Back in day 1 of ESGS (E-sports and Gaming Summit) 2016, I was able to take part in a media-only playthrough session for PlayStation 4 exclusive The Last Guardian. The once mythical title, delayed countless times and originally in-development for the PlayStation 3, is finally releasing on Dec. 6th, 2016. The game is the third title from Sony Japan Studio’s Team Ico (now known as GenDesign), and is a spiritual sequel to PS2 classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.
A product manager from Sony’s Japan Studio confirmed to me that the demo sequence takes place in the middle portion of the game. The Team Ico aesthetic is automatically noticeable, from the architecture of the environments and the art style, to the mechanics of the puzzles. The animations for the cat-dog-bird hybrid of a creature called Trico, and the physics surrounding its feathers were both excellent. However, the game also shares some of the faults of its predecessors. The controls feel clumsy from time to time (arguably due to the outdated button layout, wherein jump is mapped to the triangle button); and I sometimes felt that the game wasn’t processing my button presses as fast or as accurate as I’m accustomed to. There were also some awkward camera angles (hiding the player-controlled character from the player’s view), and abrupt transitions (zoom-ins). Lastly, near the end of the demo, I experienced some slow-down while trying to climb around Trico.
Still, even with all of its faults (most of which can still be ironed out before launch), I was very moved by what I played. Even as a someone who’s been playing games for over two decades, I felt like I spent time with a game unlike anything I’ve played before. And here are a couple of reasons why it will be unlike any other game you’ve played too:
Ambiguous artificial intelligence
The artificial intelligence (AI) that powers Trico’s psyche is both advanced and unique. The creature isn’t an immediately reliable ally or an uncaring foe. Like any pet or creature in real life, it has its own desires and actions. Naturally, you as the player won’t always get it to do what you want it to, be it climbing to higher ground to get an item, or having it pull a chain to open the doorway to the next area. In the demo, Trico didn’t follow when I first ordered it to take me to a higher platform, or to jump across a broken bridge. I first had to make my character jump in place, and then point towards the direction that I wanted Trico to go to. When I played through the same point in the demo again, Trico ignored me even after I pointed and jumped in place, and it took longer and my character moving closer to him this time before he followed my instructions. According to game director Fumito Ueda, this dynamic gameplay element is something that is difficult and completely different: “I want to create the next thing – an experience that people have never had before”. While we can expect Trico to be more trusting and responsive as players progress through the game, it’s in the process of building trust throughout the journey where the The Last Guardian’s brilliance will shine further.
The element of trust
Near the end of the demo, I had to jump to the other end of a broken bridge, with Trico waiting for me on the other side. It was obvious that I was never going to make this jump without Trico catching me. In my first attempt, I charged along and jumped without communicating with Trico. Unfortunately, Trico did not make an attempt to catch me and I fell. On my second try, I first stood near the end of the ledge I was standing on so that Trico could see me, called the creature, and made my character jump in place. I waited for a few seconds and I noticed that there was a subtle animation on Trico’s face/eyes that felt like he acknowledged and understood what I was going to do. I made my second jump and this time, Trico caught me and placed me on the other side of the bridge. This sequence was something that really stood out to me, because the game dared me to jump with no certainty of survival. The only thing I could do to improve my odds was to develop a relationship and build trust with a creature with its own sense of being, and is in full control of its actions. In The Last Guardian, your progression is highly dependent on an intelligent creature that you have no direct control over. Just before I finished playing, I faced another situation wherein I had to jump (from a collapsing platform) and Trico was to catch me again. This time, I jumped immediately and Trico caught me outright. I’d like to think that this was because of the trust we’ve built beforehand.
As I put the controller down after the demo ended, I couldn’t help but think about what the full game had in store for the boy and Trico. In how many more ways will the bond between the two be put to the test? The only thing I know for sure, is that The Last Guardian is shaping up to be a video game experience unlike any other.