deal with but shouldn't expect on the PS4. Maybe I'm thinking about this long development period in the wrong way – it's not that they had ages to polish it all up, but rather there's annoying, 2008-esque problems here that couldn't be fixed as they're buried right in the core of the programming.
Whatever the case with how they came to be, the blemishes are mild annoyances amongst what is overall a marvellous game.
The lush, majestic score is used sparingly to strengthen the already powerful tugs at one's heartstrings. Composed and conducted by Takeshi Furukawa, it's performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Trinity Boys Choir and London Voices. Such an extravagant soundtrack adds a great deal to the overall experience and speaks to what I really love about this – it has a triple-A budget, yet it has very indie sensibilities. It's a game about companionship, played often through observation rather than action, presented with a visual fidelity that rivals any PS4 release so far. It's fantastically unique, truly wondrous and one of the most rewarding games of 2016.