There are few games that have been as hyped as The Last Guardian over the years. The spiritual follow-up to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus has been in development for almost 10 years and made its debut at the E3 games show way back in 2009.
But issues along the way forced the game's release further and further back to the point it looked like it would never materialise. Finally, however, Sony confirmed it at E3 2015.
So what has designer/director Fumito Ueda been doing in all that time, and was The Last Guardian worth the wait?
The Last Guardian review: Puzzlingly brilliant
Thankfully, the answer is yes.
Like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is a puzzle adventure. It has platform elements, but relies heavily on problem solving to get from one location and set-piece to another.
These invariably involve encouraging a massive cat-dog-bird-thing you've befriended to leap chasms or stand in the right place so you can climb him to get to otherwise impossible ledges. And that's mainly it. The gameplay mechanics are pretty straight-forward and basic, but extremely involving. And the story and emotive ride you're taken on more than makes up for complexity.
You play a small child, who wakes in a strange place near a giant, hurt beast. After calming him through the removal of mysterious broken spears, freeing him from his shackles and naming him Trico, you embark on a journey of discovery – presumably to get back to wherever it is you came from in the first place.
By being suitably vague to begin with the narrative unravels along the way, feeding nuggets and clues to what the heck is going on. In many respects it echoes Ueda's back catalogue and more recent hits, such as Journey, and it falls slap bang in the middle of baffling and whimsical, which is not a bad place to be.
The Last Guardian review: Measured storytelling
You care enough to keep going but the story never gets in the way of the majesty of the game. In essence, it is a sequence of massive, puzzle-oriented set pieces, with few requiring speedy action so you get plenty of time to take in the scenery.
It reminds us of Tomb Raider played through the eyes of a contemporary dance outfit. Most puzzles follow similar themes – pull this lever to do such and such – but the inclusion of Trico makes it altogether more heartwarming. This is a tale of friendship between one boy and his giant, dog-bird-cat beast rather than a pair of hotpants, couple of pistols or a sidekick called Sully.
One of the reasons that The Last Guardian couldn't have been made for PS3 lies in Trico himself. The enormous beast has great AI and movement, acting like a real animal. It gets scared, curious and angry – often elements of puzzles or their solutions. And it moves beautifully. As do all the feathers on its back, which you can climb.
The Last Guardian review: Graphical marvel
To have such an enormous character on screen with so many nuances in behaviour and motion takes a lot of computing power and the PS4 copes wonderfully.
The game is graphically impressive as a whole, with outdoor locations seeming vast in their detail and scale. Indoors it's all a bit murky, but that's down to the art style rather than limitations. And if you're playing the game on a 4K TV through PS4 Pro, you get extra resolution to play with and HDR (high dynamic range) pictures.
Some have bemoaned the frame-rate trade-off for higher resolution, but we didn't notice too many dropped frames or stutter. We were too busy marvelling as our feathered chum leapt across chasms.
There are points in the game where it isn't quite as perfect as we'd like, with climbing Trico sometimes a little clumsy, but the spirit and beauty more than make up for them. It truly is a wonderful example of measured storytelling.
The Last Guardian has old school roots but is a very modern game. In an age where the top titles are effectively action movies you control, this is an indie classic that you’d happily sit in a trendy London cinema to see.
The 12-hours of play time are fraught with frustrations and head-scratching puzzles, but you never feel that the game is halting your progress, just your own inadequacies in not being able to solve each puzzle. Those 12-hours, therefore, could easily be extended.
It is also magically presented, with a main character in Trico that you will long remember after the final scenes play out.
Some things are indeed worth the wait.
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