As the great philosopher Socrates once said, “Better late than never.” (That's according to a famous quotes website I Googled just now.) First shown to the world at E3 2009, The Last Guardian is the long-promised finale to the trilogy of games director Fumito Ueda began more than a decade ago. (And by trilogy, he seems to have meant three completely and totally unrelated games--Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were the others.) Now that The Last Guardian has arrived, I can finally say that it lives up to Ueda's name. And despite its long-in-development status, it actually feels what you'd expect from a AAA release in 2014.
The fantastical plot sees an unnamed boy imprisoned in an ancient castle that’s filled with guards that would just as soon as kill him as capture him again. But the lad finds another prisoner that can assist him in escaping: Trico, the giant bird/cat creature that has been cruelly chained up within the same castle. The two work together to escape, players using stealth and puzzle gameplay to sneak into the perfect place to call on Trico to scare away enemies or help the boy reach some far-off objective. It’s like playing Shadow of the Colossus, only this time the massive beast is on your side.
Of course, none of the Colossi had Trico’s acting range. The feathered monstrosity is slow to respond to the player, which might feel frustrating to some, but the two hours it spends not listening to you are worth it when you finally connect with the beast. Once he starts responding, Trico and the player become the best of friends. And you can tell they like each other because the animated interactions between the two progress from cold and distant to intimate and warm.
Trico looks, sounds, and acts just like like what you'd naturally expect from a giant bird/cat creature, with a personality that connects with the player. The graphical fidelity of the character is so lifelike that it made the lengthy transition to the PS4 worth it. In fact, The Last Guardian so realistically captures rich and nuanced emotional connection that it will inspire you, as it has me, to develop more meaningful relationships in your life. Truly some next-gen stuff on offer here.
That being said, I think it was a slight mistake to include online co-op. Ueda and his team worked so hard to create a computer-controlled campaign that felt real, so it didn’t really need the option for drop-in, drop-out co-op in the campaign. This feature was planned for Shadow of the Colossus, so I get why it was added, but it doesn't necessarily fit here, especially considering Ueda went with a Journey-style cacawwing noise players can emit to communicate with one another. Sure, this sound is what you'd naturally expect a giant bird/cat creature to make, but this realism actually hurts the overall feel of the game.
However, the co-op doesn’t detract from the main campaign, which is one of the most touching, beautifully told stories in the history of fiction. The simple connection between man and beast pulls on the heartstrings to the very end. I wouldn’t dare spoil the tragic deaths of both main characters at the very end, but it isn’t hyperbole to say I cried two dozen times while playing The Last Guardian. And the story’s scope is bigger than raw emotions, touching on topics as diverse as globalization, the dangers of terrorism, the evils of misogyny, and the unjust and rampant persecution of giant bird/cat creatures. This is gaming’s Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and How to Train Your Dragon all rolled into one.
I’m sure some people will complain that the game abruptly ends with an unannounced cliffhanger (minor spoiler: it involves playing as the characters’ ghost in the spirit realm), but those plebeians don’t know how to appreciate real art. Yes, to the layman it feels rushed and insanely frustrating that the game just stops in the middle of the plot--almost mid-sentence, in fact--with unassuming “To be continued...” text plastered over a black background. But the truly advanced among us know that it’s merely a statement on the unpredictability of life, on the abrupt endings we’ll all come to face throughout our lives. Not everything gets wrapped up in a pretty little package, and you need to be mature enough to accept that.
The Last Guardian has changed gaming forever with this PS4 release, and it will surely light the way for developers for decades to come. Even with the cliffhanger ending, you’ll feel more enlightened by playing this emotional title than you’ll ever find in a relationship or organized religion. And hey, just imagine how good The Last Guardian 2: Another Guardian Emerges for a Final Time will be in 2015. After an experience as great as this one, I trust Sony to top it next year.
If you ever want to prove to unsuspecting friends that games are art, you finally have the killer app.