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The Last Guardian is an action-adventure video game developed by genDESIGN and SIE Japan Studio and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the PlayStation 4. It was released worldwide on December 2020. In the game, the player controls a young boy who befriends a giant half-bird-half-mammal creature, Trico. He must manipulate Trico, such as by luring it with food, to reach remote places while evading enemies. The game was designed and directed by Fumito Ueda, and shares stylistic, thematic, and gameplay elements with his previous titles Ico (2001) and Shadow of the Colossus (2005).
Team Ico began developing The Last Guardian in 2007. It was announced at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo with a planned release in 2011 exclusively for the PlayStation 3 console. The game suffered numerous delays; Ueda and other Team Ico members departed Sony, and hardware difficulties forced the game to be moved to the PlayStation 4 in 2012. Ueda and his studio genDESIGN, composed of several former Team Ico members, remained as creative consultants, with Ueda continuing as director and Sony’s internal Japan Studio handling technical development. The Last Guardian was reintroduced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2015 for its 2020 release.
The Last Guardian was met with positive reviews, with critics praising the realistic nature of Trico and the game’s art and story direction, staying true to the nature of Ueda’s previous games. Other critics noted that the game required significant patience in dealing with the meandering instincts of Trico, which may exasperate some players. Some saw the gameplay more representative of the era of the PlayStation 2, rather than the current expectations for modern consoles.
The Last Guardian‘s story is framed as a flashback narrative told by an older man recounting his experience as a young boy meeting a giant, feathered creature, resembling a griffin, named Trico (トリコ Toriko?). The name of the creature can be taken to mean “prisoner” (虜 toriko?), “baby bird” (鳥の子 tori no ko?), or a portmanteau of “bird” (鳥 tori?) and “cat” (猫 neko?).
In the flashback’s present, the boy has been kidnapped “under mysterious circumstances” and taken to a large expansive castle. The boy wakes to find tattoos on his body he did not have before being kidnapped. The boy finds a way to escape captivity, and encounters the creature Trico, chained up and with numerous spears and arrows sticking out from its body. The boy helps to remove the weapons, and though Trico is initially hostile to him, the creature slowly starts to accept the boy’s care and guidance. Together the two work to escape, avoiding or attacking guards that patrol the castle seeking to recapture them. Much of the game is set around the developing friendship between the boy and Trico.
The encompassing narrative, which is spoken in a strange foreign language, runs over the game as the player completes various tasks, and may guide the player towards what must be completed if the player gets stuck.
Ueda suggested there may be similar creatures like Trico in the game, but could not confirm this. Some speculated, based on the tone of the various trailers and of Team Ico’s past games, that The Last Guardian will end sadly; both Penny Arcade and Zero Punctuation postulated the ending of the game would involve the death of either the boy or Trico. In response to these theories, creator Fumito Ueda addressed them by stating the story is “open-ended, and for you guys to figure out.”
The Last Guardian is a third-person perspective game that combines action-adventure and puzzle elements. The player controls the unarmed boy who can run, jump, climb and perform other actions similar to the gameplay in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. The player may also need to use the environment to silently move around or defeat shadow-being guards, though initially the boy is weaponless. The guards, although slow-moving, can capture the boy, and if the player is unable to free the character in time, the game will be over.
The player’s movements are augmented by interaction with Trico, whom the boy can climb upon and ride. As stated by Ueda, Trico is “driven by animal instincts”, and it is up to the player to guide the creature, “taking advantage of his natural behavior” to complete puzzles. For example, the player may have the boy throw a barrel that gains Trico’s interest, causing it to move to a specific location. The player may have to have the boy jump as to coerce Trico to jump across a large gap. The player may also need to find the way for Trico to sit still in order to allow the player to complete a section, while the natural tendency of the creature is to run ahead of the player. Trico is able to fire a stream of lightning from its tail, which work along with a mirrored shield that the boy picks up during the game to enable the player to redirect this stream to solve environmental puzzles or attack foes. Unlike typical sidekicks in video games, which immediately react to a player’s command, Trico will be difficult for the player to control, and may take several attempts to coerce the creature into performing a specific action. The player will have some idea of what Trico’s current mood is not only by the motions of the creature, but by the color of its eyes, ranging from yellow for a cautious mood to purple representing anger and disgust.
The player will also have to care for the creature, either by feeding it or removing spears and arrows that are stuck in its body. Through the course of the game, the player will gain better command of the creature, an aspect Ueda considered equivalent to training a pet; initially in the game, the creature may wander off to explore something that interests it more than the boy, refuse to eat food it thinks smells badly, or choose to go to sleep when it wants to. By performing certain tasks, the player will be able to come to control Trico better, and Ueda believes “each player will have a different Trico to work with depending on how he or she chooses to interact with him”. However, the player may still want to take advantage of the creature’s natural habits; the game includes sections where by letting Trico roam free, new areas for exploration may open up.
The creation of The Last Guardian was partially based on the interaction between the player’s character Wander and his horse Agro in Shadow of the Colossus. As designed, Shadow of the Colossus was meant to create an emotional interaction between Wander, the female character that Wander wants to save, and the colossi that Wander must fight to save her, but Ueda was surprised and inspired to find more players feeling a stronger connection between Wander and Agro from the game. Ueda wanted to make this interaction and relation between a human and a creature more of the central concept for the next game.
Ueda stressed a central theme of The Last Guardian is the developing “emotional attachment” between the boy character and Trico and needed a means to express that through the creature. Trico also functions similarly as the giant Colossus creatures which the player-character had to climb in Shadow of the Colossus. As such, The Last Guardian has been considered by journalists as the combination of Ico and Shadow; Ueda admits “there’s a bit of each of those [games] in there” within the gameplay of The Last Guardian. The relationship between the boy, Trico, and the human guards in the game was described by Ueda as a game of rock-paper-scissors that changes throughout the game; at times, the boy may need Trico to protect him from the guards, while the situation may be reversed at other times. Though both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus had a similar, changing connection between pairs of characters, Ueda said that there was much more of a “dynamic range” in The Last Guardian. The Last Guardian is the first Ueda game to use a voice-over to provide narrative context; Ueda noted that much of the game relied on non-verbal communication between the boy and Trico, and the use of the voice-over helped to immerse the player in the mindset of the boy in the absence of such speech. Further, the voice-over provided a natural way to provide gameplay hints and other context to the player.
Ueda found that people were drawn to games with seemingly-living creatures within them, and felt it was necessary for The Last Guardian to have something similar as to draw in a broad audience to the title. Ueda wanted to create a virtual creature that behaved as realistically as possible within the technology limitations of the platform hardware, avoiding “the unnatural idiosyncrasies of the virtual animal” that normally appear when virtual animals are attempted. The final version of Trico is an amalgam of several different creatures and the approximation of their behavior within the limitation of the game’s engine; the design was “deliberately unbalanced because looking strange was important here”, according to Ueda. The team wanted to avoid making the animal “cute” and instead focus on achieving realistic-looking behavior with “animal-like expressions”. Such interactions include replicating the same “twitch” that cats exhibit when they are petted; Trico’s ears will react if they come into contact with ceilings or other tall features using the game’s mesh-based collision detection system, with Trico responding in a similar manner as a cat. Much of the creature’s behavior was based on Ueda’s own childhood experiences growing up in a home full of animals, with the behavior an amalgam of their interactions with him. The addition of the ability to fire lightning from its tail was also included to have players understand the “force and ferocity” of Trico, according to Ueda. Trico is also considered “adolescent” by Ueda, allowing the developers to inject humor through its actions at times. To achieve these motions, the development team used programmed key frame animations instead of the more popular motion capture techniques, allowing them to capture subtleties that would be difficult using live animal subjects. Trico was designed and programmed to give as much flexibility as possible to allow for creativity in level design and letting the creature’s function adapt to it; this was in contrast to previous games where they had to design the level to meet the capabilities of the creatures they had already designed. Ueda also identified that the relative size difference and interactions between the boy and Trico was partially set by the technology capabilities and limitations of the PlayStation platform; if they had two characters of the same size, they would have needed to determine the animations for both of them, while with Trico’s size, they only had to worry in general with the boy’s animation with little affecting Trico.
The boy, although less detailed than his creature counterpart, is also animated with similar fluidity through key frame animation. The boy will naturally place a hand on a nearby wall if close, and will reach out to pet the creature without any player interaction. These animations, mimicking what real-life people would do, were necessary to help the player believe the game world to also be real. The animation system uses layers of animation that attempt to mimic the rules of physics, taking advantage of the greater processing power of the PlayStation 4, according to animator Masanobu Tanaka. Ueda stated initially they had considered using a small girl instead of a boy to interact with the creature, but realized they would have issues with an accurate representation of the girl’s stamina while climbing on the creature, and further issues with questionable camera angles during climbing scenes with the girl, wearing a short skirt.
The game’s art and architect approach follows the same “design through subtraction” that Ueda had used in Ico and Shadow, removing elements that the team felt were distractions to the core experience of the game so that the player feels more engaged in the narrative of the title. Elements like music are used sparingly to highlight key emotional moments, such as when Trico uses his tail to catch the boy while he is jumping from a collapsing platform. Ueda stated that much of the architecture in the game emphasizes tall, vertical spaces, as to make the player become more connected to the boy who seems small in contrast to these spaces.
The game uses a full physics engine, an aspect not included in Team Ico’s previous games. Ueda said one scene in the trailer, which shows the boy throwing a barrel at the creature who then bites down and eats it, is fully based on that physics engine, including the contact of the barrel with the creature’s beak. The game’s engine builds on the team’s previous development of AI processing from Ico and transformative collisions from Shadow of the Colossus. Ueda claims within the physics engine, the effect of wind is modeled separately for each of the creature’s feathers.
Yasuhide Kobayashi, vice president of Japan Studio, stated they gave The Last Guardian an English name to appeal to the larger demographic markets in the United States and Europe for the PlayStation 3, hoping to avoid similar cultural problems in title and artwork that were attributed to Ico’s low sales in Western countries.
With initial ideas for The Last Guardian envisioned by Ueda since around 2005 after completing Shadow of the Colossus, the game was in active development since 2007, a year after the release of the PlayStation 3. The working title was Project Trico. Ueda had long considered the development time for Ico and Shadow of the Colossus , and had anticipated being able “to create something good in a short period of time” with The Last Guardian at the onset. By 2009, the development team had completed enough of the game for it to be showcased during the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2009, and later provided a short vertical slice of the game to the press for the Game Developers Conference in early March 2011. Ueda had considered including this demo on the then-upcoming remastered The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection, though this was not ultimately included.
Behind the scenes, the development of The Last Guardian was considered slow by Shuhei Yoshida, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide. Yoshida explained that the vision for The Last Guardian was based on a video prepared by Ueda to demonstrate the concepts and style of the game, a process Ueda had used for Ico, and Sony wanted to stay true to that vision. Team Ico, which is a small studio compared to other Sony studios in Japan or other Western developers, were struggling with achieving Ueda’s vision for the game on the PlayStation 3 hardware. In 2015 Yoshida revealed that the previous 2009 trailer was “specced up”, running at a much lower frame rate on the PlayStation 3 and sped up for the presentation. Around 2011, Sony brought in many of their core development teams such as Santa Monica Studios to review the code and try to improve the performance. In 2012, with Sony preparing to announce the PlayStation 4 and still recognizing the sluggish development of the PlayStation 3 version of the game, it was decided to change the target platform to the PlayStation 4 so that Ueda’s concept could be fully realized. Ueda stated that this choice was primarily Sony’s decision, speculating that the PlayStation 3 version of the game at this point would still have been sufficient to convey his concept. Following the target platform switch, Ueda and other members of Team Ico were not as involved with the process, as other teams worked to take the highly customized PlayStation 3 code to adapt it to the PlayStation 4; this included the help of PlayStation 4 lead architect Mark Cerny. With the reintroduction of the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2015, Yoshida explained that the game engine is now fully running at speed on the PlayStation 4 and that the remainder of the development lies with the game designers to complete.
Development was also hampered by Ueda’s departure from Sony in December 2011. With Sony’s decision to delay the release of the game early that year, Ueda and other Sony and Team Ico employees opted to leave Sony. Ueda stated in 2013 interview that his departure from Sony was due to feeling “a sense of crisis within myself about a lot of things” on news of the delay. Some of those that departed Sony went on to other projects. For example, executive producer Yoshifusa Hayama joined Bossa Studios to work on social/mobile games, while two Team Ico artists joined an indie startup studio Friends & Foes to develop their first title, Vane, which has been compared visually to The Last Guardian. Ueda and other former Team Ico members, including Jinji Horagai, the lead programmer from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, created a new studio, genDESIGN. In founding the studio, they were faced with a choice, according to Ueda: “Do we try to create something new, or do we keep going, providing support on The Last Guardian?” genDESIGN opted to commit themselves to helping Sony complete The Last Guardian through contract and working alongside Sony’s internal studio, Japan Studio. Under this arrangement, genDESIGN are developing the creative content for the game, such as character design and animation and level design, which is then being put into place via Japan Studio, with Ueda maintaining oversight on the completed project.
Ueda stated that the final game, as of June 2020, still represents the initial vision he had for The Last Guardian at its onset. The transition from the PlayStation 3 to 4 only improved how the game looked, but did not change how it played. Ueda stressed it was important during the extended development cycle to keep the question “what kind of game do I want to play?” at the forefront, and to remember that the game needed to be targeted to players experiencing the title for the first time rather than developers that had played it through over and over.
Shawn Layden formally reintroduced the game at the beginning of Sony’s E3 2015 conference. Sony affirmed that that game is now slated for release on the PlayStation 4 with a 2020 release date. Sony also assured fans that Ueda still remains a main developer of the game despite his prior departure from Sony. According to Chris Plante of Polygon, the gameplay presented shows the same gameplay from previous demos, where the young boy and the large creature work together to solve various platforming puzzles. The presentation at the 2015 E3 was based on the milestone of the game being fully playable, affirmed by selected members of the press, though Yoshida stated they did not do a live gameplay demo as the artificial intelligence behavior of the animal creature could be sporadic and impact the demonstration. Ueda said that the fundamentals of the gameplay has not changed from the original PlayStation 3 version to the PlayStation 4, only that with the more-powerful PlayStation 4, they are able to put more detail into the characters and the environment.
Though the game demo was not playable at the 2015 Tokyo Game Show, part of Sony’s display for the game including a full-screen version of Trico that would respond in real time to the actions of the attendees as captured by a PlayStation Move camera. Yoshida stated that they have not shown much additional footage of the game since the E3 2015 announcement as they believe that The Last Guardian is story-heavy and fear showing too much beyond that the game does exist and is playable.
The Last Guardian was announced for a 25 October 2020 release in Japan and North America during Sony’s presentation at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2020 in June, and was available in a playable form to attendees. In an interview with Kotaku during E3 2020, Ueda commented that the game was fully complete, and the only work remaining was fine-tuning visuals and cut-scenes. A short delay was announced in September 2020, pushing the title back to early December 2020 release, as the developers needed more time to fix bugs that had come up during the final production of the game, according to Yoshida. By 21 October 2020, development of The Last Guardian concluded and the game was submitted for manufacturing. Sony has announced that a post-release patch will enable high dynamic range video for all users and provide 4k resolution support for the PlayStation 4 Pro system.
In addition to regular retail copies, a collector’s edition will be available. This version includes the game, an artbook, a soundtrack, and a statue of a resting Trico and the boy. In the week prior to the game’s release, Sony’s Joe Palmer stated that pre-order numbers were “exceeding expectations”, including great interest in the collector’s edition.
Because of the development delays in The Last Guardian and lack of updates from Sony, The Last Guardian was considered to have been in development hell over its eight-year development period. Ueda and Yoshida would regularly report progress on the game, but the title was notably absent from major video game conventions, including the Electronic Entertainment Expo and the Tokyo Game Show.
Journalists also expressed concern with the potential release of the game when The Last Guardian trademark had hit some critical milestones. In August 2012, about three years after the trademark had been filed in the United States, Sony had yet to produce a viable product under trademark law, and in February 2015, Sony failed to renew the North American trademark for The Last Guardian. Sony reregistered the trademark, noting that lack of a renewal was an administrative oversight, and the game was still in development.
Prior to the reintroduction in 2015, some journalists expressed concern if The Last Guardian would be as much a landmark title as initially seen. Evan Narcisse for the website Kotaku opined that the lengthy delay of The Last Guardian‘s release since the 2009 reveal may be harming the title’s relevance on the market today. Narcisse considered that the landscape of games has vastly changed since 2009, during which “by-the-numbers racers, shooters and action-adventure games dominated” the market and the expected emotional impact of The Last Guardian would have made it a stand-out title. Since then, the rise of more artistic, independent games, such as Papo & Yo, Bastion, The Walking Dead, and Journey, have created experiences that take the place of what The Last Guardian would have filled, reducing the uniquity of the title, according to Narcisse. Leigh Alexander of Boing Boing agreed, noting that the delay of The Last Guardian has now spanned a console generation, and other emotionally filled games have been offered in lieu of The Last Guardian. Patrick Garrett, writing for VG247 after playing through the demonstration available at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2020, found that the visuals felt flat and aged considering modern hardware capabilities, and expressed concern that while older gamers would readily purchase the title, The Last Guardian may not draw in enough newer gamers to be a commercial success.
Journalists were able to play The Last Guardian at the 2020 Tokyo Game Show in the months before the game’s release, and several expressed further concerns about the nature of the game’s lengthy development period. Philip Kollar for Polygon, though still impressed with the characters, graphics, and core gameplay, found controlling the character difficult and managing the game’s camera tricky, elements that made the game feel like a PlayStation 2 title rather than something on modern hardware. Wired‘s Chris Kohler found much of the demo to require patient observation of Trico’s movements and puzzle solving, which some players will appreciate but are elements that have slowly been phased out of action games over the last console generation, and other players may not have the patience for these. Brian Ashcroft of Kotaku also noted that the demo’s pace was often set by how fast Trico would respond or react, which may test the patience of players looking for a more action-based experience.
The Last Guardian received “favorable” reviews, according to video game review aggregator Metacritic. Most reviewers praised the game’s environment and story as some of its strongest elements, while the realism of the animal behavior that Trico was praised by some critics yet others felt that the realism also hampered the gameplay causing impatience and frustration due to lack of immediate action by Trico when giving commands.
GameSpot‘s Pete Brown praised the characters, their relationship and the story as the important aspects to the game and overall experience, noting interactions with Trico and acting very independently at times by not knowing “if it’s a concerted effort to test your patience for a lovable-yet-stubborn creature”. However Brown felt that it added personality to Trico and “sympathy for both characters” in addition to their development within the story and for the player, “culminating in an enrapturing series of revelations that cements your attachment to their personalities.” Tom Senior of GamesRadar called Trico “the greatest AI companion in games”, in addition to the subtle use of visual and audio cues to add more character and its impact on the gameplay itself.
Reviewing for The Guardian, Simon Parkin praised the design of Trico and its interactions with the world and puzzles, adding further emotional investment. He likened Trico to an “abuse survivor” due to being scared and imprisoned at the start of the game and the thoughtfulness and relationship development of its characters making it “a game, as much as anything, about rehabilitation through kindness and companionship”. Chris Carter of Destructoid felt that the detail and realistic behavior of Trico and the boy were “emotive in a way that most developers wouldn’t even attempt”, potentially being the reason behind the long development, praising the effort put in by Fumito Ueda and the developers nonetheless.
In contrast, Marty Sliva of IGN was critical of Trico’s behavior during puzzles combined with camera controls making sections of the game more frustrating, particularly during interiors due to the cramped nature of certain levels and the size of Trico detracting from the experience, calling it “rare to even have to think about the camera in a third-person game in 2020, but I found myself constantly being pulled out of the experience trying to wrestle with my point of view”. Sliva however still felt that the game succeed in the attachment with its characters and delivered memorable moments despite its issues. Game Revolution‘s James Kozanitis found that there were moments that Trico would continue with traversing the environment and performing tasks even without player input, making the act of controlling Trico at times “ineffective and unnecessary”.
Reviewers also noted performance problems with the game running on default PlayStation 4 hardware. Eurogamer‘s Digital Foundry determined that the game ran into rendering issues and framerate drops on the PlayStation 4, while running at 1080p on the newer PlayStation 4 Pro provided a stable framerate. Philip Kollar of Polygon compared technical aspects to its predecessors release on the PlayStation 2 due the long development across multiple generations of Sony consoles, stating that the game at times did take advantage of the PlayStation 4 hardware while in others, such as framerate and control issues made its age more noticeable.
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