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.
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.
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.
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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