Review: 'The Last Guardian' Was Worth The Wait

Review: 'The Last Guardian' Was Worth The Wait

10 years in the making, 'The Last Guardian' is finally here, and it was worth the wait. Sony

After 10 years, Fumito Ueda delivers something special – a beautiful, emotional journey worthy of its heritage

After 10 years, Fumito Ueda delivers something special – a beautiful, emotional journey worthy of its heritage

Fumito Ueda makes games about empathy and belonging, and his long-awaited The Last Guardian is no exception. Like so many games that make a play for your heartstrings, it struggles valiantly against the limitations of the medium. Relationships in games mostly lean toward the functional – your budding friendship with that shopkeep goes only as far as his ability to sell you a better suit of armor. Games that structure themselves entirely around the bonds between people are rare, and even exceptions like this year's Firewatch typically lean on dusty devices like lengthy cutscenes to really sell it.

What defines Ueda’s games is their commitment to establishing their relationships almost exclusively through organic play. Like Ico, the familiar boy-leads-girl-through-misty-castle yarn that marked Ueda’s dazzling 2001 debut, the situation here is immediate and simple: you play as a small boy who wakes up beside a chained griffin-cat-bird the size of a small truck who displays an attitude akin to a stray your mother won’t let you bring in the house. After feeding her several barrels of glowing gruel – which she eats whole, stopping only to spit out the constituent planks – she stops trying to kill you long enough for you to free her from her restraints. The boy dubs the beast Trico – which indicates “prisoner” and “cat-bird” in Japanese, but also “the third Team Ico game” – and resolves to explore their newfound environment, which, in true Ueda fashion, turns out to be an immaculately-gilded prison of indeterminate purpose.

If you're still pining for 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus – where you're tasked with brazenly slaying 16 sleeping giants of wildly varying forms – you might need to adjust your expectations. The problems presented by Guardian are largely intuitive and mundane, requiring more in the way of logical reasoning than split-second reflexes. Unlike in Ico, where the player served as a capable bodyguard-cum-tour guide to a helpless princess, here, you are the liability. In what has become an Ueda tradition, the not-yet-teen boy you control is no Nathan Drake – a weak shove serves as your one and only defense against the multitudes of phosphorescent soldiers that try to capture you. The boy’s tenuous grasp of jumping and climbing do much to establish his character, even if his lethargic pace can occasionally grate on the nerves.

Since your protagonist lacks the superhuman abilities associated with most game characters, much of the experience boils down to cajoling this massive wild animal to bend to your will, which is no easy task. To put it more directly, Trico is The Last Guardian, both in title and in spirit. In terms of raw technology, the beast is an unparalleled achievement – if there's a commercial game that has ever even attempted to create a virtual being remotely this sophisticated, I’m not aware of it. Trico scratches herself, sneezes, shakes her mane back and forth off as she emerges from water. She begs for food, perking up when she gets it, and even throwing the occasional tantrum when she doesn’t. Her eyes light up in varying shades to indicate her mood – white for hunger, red for anger. After she smashes some crumbling stone soldiers to dust with her massive paws, you must frantically pet her to calm her down, or risk being batted away yourself. And, in perhaps the boldest design decision of the year, she sometimes follows your commands – but only if you phrase it in a way that she understands.

To some, Trico’s lack of cooperation may seem like an affront to the most basic rule of video games – that every time you press a button, a predictable action will result. Her behavior can prove downright frustrating, especially when confronted with an action that you haven’t had to perform together yet, like diving underwater in tandem. But to simply call this bad design would be to hold the game to a formula that it rejects with every fiber of its being. Unlike most game characters, Trico doesn’t give you exactly what you want exactly when you want it. How could she? She’s an animal, and, like all animals, she has to be trained. And, sure enough, as you progress, the beast grows more receptive to your commands.

Early on, the process of getting Trico to navigate platforms feels precarious – she’ll often turn herself around in confusion, or simply sit, unable to discern the meaning of your pointed finger. By the end, however, she seems to do much of it on her own, eying the next platform and adjusting her trajectory as you climb ever-upward towards the milky sky. In this way, The Last Guardian is a game that demands self-examination, thoughtfulness, and above all else, patience. After all, Trico isn’t the only riddle you’ll have to solve, and Guardian has some of the most beguiling of the year. Where so many other games artlessly propel you down a linear path, Guardian makes you stop and think: just where the hell do I need to go next?

By many standards, Guardian isn’t an exceptional game. It bears the scars of its nearly decade-long development with an almost perverse sense of pride. The game's performance often struggles, overwhelmed by its own transcendent beauty. Its environment puzzles are mostly fun, but can be rage-inducingly opaque. It's not a journey meant for everyone – but those who heed its call will find themselves sadder, wiser, and maybe just a little better when they’ve seen it through to the end.