The Last Guardian doesn't much care for convention. Fumito Ueda's fantasy adventure may have taken the best part of a decade to deploy, but Team ICO's creative vision was never to blame. This bewilderingly brilliant yarn about a boy and a bird sticks so rigidly to a singular ideal that it's almost detrimental at times. And yet, it's hard not to be enamoured by this touching tale of companionship. It's not perfect, but sometimes it's the imperfections that help us to fall in love.
The game borrows liberally from its forebears: the bloomy, ostentatious architecture of ICO's castle provides the backdrop for all of the buccaneering that you'll be getting up to; the concept of enormous computer controlled creatures from Shadow of the Colossus forms the foundation of a friendship that you'll struggle to forget. But these obvious associations aside, this PlayStation 4 exclusive is very much its own beast.
And there are occasions where that can frustrate. The robed protagonist – diminutive in scale but boasting a big heart – is gangly and awkward to manoeuvre; strange controller mapping and a heavy physics system means that he can be difficult to position. Meanwhile, the feisty phoenix – who goes by the name Trico or Toriko depending upon who you listen to – can be contrary, ignoring instructions akin to a real animal.
But much of this is by design. When you're haphazardly running across roof-top beams, desperately attempting to drop a drawbridge in order to save a stranded Trico from the attacks of the ethereal enemies who populate the game world, the deliberate controls contribute to a kind of white-knuckle tension seldom seen in even the best survival horror games. And for all of the animal's disobedient behaviour, perseverance helps you to establish a pet-like relationship with the fantastical fowl.
They may barely utter a word, but make no mistake, these are two of the most relatable and believable protagonists ever to grace this industry. And while that may be taken as a slight against the medium at large, it's more a compliment to Ueda-san's unending genius. The animation work which imbues both heroes with such emotion is frankly staggering, and the set-pieces create a sense of scale rarely seen outside of the likes of Uncharted and God of War.
It's hard to imagine how this was ever envisioned for the PlayStation 3, then – especially when even the supercharged PS4 Pro struggles to match Japan Studio's seemingly limitless vision. But while the performance problems do grate, acknowledgement must go to the sheer ambition on display here; the game world folds in on itself, teasing areas that you're yet to encounter, and reminding you of districts that you've long since conquered.
There are some staggering, sky-high platforming sequences over the course of the campaign, and these are interspersed with puzzles that will require you to manipulate Trico in order to achieve your goals. The game gleefully leaves you unaided, so it's down to you and your understanding of the animal in order to solve conundrums that range from creating makeshift catapults to manipulating the flow of water. Each headscratcher is more imaginative than the last.
It can, unquestionably, be irritating when you feel like you've solved a puzzle, only for the animal to not follow out your commands. But this only makes it more satisfying when you clamber upon its feathered back, and it carries out your instructions without thought. The game gives you the tools to manage the beast as though it's a living thing: you need to pet it to calm its nerves; feed it to maintain its strength. And it's through this effort that you'll get your just rewards.
These prizes expand beyond a blossoming bromance, though: The Last Guardian does away with XP drip feeding and unlocks, opting instead to reward you with memorable moments. These may span a glimpse of a gorgeous, natural vista – or a moment with Trico, as he washes clean his feathers by rolling gleefully in a shallow pool. There are no menus or user interfaces here; the game itself is the reward, and it's refreshingly old-school in that regard.
But it looks incredible. The lighting, so ethereal, is exceptional, and the sense of scale as Trico bounds across collapsing buildings is out of this world. It's all complemented, of course, by an understated musical score which emphasises wind instruments and gives the whole affair a necessary air of whimsy. The world, intricately detailed as it is, feels like a third character here; the lore is never expanded, and yet it exudes every inch of meticulously detailed architecture.
The Last Guardian is a modern masterpiece, and a worthy addition to Team ICO's already flawless track record. Some will be unable to look past the mechanical shortcomings, but they'll be missing out on one of the most meaningful and truly original experiences in years.
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