Some old moviemaking advice pays off big time for The Last Guardian: In spite of some problematic controls and camerawork and a story that manages to be simultaneously vague and generic, the whole endeavor is better thanks to the inclusion of a dog. In fairness, Trico isn’t actually a canine, but rather a mythical catbird with a puppyish personality. But whenever the camera locks in so tightly that you can’t see where you’re going or the young amnesiac boy that players control fails to make a jump, at least there’s the giant, feathered Trico standing there to nuzzle up against your shoulder or adorably attempt to squeeze itself through a too-small archway.
The Last Guardian is through and through a product from Team ICO of JAPAN Studio, specifically game designer Fumito Ueda. The gameplay mashes together that of 2001’s Ico and 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus, except that instead of leading around a princess or fighting and scaling a series of massive beasts, players are now attempting to ally with a colossus. That’s a uniquely executed concept, with gameplay revolving around attempts to persuade or outright trick Trico into doing your bidding, as when you bait him with food. These interactions can sometimes be intentionally frustrating, in a way that successfully emulates the experience of having an actual pet. Treat Trico well by feeding him the game’s optional and often deviously hidden barrels and he may respond more quickly; fail to pull enemy spears from his body after a fight or decline to pet him when he nuzzles beside you for comfort and he may throw a time-wasting tantrum.
The best moments in the game are those that require real teamwork between its unlikely allies.
However, this reliance on Trico steadily becomes more of a double-edged sword. Trico’s obstinacy is at first understandable, as he’s distrustful of the young boy, susceptible to the traps left behind by the terracotta guardians of the massive valley ruins in which you’ve been imprisoned, and fearful of things like water. Early-game puzzles require the controllable boy to do much of the heavy lifting, figuring out how to shatter the stained-glass eyes that paralyze Trico or how to clear out the incense that Trico finds so compelling. But these distractions are unbearably frustrating throughout the game’s lengthy and repetitious middle, with players too often reduced to passive observers, forced to wait for and then trust Trico to do as instructed.
Figuring out The Last Guardian’s puzzles—like the one in which a broken wheelbarrow must be used as a makeshift catapult—isn’t nearly as difficult as getting Trico to cooperate. Timed sections are the worst; miss the narrow window in which Trico chooses to cannonball into a lake, temporarily raising its water level, and it’s anybody’s guess how long it may be before he willingly does so again. The game also poorly defines its objectives, so much so that sometimes the best thing for you to do is simply climb aboard Trico and see if he’ll leap to some new perch, carrying you forward.
The best moments in The Last Guardian are those that require real teamwork between these unlikely allies, in particular the active fights in which the unarmed boy must wend his way through attackers, desperately flinging himself into shield-carrying foes so that they’ll become temporarily vulnerable to Trico’s attacks. That loyalty and camaraderie is also well-conveyed by Trico’s soulful eyes, which flicker between colors to show curiosity and fear, and by his constant reckless sacrifices, barreling into danger—or burrowing through a wall—in order to rescue you regardless of cost. It’s impossible not to feel for such a companion. So far as digital illusions go, this is a damned fine and convincing one.