It’s almost shocking to think that – seven years after it was first unveiled, and nine years after its development began – The Last Guardian has actually been released. This long-awaited third installment in Team Ico’s nameless, loosely-connected series was becoming the stuff of gaming legend. Despite the artistic pedigree of its predecessors Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, it seemed like The Last Guardian would never be finished. But here it is, finally a reality. So how well does The Last Guardian stack up against its lofty expectations and ridiculous wait?
The answer to that question is a bit of a mixed bag. Because when The Last Guardian works, it’s not only great, but a thing of utter beauty. But when it doesn’t, it can feel a bit on the archaic and unpolished side.
The Last Guardian is set in the same mythical world of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, though it bears no direct narrative connections to them. Players take control of a young boy, who awakens as a prisoner in a faraway fortress known as “The Nest,” with no recollection as to how he got there. As soon as he wakes up in this forsaken place, he encounters a strange, mythical creature, called a Trico, a kind of giant half-bird/half-dog that has been impaled with spears and its wings damaged.
In the game’s tutorial segment, the boy helps relieve the creature of its pains, and soon enough the boy and the Trico form a special bond as they both work together to try and find a way to escape from the seemingly inescapable fortress, all while avoiding the clutches of the ghostly suits of armor that haunt the many chambers of the Nest.
The narrative, while simple, is one of the game’s biggest highlights, as it often turns into something quite emotional. The friendship between the boy and the creature is one of the most beautifully realized in all of gaming, and will definitely tug at the heart at numerous instances. Plus, the setup gives a good means to combine gameplay elements of its two predecessors, with the co-operation between the player and an NPC from Ico being merged with the scaling of large creatures of Colossus, making for some truly clever puzzle and level design.
On the downside of things, some of these gameplay elements still feel like they’re suffering from the same shortcomings of its predecessors, which is all the more noticeable considering the game had plenty of development time to work out the kinks.
The biggest of these issues is the Trico’s AI itself. The Last Guardian has a huge emphasis on having the boy give commands to the Trico, telling it which way to go, and what objects to interact with. But actually getting the Trico to follow through with these commands can often be something of an ordeal. While some of the game’s segments work well enough, other times Trico seems to be doing whatever it wants to. You’ll be riding atop Trico’s back, telling him to jump to the platforms in front of you, only for him to just sit there for a minute before going backwards. Sadly, these moments of inconsistent AI only seem to increase as the game goes on, and too often I felt frustrated at the game, and even at Trico himself. And I’m sure frustration is just about the last emotion The Last Guardian was intended to elicit.
If The Last Guardian has another major issue, it’s the camera. Admittedly, camerawork has been a persistent issue with Team Ico’s games from the beginning, but it may be at its most prominent here in The Last Guardian. The camera on its own leaves a lot to be desired, but combine it with a focus on a large creature in often small spaces, and it becomes all the more of an issue. Again, this is an especially pressing problem considering the lengthy development gave Team Ico plenty of time to learn from past mistakes.
The sad thing is, these problems are big enough to hold the overall experience back. But on the plus side of things, what an experience it is. The world of Team Ico’s titles remains one of the most enchanting in all of gaming, and the stories they tell are among the most beautiful and sensitive in the entire medium. That trend continues here, as the world and story of The Last Guardian is as mystifying and emotional as anything Team Ico has made.
Trico himself is a stunning creation. His character design is reminiscent of the dragon from Spirited Away, and the emotion he conjures effectively echoes that which someone might have for their pet dog or cat. The setting and overall mood of the game is just as melancholy as Team Ico’s previous works, with the fairy tale trend of the studio still being prevalent (the characters still speak in a fictional language, and the story is narrated by the boy’s adult-self in the past tense). And the segments in which the boy and the Trico encounter the armors are genuinely frightening.
In terms of aesthetics, The Last Guardian is an absolute winner. The mystifying world that Team Ico has created has never looked more beautiful, with the graphics being some of the best on the Playstation 4. The music is similarly top notch, and at times even rivals the soundtrack of Shadow of the Colossus.
It’s nothing short of tragic that the technical issues that are present are frustrating and distracting enough to prevent The Last Guardian from reaching its full potential. The inconsistent AI and clunky camerawork are hindering, but this is still a beautiful gaming experience that kept me emotionally invested, and it left me wanting to see what Team Ico can dream up next (and praying that it doesn’t take nearly as long for them to complete). If Team Ico can create a title with as much polish in gameplay as there is beauty in their storytelling, they would rival the very best the industry has to offer. As it is, the flaws at hand are the price that needs to be paid for the unique experiences Team Ico brings to the table.
If the results are this rewarding, then in the end, I suppose that price is worth it.