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Last Guardian, The (2016)

In an unspecified period of time in a unknown land, a young boy finds himself far from his home village without knowing how or why. His only clues are the strange tattoos that cover his body and a large griffin-like creature called Trico (which are known to be man-eaters). Against all odds, the boy is able to earn the wounded beast's trust and the two begin a journey to find a way to escape the mysterious ruined valley.

The Last Guardian is a 3D puzzle/platformer and the long awaited third title created by Fumito Ueda's Team Ico (creators of both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus). Though the game had been originally been announced at E3 2009 for the Playstation 3, following updates on the game's development and expected release date were sparse and constantly shifting. One of the reasons for this, according to Shoei Yoshida (President of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios), was due to the fact that the Playstation 3 was potentially incapable of creating the experience that Ueda was hoping for. Thus the game was pushed back in the hopes that the Playstation 4 would be a better match. Even with the promise of a better platform, development for the Last Guardian continued to be slow going. When it was announced in 2011 that Ueda was leaving Sony to start his own studio, GenDESIGN, fans were concerned that the Last Guardian would never see the light of day. Ueda, however, was still under contract to finish the game and see his vision through to the end. Continuing to work on the game with his team until it was finally slated for release on December of 2016.

Like many fans who saw the original game trailer in 2009, I eagerly anticipated the next fantastic tale of Team Ico. The idea of traveling through a barren ruin, with only a large but lovable companion almost seemed to be a meld of previous games (The lonely atmosphere architecture of Ico combined with Shadow of the Colossus' brilliant sense of scale). Which is why like many other fans, I waited with baited breath, scanning every news release from Sony regarding the game's development. Hoping to hear good news and that the game was well on the way to release.

Years passed. My goals shifted from getting through college to the working world, with video game news taking a backseat. Still, whenever the title of the Last Guardian came up on my news feed I would always sit up and take notice. Come E3 2015 and a seemingly firm release date set for the following year, I promised myself to save my funds for a PS4. If only for the opportunity to find out for myself if the game I had been yearning for would be worth the wait.

Even after eight long years, was the Last Guardian worth all that anticipation?

Let's find out.

How does the gameplay tell the story?

The Last Guardian tells it's unusual but heartrending tale of a boy and his giant animal friend mostly through the game mechanics and level design. With little to no cut scenes that take control away from the player. This also includes little to no spoken dialouge other than the narration of the main character (clearly in the past tense) which will occasionally give you hints of how to proceed if you linger at a puzzle for too long. Much like the previous Ueda games, The Last Guardian focuses more on letting the experience speak for itself than creating a complicated narrative. Not to say that the world your introduced to is without its mysteries and it is fun trying to figure out the purpose behind the strange technology you encounter in the valley. However, solving these mysteries is not the focus of the game. The primary motivation for the main character from the get go is to A) Find out where he is, and once he has that information to B) figure out a way to get back home. The boy however, is a scrawny little guy with no weapons or special powers to speak of.

That is where Trico comes in.

One of the aspects of the gameplay that continues to baffle me is how the design team was able to craft a believable cooperative relationship between the boy and Trico. As the player, you rely on Trico for assisting you in many different ways (by giving the beast different commands when the situation calls for it), but you'll find that the big guy seems to rely on you just as much. For every pitfall or hard to reach area that Trico is able to aid you with, there are just as many roadblocks that hinder/hurt the poor creature. You would think, having this kind of gameplay would make the Last Guardian seem like one long escort mission. However, the game goes to great lengths to make sure that both characters get equal amount of time aiding each other. To the point that it becomes difficult to discern who is escorting who.

For example, early in the game ghostly suits of armor are introduced that will attempt to kidnap the boy. When encountered, there is little you can do but run to Trico for safety. However as the game continues, these automatons will get bolder and attempt to restrain and injure Trico. Forcing you, at the risk of being caught, to aid the beast in the fight. You have no weapons so the best you can do is charge into the unsuspecting suits, forcing them to the ground and quickly removing their power source. Sequences such as these, or really any sequence where Trico is prevented from helping you, really helps to emphasize how much the pair must rely on each other in order to find a way to freedom. Giving players plenty of opportunity to develop an emotional connection with these characters.

What makes the Animation unique?

If you look at other game reviews for the Last Guardian, one of the constant points of praise this game gets is its animation. This praise is not given lightly since it is one of the most ambitious challenges in video game animation that, in my opinion, has ever been tackled. As an animator himself, Fumito Ueda understands that he can create a game with little to no dialouge and still endear the characters to the audience through not with cutscenes but little touches of acting during gameplay. From the boy's running cycles, the way he climbs up Trico's hulking form, to extra details like reacting to a cold environment or limping after taking a hard fall. Choices that help you feel for this poor kid as he goes through trial after trial to get home.

However the real star in the animation department easily goes to the boy's fuzzy companion. I would be hard pressed to think of any other animal companion in a video game that both looked and felt as lifelike as Trico. Just the level of detail on the design alone, (the feathers on his body which react to different environmental elements, his soft face, and his intimidating size) seems like it required a lot of effort to put together. However, it is once again the acting present in gameplay that serves as the glue to endear players to the creature. In a few of the game's more quiet moments (usually after a bit of intense peril) Trico will lean its head down, giving the boy a chance to pet its face. If the player chooses to do so, they are treated to a delightful bit of animation as Trico leans into the pet, letting out a contented whine. All of which the boy reacts to. While these moments are usually short, it speaks to the level of detail that went into designing these characters and how they work off each other.

As an animal, Trico action reflects that of any animal. Ears perking up when reacting to sounds or commands, Sniffing the air when it catches the sent of its favorite food, bristling its feathers (with an intimidating growl and glowing eyes) when threatened, adds to the simulation of interacting with a live animal. Though that isn't to say Trico isn't intelligent. Despite several instances where you must encourage Trico to follow your commands, there are a few times where the beast seems to know where you need to go before you do. It's gaze looking in a specific direction, encouraging players to follow its gaze which may help you find a clue in where you need to go next.

Are there any flaws?

Ironically, one of the elements that garners the Last Guardians biggest praise is also one of it's biggest flaws. Though I personally did not experience much of this during my playthrough, there have been numerous accounts of players who have struggled directing Trico through the game. The chief reason being boiled down to, "It doesn't always do what it's told to do." This can be understandably frustrating to gamers who want to progress quickly.

Problems with the game also include multiple instances of Trico needing to be fed. Players being forced to track down the glowing barrels that sustain Trico if they go to long without feeding it. While I can certainly understand why this would bother so many players, personally speaking, I believe Trico's independent nature helps to add to the illusion of its life-like qualities. Animals don't always do exactly what they are told. Sometimes they get distracted, wander off, or misbehave. It may make playing the game a bit more challenging to be sure but, speaking from my own experience, Trico didn't give me enough trouble to the point it seemed like an oversight on the part of the developers.

What was constant source of aggravation, was the camera. I can't count how many times where I would have the boy climb onto Trico, only for him to get lost in a sea of feathers as he climbed the wrong direction due to the camera being in the wrong position. This also included areas with tight spaces where I would have to fight with the camera in order to get it in the right position before jumping taking a flying leap over a steep chasm. A large part of the problem comes from the sensitivity of the camera control stick, so be mindful of that while you play.

Final Thoughts

Despite my fears that this game would never see the light of day, I can honestly say that the experience I gained from playing it was well worth the wait. Though this may not be true for many different gamers for the reasons I've stated above, I mitigated my frustrations by allowing myself to get swept away by the Last Guardians spectacle. Trying my best to notice every little detail in the in-game animation and developing an even deeper appreciation for the work that goes into making video game characters come to life. If you're a fan of previous Team Ico games, then this title will definitely satisfy you. If you want experience an above average example of in-game character animation, the Last Guardian will deliver on majority of fronts. If you're looking for a well polished, fast paced game, you may find yourself not getting exactly what you bargained for, but this long awaited journey offers a unique departure from typical gaming conventions that are well worth exploring.

FORMATSPlaystation 4
FROM GenDESIGN, Sony Interactive Entertainment
RATINGT for Teen

Works Cited

Crecente, Brian & Sarkar Samit, Executive Editor, Senior Reporter, "The Last Guardian's Incredible eight-year journey to Playstation 4." Polygon, June 18th 2015,
http://www.polygon.com/2015/6/18/8801679/the-last-guardian-ps4-development-history-shuhei-yoshida Accessed March 3rd, 2017.