Steve Tilley, Postmedia Network
, Last Updated: 12:27 AM ET
Nine years is a long time to wait for something. And nine years is an especially long time to anticipate something, if you can appreciate the difference.
The Last Guardian, out this week for the PlayStation 4, was officially announced nine years ago. Originally envisioned as a PlayStation 3 game, it went through nearly a decade of on-and-off development, with some convinced it would never see the light of day. And now – remarkably, almost miraculously – it exists.
Is it even fair to ask if The Last Guardian was worth the wait? I’ve been struggling with that question since completing this adventure of an unnamed boy and his giant feathery companion, a griffin-like mix of a dog and a bird. It’s hard to separate The Last Guardian, the game, from The Last Guardian, the thing that fans – myself included – have built up to near-mythic proportions in our minds.
Developed by legendary designer Fumito Ueda and the talents behind 2001’s Ico and 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus – both unforgettable games – The Last Guardian puts players in the role of an unnamed boy who wakes up alongside a chained beast inside a crumbling, sprawling castle. After freeing the creature, called Trico, the two slowly come to trust and rely on one another as they travel through the castle, looking for a way out.
Trico is simply amazing, full stop. He (or she… if Trico has a gender, I don’t recall it being specified) acts as you’d expect a giant, intelligent dog to act. Every mannerism feels natural, and the fact that this massive A.I. entity can navigate cramped castle corridors without ever getting stuck or clipping through walls is flat-out amazing.
There are moments of pure joy in The Last Guardian, like riding on Trico’s back as he takes a running jump across a gaping chasm, figuring out how to destroy the huge stained glass eyes that frighten the beast, or simply climbing on top of his head and scratching him behind his ear to watch him wriggle in pleasure. Trico is often in jeopardy, and there’s a true sense of urgency as you struggle to help him.
Yet for each time the boy saves Trico, Trico saves the boy – snatching him out of the air to save him from a fatal fall, or tearing apart the ghostly warriors that seek to spirit the boy away. The beautiful beast becomes more confident and capable as the game progresses, and the bond between child and animal develops organically.
The world of The Last Guardian is breathtaking as well. Like Ico before it, the castle is a massive, ancient thing of lonely beauty, full of obstacles to overcome. Trico needs the boy, and the boy needs Trico – whether it’s the boy opening gates or lowering bridges so Trico can pass, or Trico acting as a giant, feathery ladder or a bounding mount to get the boy places he can’t reach, without each other they would be lost.
But The Last Guardian has a surprising number of problems. In the nine years the game was in development, Ueda and company still didn’t figure out how to make intuitive, fluid camera controls, and moving the camera perspective is often cumbersome, even occasionally frustrating.
The same often goes for controlling the boy himself, particularly in segments where he needs to make a precise leap onto or off of a dangling chain or Trico’s tail, or throw barrels full of luminous butterflies – Trico’s healing food – across gaps, an infuriating puzzle type that murders the game’s already uneven pace every time it crops up.
And, as wonderful as Trico is, the parts of the game that consist of riding him from one perch to another feel like the world’s slowest platformer.
The ending of the game is disappointing in that it involves an extended sequence of precise jumping and aiming of the boy’s magic shield, both of which are difficult because of the twitchy controls. The final encounter itself just doesn’t feel like a proper payoff for the journey these two have undergone, and it’s up to pre- and post-credits cutscenes to attempt to give the final moments of the game some emotional resonance.
Despite its problems, The Last Guardian is an incredible piece of imaginative world-building. As a game, it mostly succeeds. As something we’ve been anticipating for nine years… well, that might be too tall an obstacle for even a giant flying dog to get over.