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After half an hour with The Last Guardian, I'm concerned

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Team Ico's long-awaited return could struggle to win over modern gamers

The last time I saw The Last Guardian up close was five and a half years ago. It was my first trip to Japan ever, and Sony had just announced the PlayStation Vita (at the time, it was known simply as the "Next Generation Portable," or NGP). Alongside that event, the press was given a rare look at The Last Guardian courtesy of a 15-minute demo played by one of the developers. I remember loving every minute of that demo.

Fast forward to today: I'm on my second trip to Japan ever, and I'm taking a look at The Last Guardian again, but some big factors have changed. For one, this demo is fully playable by the press in attendance. It's an area that hasn't been shown before, a chunk of the game that lasts between 20 and 45 minutes, depending how long players find themselves stumbling over certain puzzles.

Another change: I've felt a growing sense of exhaustion toward The Last Guardian from the gaming public. It's not that there aren't fans eagerly awaiting the game. Many gamers still fondly recall the emotional brilliance of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus on PlayStation 2, and they're hoping for something that recaptures that.

times and expectations have changed considerably

But on the other hand, The Last Guardian's absurdly drawn-out development cycle is difficult to ignore. After that showing in 2011, the game disappeared. It was the butt of hundreds of vaporware jokes before it finally resurfaced at E3 2015. Even this past week, Sony announced another, supposedly final delay to the game — a fitting final act of development for a game that has lingered in uncertainty for so long.

Many will point out that game delays are not bad. After all, better a delay to fix major problems than rushing out a bad game. This is technically true, but The Last Guardian faces another conundrum: With a whole console generation and then some since Team Ico's last original title, times and expectations have changed considerably.

My 30 minutes of hands-on time with The Last Guardian was not bad, exactly. The game looks beautiful, its environments are stunning, and its puzzles are clever and satisfying, often with multiple layers to figure out. There's a core gameplay loop around solving a puzzle to get to a new room, then figuring out how to get your bird-dog friend to follow. That loop is strong, and it helps reinforce the relationship between the protagonist and the pet.

The Last Guardian screencap 1920

For as much as The Last Guardian nails the broad feeling it's going for in this demo, it whiffs on the details. Specifically: It feels awkward as hell when it comes to actually controlling the main character. The protagonist doesn't walk so much as he lurches in whichever direction you've pushed the analog stick. Much of the demo focuses on platforming, but his jumps have a stickiness to them, a sense of inaccuracy that could be played up as realistic weightiness in the right game but just feels frustrating here.

The game seems to have a hard time determining what you actually want it to do from button presses alone. On several occasions, I tapped the jump button to reach a swinging rope, only to have the main character instead shift direction and climb on top of a nearby railing.

It feels like a PlayStation 2 game

And do you want your adorable dog-bird hybrid to actually follow you or continue forward, providing access to the next part of a level? Good luck. Like a real dog, Trico often does what it wants, refusing to listen to your commands until it's good and ready. On the one hand, there's a clever nod to real interactions with pets there that I appreciate. On the other, jamming on a button over and over to get Trico's attention isn't super compelling gameplay.

Many of my problems with this short demo of The Last Guardian can be summed up neatly in one sentence: It feels like a PlayStation 2 game. I love a lot of PlayStation 2 games, but in the decade-plus since that was my console of choice, I've grown used to such novelties as responsive character movement and a camera that isn't shitty.

It's entirely possible that The Last Guardian will win me over across its full runtime. Maybe it doesn't demo well. Perhaps by the end, the design choices nagging at me will make perfect sense, or be overcome by a brilliant, heartfelt journey of a boy and his dog-bird-thing. All I can say for sure at this point is that The Last Guardian will have to work hard to convince me.

You can watch some footage from the new demo I got to check out in the video above. After its latest delay, The Last Guardian will finally launch on PlayStation 4 on Dec. 6.