I have mixed feelings about The Last Guardian. On one hand, it was an incredibly moving experience that leveraged the technology of video games to create a believable, lovable animal co-star. On the other, I often wavered between boredom, frustration, and confusion before the game’s last act. I think it is safe to call it one of the best gaming experiences I had in 2017 though I would hardly call it one of the best games I played.
The Last Guardian is the long delayed game from Team Ico, the studio best known for Shadow of the Collosus. It follows a small boy, stuck in a desolate and isolated temple called the Nest, along with a cat bird creature named Trico. Together, they navigate the temple in third person, solving puzzles, exploring, and avoiding statues that come to life and try to take the boy away to a different plane of existence.
The main conceit of The Last Guardian is the relationship between the boy and Trico and thus the player and Trico since the boy is your in game avatar. I cannot stress enough how magical Trico is both in believability but also in loveability. Team Ico manages this without reducing him to a cheesy mascot to sell toys either (i.e. porgs in “The Last Jedi”). Trico’s behavior appears to be modelled off of dogs and cats, and a lot of his mannerisms while playing matched up perfectly with what my dog was doing while I played, namely scratching himself or begging for food.
The gameplay further reinforces this relationship almost to its own detriment. Over the course of the game, the boy gains more and more control over Trico as they bond, but he never takes direct control or perfect control like what you would see in other games. Trico can be tempermently and it isn’t always obvious why he won’t listen. Plus, the game never explicitly spells out its own controls and Trico can take so long to react, that it feels far more like interacting with another living creature than it does controlling a pet in a video game.
That isn’t always a good thing. There were plenty of times where he wouldn’t listen or he’d do the wrong thing or do what I wanted at the wrong time. It is never clear how much the game is at fault for this since it is an intentional aspect of the design. Trico was family as quickly as half-way through the game, but that meant I loved him as much as I also wanted to yell at him for not listening. It was like Team Ico had made a pet simulator and they wanted to capture the most frustrating parts of pet ownership too. As much as it added to the experience, it often detracted from the fun.
I also want to praise the game’s atmosphere. Everything is dilapidated and in ruin. The silence of the Nest only added to the loneliness and confusion. Why am I here? What is Trico? Where am I going? Where did I come from?
Still, I felt the game ran long, which is odd because I had only heard how short it was when I was checking its earliest reviews. To me, the loneliness and the frustration of controller at Trico slowly began to weigh on me. The repeated trope of “ascend to top, then fall back down to do it again differently” also dragged things down. It wasn’t until the last couple of hours that I knew anything, and by then, I was more focused on finishing than reveling in revelations.
Don’t get me wrong: I am happy that I finished this game. Trico is one of the greatest achievements in gaming history. I don’t mean that as hyperbole either. In the same way that Harry Potter makes Hogwartz feel like a believable place I could one day go to, The Last Guardian created a new creature out of pure imagination and convinced me that I could reach out and touch him, praise him for doing right, or scold him for doing wrong. That’s as close to playing god as developers have ever gotten before.
I cannot recommend The Last Guardian the game, but I dare you to play it and not feel something for Trico or to not be hooked into the boy’s perilous and mysterious situation. If the game was a little shorter or a little bit less frustrating, it would’ve been perfect for me. Instead, it is a flawed game with a central character I will never forget from a studio whose games are worth waiting a decade for. Play it and adopted a Trico today.