The entire undertaking would be a wasted effort if it weren’t for the incredibly lifelike AI for Trico. Lacking speech, the beast’s communication rests solely upon his body language and guttural barks, grunts, squeals, and purrs. The level of attention paid to detail in Trico’s movements and reactions is astounding, and could easily be the subject of its very own in-depth analysis. Trico is curious and inquisitive, and will carefully examine bits of the environment if left to his own devices, by poking his snout at it or gently tapping it with his claw. Despite his size, he is fearful of some things, and acts a bit like a big baby the first time he is faced with, for example, an underground lake in a cavernous grotto, which he has to be coaxed into. Helping Trico overcome his fear made me feel giddy with excitement, whooping and cheering at the screen. There is another side to Trico, though. When agitated or faced with a threat, his ears flatten back against his head, his body posture gets more feral and menacing, and he becomes a fearsome opponent. Trico is also fiercely loyal once he’s rescued by the boy, leading to some poignant moments of heightened emotion.
Impressively, the developers have been able to implement so much of Trico’s behavior into the actual flow of gameplay, rarely requiring a separate cinematic to show it off. On one such occasion, Trico and the boy are on opposite sides of a large gate, which can only be opened by pulling a large chain that slowly raises it. During this time, guardian statues scattered around the room come to life and accost the defenseless boy, attempting to drag him through a kind of dimensional portal to his doom. On the other side of the gate, Trico, sensing the danger, calls out in distress, eager to be at his friend’s side. Once the gate has been raised just a crack, Trico pushes his face under and against the opening, attempting to force his way through the gap. Such level of concern Trico shows for the boy throughout the game is touching in a way that’s difficult to put into words.
This isn’t just a one-sided relationship, either. There were numerous times when Trico was in peril that I found myself clutching the controller, frantically searching for a way to help him. Following a fierce battle, Trico can be impossible to communicate with. He’s panting, growling, and still aggressive, and may even snap in your direction. You are actually required to care for and attend to Trico after combat, removing hurtful spears from his body and soothingly petting him – an action that has an immediate, visibly calming effect on him. These scenes are a beautiful touch, as they move well beyond a Quick Time Event or cinematic: you won’t be showing tenderness only because you need to, but because you actually want to. I often ran to Trico’s side after a harrowing experience to reassuringly pat his leg or caress his snout; it just felt right to do. It is great moments like these that build such a strong relationship between the two, and make the whole gameplay experience absolutely unforgettable.
A big part of quickly falling in love with a creature like Trico stems from the visuals and animation used to bring him to life. Trico’s movements are stunningly lifelike, from the way he tilts his head when listening to how the feathers covering his body will individually flutter when they catch a breeze. A myriad of other little nuances add to the illusion of authenticity: during battle, Trico’s feathers all bristle up the way fur on a dog or cat would; petting Trico will make him bend his head down and close his eyes in bliss, and even sprawl out in hopes of a belly rub. The affection between the two characters is what really sells the experience. At the same time, the fact that the game was initially designed for the PlayStation 3 is evident, as the graphics overall are more stylized than realistic, and environments are generally a far cry from the capabilities of the PS4. That’s not to say they’re ugly or unsightly; the game’s epic finale, especially, sports some gorgeous visuals and picturesque vistas.
One of the unsung heroes of The Last Guardian has to be its incredible architecture. Immediately upon exiting the first cave, and throughout the game’s ten-or-so-hour runtime, you find yourself in a mysterious world full of towering ruins seemingly piercing the clouds, crumbling bridges spanning bottomless gorges, and moss-covered walls already being reclaimed by nature. Who built these structures, and why? Where are the builders now? What do the enigmatic runes and symbols etched everywhere mean? There are never any satisfactory answers given to these questions, which I quite like. We aren’t meant to know it all. Many mysteries remain. What ultimately impressed me is that the ruins and structures aren’t just background filler; at some point you will make your way to, and actually traverse, most of them. But the real payoff comes when things fall apart: there’s nothing like the thrill of Trico and the boy running and leaping for their lives across a wooden scaffolding as it’s crumbling beneath their feet into the abyss below, escaping through teamwork and only barely in the nick of time.
Right from the first few moments, The Last Guardian is the kind of game that is meant to elicit a strong emotional response. If the life-like quality of Trico or the bond forged between him and the boy doesn’t melt your heart, then the beautiful score that sets in during key scenes certainly will. The majority of the game is played against silence, highlighting the sounds of Trico and the boy’s slow and steady progress. This makes it all the more poignant when we do get to hear a sweeping composition that accompanies the majestic views, or a moment of deep distress highlighted by a sorrowful dirge. Music is used sparingly but effectively to underscore the emotional heart of the game, and during the most moving moments it’s easy to forget that you’re even playing a game.
The Last Guardian is certainly not perfect. Its deliberately slower pacing, minimalistic narrative, and blend of gameplay styles are all matters of taste, though it will surely appeal to fans of Team Ico’s previous efforts. But technical shortcomings like stubborn controls, a wonky camera, and aging graphics are a little less subjective. It’s a slow burn, too, and Trico’s lumbering size and whimsical nature, though lovable, can require patience to deal with. Still, the game so spectacularly hits the mark with what it sets out to accomplish – creating a caring bond between the player and on-screen companion – that it’s easy to forgive any imperfections. The game’s final 45 minutes are such a triumph of storytelling that any technical flaws will be instantly forgiven and forgotten. With an astounding visual aesthetic, stunning score, and a surprisingly realistic AI, this is a breathtaking adventure that is sure to resonate long after its credits have rolled. More than the mere sum of its parts, The Last Guardian will be one of the most emotionally impactful games you are likely to play, and is among the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had as a gamer.