After 11 Years, We Can Almost Play The Last Guardian
I finally played The Last Guardian. A demo of it, anyway. After a decade of waiting, it felt like coming home.
Ask any gaming nerd which sequel they’ve been dying for, and if they don’t say Final Fantasy XV or Half-Life 3, it’s this one. The Last Guardian follows Ico and Shadow of of the Colossus, two PlayStation games beloved for their minimalist design and powerful stories. Neither was a big hit for Sony, but they were hugely influential. “Ico was the starting point and proof that emotions can exist in games, kind of a wake-up call for designers,” Josef Fares, who created Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, once told me.
For me, the arrival of The Last Guardian on October 25, after 11 years in development, is like the arrival of a new Star Wars. You want it to be more Force Awakens and less Phantom Menace. The demo I played at E3 suggests it will be.
The demo is a snippet from the opening sequence: a young boy, trapped in a cave with a massive creature, a fearsome beast named Trico. He’s chained up and snapping at me like a frightened, wounded dog.
Moving is awkward. The boy trips and stumbles, runs awkwardly, jumps with flailing limbs. I feel that awkwardness too, holding one button to hang on while pressing another to heave myself onto a ledge.
Once I earn a bit of Trico’s trust, I must release him. I climb his enormous body, grasping his feathers and lumbering up his thigh. Memories of Shadow of the Colossus rush back. That game required scaling huge, lumbering golems, finding their weak spots and driving your sword into them. Eventually I reach the collar around Trico’s neck. It brings to mind the penultimate moment of a Colossus-scaling mission, and I imagine the boy plunging his sword between Trico’s shoulder blades. Instead, he pulls the bolts from the chains and sets Trico free.
The enormous creature is an ally, there to help reach tricky areas or fight powerful enemies. “We wanted to create a friend in the form of Trico,” says creative director Fumito Ueda. Ico and Colossus could be difficult games, but Ueda doesn’t want Last Guardian to go too far in that direction: “We wanted to use Trico as a means to let lots of players enter the game and be able to experience it without too much difficulty,” he says.
You’d never guess by looking at his boyish face that Fumito Ueda is 46. He doesn’t look any older than when I met him in 2002 after Ico came out. He certainly doesn’t look like someone who’s spent the last decade dragging a project to the finish line. Even as The Last Guardian came and went from Sony’s release schedule, Ueda always believed in the game, if not himself. “I don’t know if I was ever at a point where I felt like the game was never going to be finished,” he says. “But personally, because there were many ups and downs, I felt like: Can I go on? Can I keep doing this? There were definitely times I wasn’t sure.”
When Sony delayed the game in 2011, Ueda left to launch an independent studio called GenDesign with other Sony veterans. Rather than move on, the team decided to continue developing the game: “We were faced with a choice: Do we try to create something new, or do we keep going, providing support on The Last Guardian?”
The demo suggests Guardian has the potential to pack the same emotional punch as Ico and Colossus. Early in the game, you find a magic mirror. Reflect its light onto something and Trico obliterates it with bolts of lightning fired from his eyes. Another scene sees the boy and Trico at the edge of a waterfall. Trico paws the ground and whines nervously, afraid of leaping off. Throw a bit of food into the water, and he gets up his courage and leaps in. The giant is a wonderful combination of friendly and deadly, approachable and fearsome, and it leaves you wondering how it’s all going to play out in the end.
These interactions, and the emotional connection between the player and the characters, are what made Ico and Colossus so brilliant, so memorable, and so influential. Players want to see the same in The Last Guardian. But even if the game delivers, will something conceived of so many years ago play well in 2016? “I think I’m going to be very nervous when the game comes out,” Ueda says. “Along the way, you have doubts, you have concerns. Then you release the title, and suddenly: oh my God, I’m going to find out whether I should have done it this way.”
“Did I really do everything right?” Ueda says. If what I played is any indication, I think he has.
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