“Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Rainer Maria Rilke
The most remarkable aspect of The Last Guardian is that it exists at all. This is a game that became synonymous with broken hopes: it’s been in development for almost a decade, skipped an entire console generation and saw its main designer leave the studio (to return later). But here it is: A third person platform, fantasy adventure, that is much like its iconic beast: mysterious, large, fumbling, beautiful, adorable and sometimes struggling to find its footing.
I won’t answer the question of whether it lives up to expectation – for the simple reason that it not only surpassed any I had, but met standards I didn’t realise we should all expect.
Let’s get this out the way: The Last Guardian is one of the greatest games I’ve ever played, a marvel not only of the medium but of all art and of human genius. If we ever had reason for another Voyager Golden Record, requiring items to showcase who we are as a species, The Last Guardian should be one of those items.
It suffers from framerate issues, a lack of detail on human faces and some frustrating puzzle designs. However, none of these are game breaking or severely undermined my immersion with the game.
What rough beast…
The Last Guardian stars an unnamed boy waking up in a cave, next to a giant beast, called Trico (which is both the beast’s name and, according to the game’s opening bestiary, species). The beast is the size of a house, with a dog face, large feathers and four eagle feet. When you first encounter it, its wings have been damaged but were clearly once magnificent. After a slow, lovely introduction of learning how to control the boy and interact with Trico, you begin figuring out how you got there and escape home.
Through the many hours of play, you and Trico must work together overcoming obstacles, solving puzzles and fighting off mysterious enemies. You, as a player, not only learn how the world works but how the creature behaves. It is a fully-realised beast, with different barks, croons and movements. Though it is primarily modelled off a griffin, except with a dog’s head, it is primarily a large cat: in both behaviour and movement. As a cat owner, it’s unnerving and wonderful to watch as the creature does a little shake before a leap you don’t think it can make; it’s stunning to watch how this beast affectionately rubs its head slowly against the boy. It’s unruly, sometimes ignores your suggestions and commands, and behaves exactly as an animal would.
Trico is large and the boy small, yet the nature of the world is such that both rely on the other. By virtue of systems larger than either, they need each other. The boy needs Trico to reach difficult areas, fight enemies, lift or move large objects; Trico needs the boy to open gates, walls and solve puzzles so they can continue. This sounds simple but highlights that nothing about their relationship is forced – except by virtue of the story.
You will come to love Trico, not only because it is cute but because you come to understand the creature’s behaviour, importance and abilities. Love blossoms for a variety of reasons and desperation and necessity are two powerful motivators. Eventually, Trico will feel like an extension of yourself in the game, like another avatar – though you will still only ever be controlling the boy. But this is testament to the game’s excellence in terms of design, rather than any one factor.
Trico the animal
Many games have attempted to simulate creatures before. Indeed, entire games aim to simulate what it’s like to be a pet owner. Yet, The Last Guardian treats Trico not as a pet but as an animal first. This is a beast that cannot be domesticated – the game regularly reminds you of this, sometimes in rather terrifying moments where it will turn on the boy.
However, instead of being domesticated or treated like a pet, the boy himself views the giant beast – and indeed refers to him in voiceover – as a companion. Considering this is the third time Team Ico have focused on bonding between a main character and an NPC companion (after Ico and Shadow of the Colossus), it’s no wonder they got it so right. As I’ve said, you’ll come to learn how Trico operates, what makes the creature happy, sad, afraid. By the end of the game, I could tell what was troubling Trico even when I could not see the beast myself.
Trico interacts with the boy in a variety of natural ways: The creature calls out to the boy when he’s out of sight, gently rubs its head against the boy and croons, barks when detecting danger. Like a cat, it hates water, hops when attempting to swipe at something and does a little shake when making a giant leap. The boy must learn how to cooperate with this giant beast, getting the creature to move to different locations, perform a variety of actions, so the boy can climb or jump to reach ledges, switches and so on. This organic relationship is the result of a clockwork-like precision in design, one that comes to fruition as you figure out the puzzle and, using the many forms of interaction with Trico, solve it. Every few minutes you will feel a sense of elation as you solve one of the game’s rather complex riddles.
Trico is a marvel of modern digital design: the artists, animators and engineers who painstakingly created it deserve enormous praise for their creation. The creature has hundreds of feathers, each lovingly detailed, reflecting light and darkness, wind and water. When Trico scratches, feathers fall out. Its tail – an essential part of puzzle solving! – can be moved and manipulated by the boy, while Trico looks on perplexed. Throughout the game you will watch dried blood stains its feathers throughout the game and its broken blue horns and wings slowly grow back.
The boy can pet and leap and climb Trico, each one an incredibly important action. Yes, even petting and muttering soothing phrases is essential. After getting into fights with creepy statue soldiers, Trico bounces and barks in a distressed manner – the only way to calm it down is to climb on the creature’s back and gently rub, muttering soothing phrases. This detail is so significant even various parts of Trico respond differently to petting (hint: It loves the area just above its hind legs).
The boy also can remove spears thrown into Trico that the creature can’t remove itself. Commanding it is rather simple but requires work, since Trico might ignore the boy. By holding R1, you can point in a direction you want it to go and actions you need like jumping or, at one point, diving. This simplicity masks a complex system of controls, extended to Trico, and what I meant by it being an extension of the player themselves.
The world is broken and perfect
The game world is a beautiful, mysterious place, punctuated by a minimalist score and very little guidance. Trees and water, flowers and birds, haunt abandoned, broken temple ruins clearly lovingly designed. Great gates and mechanisms still function, with no person in sight. Torches light long, stone hallways where all you hear are the echoes of Trico’s thunderous footsteps and cries.
Your biggest menace in the game isn’t any creature, it’s the camera. It gets stuck in walls, sometimes Trico, as the creature marches forward with the boy gripping on. The camera will hinder your ability to solve puzzles in sometimes unfair ways (one puzzle was almost unsolvable due to a bizarre choice of fixed camera placement that made navigating near impossible).
After you’re told what actions you may perform, very little else aids you. Nothing gets highlighted, for example, to help you figure out interaction. I did not realise, for example, that creeping foliage on walls operated like feathers, meaning they were climbable. This lack of hand-holding (which players of Ico might think is a pun) does make the game significantly more challenging, but I think it’s important. I figured out the puzzles and I’m not particularly good at puzzle games, even with an antagonistic camera.
Though the map focuses entirely on this abandoned temple-like area (I won’t say more what it is), it offers diverse environments and a massive number of problems to solve – I never felt like I was doing the same set of sequences throughout the many, many hours of play (and yes, it’s surprisingly a long game). Indeed, as soon as you think you’ve found a rhythm to puzzle solving, the game either upends your expectations or gets rid of the pattern altogether. You can never feel secure in your actions – this only helps reinforce that all you have to rely on is Trico. Even the ground beneath your feet is not certain. Again, through necessity, this bonding with the beast cements itself.
The animation is some of the most striking you’re likely to see. The way Trico moves is exactly how an animal would. Its ears flip and fold, its eyes narrow and open, literally lighting up for food. The game seems obsessed with clipping issues: When Trico is near a building, its ear won’t clip through a wall. The ear will fold naturally, as will its wings. When walking over rocks, Trico will stand on the rock, even in passing. The boy, too, gently touches a wall as he walks by, lifts his knees higher or lower as he holds on to Trico during great leaps.
The leaps! I still think about the leaps. Sometimes, Trico will have to jump across a large gap and it’s always an event. The boy mostly has to command Trico to do so. But you eventually learn when Trico’s going to jump: its wings extend, its neck cranes, sometimes Trico barks. The boy holds on and you can watch the muscles move beneath the feathers, as Trico primes itself for the jump. And when the beast does jump, you will find yourself holding your breath as the wind rushes through Trico’s feathers and through the boy’s clothes and the loud thud of a successful landing is a like gong of congratulations. Each one feels like victory.
As the game progresses, expect these to become more challenging and expect the game to take away your sense of what a leap even means.
Video games are, for the most part, terrible with their endings. They either don’t know when to end or how. I can think of few that truly manage to provide a send off worthy of the time you’ve spent. But, I’m pleased to say, The Last Guardian does. I’ve never harder for a game than I did for The Last Guardian.
Even now, I think about those last five minutes with a vividness I can’t even recall from most books. The final moments are so carefully constructed, so beautifully delivered, and, further, is an ending I did not see coming.
The Last Guardian looks at the world and says: You’ll get through this. It gives us comfort and security in the guise of a large, ridiculous beast who offers conditional love premised on understanding and respect. Trico is the blanket so many of us wish for, to help us conquer our fears as we enter the terrifying world designed, it so often seems, to harm us. Powerful forces we could never hope to understand or defeat seem constantly poised to destroy the world, rather than give an inch toward kindness and acceptance. The Last Guardian comes in a year so many of us have struggled through, often alone, with a roaring oblivion around us.
It’s not just that I needed The Last Guardian due to a difficult year and a terrifying future, it’s that I think the world does. That The Last Guardian is this good feels almost unreal; but that it became something more is what’s most striking. I’ve thought games were good, magnificent even – but, in our world that seems dedicated to draining itself of humanity at every turn, this is the first game I’ve thought necessary.
If ever we’re discovered by an alien species can decide the fate of our species, let’s hope they find The Last Guardian first.