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Hands-on: ‘The Last Guardian’

It's time for your annual ‘The Last Guardian’ update

It’s finally happening. On October 25, 2016, The Last Guardian will be available on the PlayStation 4.

Hands on: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

It’s been eight years since Sony announced the third game from the beloved Team Ico. In that time, we saw an entire console generation come and go, and creator Fumito Ueda severed ties with Sony. The press has devoted more coverage to how the game has “skipped” E3 than many others receive in their whole development cycles.

You can see and feel how long The Last Guardian has been in development while playing its opening sequences.

Video games age, even when they haven’t been released. You can see and feel how long The Last Guardian has been in development while playing its opening sequences. The first 40 or so minutes of the game show how a bond develops between the tattooed boy that players control and Trico, the titular guardian bird-dog. It effectively serves as an extended, narrative-intensive tutorial.

We’re also introduced to the basics of how the game will play. The boy, it seems, is really a vessel for controlling Trico. Sometimes getting him to do what you want is simple: After collecting a special mirror, Trico will shoot lightning from his tail at anything you spotlight. Sometimes it can be trickier: Trico is, it seems, primarily motivated by food, which has conveniently stowed in barrels for transport. Much of the gameplay in the demo revolves around climbing and exploring areas to find barrels and bring them to Trico so he’ll, let’s say, jump down from a high ledge. Easily two stories tall, Trico can give you an extra boost or help you reach otherwise inaccessible areas if you can get him to move into the right spot. Your ability to direct him is, like any pet, a bit fuzzy.

The game’s mechanics are simple, but also feel intentionally weighed down. Like the protagonist of Ueda’s first two games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, the boy is not the most capable protagonist. He carries Trico’s food barrels slowly, because they’re pretty heavy. He climbs Trico’s feathered back slowly because he is at least a little bit weary of the creature, which could easily throw him off any time it wants to.

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While the choice is well-intended and gets its point across, the weightiness of performing mundane tasks does not feel like the revelation it may have once upon a time. You don’t need a game to remind you that video games make tasks easier to complete than they truly should be, nor do we need to spend 2-3 minutes moving a barrel to the spot where we immediately knew it was destined to go. More than it originally intended, The Last Guardian may be the AAA champion for the “slow gaming” movement. The change makes an impact strong enough to dissuade all save for players who are committed to the ideas behind the gameplay.

Visually, some parts of The Last Guardian look like what you’d expect of a game coming out in 2016, but others seem restrained to the confines of what the developer could have conceived as possible in 2009. The boy’s face, in particular, lacks the definition we’ve come to expect in modern games. One could chalk that up to an artistic choice — the game does exude its own sense of style — but in a game that’s so focused on conveying emotion, the protagonist’s face seems like it should be the most highly detailed spot in the entire game. Instead, it seems like they spent a whole lot of time making sure Trico’s feathers ruffle nicely.

Still, the game manages to evoke some uncanny feelings of bonding and trust. In a very short time, Trico and the boy form a strong bond and you can see a sort of longing in Trico’s face. It feels kind of like when you look at your cat or dog and you see your own feelings reflected in its face. Even if the game doesn’t look great, it could still be great … So long as you’re cool with your giant bird-dog guilting you into carrying heavy barrels.

The Last Guardian will be crushed under the weight of its own hype. Even if the game could reinvent the wheel, it has been propped up by Ueda’s fans for too long to avoid some kind of backlash. As it enters the home stretch, it remains unclear if the game will be able to stand on its own merits, or will be simply serve as a time capsule of a game that missed its window.