It begins with a flashback – or at least that’s what it seems. While children are heard laughing and playing in the background, the camera approaches some sort of golden artefact half buried in the sand.
Then, after a credits sequence illustrated with 16th century etchings of mythological monsters, we see a scene familiar to anyone who has been watching the slow development of Fumito Ueda’s third game for Sony: a small boy, lying asleep next to a vast dog-like beast.
To be sat in a small demo room hidden away from the hurly burly of the E3 show floor, playing – actually playing – The Last Guardian, seems almost unreal. First previewed at E3 in 2009 and certainly in development for at least two years before that, the game has been a fixture on most wanted lists ever since. Partly it was the heritage of Ueda and his team, previously responsible for the ethereal delights of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus; but partly it was that first trailer, showing a little boy and the huge doe-eyed monster with whom he appeared to have built a symbiotic relationship. Little else was known – and, after a long, troubled development cycle, little else still is.
But now we’re here, with the boy in the cave. In an unusual control configuration, typical for Ueda, jump is on the triangle button rather than cross, while clambering up cliff faces involves a somewhat awkward combination of jump and then grip, using the right shoulder button. The cavern environment is craggy and grey, with rays of light emanating from cracks in the rock, high above. While you explore this location, an adult male voice begins to narrate, providing oblique hints to the scene and its background. We see that the beast has been stabbed with two spears, and while it’s possible to clamber on to its back to remove one of the protrusions (using the right bumper button to grip on to its feathery coat), Trico will not let you near the other. Instead, it turns and bites at the boy, knocking him against a wall.
When you regain consciousness, the puzzle is about how to gain the trust of your companion. The narrator suggests Trico may be hungry, so you search and find a couple of barrels that you’re able to throw across the cavern – he greedily crushes them in his jaw and brightens up. A second attempt to reach the spear is successful, allowing you to pull it out, letting Trico use his forelegs to stand up. As he does so, the huge chain attached to his collar makes a clunking sound that reverberates through the silent cave. Everything is so subtle and measured, the sounds discrete and thoughtfully pitched. It’s like being in a great anime movie. The boy explores, Trico watches, occasionally snuffling or grooming itself. When you finally remove its collar, sending the chain crashing down, it snuggles up to the boy, the relationship seemingly confirmed and solidified.
From here, you search the caves, clambering up on to ledges and through narrow walkways. At times, Trico helps the boy to reach higher levels, but he won’t obey orders, or heed the boy’s call automatically. You often need to feed him, or just wait until he’s in the mood to take part. Ueda has often said that he’s interested in artificial intelligence, and his games have all explored the relationships between player and non-player characters. Trico is an ally of the boy’s but he’s clearly not a slave. Furthermore, although monstrous in size, he’s also far from infallible – there’s a section where you jump from a cliff into a subterranean pool and the only way you can coax Trico down is to locate a few barrels of food and lob them into the water.
A few minutes in, the boy gains access to a new chamber where he finds a highly reflective shield; when he points it at Trico, he’s able to direct the monster’s lightning-like powers to destroy barriers. Then, finally, the duo are outside – the boy crawling through a gap, Trico smashing through a wall behind him. After navigating along a narrow walkway beside a deep abyss, we’re finally out into the open, the camera panning back to reveal a ruined temple jutting out from the vast cliff face. This is, we’re told, the Den of Beasts. It seems that what comes next will be the footage we were shown last year, of the boy navigating walkways and platforms with the help of Trico, the two working together to progress. But how stable this relationship is remains unclear – at one point in our hands-on, the boy tells the beast he must leave, that he’s got to find his village alone, but Trico continues to follow.
So what did we learn about The Last Guardian from this small snippet of the game’s beginning? Clearly, this is going to be an exploration platformer, with puzzles solved by combining the athleticism of the boy with the size and power of Trico. Interacting with the environment, operating pulleys, climbing and crawling, it’s all part of progressing. The narration, which feels beautifully cinematic, also adds to the game progression – if you’re stuck, you’ll eventually get a new piece of story, which provides hints at what you must do. It’s similar to the system in Uncharted, where characters will eventually explain to Nathan the way to solve a particular conundrum.
But there are definite problems. Beyond the strange controller set-up, which players of Shadow of the Colossus will be familiar with, there are some truly gruelling camera issues. Sometimes your viewpoint gets weirdly stuck at a certain angle, sometimes the way ahead can be annoyingly obscured, especially when Trico wanders into the space between the camera and the boy, occluding everything. This could be highly frustrating if you need to properly explore an environment or make a demanding jump between platforms. It’s also pretty unforgivable in a game that’s had almost a decade of development time. Hopefully, the last few months will see radical changes.
Hopefully. Because The Last Guardian, like Ueda’s last two games, has a style, an aesthetic and an atmosphere that draw you into its hazy dreamlike world as a willing prisoner. The soothing voice of the boy, the quiet yelps of Trico and the luscious orchestral score all add to the contemplative atmosphere. It is a work that clearly understands the potential of games as emotive and beautiful things. It would be sad indeed if the considerable magic on offer were to be betrayed by the faulty mechanics behind the curtain.
The Last Guardian is released on PS4 on 25 October 2016.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 21st June 2016 10.08 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010