Seven years in the making, The Last Guardian is remarkable in its restraint. Games with these kinds of lengthy development cycles tend to show up with a mishmash of mechanics and flashy gimmicks, along with a meandering plot. The Last Guardian, however, never strays from being about a boy and a (large, winged) dog escaping a dungeon. The boy, whom the player controls, is used solely for exploration, puzzle-solving, and directing Trico–the boy’s gryphon-like companion–to the next location. It doesn’t even utilize the entirety of the PS4’s controller (two of the shoulder buttons serve no function, except perhaps when mashing to escape capture). Several of director/lead designer Fumito Ueda’s fascinations also, unsurprisingly, are on display: a duet of characters working together to navigate spacious, often-hostile environments (mostly during the day); crumbling, eldritch architecture which resemble the impossible structures of NES-era platformers; elliptical plotting; horns as a mark of sinister influence (though not necessarily of character). Mostly, Ueda wants us to focus on his characters as physical, intimate beings in a fairy tale. There’s nothing in the game which doesn’t serve that purpose.
Functionally, Trico and the boy are the inverse of Ico and Yorda or Wander and Agro (from Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, respectively). The player is now the one who needs protection from the game’s many hazards, but is key to progression. Any combat, mostly against armored demon statues who try to abduct the boy, is performed by Trico, with you dropping into a support role: distracting enemies, pulling the odd spear out of the beast, or providing soothing pets. The Last Guardian forces players into a different mindset, based not around the infliction of violence, but on sympathy (sort of an antithesis for Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise). The game starts with the boy waking in a cave, Trico chained up and injured nearby. It is made clear you will need him to escape, so helping him becomes a priority. Their movement through these spaces is also a back-and-forth, the boy squeezing into tiny openings or onto narrow ledges to lower a bridge or open a gate; Trico able to bound great chasms or scale a cliff. Ueda’s team is fond of pitting them against rickety walkways and collapsing towers. Imminent danger and the need to press on propel the duo, but also forges an enduring friendship.
This is boosted by the AI for Trico. It’s excellent, not because Trico is perfect and does everything correctly when asked, but because he’s allowed to not be. Trico will get confused and, like the player, even miss the obvious. Line of sight becomes crucial, as Trico often has to see the boy to understand commands (built around associating words with mimed actions), and occasionally needs encouragement (e.g. tossing barrels of food at him). The dungeon even bears out this theme of conditioning: an elaborate, partially automated mill built within a hollowed mesa, it is littered with signs of the kind of training used by unseen masters. Trico recoils in fear of stain-glass eyes, erected along escape routes. Blue, glassy sculptures which emit pulsing waves trigger rabid freakouts. There’s even a fighting pit, deep in the bowels of the place. It’s very mechanical and cruel, a stark contrast to the touching interactions between the player and their digital animal. Whatever arcane purpose the lair, and Trico, serve, is one built on layers of abuse which need dismantling. The boy offers an alternative, and rehabilitation, through mutualism and respect.