Fumito Ueda makes games about empathy and belonging, and his long-awaited The Last Guardian is no exception. Like so many games that make a play for your heartstrings, it struggles valiantly against the limitations of the medium. Relationships in games mostly lean toward the functional – your budding friendship with that shopkeep goes only as far as his ability to sell you a better suit of armor. Games that structure themselves entirely around the bonds between people are rare, and even exceptions like this year’s Firewatch typically lean on dusty devices like lengthy cutscenes to really sell it.
What defines Ueda’s games is their commitment to establishing their relationships almost exclusively through organic play. Like Ico, the familiar boy-leads-girl-through-misty-castle yarn that marked Ueda’s dazzling 2001 debut, the situation here is immediate and simple: you play as a small boy who wakes up beside a chained griffin-cat-bird the size of a small truck who displays an attitude akin to a stray your mother won’t let you bring in the house. After feeding her several barrels of glowing gruel – which she eats whole, stopping only to spit out the constituent planks – she stops trying to kill you long enough for you to free her from her restraints. The boy dubs the beast Trico – which indicates “prisoner” and “cat-bird” in Japanese, but also “the third Team Ico game” – and resolves to explore their newfound environment, which, in true Ueda fashion, turns out to be an immaculately-gilded prison of indeterminate purpose.
If you’re still pining for 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus – where you’re tasked with brazenly slaying 16 sleeping giants of wildly varying forms – you might need to adjust your expectations. The problems presented by Guardian are largely intuitive and mundane, requiring more in the way of logical reasoning than split-second reflexes. Unlike in Ico, where the player served as a capable bodyguard-cum-tour guide to a helpless princess, here, you are the liability. In what has become an Ueda tradition, the not-yet-teen boy you control is no Nathan Drake – a weak shove serves as your one and only defense against the multitudes of phosphorescent soldiers that try to capture you. The boy’s tenuous grasp of jumping and climbing do much to establish his character, even if his lethargic pace can occasionally grate on the nerves.