We've been pining for something more than a trailer since Team Ico's The Last Guardian debuted at 2009's Electronic Entertainment Expo. The game's intriguing tale of a boy and his large whatsit from the fan-favorite developer has had just about everyone hungering for more information on the game--if only to find out whether or not the enormous gryphon kitty is going to go out like Old Yeller. We recently got our wish with a visit to Sony's Japanese studios where Fumito Ueda offered some insight into the game and, most importantly, showed off the first few minutes of the game. The small taste of what the game had to offer left us excited, intrigued, and very curious at what else the game has in store for players.
Our visit at the studio kicked off with Ueda-san addressing the assembled press and offering some context for what we were about to see. The demo was created for the purpose of the media day and offered a small slice of the game that wasn't necessarily related to the final product. The key focus of the demo was on showcasing the visuals.
The demo kicked off without much preamble, so we didn't get too much of a setup to explain how the boy and the beast wind up together, and it opened up on a title screen that had the boy and his massive critter pal, named Trico, peacefully slumbering. The boy woke up and walked around Trico's massive frame to try to wake him up. The first thing we noticed was that Trico is not a morning person. The behemoth wasn't big on being roused as the boy gave his ear a yank, which called up a stamina meter, and then called out his name and eventually roused him. Ueda noted that the goal of the level was for the boy to escape from the castlelike structure in which the level was set. The first step to his escape was, obviously, escaping from the room he was in, which was where Trico came into the picture. As you'd expect, a young boy isn't best equipped for the physical demands of escaping a massive labyrinthine castle. This is obviously less of an issue for a creature of Trico's size but, from the look of things, he was less motivated to escape and a little flighty. So what's a trapped boy to do? If your answer is "manipulate the big guy" then you're thinking.
Ueda noted that one key element of The Last Guardian's gameplay revolves around you bonding with Trico so that he'll be more responsive to the boy. The demo we saw appeared to be showcasing what happens when Trico hasn't done much bonding with the boy. The massive critter went about its business, basically ignoring the boy, until Ueda showed off how players will have to use their surroundings to get what they want out of Trico. The initial path of escape highlighted for the boy in a cutscene was a balcony area with no clear route to it. The solution to the problem was, obviously, to get Trico up on his hand legs and form a massive, living ladder up to the target area. However, without a close knit bond with the critter, the only option was to get his attention by using a large urn that gave off fumes that piqued the creature's interest, probably along the lines of catnip. The boy collected the urn and took it to a second floor area directly across from the unreachable balcony and pitched the urn over the gap. This immediately attracted the creature and got him to get up on his haunches. One quick trip back downstairs and up Trico's back got the boy where he wanted to be, deeper inside the castle where Trico couldn't follow.
The new interior area showcased in the demo focused on gameplay without Trico that found the boy navigating an area littered with massive lumbering armored guards. This segment of gameplay expanded on scenes that have been shown off in trailers for the game that find the boy outmaneuvering the slow-moving guards by using stealth or speed. The short sequence with the guards saw the boy climbing to higher areas and goading the guards to follow him by running in place, just out of reach. Ueda noted that, while the guards are a legitimate threat, the boy is faster and nimbler. The biggest problem to contend with when zipping around guards appears to be ensuring the boy isn't cornered by more than one, in which case things get tricky. When the guards are close enough, they can grab the boy who will have to wriggle his way out of their grip within a certain amount of time. If players can't squirm free in time, the game will end. The boy's solo sequence came to an end as he climbed to a higher area and across a balance beam to a new part of the level that was high above where he left Trico. As the boy navigated another set of balance beams, a weak floor caused him to tumble to the floor below. The boy called to Trico, who immediately looked up to find him and, after getting agitated, leaped up to where the boy was, which allowed the boy to access a switch that opened a massive door so that the boy and creature could escape.
While the demo was, all told, just a few minutes that was stretched out some with Ueda's explanations of the gameplay, we were impressed by what we saw. The game appears as though it's going to be about balancing Trico and the boy's abilities to solve puzzles to allow you to progress. We're curious as to how complex the puzzles are going to be and how much game time the boy will spend away from Trico, as well as how much variety we'll see in enemies and locale.
In terms of visuals, the work-in-progress version of the game has a rich look to it. The graphics have a lush, detailed look that seamlessly incorporates the game's interfaces as they're required. The environment featured a broad array of subtle textures that gave it a lived-in look that fit well. The guards were suitably menacing, with a very high level of detail on their armor, which gave them a cold feel that suggested they weren't living beings. The star of the demo was, obviously, Trico, who looked stunning thanks to a boatload of little animation touches that brought the creature to vivid life. The monster's expressive eyes, a highlight of all the trailers we've seen for the game to date, were eerily lifelike as were its mouth movements. In addition, Trico's fur and feathered stubs were all on display to varying degrees of subtlety that sold the massive creature as a living, breathing monster. The boy didn't dazzle us in quite the same way, although, as we've seen in Team Ico's previous games, the team knows how to get a lot out of minimalist character design. So, while his character model wasn't exactly bursting with polygons the way Trico's was, little touches of detail and animation made him every bit as real as Trico. The only minor blemishes on the game's promising visuals appear to be some camera quirks and animation hitches that are to be expected in early versions of a game.
Obviously, the demo of The Last Guardian was way too brief for our tastes, but it was enough to get us excited for what's to come. The game looks to have a lot of potential and we're certainly anxious to spend more time with it. The gameplay mechanics were definitely interesting and have us curious about how they will evolve over the course of the experience as you bond with Trico. The visuals reflect an art aesthetic that's undeniably Team Ico, so we're definitely hungry to see more of the world. The only area of uneasiness we have is around Trico and the boy: We're still more than a little worried that one of the duo may be flying solo by the game's end or, worse, the pair goes out in some kind of Bonnie and Clyde-esque blaze of glory. Look for more on The Last Guardian in the months to come. The game is slated to ship around the holidays this year.