When it comes to pets, you know what they say - a dog is for life, and not just for Christmas. And while it's still sadly true that the number of homeless pets always increases following the festive season, it's a concept that seems totally foreign to our animal-loving hearts. Just one trip to a rescue centre away from being a crazy cat lady, and one Marley & Me session away from flooding the planet with tears, it's fair to say we have a serious weakness for anything cute and fluffy. And so, when we first saw The Last Guardian, a game which sees you befriending a humongous griffin-like animal, with less of a focus on combat, and more emphasis on puzzle-solving and exploration, we were sold. Despite a long and protracted development, the game has finally hit the Playstation 4 just in time for Christmas - and it's a pretty darn adorable adventure too.
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The game begins as our protagonist, an unnamed boy, awakes to find himself in a cave, next to a giant cat-dog-bird-griffin hybrid - a man-eating beast of legend - who's chained up, scared and with several spears embedded in his side. Doing exactly as we'd do in this situation, the boy soon sets to helping the poor thing, and what follows is an endearing tale of a blossoming friendship between boy and beast, as the pair work together to escape from the mysterious place they found themselves in. As you play, you'll discover many dark secrets about the ruins, not to mention how you and your newfound furry/feathery pal (which he nicknames Trico) came to be there - all of which are recounted from the protagonist's perspective as an old man, presumably regaling his grandkids or whatever. On the plus side, that's at least some reassurance that he manages to survive his ordeal, although, given the precedent of the team behind the game, you should at least expect a few tear-jerking moments along the way.
At its heart, The Last Guardian is an adventure game - think The Legend of Zelda, Tomb Raider and the like - where exploration, experimentation and puzzle solving is the name of the game. As you progress through the ruins, you'll come across what appears to be dead end after dead end; locked gates, massive chasms, and boarded up doorways, all of which require a bit of a puzzling rigmarole to pass. Sometimes its as simple as shimmying around the side of a building and climbing in through a window, before pulling the inevitable door switch to let Trico in; sometimes things get a bit more complicated, and you'll need to get your bird-like pal more directly involved.
You see, Trico makes a great climbing frame, and as you play through the game, and the bond between him and the boy grows, you'll learn all kinds of ways to get him to do what you want, and help you through some of the more complex sections. For example, reaching a higher ledge is a lot easier if you can take a trip on your humongous companion's head, while his tail makes an excellent makeshift rope to climb up. One particular puzzle asks you to get Trico to catapult you into the stratosphere via a wooden cart/improvised catapult, as with plenty of weight behind him, Trico makes one heck of a counter weight. By combining the boy's platforming skills with Trico's size and strength, you should be able to slowly puzzle your way through the ruin's rooms - even if it isn't always obvious what you should be doing next. While we're assured there is supposed to be a hint system, in which the narrator gives you a nudge towards what you should be doing if you stay stuck for too long, we've never really found it all that helpful - assuming it even triggers in the first place.
Trico can also be a bit wayward and unpredictable, and the way you need to give him orders can be a bit hit and miss, to the point where you start to wonder whether your solution to the problem will actually work. Orders can be given by holding the call Trico button (R1) while either pushing the stick to point in a certain direction, or pushing a button to jump, swipe or shove. When we came across a bridge that was out, we figured we'd just use Trico to leap over the chasm - which, as it turns out, is the right thing to do - but Trico insisted on perching on the stone columns on either side of the bridge instead, leaving us scratching our heads for a good while. On several occasions, we also found ourselves alone in a room where we obviously needed a hand from Trico to proceed, but the poor thing was shut out - or so it seemed, until we happened to turn round to see him following us, leaving us with no idea how he got in, or why he hadn't done it earlier and saved us half an hour of aimless running around.
But it's hard to be mad at Trico for too long really - while he may not be conventionally cute, as a somewhat ferocious-looking 50 foot combo of cat, dog and bird, he has a heart of gold. He'll roll around bathing himself in pools of water, go ape when he sniffs out something vaguely edible and catch barrels of food you throw to him (which are the game's hidden collectible 'Trico treats' that unlock new costumes etc). He also poops, earning you a trophy if you manage to catch him in the act. He even suffers from some serious separation anxiety whenever the boy has to forge ahead into a puzzle room without him, pining and whining while you're out of sight, sometimes popping his head through an available hole to keep an eye on you. Sometimes, if you're in a dead end room, Trico's affectionate nature will get in the way of you leaving, at which point you have no choice but to give your companion's face a bit of a shove - something we felt rather guilty about each time we had to do it. But we made it up to Trico with some fuss afterwards - a simple jump on his back and press of the circle button gives him a pat and some soothing words, which you'll have to do at various points at the game, when he gets himself a bit worked up during enemy attacks.
Occasional wonkiness aside, The Last Guardian is still a pretty amazing little game - and Trico is undeniably the star of the show, a rather adorable companion to have along for the ride. Playing both into the game's puzzles and forming a large part of it's heart-warming story, we felt ourselves forming a Marley & Me-esque attachment to the rather big fella, as we hand fed him collectible barrels, solved puzzles and battled bad guys with his help. And seeing as you can't really have a real-life Trico for Christmas, we reckon a copy of The Last Guardian is the next best thing - the perfect present to settle down with over the festive period.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4