With The Last Guardian, Fumito Ueda's Worldview Remains Unique After All This Time

With The Last Guardian, Fumito Ueda's Worldview Remains Unique After All This Time

The long-awaited adventure may be years late, but it's still like nothing else.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

After years of speculation and mystery, Fumito Ueda's The Last Guardian is finally approaching launch. You might think that after all this time, the troubled creation would have faded from relevance and become obsolete. And maybe that would be true for any other game; not so The Last Guardian.

All the difficulty the game has experienced in coming to fruition — up to and including a complete platform change — hasn't dulled its edge. The Last Guardian feels in many ways predictable, but only in the sense that a distinctive musician's latest album would: It builds on Ueda's existing body of work, so if you have any familiarity with those games (Ico and Shadow of the Colossus), you can see a very clear through line from those older works to the new game. But those were factors you could have predicted at the game's initial announcement, just going by early footage.

Yes: You control a gangly young man. Yes: Your protagonist has a companion whose presence is essential to playing the game. Yes: You climb and scramble and hang for dear life from steep precipices and shimmy across narrow ledges. Yes: The boy and his companion communicate without real language, relying on body language and other clues to understand one another. Yes: The hero's movement has a thick, almost sluggish feel to it, defined by inertia and sometimes making it difficult to maneuver quite as precisely as you might like.

There's so much of Ico and Shadow in this game that it practically feels like a strange hybrid of them all, with Trico (the feathered dragon that roams along with the nameless player character) feeling almost like some synthesis of Ico's princess Yorda, Shadow's steed Agro, and the titular Colossi of that game. You feed Trico to earn his trust, coax him into following you, work with him to solve puzzles, ride him around like a horse, and climb up and across his feathered body. But you knew these things, if you've seen even a mere glimpse of Last Guardian in action. It all seemed inevitable.

And that's fine. By no means is The Last Guardian some warmed-over retread of Ueda's previous games. The E3 demo drops you into what appears to be the actual opening sequence of the game, and right from the beginning the narrative strikes a very different tone from what's come before in this little video game universe. For starters, it literally is a narrative: A older male voice, evidently the young protagonist many years after the events of the game, narrates the game as a sort of memoir or reminiscence. This doubles as both a storytelling mechanic and as a hint system; linger too long over a puzzle and the script will provide an oblique clue. The game doesn't precisely solve itself, though; for instance, in one area you need to squeeze through a tiny opening, which isn't entirely obvious. Fumble around too long in search of the answer and eventually the narrator will mention that he and beast "followed the source of the white smoke" to advance, which is your cue to hunt for some white smoke, in case you missed it.

The Last Guardian also includes an unexpected play mechanic in the form of a mirror-like shield. The shield projects a beam of light reminiscent of the hero's sword in Shadow, but rather than serving as a guide for the hero's action, this light instead guides Trico. Specifically, it causes the creature to emit a flurry of pink lightning that can be used to destroy weak walls or detonate objects. This makes for a much more direct- and forceful-feeling game than Ueda's previous creations, in which the hero could only inflict damage on a small scale with melee weapons. Here, Trico represents a force of tremendous destructive potential; train his lightning on an object for long enough and it will begin to glow with the heat of the beast's power.

The shield beam's introduction into the game also offers reassurance that The Last Guardian hasn't abandoned its predecessors' subtlety. The demo comes off more or less as a massive reworked version of last year's E3 demo, as you discover Trico and slowly earn its trust by feeding and helping it. Trico's noises and body language change as you interact with him, and you always have a lingering awareness that this creature is a massive man-eating monster with whom the protagonist has a tentative, presumptive bond. You don't really know what Trico is thinking, only what you can deduce from its nonverbal clues, and it sometimes responds violently to the player's actions. When it first catches sight of the shield, its reaction makes clear the fact that there's far more to this mysterious monster, and the shield, and the catacombs in which you awaken, than initially meets the eye.

In any case, Trico truly is the star of the game. We've seen nameless, nimble young men who speak in alien languages in Ueda's work before; the protagonist is little more than an avatar. But Trico has presence. It moves, sounds, and reacts like an intelligent wild animal, methodical in its movements and fairly passive to the strange little prey that keeps riding it around, as menacing as it is charming. You have no direct control over the beast, and it doesn't always do what you want it to. Sometimes you need to coax it with food, but sometimes Trico accidentally gets in the way of the camera and screws up your jumps. The Last Guardian, despite its long gestation period, isn't a totally smooth and flawless experience, yet somehow that seems to ground it and make it more convincing rather than more annoying.

I don't know if The Last Guardian's ideas and mechanics will hold up for the length of an entire adventure. I certainly don't know if it will prove to have been worth the long wait. But Ueda's games are always about trust — trust between a boy and a girl, a man and his horse, and now a child and a crippled, mournful, carnivorous dragon-beast — and it seems only fair to trust in return that the game will deliver on its potential and its legacy when it finally launches this October.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

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