Back in 2001, development studio Team Ico released a self-titled game called Ico for the PlayStation 2 that won over critics and players alike with its endearing story and unique brand of puzzles. Ico was well received when it was released but its popularity continued to grow well beyond its debut, propelling it to cult status as years passed.
Four years later, Ico was followed up by Shadow of the Colossus, a game that many believe is the PlayStation 2's absolute best. Shadow delivered something no one had ever really witnessed before, giving you an incredible sense of scale and triumph as you took down larger-than-life colossi one by one.
With two instantaneous classics cemented on the developer's resume, the gaming world patiently waited for the next adventure from Team Ico. The Last Guardian was announced at E3 2009 for a 2011 release on PlayStation 3. But soon after that initial tease, Sony and Team Ico went radio silent. The wait became grueling, to the point of being downright laughable. The game itself became a piece of lore that the community fantasized about, with little hope it would ever actually see the light of day.
That changed in June of 2015, when from seemingly out of nowhere the game reappeared as a surprise announcement during Sony's E3 press conference, complete with a gameplay preview. The spot ended with a simple screen title: 2016. The Last Guardian had a date. Finally, 18 months later, it's arrived exclusively for the PlayStation 4.
Of course, a game with this kind of build-up has a disproportional amount of expectation attached to it. The Last Guardian isn't a result of a decade's worth of programming and finessing, it's just the result of the realities of the world of interactive entertainment, its politics and the fact that it is -- and continues to be -- very hard to make a videogame.
But even with that disastrous track record, remarkably, The Last Guardian is an excellent game and is certain to trigger the memories of those players who've had the pleasure of experiencing Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It's like stepping into a videogame time machine.
On its face, there are a ton of similarities to draw. You play as a young boy who meets and befriends a towering beast named Trico and together you must escape a desolate and massive crumbling world.
The Last Guardian has its own set of rules, and is cut from similar cloth to its spiritual predecessors. There are cerebral puzzles to figure out, strange items to use and the ominous feeling that you're about to slip and fall off a cliff or be abducted by a haunted guard.
The Last Guardian plays eerily similar to Ico and Shadow, especially the latter. In fact, the game is such a spot-on throwback to those earlier titles that it sometimes feels like you're playing an 11-year-old game.
Sure, let that be a testament to those titles' playability and enduring appeal, but with that age comes undeniable bumps along the way. The Last Guardian suffers from an erratic framerate nearly throughout the entire campaign and the controls are also occasionally unresponsive and simply lack the precision of modern titles.
There are also issues with the game's camera. It's just not an enjoyable experience to control. And unfortunately, I found that it sometimes fails when you need it most. Boosting the sensitivity of it in the settings seemed to provide some improvement, but it's still far from what I'd prefer.
But once you've accustomed yourself to some of the game's quirks, it's easy to fall in love with The Last Guardian's endearing portrayal of an unlikely friendship. Trico is a huge dog-bird creature who possesses an uncanny familiarity. If you've ever owned a dog, you'll see it in Trico.
As you play you'll witness the maturation of the relationship between the boy and his dog-bird, to the point where you'll have invested real emotion in their well-being. These moments shine during the game's downtime, but there are dozens of thrilling sequences that stitch it all together in ultra-satisfying fashion.
Like the games that preceded it, The Last Guardian does a spectacular job of conveying a dazzling sense of scale. The world you travel with Trico is towering and steep, but his size lets him vault from perch to perch. Combined with the expansiveness of the world, it feels as though your character exists at almost an atomic level.
There's plenty to poke fun at surrounding The Last Guardian's absurd ascent into existence, and its development hell is probably worth a "based-on-true-events" movie (or a book at the very least).
But in the end, it's a great game that would have been a blast to play no matter when it eventually debuted. Does it seem dated in 2016? For sure. But this really feels like an excellent follow-up and a masterful balance of Team Ico's two legendary games.
Be sure to check out GameSpot's coverage of The Last Guardian