The Last Guardian is nearly here!
Having been first announced way back in 2009 (way before the PS4 was even a twinkle in Mark Cerny's eye), this spiritual successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, finally reappeared at last year's E3. Now, exactly a year later, we have a release date - and it's close! In just four months (from the time of writing) everyone finally be able to play Fumito Ueda's passion project themself.
Even better (for me at least) is that I've already had the chance to play a small section from the start of the game. Woop woop, right?
Yes and no: there's lots to love about this current build of The Last Guardian, but there are some pretty glaring issues, too. Allow me to take you through them...
LOVE 1: TRICO
The cat-dog-eagle that forms the big, feathery half of the game's central duo has always been the most appealing aspect of The Last Guardian, and I’m pleased to say that in action he doesn’t disappoint. Trico (for that is his name) is endlessly adorable.
When you first meet him he’s very wary of you, hissing if you get too close. Throw some food his way (he seems to enjoy eating barrels filled with some kind of blue, glowing stuff, but then who doesn’t?) and while he’s initially cautious, refusing to eat if you’re too close, he soon comes around and becomes happy to have you nearby.
The noises he makes are brilliant - rooted in real animal sounds but also completely unique - and his animation is spot-on. Leave him alone for a little while and he’ll explore his surroundings, sniffing at things as a dog would.
One particularly sweet bit of the demo involved trying to coax him into a cave filled with water - turns out his opinion on water comes from the cat side of his personality. He stands on a ledge, watching and calling to you, but is too much of a wimp to jump in. Of course you eventually coax him in with another barrel of the blue stuff (I reckon it must be Slush Puppy), but it’s just another of those wonderful moments that his personality comes through and you invest that little bit more in him emotionally.
If, like me, you’ve wanted your own Falcor ever since watching The NeverEnding Story as a child, The Last Guardian not only fulfils that dream but amps up the cuteness factor exponentially.
LOVE 2: THE NEW BOY
The boy that you play as has changed a good bit since we last saw him at GDC in March. For a start, the tattoos that were barely noticeable before are now much, much darker and extend right up his neck. These appear to be a bit of a surprise to him - “where did these markings come from?”, he ponders when he awakens at the bottom of a pit at the start of the demo.
My guess is that these aren’t the result of an exceptionally drunken night in Cardiff and the irresponsible business practices of a late-night body ink parlour, but you never know.
He’s a sweet-looking boy, appearing small and frail due to his age, but also determined and brave. You can tell that he’s from a tough tribe and is expected to grow into a warrior, and you have no trouble imagining that he could become the gruff-sounding man providing the voiceover…
LOVE 3: THE GRUFF VOICEOVER
Voiceovers aren’t always great (remember the original cinematic release of Blade Runner? *shudder*), but in The Last Guardian it works an absolute treat.
The voice is that of an aged version of the boy. He speaks in a language that, as with the noises Trico makes, is both completely made up and completely believable.
He narrates the whole story, giving the story context without ruining the mystery, and also delivers hints disguised as narration when it looks as though you’re stuck.
It’s a really slick implementation that actually serves to heighten the mystical elements.
Love 4: A story steeped in mystery
Speaking of mysticism and mystery, The Last Guardian is packed with both, and that makes it awesomely compelling.
Where are you? How did you end up there? Where on Earth did all of these tattoos come from? Why was Trico in chains? Why was he covered in some kind of armour? What’s happened to his horns? What even is Trico?! Are there more of them?
All of these questions are raised in the demo (which represents the start of the full game), and with any luck all will be answered over the course of the play through (the trailer also confirmed that there's at least one more creature like Trico). The fact that it manages to create so many mysteries with a very small amount of dialogue is testament to the subtlety of the storytelling.
One answer that is provided through dialogue right at the end of the demo is that they are in a place called the Den of Beasts. Gulp.
LOVE 5: THE DEN OF BEASTS
While the hands-on demo took place in a cave system seemingly separate to the main area of the game, we do get a glimpse of the Den of Beasts right at the end and have seen it shown off in various trailers.
It appears to be a huge, ruined castle that, because of its height, features vertigo-inducing sections that require careful movement and heart-in-mouth leaps across chasms.
It’s a wonderful, enticing place, itself full of mystery. Who built it? Does the huge sarcophagus I stumbled across in the demo a clue?
LOVE 6: IT LOOKS BEAUTIFUL
PlayStation’s current launch line-up is packed to the gills with high-fidelity, hyper-realistically presented blockbusters, and that makes The Last Guardian a gorgeous anomaly.
Fumito Ueda, director, has gone for the same “design through subtraction” approach to aesthetics that he perfected through Ico and Shadow of the Colossus so rather than oodles of detail you get a far softer, flatter, watercolour-like presentation that heightens the dream-like qualities of the game.
That’s not to say there’s no detail. Trico is covered in individual feathers that shimmer as he moves and shakes himself dry after the plunge into the lake. All told, it’s really a beautiful game.
PROBLEM 1: CONTROL MATTERS
And now we get to the painful stuff. The elements in the game that could undo all of the greatness above.
First up, it’s the controls: they’re just way too sluggish and inaccurate, and they’re mapped rather unintuitively, all of which adds up to an experience that is at times hugely frustrating. I spent an absolute age just attempting to jump onto and grip a rope because the jumps are delayed and the boy rarely seems to fling himself in the direction you were intending.
In a game that’s going to involve lots of perilous jumps and careful movement, the fact that you don’t feel properly in control is quite a big issue.
PROBLEM 2: CAMERA WOES
This is another contributing factor to the feeling that you’re not properly in control. At times you can move the camera as you wish; at others it seems to have a mind all of its own and you have to fight against it. It’s the inconsistency that’s the issue - either go with a fixed camera or give me complete control. I just want to know where I stand!
On top of that the camera often gets stuck behind objects or, more commonly, Trico, making it impossible to see anything. The overall immersion and cinematic quality of the game takes a huge nose dive when this happens - and it was pretty darn frequently during the demo.
Problem 3: Stuck in the Den of Beasts
The Last Guardian is a throwback to a time before constant hand-holding and breadcrumb trails in games. On the one hand that’s a great thing: we want to work things out for ourselves and be challenged, and we also want a screen that isn’t covered in text and markers for our next objective.
But while some cinematic games manage to subtly direct you to where you need to be, TLG seems happy to leave you stuck.
One moment in the hands-on demo sees you enter a circular room with no other exits. You find a mirror that you can carry, but then I (and everyone else I’ve spoken to who’s played the game) spent a good few minutes shining light from the mirror onto every surface of the room, trying to find a way out. Eventually I gave up and backtracked in frustration, only to discover that that’s what I was supposed to have done all along.
I’m hoping that isn’t a major element of the full game. The boy moves rather slowly, and the idea of having to walk miles back through an area just in case that’s what I need to do bothers me a lot.
THE LAST GUARDIAN: THE EARLY VERDICT
Playing The Last Guardian at E3 was a painful experience for me, and full of mixed emotions. I’m a huge fan of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and I’ve been desperate to get my hands on the spiritual sequel since it was first announced in 2009. Yeah, that is a long time to wait.
But while I found myself immediately enchanted by the setting, characters and art, the moments of technical craptitude shattered the illusion and reminded me that I was just playing a game. That’s not what I want or expect from a Fumito Ueda game.
Perhaps some of the issues will be ironed out before the game launches - there are a few months until the 25 October release date.
Even if not, I will, of course, play through the game and do my very best to block out the flaws. That’s how much I want to love The Last Guardian.
And I’ve always wanted my very own Falcor.
UPDATE (12/9/16): Bad news, Team Ico fans: the wait will continue a bit longer. Sony announced today that The Last Guardian will miss its announced 25 October release date and instead debut on 7 December in India.
According to Shuhei Yoshida, Sony's president of worldwide studios, the team "encountered more bugs than anticipated while in the final stages of development." That's a surprisingly frank statement about a much-anticipated game, but it also lines up well with our frustrating demo at E3 this year.
What's another six weeks after waiting several years? It's annoying, no doubt, but if it means that The Last Guardian is the polished, emotional epic we so desperately crave... then it'll be worth the late-holiday-season release. Fingers crossed.
Pre-order The Last Guardian game here from the PlayStation Store