You Can’t Find This in a Pet Shop
Team Ico, a small development team in Japan, created quite a reputation for itself with its first two games, which were showcased on the PlayStation 2. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are niche favorites, managing to be compelling games while simultaneously meditating on subjects such as friendship, sacrifice, heroism, and death. Now, with The Last Guardian, Team Ico is bringing its distinctive style to the HD generation. The game is currently scheduled to come out at the end of 2011, and while the developers have been secretive about it, they’ve finally shown enough to the press that we have a basic idea of how the game will play.
The Last Guardian is an adventure and puzzle-solving game that revolves around the relationship between a little boy and a giant creature called Trico, which appears to be a cross between a fox, cat, and gryphon. Although we don’t know how the game’s story begins, the two appear to have teamed up in order to escape from some mysterious ruins, replete with frightening guards and other dangers. The player will control the boy, while Trico is an AI-controlled partner with a mind and personality of its own. The boy will need to find ways to communicate with Trico and to befriend the beast in order to survive and escape his situation.
Some of the basic gameplay concepts will involve luring Trico, climbing and crawling around the ruins or on Trico, and finding ways to get around enemies. In a recent gameplay demo, set near the beginning of the game (though apparently not actually part of the finished product), the boy had to use a pot filled with a sweet-smelling substance to get Trico to move to a new location so that he could climb on the beast in order to reach a new area. Screenshots have been shown of Trico carrying the boy by the back of his shirt, so presumably later in the game he’ll have more efficient ways of moving and being moved around by his furry and feathery friend.
The boy, being small and unskilled with weaponry, doesn’t have a way to defeat enemies, so he will need to find ways around them. Director Fumito Ueda has hinted that later in the game, the boy may be able to get Trico to fight for him, but he’s also hinted that the pair may encounter other large beasts like Trico, leading to the possibility of more difficult fight-or-flight situations. During the demo, however, the boy became separated from Trico due to having crawled through a small passageway, and had to run from a guard and climb up a ledge so that it couldn’t reach him.
The relationship between the boy and Trico is one of the most compelling features of The Last Guardian. Ueda said that he was inspired by the deep relationships that people form with their animal companions, and he wanted to incorporate that kind of relationship into a game. The relationship will be shown in Trico’s increasing tendency to understand and obey the boy, and also visually in how the two react and relate to each other. At first, the boy will need to try to get Trico’s attention by petting or shouting at it, and it might take some work to get Trico to respond. Later, Trico will become more responsive, and will focus more on the boy, just as a pet focuses more on its owner as they build trust between them.
Team Ico is known for its atmospheric visuals, and The Last Guardian looks stunning so far. The ruins have a lonely and mysterious look to them, and the two main characters are striking. Trico is a stunning beast, sporting lush fur and feathers and large, expressive eyes. The boy, dressed simply in a tunic and pants, practically glows with the innocence of childhood. The game’s animations also add to the world’s immersive nature, with the beast moving like a real animal: stretching, observing its surroundings, and scratching like an oversized pet cat. The boy, on the other hand, is a bit clumsy like a young boy would be. The overall look of the game blends the fantastic with the realistic in order to create a believable fantasy world, one which looks like it will be a joy to explore.
Of course, there are still many questions left unanswered about The Last Guardian, and many challenges for the development team to overcome. There are potential pitfalls for gamers in the boy’s interactions with an initially-recalcitrant beast, and the development team acknowledges that they’re treading a fine line between realism and frustration by giving Trico a mind of its own. Hopefully, the team will be successful at involving the player in building the relationship between the two, instead of it feeling like an annoying chore to communicate with the beast. We know almost nothing about the game’s story or about how the gameplay will change as the pair become closer and the story advances. Ueda has suggested that there may be a demo of The Last Guardian in the upcoming Ico Collection, so hopefully players will soon have a chance to try the game out for themselves.