Don't Forget The Last Guardian

Even barely over a year past its release, The Last Guardian lives in Shadow of the Colossus' shadow now more than ever.

Analysis by Caty McCarthy, .

Everyone remembers Shadow of the Colossus. Those big colossi. Those quiet landscapes. Those shadows billowing out of the colossi after they have fallen, injecting you, the playable Wander, as he too falls. Shadow of the Colossus is a remarkable, beloved game for good reason, and today, its remake by Bluepoint Games is unleashed upon the world. But as its name bids, it casts its own shadow: a shadow over an arguably more impactful follow-up that was swallowed by dissipated hype and a decade of development hell.

I love video games the most when they make me feel things—stress, joy, sadness—through action. The Last Guardian, Shadow of the Colossus creator Fumito Ueda's unsung masterpiece, is a game full of those feelings, sometimes all at once. And it all comes down to Trico, the monstrous but tender creature at your beck and call. A creature that revolutionized what artificial intelligence in video games is capable of. A creature that resists you, the player, but overtime learns one pointed thing: trust.

The Last Guardian lurks in the shadow of Ueda's other two games: his quiet debut Ico, and the large-scale epic Shadow of the Colossus. The latter is the one most are more familiar with; whether it's just its swelling score that chimes in when you clutch one of the colossi's fur, or its solemn atmosphere that pushes against all the fairy tales we grew up knowing. Ueda's games are singular in how they look and feel, and as much as others may try, there are no other games that quite react to the player the same way.

Hang on, pal.

The Last Guardian is the culmination of this. It's a stubborn game, stubborn to the point of criticism over the playable character's clumsy controls, or to its fairer complaints of its finicky camera. But The Last Guardian is purposefully stubborn: as you play as a young boy and his giant dog-bird-like friend, the trials and tribulation of unlikely companionship come to life.

It's a familiar theme that's threaded through all of Ueda's works. In Ico, you're on a quest to save a girl, directing her to and fro and helping her not get taken away by creepy shadow enemies. In Shadow of the Colossus, Wander and his horse Agro share a contentious relationship. Just to get Agro moving requires a few yells and kicks as the horse neighs and protests. Agro feels like a real horse, and you're dragging them all around the land whether they like it or not. Hell, the horse could even be fighting to lunge forward in an effort to save you, the player, from a terrible fate.

The Last Guardian amplifies these relationships to an unheard of degree in video games, to the point where the creature at the forefront hardly feels like they earn the "artificial" in "artificial intelligence." How I felt while playing The Last Guardian is probably how the characters in Spike Jonze's film Her felt when falling in love with their Siri-like operating systems.

In The Last Guardian, Trico pointedly disregards your instructions at the start. Managing them feels, well, like interacting with any sort of animal. In an essay for Polygon, critic Jess Joho likens the at-times strained relationship between Trico and the player to that of her own dog: a widely misunderstood breed, a pitbull. "Forcing the player to foster an equal partnership with a giant autonomous animal, and embedding the inherent frustrations of a cross-species relationship into the game, insisting on the players care, patience, attention to Trico, makes us reckon with our own reaction to the real puzzle at the heart of The Last Guardian (which has nothing to do with platforming,)" she writes. Patience and respect are key in raising a dog and forging any sort of cross-species relationship, and in The Last Guardian, that similar relationship is the core.

Every game should have a pet button, especially if that pet button also helps rub blood out of feathers.

Trico, too, is misunderstood at the start. When we first meet the creature, they're chained up, with a helmet device strapped to their head. Before too long, we yank it off. They seem peeved about it at first, unwilling to comply with taking us over to a ledge in the distance, but eventually, it seems like Trico knows it was for their benefit. A bond is born, an imperfect one, but a bond nonetheless.

The game continues for a dozen or so hours, with Trico slowly but surely growing more confident in my directions, even after casting a knowing, worried glance my way more often than not. But all the while, I grew to love Trico. I loved the way Trico would squint when we were in sunlight; I got sad when Trico's eyes would glow in fear, and I'd dispatch whatever was troubling them; I loved the way Trico galloped over to a small pond to roll around in the wetness for a moment. Trico was a majestic creature: not just because their feathers glistened when the light hit them just so. Trico was beautiful because I grew to love and actively care about them—something I had never really experienced at this level in games before.

It's the extra Ueda touch, really, that makes The Last Guardian resonate, as his games in the past have too. The fact that despite being plagued with mechanical eccentricities, instead of feeling broken, the games feel more human. And in The Last Guardian, a story about a boy and the unlikely friend he makes along the way, there's nothing more human than that. Right down to that very last, heartbreaking action the player has to make.

One of my favorite moments in The Last Guardian.

Yet, it feels like The Last Guardian was forgotten before it even released. The game was first teased in 2009, having begun development two years prior. And then, it was crickets. E3s and other big trade shows came and went, and Ueda's game company Team Ico shuttered in 2011. Later, Ueda formed the company genDESIGN alongside other Team Ico members, and remained creatively involved with The Last Guardian as it shifted over to Sony's Japan Studio. Ueda remained director, and so many years after it began, The Last Guardian suddenly emerged at 2015's E3. The game released not long after, in December 2016, barely a week after another long in-development, once-assumed to be dead game greeted the masses: Final Fantasy XV.

At launch, the game got positive reviews. In retrospect, its flaws seemed to align with one specific criticism: that it felt like a PlayStation 2 game. I ended up playing the game late, a week into January 2017; long after my former outlet's game of the year deliberations were through. I regret that fact—that I appreciated it a tad too late—so I hope I can spread the word now, as its elder sibling's shadow overtakes it on the promise of technical marvel over a gloomier aesthetic.

Playing the two so close to each other, I'm confident in saying that The Last Guardian is a better game than Shadow of the Colossus; easily rubbing noses with other great games of this generation (The Witcher 3, Nier: Automata, Divinity: Original Sin 2). I hope when this era has come and gone, it won't go forgotten or overshadowed, as Ico once was by the hefty colossi. I hope Trico and the relationship you bond with them can cast a shadow of their own one day.

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Comments 20

  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #1 Flipsider99 8 months ago
    I agree totally. When it came out, I felt like it was easily the best game of 2016. And it definitely deserves a place among the best games of this generation along with Bloodborne, Nier, Persona 5, Zelda.

    I think that it's strange that people use the phrase "feels like a PS2 game" as a complaint; I think that's exactly what makes the game work so well. If the game was more modern, more hand-holdy, less involved puzzles, if Trico simply bent to your every whim and controlling your small frightened little child character was effortless, this game simply would not have the effect that it does. It needs that awkwardness, that slight bit of unfriendliness. It needs to require your patience. That's what makes it work, and what elevates it above most other modern games.

    I think TLG is a game that shows how rewarding it can be when we step outside our mental box of what we think a game is "supposed" to be.
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  • Avatar for ReptilianSamurai #2 ReptilianSamurai 8 months ago
    One of my favorite games of the current generation, and also the first Ueda game that I actually finished. I still have yet to beat Ico or Shadow... One of these days... But I could not put down Last Guardian, and also grew to love Trico. A masterpiece. I hadn't realized that it was basically forgotten, is that really the general consensus?Edited February 2018 by ReptilianSamurai
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  • Avatar for BulkSlash #3 BulkSlash 8 months ago
    The Last Guardian was amazing until the ending. Would it have killed them to have something a bit more upbeat? Or a secret ending if you collect all the barrels or something?
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  • Avatar for One_Vurfed_Gwrx #4 One_Vurfed_Gwrx 8 months ago
    I also really enjoyed Last Guardian on release and it took priority over everything else while I played it. I also really enjoyed Shadow of the Colossus when it came out but haven't replayed it since launch. One day I will actually get around to giving Ico a proper go...
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  • Avatar for themblan #5 themblan 8 months ago
    The Last Guardian is a masterpiece. Peter Brown of Gamespot said it very well, in that Trico is the most believable animal ever in a videogame.

    Having lost my dog in 2013, playing this game in 2016 was not necessarily therapeutic, because I had moved past grieving, but it was a wonderful experience of befriending an animal once again.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #6 MetManMas 8 months ago
    The Last Guardian is definitely on my radar, but it's one of many games I still want to get for PS4. NieR:Automata, Yakuza 0, Night in the Woods, Assassin's Creed Origins, Dragon Quest Builders, What Remains of Edith Finch, Firewatch, Obduction, Virginia, the list goes on and on. Heck, before I went with that last minute Shadow of the Colossus pre-order (love it BTW), I was seriously considering The Sims 4 (which was on sale) or Everybody's Golf, in case I wanted lighter fare than stabbing giants to raise a dead girl.

    There's so many great games out there, but for the average person there's never enough time or money to experience them all. I'll definitely get The Last Guardian one of these days, but I have to be in the right mood at the right time to make the plunge.

    Admittedly, sales can help push me closer to a buy on a good week. Not that I have any problems with paying $40 for TLG, or even the $60 it originally retailed for. It's just that there's lots of great games for $20 or less these days and I'm all over the indie and remaster scenes.
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  • Avatar for Drachmalius #7 Drachmalius 8 months ago
    Hell of a game.

    I sat down when it came out and played the whole thing in two sittings, it was that engrossing. Probably won't replay it for a few years, Ueda games aren't the type I like to play over and over because it lessens the impact.
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  • Avatar for Fourfoldroot #8 Fourfoldroot 8 months ago
    I really need to get around to playing this at some point. It's definitely my type of game, just got so much in my backlog.

    Can I ask why the writer refers to Trico as "they", or would that be a spoiler?Edited February 2018 by Fourfoldroot
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  • Avatar for One_Vurfed_Gwrx #9 One_Vurfed_Gwrx 8 months ago
    @Fourfoldroot just a signifier that the gender is indeterminate.
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  • Avatar for Damn_Skippy #10 Damn_Skippy 8 months ago
    Neither captured the simplicity or deliberately lo-fi art style as well as 'Ico', which itself lost something in translation with it's PS3 remaster.
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  • Avatar for Fourfoldroot #11 Fourfoldroot 8 months ago

    Oh, surely it should be "it" or "he" in that case, the plurality of "they" is a little confusing - unless we are presuming non-binary... Anyway, thought it was a little more exciting than that. Thanks for the clarification.
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  • Avatar for sleepiest #12 sleepiest 8 months ago
    People remember the "myth" of Shadow of the Colossus (The One True Game) more than they remember it. I think Last Guardian will be remembered more as time goes on, but what is remembered is more a function of social reaction than straight quality.

    It might also be that we've had more of these kind of beautiful, simple interaction games (I'd put Brothers: tale of two sons here too, among others) and without the novelty they once had they don't stand out very much. It becomes boring in the way that medium literary fiction can be boring, when the "greatest story ever told" is 70% set dressing and 20% the usual cliche.
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  • Avatar for lanmao #13 lanmao 8 months ago
    Trico is downright obedient in comparison to the camera. That thing seems actively hostile towards the player. I want to like The Last Guardian. I love the previous two games, but I have no interest in fighting with a belligerent camera to get to the good stuff. I'm sure what is there is worth experiencing, but after two hours with the game the only feeling I came away with was frustration.
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  • Avatar for catymcc #14 catymcc 8 months ago
    @Fourfoldroot They/them is a widely accepted gender neutral pronoun, and since Trico's gender is never conclusive, I opted for the gender neutral pronoun instead of making an assumption. (Also "it" is reserved for inanimate objects or, say, a corporation. Trico is neither.)
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  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #15 Flipsider99 8 months ago
    @lanmao Never really understood this point of view. I never had a single problem the camera in The Last Guardian. It was perfectly fine and never caused me any issues.

    @Fourfoldroot Yeah I find that confusing too, the concept of "they / them" as a singular pronoun. I'm too attached to thinking of it as plural. Edited 2 times. Last edited February 2018 by Flipsider99
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  • Avatar for Fourfoldroot #16 Fourfoldroot 8 months ago
    Not really widely accepted no. It's very confusing to consider "they" a singular pronoun. Widely accepted within a small community who have deliberately decided such a naming convention should become the norm perhaps.

    Anyway, no big deal, just a bit pointless to change the meaning of a word in such a way. I can kind of understand not wanting to call a person "it", but a piece of code?, something that isn't alive? Fine I think.

    Maybe just he/she? Or s/he more likely I guess. Edited 2 times. Last edited February 2018 by Fourfoldroot
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #17 donkeyintheforest 8 months ago
    I bounced off of it after a part where I had to wait for trico to stand up against a wall and then jump my character off of the top of tricos head to get to a platform. The PS2-ness was that it caused my character to sometimes land on the platform and other times slide off; to the extent that I didn't even know if it was an area I was supposed to reach. Having to wait for a few minutes for trico to do the same move to attempt the jump again didn't make me feel like they were a rascally and realistic creature, it made me feel like I just had to wait out a cycle of the same preprogrammed moves that repeat every few minutes with some slight randomization thrown in.

    This article def makes me want to jump back in and retry it though! Hopefully I'll breeze by that part without notice.
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  • Avatar for catymcc #18 catymcc 8 months ago
    @Fourfoldroot As per AP Style guidelines—widely the norm in the journalism space—they/them has been acceptable as a gender neutral, singular pronoun since March 2017. That is the "widely accepted" that I'm referring to.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #19 MetManMas 8 months ago
    @sleepiest The rise and growth of the indie scene definitely had an impact. ICO and Shadow of the Colossus released during a time when emotionally touching games of their kind were uncommon; The Last Guardian released in a world full of these types of experiences.

    I'm sure TLG is still a wonderful ride, but it's one of many available on the PS4.
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  • Avatar for Fourfoldroot #20 Fourfoldroot 8 months ago

    In journalism? Surely for clarity journalism should use the same language as that which is the norm for the reader. Unless clarity isn't the main consideration of the writer of course.
    Personally I think s/he should be used. Everyone understands the meaning of the constituent parts and it has the same brevity of "they" whilst having the added benefit of not being confusing.

    Anyway, not a big deal, just extremely strange and illogical for no good purpose.
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