True to Fumito Ueda's work on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is a fascinating game that portrays a heartfelt relationship between two unlikely cohorts--a nameless boy and a giant creature named Trico--who develop mutual trust, communication, and compassion against seemingly impossible odds.
Their tale is a shining example of storytelling through subtle cues and shared experiences; the occasional annoyances that come from trying to force members of two different species to cooperate are part and parcel of their partnership, for better and for worse. But touching moments throughout and an unshakable final act melt these grievances away. The culmination of your incredible journey crystallizes a bond with Trico and makes you immediately long for another adventure with your newfound best friend.
It all begins when you awake from a dream to find yourself imprisoned in a mysterious cave. Trico is nearby, subdued by a metal collar, armor, and a pair of spears lodged in its back. Though the cause remains a mystery until the end, you immediately understand the need to remove the weapons and forge an escape. Trico knocks you unconscious after you extract the first spear, but your continued efforts after you wake payoff. In short order, the creature is free from the heavy shackles, and the two of you begin your tricky escape.
You and Trico are instrumental to each other's progress; it's easy for you to slip through small passageways and precisely manipulate objects to activate doors, but only Trico can leap dozens of feet into the air and reach high, out-of-the-way places. Your massive companion needs to be coaxed into giving you a hand at first, and food in the form of glowing barrels works as a motivator at times, but you otherwise need to provide directions through physical positioning and vocal commands. Because you move with palpable inertia, running around in search of the next step and managing Trico at the same time can feel taxing, but its a small price to pay for the organic, lifelike animations on display.
Success typically comes down to identifying the one object or passage in an environment that allows you to move ahead, and working with Trico to access it. You will climb on the beast's back to reach high ledges, use its tail to descend into pits, and lure it to jump into pools of water so you can ride the resulting wave. But you must accept its slow reaction times and patiently decipher its body language, and it's a process that can test your patience when you've lost your path, dense as the world is with red herrings like intrusive outcrops and heavily ornamented architecture.
Yet even at its most disobedient, Trico is an impressive animal to behold, with the mannerisms of a house cat as it rests and slinks through environments, and the temperament of a lion during run-ins with possessed sentinels. Trico will swat and sniff curiosities--sometimes as a hint, other times because it's simply distracted, and the only way to calm your companion after a fight or a scare is through the solace of petting and coos. When you look into Trico's curious eyes as you run out of reach to pull a lever, or when it senses something frightening, you don't see the artifice that defines most video game characters; you see an honest portrayal.
Much like a real pet, Trico doesn't automatically learn because you want it to, but its progress yields confidence in your cooperation as it eventually learns to take commands on the first try. This is gratifying from a gameplay perspective, since you feel less like you're wasting time investigating the world and more like you're working in concert with a reliable partner. As an emotionally invested player, your patience is handsomely rewarded by the formation of an unwavering bond.
The Last Guardian is, for the most part, a totally convincing experience that draws you into the mindset of Trico and the boy. However, there are times when you're reminded of the game they live in. From beginning to end, without an option to disable it, a button prompt appears when you’re in front of an interactive object. Contrasted with environments that force you to consider every option, it's confusing that the game never trusts you to handle basic tasks and instead opts to interrupt the otherwise complex experience.
And despite handling numerous impressive scenes without a hitch, there are a few scenes with obvious frame-rate issues. These occurrences by no means dominate the game--far from it--but they make you consider the technological lattice holding the world together when they appear. It also makes you consider the impossible task Ueda and company likely faced when The Last Guardian was in development for PlayStation 3.
The resulting shift to PlayStation 4 has obviously paid off--troubled moments aside, your journey is dominated by awe-inspiring architecture and natural wonder. As you weave in and out of caves and ruins, you're treated to wide views of towers and bridges in the distance that you may never visit, but they live on in your imagination as you piece together the story and world around you.
It isn't clear whether or not The Last Guardian means to be frustrating at times--if it's a concerted effort to test your patience for a lovable-yet-stubborn creature. Your affection for Trico and sympathy for both characters blossom nonetheless, culminating in an enrapturing series of revelations that cements your attachment to their personalities. Trico is the undeniable star of the show, exhibiting believable physicality and emotional range, but the boy is a valuable lesson in how to be patient and resilient when faced with unforeseen challenges.
When the book closes on their story, it's hard not to open it up again and begin anew. The trials you overcome endear you to both characters, but the emotions Trico elicits make you want to give it another chance--to be the patient, effective partner it truly deserves.