The Last Guardian

Year: 2016

Developer: Fumito Ueda

Platform: PS4

If I was not in the games industry, I would want to become a classical artist. Though I regard not only games but also anything that expresses something – be it films, novels or manga– as forms of art.” – Fumito Ueda

INTRO: Epics & Metaphysics

Fumito Ueda is an artgame pioneer; since the time of ICO (2001, PS2-3), he has been developing gameplay and game mechanics around the contents he want to express, using minimal stories set in game worlds rather alienating, surreal and uninhabited.

Empathy and solidarity between the player’s avatar Ico, a kid, and his diaphanous female companion Yorda, managed by an advanced AI for the time, give birth to a story of love or intense friendship in which one needs the other. To emphasize this feeling Ueda creates an abstract place, isolated by the rest of the world, disturbingly quiet, uninhabited, hostile, a dark forces lair characterized by majestic and enigmatic architecture, a cold maze from which the two characters have to escape by cooperating. Ueda takes aesthetical inspiration from the paintings of De Chirico.

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A Mistery and Melancholy of a Street (1913, De Chirico) and the cover of japanese retail package of ICO

ICO is a piece of art spiritually belonging to the metaphysics school; gameplay suggests and perceives contrasts and characteristics of the world and of human beings usually invisible and elusive, phylosophical and existential tensions and deep feelings otherwise intangible, hidden and inner dimensions beyond the experience.

This introduction was necessary because The Last Guardian is the spiritual successor of ICO and borrows all the features just analyzed; but at the same time it can not be considered a simple replica because it introduces some original innovative elements that we are going to examine without revealing too much of the plot.

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TLG is the story of another deep emotional bond, this time between a kid, our avatar, and a strange and enormous beast with mythological features, Trico. A bit of a bird, a bit of a cat, a bit of a dog, a bit of an angel (its wings) and a bit of a demon (its horns) … it made me think of the 1984 movie “The Neverending Story”! Look at the flying dog! 🙂

Epics and myths are trademarks of Ueda productions, which have reached the pinnacle in his second work as well as his absolute masterpiece, Shadow Of The Colossus (2005, PS2-3); Trico’s plumage, which we desperately cling to, reminds the climbings of the colossi!

STORY

It begins in a cave where the kid awakens dazed and mysteriously full of tattoos, but perhaps it’s only a dream, as suggested by the narrator voice. Yes, you read that correctly! For the first time in a Ueda’s game, there is a voice over, belonging to the child himself, now become adult and telling his extraordinary story. The voice over is also functional to the gameplay, giving you some suggestions. When the kid wakes up, next to him there is a huge wounded beast, Trico, known to be a man-eating! At first the animal is aggressive but fortunately he can not move because of several spears stuck in its body; it is also chained. To win its trust, you have to pull the spears out , but it’s not so easy and painless because the frightened beast reacts abruptly making you swoon. When you wake up again, you have to feed the beast; check the area for some barrels containing a kind of phosphorescent molasses which Trico is immensely fond of; they are scattered throughout the game world. The beast is not yet tamed and makes you swoon again! But when you wake up, Trico feels better and is finally grateful for your help.

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Here begins the development of an intense relationship; at first, the two are not perfectly synthonized, the beast is not immediately able to understand kid’s orders. Trico passively follows the child, who has initially the only interest to find his way home; he is sure he can do it alone and wants to leave the beast in his lair, just as when you meet a stray dog and don’t want it following you at home! The kid is soon made aware of being far away from home, in a place between reality and legend known as the Nest, a huge crater where it is impossible to escape from, unless you are not helped by a flying beast with a tail that emits lightning when stimulated by the light coming from a magical shield…

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RELATIONSHIP EVOLUTION

The communication with the beast improves as the two characters face off together with the pitfalls of that alien and maze-like place, characterized by caves, temples and especially archaic and crumbling high towers. Trico begins to understand perfectly the kid’s orders and becomes your key for escape and salvation. The two need each other: Trico cannot eat and advance without the child’s help, and the latter can not reach certain high places and activate certain mechanisms, nor can jump from a tower to another or swim underwater, without clinging to Trico’s plumage. Several times you save yourself grabbing Trico’s tail on the fly and other times you are picked up on the fly by its bird-like beak! Moreover, despite the colossal size of the beast, it has several weaknesses; for example it is frightened of certain eye shaped effigies scattered throughout the game world, which you have to destroy. You also have to help it to knock down dangerous zombie-samurai and other flying beasts… Yes, there is not only one Trico…

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The kid character is pretty forgettable, even regarding animations and textures. All the developers attentions have focused on Trico. Characterization and behavior of the beast leave you letterally astonished!

TRICO’s AI

Characterization of the beast leaves you amazed, sometimes you are not believing it is an AI! Here we have the first huge leap forward compared to ICO; by the time the implementation of the Yorda AI was remarkable, but now it is well beyond. After two hours of play, you’re already feeling Trico as your giant home puppy! You can experience the same tenderness and the same emotional bond, because it behaves like a real animal, midway between the domestic and the wild! It has a strong personality and a definite character. It responds in a complex manner to stimulations coming from the child and the environment. I deliberately tested its intelligence. There’s a scene where Trico uses a two-wheels cart as a catapult to launch you upstairs. But first you have to move the cart in the right position, then you have to give the order. I tried to place the cart to another location, in order to jump on a different place, and I gave the order to Trico. The first times it looked at me with a puzzled face and started to grunt just as to tell me something was wrong; then he started to wander around the cart , playing it with his chicken paw. I insisted; he grunted and pulled a strong lateral blow to the cart moving it violently and making me fall!
A great non-linear or pre-ordered behaviour!
Sometimes it does preordinate actions such as looking in one defined direction or rising up on two legs or playing with some furniture or item, in order to suggest you the next action to be performed. Sometimes you have to give precise orders and direct the beast in the right direction, a task not always easy, but it is part of the realism and beauty of this unique relationship. Trico doesn’t execute only the correct orders, often it tries to do whatever you are ordering, even with wrong outcomes! Its imperfectly tamed and instinctive character is so funny; sometimes before you could get its attention, you have to work hard, because your friend is busy to fiddle with items, sniff right and left or stroll around, so be patient! Not to mention the times that it is irresistibly hypnotized by its beloved barrels of phosphorescent molasses; it is practically ungovernable and you have to eliminate the cause of distraction. I give you a generic advice: if you see that after several attempts the beast does not react properly to what your are ordering, probably you are wrong and have not quite clear what to do!

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Trico animation is extraordinary, every part of its body reacts and expresses moods: ears, eyes, nose, tail, legs, plumage, etc.
It is a tragic figure, a Michelangelesque character, a bit of a demon and a bit of an angel, upon which you can see the visible signs of suffering and atonement of its “original sin”, the “evil” previously committed despite itself….. Thanks to this smart and empathetic beast with a dark past, constantly persecuted, riddled with spears, always bleeding and aching, Fumito Ueda manages to create a sense of epic drama that transcends reality and becomes hyper-real and metaphysical. Long after you complete the game these feelings emerge strongly and powerfully, and are the proof of the depth of Ueda art, which once again does not disappoint. On the contrary you’ll forget the technical defects, which the mainstream magazines have unnecessarily spilled rivers of ink about, neglecting what is essential and deep in the Ueda artwork!

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DEVELOPMENT

It’s well known that development of the game was very troubled; it lasted eight years, since 2009 to the end of 2016. In the meanwhile the game was first written for PS3 by Ueda team and then completely rewritten for PS4 by a team of programmers at all stranger to Ueda! Oh yes, there were frictions between Sony and Ueda, and the latter broke the contract and went out on his own, Then he followed the development of the game as a consultant! Needless to stay here to waste time finding various bugs. I’m going to focus only on certain defects of artistic and expressive nature. Virtual camera does not have the graceful cinematographic movements seen in Shadow Of The Colossus, and that makes you lose a bit of epic sensation. I think that the algorithm that manages the virtual camera is not suitable for the claustrophobic and confined space in which the two protagonists are moving for most of the time. Virtual camera has a better performance in outdoor scenes but never the same as in SOTC; obviously there’s not been the same refinishing work.
As said, the child needed better animations; e.g. an intermediate sensitivity between running and walking on tiptoe and several animation models adapting to different situations during the climbings.

METAPHORS

As mentioned before, the game can be clearly divided in two parts; a first part in which the characters are moving in confined and restricted spaces in the lower area of the Nest and a second part in which gradually they rise toward higher floors and open spaces. The first part has textures, colors, lights, filters, rendering, etc. that remind you the PS3 era! But the second part makes a better use of the PS4 potential, showing beautiful effects of light at sunset, pleasant colors, textures, filters and rendering. This technical and aesthetic difference is consistent with the content of the artwork. In fact it is a metaphor of a rise from hell to heaven, from damnation to beatification, a real path of atonement at the cost of great sacrifices and sufferings. No doubt Trico is a martyr who suffers and catalyzes all the evil in the world to protect the child, and as such it is immortalized in history and myth!

P.S.: Is it only a coincidence that TLG development was a martyrdom such as Trico’s one?

Thank you Maestro Ueda, a thousand of these games! But do not make us waiting so long again!

Rating: 92/100

P.S.: look at the screenshots to have a better idea of the game aesthetics!.

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