This review contains critical plot spoilers throughout.

Where do you even start? The follow up to arguably the greatest game of all time, the third in a trilogy that did more for games as a respected art medium than any single other series, the product of an infamously troubled  development and a game many doubted would ever see release. It’s immensely hard to pick one way into The Last Guardian, like an obscenely huge hamburger that’s hard to take an initial bite of lest you be covered in meat juice and bits of tomato. Let’s give it a go.

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Fumito Ueda’s games are about relationships, sure. Ico and Yorda, Wander and the Collossi, TLG’s unknown boy and the  giant Trico. They’re also about information and ability gaps and how they inform atmosphere and design.

Ico and Shadow of the Colossus gave the player characters, Ico and Wander the power in relationships with Yorda and the colossi. Yorda might from time to time know how to pass a gate that Ico couldn’t but for the most part, Ico’s physical ability and some PS2 era AI made sure that the player was in charge. These might have been areas neither character had seen before, but on first glance, you knew more about these spaces than Yorda, or could at least process what to do faster.

In Shadow, Wander was disrupting the natural order. The colossi were quite content going about their lives in the vast wilderness, but you as the player had other ideas. While Wander’s idea of how this world worked was ultimately inaccurate, he had complete faith in his theories. His sword in pointing the way to his next target gave him an informational edge over the other players in the piece. While it was a game about scale, it also felt like one of opportunity, of freedom. You were a tiny speck in the vast wilds, but you had knowledge and a pointy stick.

The Last Guardian consciously strips away any advantage, any sense of know how or physical strength you might have possessed in Ueda’s other works. It instead grants those things to Trico, your mythical beastly partner. Taken as part of a trilogy, it’s the only one not to have the player character’s name in the Japanese title (SotC was Wanda to Kyozo in Japan, TLG is Hitokui no Owashi Trico, though Trico never actually eats people in the game as the title suggests, does he?) and gives Trico a share of agency the player never has. Perhaps knowing its surroundings better than the anonymous player character, or perhaps benefitting from his enormous size, Trico will leap to ledges and far off platforms you alone have no chance of making, or, until you train yourself to constantly look up, even seeing. You’ll often find yourself unable to advance until Trico decides it is acceptable to do so by jumping, diving or even just moving out the way. It is in charge. You are not.

It doesn't quite happen with the same frequency as Uncharted's 'woah'! moments, but Trico's lack of grace usually leads to a collapsing bridge or two, especially when it looks rickety before you even set foot on it.

It doesn’t quite happen with the same frequency as Uncharted‘s ‘woah’! moments, but Trico’s lack of grace usually leads to a collapsing bridge or two, especially when it looks rickety before you even set foot on it.

Nothing illustrates this better than Trico’s petulance. It lies down, unwilling to move, hungry but not in a way that demands an emotional bond of the player but rather, occurring at scripted points as it does, one that says ‘perform an environmental puzzle for me, mere human’. Its quizzical catlike head tilts meanwhile are an expression, not of a lack of understanding, but understanding too well what you want to do; it says that you’re on the right lines but have yet to perform a key task. At one point this involves taking a detour into a cul-de-sac that serves no purpose in the narrative other than to suddenly tutorialise how to give basic commands, which once learned allow Trico to jump across a gap it ordinarily would have done itself. The beast is playing you; it lets you act, but the reaction is up to Trico alone.

It’s no small wonder then, that TLG feels like the opposite of Shadow. Even in its most architecturally extravagant, its grandest spaces, TLG is extremely claustrophobic and restrictive (a feeling redoubled if you don’t head into settings first thing and turn camera sensitivity up all the way, as otherwise stubborn as it is). Ueda’s team are masters at cultivating atmosphere and wherever possible that feeling of being fenced in is forced home, with repeated teases of freedom and glorious panoramas in front of you suddenly snatched away by a crumbling platform or mysterious, sinister interference.

Mystery pervades the lore of the Ico trilogy; if nothing else all three games show fascinating architecture with no explicit indication of who put it all together, and with minimal language in each, leaves a lot to the imagination.  TLG sheds some light, if you take the three games as existing in the same universe, which is satisfying to fans, though in a direct narrative sense it’s lacking, a game that leans so heavily on deus ex machina moments (being separated from Trico and cast down into a pit that luckily has magical elevators nobody would possibly use is one lowlight, ruining a sense of place Ueda’s games normally convey) as to nearly fall over. An emotional connection to Trico meanwhile is frequently assumed and not truly earned until the third act; you are so frequently separated from the beast and its death, injury or danger so often teased that it begins to feel like crying wolf.

In broader terms, TLG tells a more satisfying tale by starting at the end and working backwards. It’s less how the story ends that’s the draw here, but more how it starts and how you end up with Trico in the first place.

The place you’re working your way out of is controlled by the Master of the Valley, a bizarre sentient orb. We soon learn that Trico is not one of a kind, but one of many, albeit a special case. These creatures are tended to by mute, walking suits of armor that are commanded by the Master, and have metallic helmets that the Master uses to communicate and bend the beasts’ will to its bidding. That bidding seems to be for the most part capturing and semi digesting humans from nearby villages, their gooey insides becoming Trico food and the rest becoming more armoured automatons.

It’s these revelations that complete a trilogy about mankind’s relationship with technology and his disregard to nature. Shadow of the Colossus, the prequel, shows the selfishness of humankind, a killer running wild and destroying nature’s beauty, all in the age honored name of getting laid. The vast empty expanse that makes up the game’s world represents the paradise that will soon be paved, and the baby born from Wanda’s destruction bears the horns that are a mark of a kind of post lapsarian self awareness and wisdom.

In Ico, the eponymous horned child is vilified, locked away in a castle for the safety of himself, or of the community. Obviously a whole civilization created this space. It has working machinery, massive towers, a functioning windmill. Yet the people that populated the castle town are long gone, merely shadows. Yorda represents a humanity that Ico must reclaim, redeem lest she be taken to the land of shadows, and Ico become a horned shell.

A shell similar to those automatons, all horned themselves. Trico’s horns are antennae through which they receive orders from the Master of the Valley. The Master is a giant orb inside an icy tower, cooled further by a giant fan. It’s a super computer, an autonomous AI Skynet that feeds on human life, its Terminators the armour shells that seek to enslave this endangered species and turn them into death drones through metallic headgear and those horns. The enlightened humanity that Wander was the progenitor of created a pre industrial era AI that quickly overcame them. The only hope to come back against the Master is a single kill switch for the suits in the form of a reflective shield.

It’s a neat and unexpected pre steampunk wrap up to Ueda’s trilogy. Interestingly, it also helps to fill in the gaps between the premise of a boy and beast relationship and the technology that drives it. Does Trico seem irritatingly artificial for much of the game, ferrying you to points rather than giving you agency? It’s because he is just that. His AI might have gone haywire somewhat to help humanity like all good killer robots in sci-fi, but he is a killer robot. This is Robocatbird, or more fitting Triconator, his eyes representing LED status indicators (yellow for hunger, pink for kill mode) and only in quiet moments reverting back to a doleful natural look. This knowledge helps protect a suspension of disbelief in combat meanwhile; Trico can be peppered with enemy spears but will never fall, being part beast and part machine of course, though the believability of a gameplay concept hurts the emotional connection you may have to the creature.

You can soothe and pet Trico at any point. Arguably it calms him down from stressful fights, but it seems just as effective as leaving him alone for a while. The relationship between boy and beast isn't something you need to manage, which perhaps would have cluttered gameplay had it been a requirement.

You can soothe and pet Trico at any point. Arguably it calms him down from stressful fights, but it seems just as effective as leaving him alone for a while. The relationship between boy and beast isn’t something you need to manage, which perhaps would have cluttered gameplay had it been a requirement.

That’s what TLG felt like. Perhaps due to a lack of tech to convincingly create a creature in an adventure game that would pass the Turing Test, Ueda made a game that felt less about a relationship between boy and beast and more about man and technology. It feels even more apt given the technical issues all three games in the trilogy faced. Ico and TLG both had to move platforms mid troubled development due to technical issues, and SoTC arguably should have been moved to PS3 given how much it struggled on PS2. This is a team familiar with technical compromise, and TLG’s story evokes the same struggle.

There’s so much in the periphery of TLG to talk about that moment to moment gameplay is easily forgotten. It is, to be reductive, a colossus injected into Ico. The verticality Trico gives to puzzle solving is interesting, and we see some spectacular set pieces, often because of the creature’s clumsiness, but mechanically there’s little to stick in the mind. Indeed, by removing agency or threat in combat, encounters feel rite, a matter of quickly solving a puzzle so that Trico can enter an arena and clean house.

Quickly solving those puzzles gives rise to irritations with controls. Your young charge is harder to persuade than Trico much of the time, especially when dropping short distances, or dismounting from his furry feathered friend’s back. Comically, its often easier to fall twenty feet to a wince inducing face plant and a few subsequent seconds of hobbling around than it is to delicately drop from a ledge.

Yet your interactions and button presses in TLG are a means rather than an end. What shines, brilliantly, brightly, is Ueda and his team’s ability to create an atmosphere and lore that is captivating and able to spark copious debate. That’s really not something all will appreciate, and the vision here fails to hit on every level, and often hints at compromise. It is, though, something that will stay with me.

KAIJU VERDICT

3/4 Pops: Exceptional  A significant cut above the crowd. Though flawed or otherwise not necessarily for everyone, it does things other games in the genre do not, or tries something new with a great deal of success.
Japanese retail version tested. Japanese version of the game contains no English language support.

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