The Last Guardian was originally promised to gamers back in 2009 and, after numerous delays and near-cancellations, it has finally swooped its way to the PlayStation 4 to the cheers of many a fanboy. But if you're not one of that number, you may be wondering what this odd-looking game is all about.
Essentially, it's a boy and his dog story.
Well, it's actually a boy and his giant bird-dog-rat-griffin-like-thingie story. It was designed by Fumito Ueda—the man behind other classic adventures such as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. And it's a game that doesn't utter a single word of English.
A Way Through an Ancient Maze
Narrated in Japanese with English subtitles, the game starts out in a dank and gloomy cave filled with crumbling stone building facades and pools of stagnant water. This torch-lit place also contains one frightened young boy, who wakes to find himself covered in strange tattoos and trapped in this place with a giant beast he names Trico.
How they got there seems to be a mystery to both of them. But it's obvious that Trico, bound in chains and weakened by a pincushion-like riddling of spears, is none too happy with his situation. In fact, it looks like he initially sees the unnamed boy as more food than friend. But after the boy procures some wooden barrels full of radioactive-goop nourishment and plucks out the giant beasty's pointy torments, the two start getting along.
From there gamers are called upon to control the boy's comings and goings and help him discover a pathway to freedom. And that means finding ways to bond with Trico and get this gigantic, uh, puppy to help him solve the scores of ancient puzzles scattered throughout this labyrinth of enormous stone structures, vast caverns and winding pathways.
Early on, the boy finds another tool to use in his journey. He scrabbles through a narrow tunnel to discover what amounts to a magical mirror shield. When the boy shines the shield's reflected beam of light on a surface, the light prompts Trico to shoot lightning from his tail and blast any wooden blockades and magically enlivened armored foes that might block their path.
Bafflements, Battles and Beasties, Oh My
Gameplay-wise, The Last Guardian is a long series of visually compelling and brain-challenging puzzles. There are some action/adventure bits here, where the boy and Trico must find a way to fight foes they stumble upon in the labyrinth. But by and large the action involves much more climb-and-jump exploration, bond-with-your-pet minutia, and find-that-hidden-lever-and-drop-the-drawbridge puzzling than combat. ##
In fact, this game forces players to totally rely on their own intuition and logical reasoning throughout. Many's the time when you'll crawl out of some hard-found passageway to find yourself faced with a vast chasm and seemingly no way to move forward. And unlike many games that might have your companion give you a strong hint as to proceed, this one has Trico simply wait, like any good and loyal pup, for you to figure out that there's a ledge or a crawlspace that you didn't notice. For some, that will be a joyful aspect of the game; for the less patient, it can be immensely frustrating.
On top of that, gamers still must contend with occasional combat. There's really no gore of any kind on tap, but some of the foes can put our heroes in some extremely tense and perilous spots. The boy never has any weapons at his disposal other than his shield, but magical armored guys throw spears at Trico and try to pick up the boy and carry him away whenever they come near. Trico howls in pain and his fur/feathers stain with red where the spears puncture his hide. If you can't figure out a way past the foes, the game comes to an end and starts you at an earlier segment to try again.
There's also one point where a whole group of griffin-like critters start ripping into Trico. They pin him down and bite at his neck and body, and we see one bloodlessly tear part of our pet beasty's tail clean off. That segment had me wincing, so it will definitely be an intense moment for some younger gamers.
And as I'm sure you've gathered by now, the game does have some magical elements to it, as well, all keeping with its fantasy setting.
All of that said, though, The Last Guardian is still a simple but very compelling story and a pretty interesting game. It's right about the time when you find yourself cringing over some potential mishap befalling the mammoth Trico that you realize that Fumito Ueda has indeed done an amazing job of easing you into caring and bonding with his impossible creature on screen.
And you begin to see that, no matter what the language or how bizarre the setting, a boy and his dog story is still one that can pluck a heartstring or two.