At Last, Guardian
After nearly a decade in development, the notoriously elusive adventure game is slated to release in early December.
By Al Vanderklipp, University of Michigan
Today, 2009 may seem like a fuzzy memory, a far-off time when caveman comedy “Year One” smashed box office records, swine flu decimated the world’s pig population and Donald Trump was just another insignificant Manhattanite trying to make a buck.
For many in the gaming community, there’s really only one moment that stands out clearly: The reveal of “The Last Guardian” at E3 2009.
The heart-warming trailer wordlessly told the story of a boy held prisoner in a mountain fortress who befriends a 30-foot creature that’s half-eagle, half-puppy. Together, they solve intricate puzzles, walk crumbling bridges across yawning chasms and avoid axe-wielding castle guards. The emotional story and stunning visuals wowed even the bitterest at the conference; “The Last Guardian” was a breath of fresh air in a convention center stifled by the wet-dog smell of stale sequels and drab shooters.
When the game failed to make an appearance at subsequent E3s, many were afraid it had been cancelled. By 2014, the game had become a running joke, a euphemism for any game stuck in development, joining the ranks of ambitious lost projects like “Duke Nukem Forever” and “Half Life 3.”
It came as a shock, then, that the game that had been absent for the better part of a decade would show up at the conference in 2015. The boy and his monstrous companion—now named Trico—were back, looking even better than they had six years prior. In a lengthy demo, the two characters worked together to cross a shaky scaffolding, sending chunks of the ancient architecture tumbling into the clouds below. The crowd cheered when it was revealed that the game would release in 2016.
Thematically, “The Last Guardian” is much like Director Fumito Ueda’s PS2 cult classics, “Ico” and “Shadow of the Colossus,” both of which are centered around exploring an abandoned, minimalistic, beautiful fantasy world with a silent companion. This time, the bond between the two characters is the most important element.
In a callback to the ill-fated Tamagotchi craze, the player must tend to Trico’s needs. Sometimes this means playing with and feeding the Griffin, other times it means removing enemy spears stuck in his body and packing the wounds with comedically oversized tubes of Neosporin. Treat Trico well, and he’ll obey your commands and help you solve the game’s more difficult puzzles; treat him poorly, and he’ll think twice before saving you from plummeting into a foggy abyss.
It’s Ueda’s hope that this game mechanic will foster an emotional connection between the player and the in-game companion, but the system walks a fine line between a lovable pet simulator and a sort of forced Stockholm syndrome in which in-game skills are held for an emotional ransom. It helps Ueda’s case that Trico looks unbelievably life-like; by harnessing the processing power of the PS4, the development team has created a creature that legitimately seems to have its own personality. He nuzzles the boy, pants, whimpers, scratches himself and wanders around when he gets bored. Amazingly, he’s been programmed to replicate a pathetic look of blind trust and adoration that some real dogs never even learn to master.
With its puzzles and linear layout, “The Last Guardian” has its roots in a now-defunct style of gameplay. Since its initial tease, action-adventure games have been refined by the spectacularly gorgeous, sprawling and cinematic “Tomb Raider” and “Uncharted” series. Looking at the gameplay video from this year’s Tokyo Game Show, it’s hard to tell what, if anything, has changed since E3 ’09. The game appears to control in the same fashion as its spiritual predecessors on PS2, a sort of lumbering, awkward approach to exploratory platforming that went out of fashion years ago.
It’s a either a bold design decision choice or a necessity of cost to ignore nearly a decade of what many see as improvements to the formula of this genre, but at the very least “The Last Guardian” will be unique in the market, with stunning modern graphics and a perfectly preserved retro core. It’s doubtful that any game could live up to seven-and-a-half years of mystery and hype, but at least we finally don’t have to wait much longer to find out.
“The Last Guardian” releases for PlayStation 4 on December 6th.