The Last Guardian

It is probably impossible to discuss The Last Guardian without making reference to Team Ico's previous games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, because the The Last Guardian is both a distillation and an expansion of the elements that made the earlier games so memorable and beloved. Years in the making. The Last Guardian simultaneously reflects and transcends its origins in a much earlier generation of game play and technology.

Simply put, The Last Guardian is a puzzle/platform game, but of course that doesn't begin to describe what makes it an instant classic. What makes The Last Guardian special is the relationship between the player character and Trico, the fantastical creature that is part cat, part bird, and part mythical dragon. Trico is animated and "voiced" with such loving attention to lifelike detail that while the creature is definitely not of this world, its emotions are instantly readable and it takes no time to form a deep and lasting bond. That bond becomes the engine that drives the game, a game that is pervaded by both melancholy and triumph.

The majority of The Last Guardian's game play and puzzles consist of finding ways to move through the beautiful, detailed, and amazingly scaled world that consists of immense ancient towers and vertiginous cliffs, cramped dungeon-like interiors and beautifully forested landscapes. Trico's size can be both a blessing and a curse and while the path forward is usually clear, manipulating the environment, Trico's abilities, and the character's more precise strengths to solve puzzles can lead to some real head scratchers bordering on frustration. While of course a failure state means a restart at a checkpoint, these are not liberally placed and some significant loss of progress is possible.

Team Ico's games have been characterized by incredible art direction and a unique aesthetic, and that is true of The Last Guardian as well. The move to a more technically capable generation of consoles brings the game closer to a more stable frame rate and allows for more complex, lifelike animations, but the painterly visuals, character designs, and color palette reflect the eye of an artist, just as they did in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Sound and music are a major part of both the emotional landscape of The Last Guardian and partners in creating its reality. In particular, the somewhat spare orchestral score is notable for being alternatively heartbreaking and dramatic, but unlike so many action games it is never bombastic or hyperbolic.

Whether the result of its lengthy development or deliberate design, there are a few unfortunate issues that mar an otherwise stellar experience. While Trico's autonomous AI helps give the creature a more realistic set of behaviors, there a number of moments when he steadfastly refuses to obey, only to assent for no particular reason later. This can be frustrating and unpredictable, as are those occasional moments when Trico decides to solve a puzzle on his own. There is some graphical weirdness now and then, and the camera isn't always the ally it needs to be. There is nothing more frustrating in a puzzle platform game than a camera that gets in the way of precise movement.

The Last Guardian is proof -- for anyone who doubts it -- that video games can be a unique and emotionally powerful form of participatory storytelling. On top of that, The Last Guardian's visuals and creature design give it a timeless, mythic quality that both call to mind the sweet-natured Ico and the towering scale of Shadows of the Colossus. Exciting, challenging, and full of heart, The Last Guardian  is unforgettable.