After years of silence, teases, delays, re-reveals, and even more delays, The Last Guardian is very nearly here. But after more than a decade of anticipating the sequel to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, it’s hard to believe the puzzle-platformer is real. Some, like myself, won’t trust its existence until the game is actually in their hands. So call me a believer because I experienced The Last Guardian hands-on in a demo of the near-final game. And it was a sight to behold.
In case you haven't been following the PlayStation 4 exclusive too closely, The Last Guardian is a puzzle-platformer hybrid. You control a small, unnamed boy trapped in an ancient dungeon, and he's accompanied by a massive beast named Trico. The boy and Trico work together to pull levers, move boxes, and open doors to hopefully escape their current predicament. During my The Last Guardian hands-on, I got to know both protagonists well via the stripped down interface and storytelling game director Fumito Ueda made famous.
Getting to Know You
The demo begins in a locked room with Trico just staring at you like a wild (if giant) dog. Trico watches the boy climb a chain, jump to the next level up, and then pull a lever to light a torch. Trico wants to jump on the now-illuminated platform. Just as Trico is headed up, the boy jumps and grabs on so he can be lifted up by the beast to the now accessible third level. The puzzle is complete and the pair moves on to the next room.
This type of interaction with your AI partner is the core of the game, and it's not always easy. The Last Guardian has some tricky AI that doesn't always follow orders, but Trico's lovable, puppy dog mentality makes it forgivable. You want Trico to grab and pull a chain, but he may just sniff at it until you point directly at it. You're almost shouting "NO. The chain, Trico! The chain!"
Man's New Best Friend?
If one section gets too hard, you do get some direction to solve a puzzle. As I stared at Trico wondering how I could get him on the other side of this closed gate, a narrator appeared. The voice of an older man spoke up as if the game was a story he was telling years later. He gave a broad enough hint to the puzzle's solution that it all clicked for me. Pretty soon I was able to move on. That mysterious voice has to be a bigger part of The Last Guardian's enigmatic story, but there wasn't much time to dig deeper in my limited demo time.
Hitting the wall with a puzzle can make The Last Guardian frustrating as you're just getting used to the controls. Still, when the sense of teamwork finally clicks, the results can be magical. When Trico stopped because he was scared of these mysterious stained glass eyes, it was an emotional moment. Knowing he wouldn't continue, I then grabbed the nearest rock and smashed the glass eyes. Trico then relaxed and we could move on together. That moment made me feel connected to Trico because the game did such a good job of expressing the beast's fear, as well as his happiness at my help.
Building Bridges of Trust
My 40 minutes of hands-on time had small-yet-impactful moments that deepened the connection between Trico and myself. I fed him mysterious barrels that seemed to please him. When he finally went to the place I was furiously pointing at, it felt like I'd accomplished something. Yet the strongest moment of connection came when the boy and his feathered companion reached a series of rickety wooden bridges.
In a segment first seen in the game's E3 2015 showing, my The Last Guardian hands-on came to an end with this challenging section. As a platform shattered below me, I had to make a blind jump to the next bridge. It looked like I'd fall to my death. But Trico made the difference, catching me at the last second and pulling me up to safety. It was like those trust falls you see in group therapy, and it once more strengthened my bond with Trico.
Getting to the end of the stage had more leaps of faith with Trico saving me, or even me saving Trico for a change. The more intense the moments got, the more I adapted to Trico's AI rhythms, understanding it for the brilliant beast Trico is. Once I reached the demo's end, I felt like I made it through a gauntlet with Trico, and we'd both come out stronger.
I hated to let go of the controller when The Last Guardian hands-on was over. It made it all the more painful knowing the complete version was closer than ever. Now that I've felt the realness of the connection between the puzzle-solving duo, it's tougher than before to wait to see the rest of their journey together. Barring any more delays (cross your fingers), The Last Guardian will finally hit the PlayStation 4 Dec. 6.