The Last Guardian is going to make me cry. I can already tell. I've only played the first 45 minutes of Fumito Ueda's latest adventure, but that was long enough to glimpse the emotional undercurrent softly smoldering beneath the surface. Like Ueda's earlier games Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Last Guardian delivers whimsy and wonder through its stirring soundtrack, fantastical world, and simple yet sympathetic characters. In this case, it's an unnamed boy and a creature called Trico, a feathered pastiche of mythical beasts that still manages to be emotive and adorable.
At the outset of my demo, the boy was sprawled unceremoniously across the floor of a grassy cavern. As he awakened, a narrator calmly explained the boy had no recollection of how he came to be there, nor did he remember where the black markings on his arms came from. Though the narrator's voice was deep and worn, it clearly belonged to the boy himself, though a far, far older version. I was initially concerned this narration would grow intrusive or bog the experience down with tedious exposition, but the voice never outstayed its welcome. Instead, it only punctuated particular moments, offering insight into the boy's thoughts while creating a sort of storybook framing.
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For example, once the boy realized he was lying near a massive monster, the narrator explained that although he was raised to fear these types of mythical man-eating beasts, he did not feel as though he was in danger at that moment. Trico, on the other hand, was clearly less sure about the boy. Unlike the friendly, affectionate Trico from the trailers, here he's covered in armor, chained to a circle of stones, and has two broken spears protruding from his body. As one of my first acts in the game, I scrambling up a nearby stone, leapt onto and grasped Trico's feathers, gripped a broken spear, and pulled it free--at which point Trico howled before kicking the boy into a wall, rendering him unconscious.
As the demo progressed, however, the game patiently developed a bond between its two characters, one that felt deeply authentic thanks in part to Trico's believable behavior. He'll crane his neck and cock his head inquisitively to look around a room, flinch when he hears a loud noise, and whimper quietly if the boy gets too far away. At one point, he even clung to the edge of a small clift, visibly reluctant to dive into the crystal blue pool of water below him. I eventually had to climb a dangling chain, retrieve a barrel of food, and toss it into the water in order to coax Trico down, all while the boy offered words of encouragement to his new companion.
The boy himself is interesting as well. Where most video game protagonists feel exceptionally powerful, the boy seems like, well, a child: somewhat capable, but ultimately still vulnerable. Whether he was struggling to pick up an object or clumsily hoisting himself up a ledge, his body language subtly and consistently reinforced the idea that he needs Trico to watch over him. But they do make an excellent pair. Trico proved essential to my progression throughout the demo. More than once, I called Trico over to my location so I could scale his massive body and leap to a higher platform. At one point, I retrieved a strange circular mirror shield from an icy chamber, which, when equipped and aimed, caused Trico to blast the targeted spot with lightning--the only mechanic I encountered that even remotely resembled a weapon.
While the platforming and puzzle solving made intelligent use of the minimal mechanics, certain aspects of the game still need some work. I noticed several objects clipping through each other--like Trico's collar clipping through his feathers--and occasionally had to fight to get the camera to cooperate. I also found the climbing controls to be somewhat awkward, though the aforementioned camera may have been partially responsible. And while it's not necessarily a problem, it's odd that the boy automatically crouches when facing small openings yet doesn't contextually grab ledges unless you press the grasp button. Why remove a fairly standard option like crouching only to complicate another relatively common mechanic like climbing?
These issues are minor, though, especially compared to the heartwarming innocence and empathy of the characters. The somber, almost mystical tone The Last Guardian established in less than an hour of play has me hopeful the final product will be well worth the more than seven year wait when it launches later this year.