I had the opportunity over the last week to play several hours of The Last Guardian, the third and latest game by Team Ico set in the same world as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I wasn't able to finish it, unfortunately -- I was out of town playing on a friend's PS4 -- but I made it a little more than halfway through, which I feel is sufficient to write a partial review of the game.
The Last Guardian feels a lot like Ico, with you playing a young boy trying to navigate his way through dilapidated fortresses while escorting an NPC-ally through the environments. Except, instead of escorting a helpless young girl around, you're working together with a giant beast named Trico who needs your help as much as you need his in order to progress. Working with Trico feels, at times, like playing Shadow of the Colossus, because of how you often have to climb and manipulate Trico in order to get around. As the third game of this quasi-series, The Last Guardian feels like a pretty good mixture of everything that came before it. And if the first two games were good, then The Last Guardian must also be good, right?
The answer to that question is, of course, a bit of "yes and no."
On the bright side of things, The Last Guardian has that unique, almost breath-taking atmosphere you'd expect from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. The art style and general look of this world, with its misty mountains and crumbling ruins, wide-angle shots, sweeping camera angles, and the complete lack of a heads-up display, all do a really good job of transporting you into the game world. The little details like the made-up language and the recurring themes of sacrifice, horns, and tattoos seem to connect The Last Guardian to its elder brethren, which is always fun to see yet another angle on what appears to be all the same setting and to try to piece everything together.
Much like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, the bulk of the gameplay in The Last Guardian consists of light platforming and puzzle-solving, the likes of which typically involve trying to figure out how to get from one place to another, such as when you come to a tiny opening that Trico couldn't possibly fit through and have to find a way to get him through or around it. These puzzles are usually pretty simple, but they're implemented naturally and convincingly in the environment; it doesn't feel like you're solving a puzzle, and it's pretty satisfying how each one incorporates the different characteristics of your two characters into the equation.
I also found that working with Trico instilled a surprisingly genuine sense of companionship. Typically in these sorts of games that you play with an NPC ally, that person is just a character in the story, or they exist simply to serve a mechanical purpose in the gameplay. With Trico, there's a strong symbiotic relationship involved, where you're both independent characters who need each other in order to get by. The young boy you play as is completely defenseless, so when the armored knights show up and start attacking you, you have to run and yell for Trico to come protect you. When the fight's over, he's usually hurt or riled up and you need to tend to his wounds and calm him down. The way your bond grows over the course of the game, from first meeting each other and him wanting you to stay back while he eats and getting mad when you get close, to him eventually eating out of your hand and letting you climb up to his head, is both charming and endearing. And since you don't control him directly, he feels more like a real character that you have to rely and depend upon.
Unfortunately, the fact that you don't control Trico directly is also one of the game's core problems. So much of the gameplay requires getting Trico to do very specific things in order to advance, and it can be really frustrating when he doesn't do what you want him to. I remember one section of the game when I spent 10 minutes trying to get him to jump up a series of posts to reach a higher ledge, or stand on his back legs and stretch up the length of a wall to get me to a catwalk; he would almost do what I wanted him to, but the game offered no feedback for why he wasn't going all the way, or why he wasn't doing it in the right places. It turns out I was supposed to be doing something else, but it seemed like I was on the right trail, based on the appearance of the level design and the fact that he was almost doing what I needed him to do, but I had no way of knowing if the reason he wasn't doing what I wanted was because I wasn't issuing the commands right, or because he was just being stupid, or because the game actually didn't want me to do that.
These moments of frustration and aggravation don't just occur with directing Trico. There was one area with a chain dangling down from the ceiling, which I thought I needed to climb, but my character repeatedly refused to grab onto it. This led me to assume I had to get Trico to do something with it, because when he started pawing at it, the chain being pulled caused the gate ahead to retract a little. So then I spent five minutes fruitlessly trying to get Trico to pull the chain, only to discover that, for whatever reason, my character finally decided to grab onto the chain, and that I was supposed to climb up it and do something up there to get Trico to use the chain correctly. In this case, I was trying to do the correct thing originally but the game itself was just not letting me do so while simultaneously giving me feedback that sent me down a wrong trail.
In another section of the game, you're supposed to sneak past armored knights that are stationed like security cameras rotating around with a beam of light showing their area of visibility, to reach a winch that you need to operate to raise a gate and let Trico through. I didn't realize that the knights could detect me by sound, so when I tried to run past the last one to reach the winch, they all came to life and started attacking me, which forced me to spend 10 minutes getting caught, spamming buttons to break free, luring them away from the winch, getting caught, mashing buttons, and running back to the winch to operate it for a few seconds at a time before being caught and having to repeat the process of luring them away and running back for the winch to operate it just a little more. I'm sure someone in the design room thought it would be tense and exciting gameplay having to contend with enemies without Trico there to defend you, but that whole process was just tedious.
Finally, the whole game is a series of small scenarios that involve getting from point A to point B, but it's not always clear where you're actually trying to get to, or what goal you're actually trying to accomplish. A lot of times, the game drops you into a new room and you just wander around until you find the only path available to you, and then you mindlessly proceed down it until you find a mechanism that you operate, not knowing what it's going to do, and then watch as the game basically solves the problem for you. Although the puzzles are usually pretty satisfying, that's not always the case, as I sometimes felt like I wasn't actually engaged in solving them, or that I wasn't actually solving a problem but rather doing a thing to make a thing happen for whatever inexplicable reason that would let me advance.
Based on my experience playing a little more than half of the game, I don't think I'd recommend The Last Guardian. I, for one, feel no particular desire to finish it. It's a decent game most of the time, but it doesn't feel very original, since it feels so much like a retread of Ico with hints of Shadow of the Colossus. There's a certain nostalgic feeling to be had playing The Last Guardian, since it feels so much like those other two games I so strongly admired 10-15 years ago, but my appreciation for it doesn't extend much further than "it reminds me of these other games I used to like." I suppose if you've never played a Team Ico game before, The Last Guardian will feel fresh and unique, but for me the game felt kind of average, which is especially underwhelming considering I'd been eagerly waiting nearly a decade to play this game.