The Last Guardian and the Weight of Expectations

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<i>The Last Guardian</i> and the Weight of Expectations

It’s been seven years since The Last Guardian was announced, and with a dedicated fanbase built on the legacy of it’s predecessors, director Fumito Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, expectations are high. Sitting down to play the demo during E3 2016 evoked a sense of reverence, despite my lack of personal interest in the game. After all these years, this almost mythical game actually exists. Could it possibly justify the anticipation?

The Last Guardian centers on the relationship between a young boy and his companion, a large beast called Trico. The demo consists of the first 45 minutes of the game, and there the player is introduced to the protagonist, who narrates the action in past tense as he recounts the events of his youth. In the opener, he is kidnapped and abandoned in a strange castle and comes upon Trico, who he must woo in order to gain his trust. From there, he and Trico solve puzzles and achieve tasks as they make their way out of their unfamiliar surroundings.

The boy awakens in unfamiliar surroundings, surrounded by rock formations in what appears to be a large cavern. Trico, a large, griffin-like creature, lies wounded nearby. The boy will need his help in escaping this strange place, but first his trust must be gained before he can even approach.

As I creep towards Trico, he lets out a great roar, throwing the boy back several feet. The narrator explains Trico will need to eat to regain his strength before I can pull the spear out of his side. I scramble around in search of food, exploring and climbing ledges to find three barrels, chucking each of them near Trico’s head. He snatches them up hungrily and I move in closer, removing the spear and thus, gaining his trust.

From there, the demo plays out largely like a Legend of Zelda game, but with Trico as a rideable companion, allowing the player to solve puzzles by using the beast’s size and strength. The boy can climb up Trico’s tail or legs to mount his back, and use that to reach new areas. The bond of trust between them allows the boy to guide and lure Trico through the obstacles of their escape, and their interactions are cooperative; at times the boy must coax or suggest the next course of action in order to get Trico to respond, and over time Trico becomes more obedient as he and the boy continue to bond. Far from being a passive companion, Trico must be given structure and guidance, as one would train a pet.

The controls are simple and easy to learn. There are no button-mapping surprises, and the boy sticks mostly to action-adventure game staples like jumping and climbing. A child could easily learn how to play The Last Guardian with little adult guidance.

In many ways the game most reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, even aesthetically. The design of the boy’s unexplained tattoos, the grand and vaguely ancient environments, and the indecipherable but gentle cadence of the narrator’s language all evoke a sense of Hylian deja vu. The mission objective delivery also brings Legend of Zelda to mind, gently guiding the player by suggesting the next course of action, but never holding their hand through the process. There aren’t any obtrusive, immersion-breaking hallmarks of game design like quest or item markers, requiring a more proactive player. This results in a more satisfying sense of accomplishment with each completed task.

For me, I’m not sure the draw of a companion pet sparks enough interest to play The Last Guardian in full. Is Trico supposed to be cute? Is his appearance supposed to be part of the appeal? I don’t feel particularly drawn to him as an animal companion. He looks like an overgrown hyena.

I’m also not enthused about the visuals, which are by this point a bit faded and outdated for the current generation. I prefer a more vibrant environment, and I wonder how much of the game takes place in the cave-like setting of the demo. I can see those high sloped rock walls getting very depressing.

But mostly, the gameplay reminds me so much of The Legend of Zelda that I’d really rather play a Zelda game. Sure, the series’ method of item-based level progression is becoming a bit stale but the diversity of the weapons and dungeons kept things interesting. With The Last Guardian, I know that I’m supposed to derive pleasure from the game by investing emotionally in the relationship between the boy and his beast, but instead I feel nothing. Then again, it’s hard to know what the full game will entail by playing a 45 minute tutorial quest demo.

Its action is cohesive and easy to learn, and while visually The Last Guardian may not hold up to other games in the current generation, its well-crafted environments ensure that in that category, it will still be a contender. Not my cup of tea, but so far so good.

The Last Guardian will be released for the Playstation 4 on October 25.

Holly Green is a reporter, editor, and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gameranx, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.