It’s OK to Cry When You First Play ‘The Last Guardian’
We played the long-awaited PlayStation exclusive at E3 2016, and trust us: this is a special game, rich in singular appeal, despite its "problems".
I mean, you can, but I didn't. I'm such a husk of a human being these days that the only way you'd get a tear out of my face is by forcing a hose into my shite-talking gob and turning the tap on until the head came off in your hand, my cheeks swelling until their veins emerged like Mars' dead tributaries, eyes popping from their comfy sockets Hanna-Barbera style. Then, then, you might see a trickle down my cheek. It doesn't come easy, is what I'm saying here. Not in front of Video Games.
But I'll confess to feeling something – a little lurch in my chest, the tiniest increase in my pulse – when I sit down in a small, dark room at E3 2016, away from the main show floors, and play through the first 40 minutes of one of gaming's longest-running will-it-ever-happen-though-seriously-this-is-getting-stupid stories. So if you start The Last Guardian, and your peepers moisten, and you can't control what's coming, just let it go. I won't judge you. I know what this even being a game, an almost-finished product, something you can sink yourself into in the comfort of your own home from October the 25th, means to people other than myself. In some quarters: everything.
Hell, it means a lot to me, too – to be playing The Last Guardian now, months ahead of a finally confirmed release date, relatively speaking one of the first people in the world to do so, is quite the privilege and the honour isn't lost on me. Sure, I'm a professional when it comes to This Sort Of Thing, but sometimes, rarely, games are more than just products to be assessed on their controls, their frame rates, their visuals and the somehow-measurable enjoyment that the human player experiences when a bundle of lines and colours reacts a certain way on a TV screen. They surpass the technology that forms the foundation of their very being, transcending medium to exist somewhere else: as art, I suppose, expression every part as pertinent as what you'll find on a canvas, in a theatre, within the structure of a sentence that turns your lungs inside out with delight.
Which is fortunate, really, for The Last Guardian, because as a video game at its base level – you press buttons on here, and the little avatar on there responds appropriately – it has problems. Wait, let me adjust that. It has "problems", in so much as the way that your character, an as-yet unnamed child who awakes after a fall covered in strange markings, beside a chained beast in great discomfort that I'll get to in just a second, controls is very similar to how ill-fated protagonist Wander moved in this game's spiritual predecessor, Shadow of the Colossus.
Said 2005 title, The Last Guardian director Fumito Ueda's previous game (this about-to-come-out one has been in the works since 2007), was enrapturing of environment and atmosphere, its gigantic "bosses" multifaceted puzzles of superlative creature and architectural design. But its controls were scattily sensitive, at times disastrously so, and its camera was a persistent obstacle to overcome. Up close and personal with one of the 16 colossi, it was too easy to lose Wander behind a massive leg, or on the other side of a screen-filling torso.
The Last Guardian has this same problem, but it's become significantly greater of frustration potential on account of the creature in question, Trico, sharing screen real estate much more frequently. Whereas Shadow's titans were encountered only in epic-music-at-the-ready set-piece situations, The Last Guardian pairs its human hero with a feathered and horned companion the size of bus at almost all times. Expect to see nothing but its back, legs or arse from time to time, desperately wiggling the sticks to try to relocate the errant kid at the heart of this adventure, the "you" inside the experience. Visually, this PlayStation 4 exclusive bears the scars of its development commencing for the PS3 – not all textures are as tidy as they might be, and small but (maybe) important (to someone) details like the child's hair look entirely last-gen.
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But here's the thing: even though I had what added up to probably a full minute of proper face-palming over the janky inputs that haphazardly guide the child through cracks, up walls and across chasms – hitting triangle to jump and holding R1 to grasp and climb sounds easy enough in theory, but having come to this off the back of Uncharted 4, actively needing to keep a button depressed as you manoeuvre around vertical surfaces and through Trico's thick plumage feels oddly backwards – The Last Guardian effortlessly impresses despite its archaic elements of actual interactivity. And besides, Shadow's controls became more comfortable in time, and I expect these to do the same. Visually, sure, this is no (new) God of War or Uncharted 4, but its style is considered and charming nonetheless, consistency of art and design encouraging player immersion.
I'm already mightily smitten with Trico, a beast of mythological proportions and power given a distinct, and just a little bit delightful personality on account of naturalistic movement and responses to the calls and actions of the tiny human who comes to its aid. Its AI is uncommonly refined, its behaviour satisfyingly unpredictable – it may ignore a call twice, but persist and you'll get its attention. And the world, while get to I see so little of it, spending much of this preview within the confines of a cave structure containing what seem to be the ruins of a long-since-moved-on society, is so rich of singular character, all faded glory and forgotten culture. It brings to mind what it must be like to see, say, Mayan ruins for real rather than on Wikipedia. That combination of awe and intrigue, both for what existed before you ever stepped here, and what you're yet to discover in the present day.
'The Last Guardian', E3 2016 trailer
The first 40 minutes of the game are all about connecting boy with beast, as you remove spears from Trico's side and release a muzzle from around its jaws – jaws that could so easily munch up your bones, but instead the kinda-cat-like creature prefers barrels of glowing gloop, which are hidden around the area. By feeding Trico these treats, tossing them before its snout, the child earns its trust, and a bond forms in real time. By calling Trico over, you can climb up onto its back to reach high ledges, accessing new areas of this hidden structure, the aim being escape into daylight (and into an area called the Den of Beasts, which looks a lot like the one shown off in E3 2015's trailer). In a bright chamber, the boy finds a round, shield-like object that can shine a beam of light onto any given point, striking any spot in the environment. On seeing this, Trico's eyes light up red and its tail crackles with electricity; a constant stream of energy is fired in the direction of the beam, and this allows for the pathway-clearing destruction of blockages, piled-up pottery just lying about the place, and ancient wooden doors.
All of which sounds very mechanical, very game-y and actually quite staid, Trico's AI aside. But The Last Guardian, much like Shadow and Ueda's game before that, the affectingly intimate puzzler Ico, uses minimal dialogue and a strong, unique atmosphere to feel instantaneously special, or at least markedly different, when set against any number of platformers, "action-adventure" games (uh, that meaningless pigeonhole) or personality-propelled puzzle affairs. In words, written down on a page like this one, it's hard to really specify what the feeling you get when playing this game, that I felt, actually is. It's part-relief, I think, that it's happening – well, that it's happened, and will do for everyone in just a few months. And relief, too, that it's not an unmitigated disaster, as many a long-gestation venture can be, whatever the medium. (Every played Too Human? Don't.) The "problems", they're nothing that the most formidable Ueda fan won't brush off in seconds, and the rest of this game's players will surely come to terms with them eventually.
It's anticipation, too, of course: having had a taste, I know I want more, because my relationship with Trico and the magnificent monster's oddly-marked human companion has only just begun to bloom. And just as Shadow documented the story of one man and his horse, and the great thrills and pains that can come with that partnership, so The Last Guardian appears to be doing the same for a lost kid and his personal colossus. When Trico ignores the human's demand for it to stay in the cave, to not follow him outside, you know that these two are most likely bound forever, seeing as (the smaller) one has already saved the other's life. That said kindness is going to be repaid over the coming hours is a certainty, and I can't wait to witness it all unfold. Maybe a little longer, two hours or so in, and something might just start to stir at the edge of my eyelid.
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