Make no mistake: The Last Guardian is virtually unchanged from when it was first revealed as a PlayStation 3 game all those years ago. But that might be its most charming feature.
"What you see here today is what we've had in mind from the very beginning," director Fumito Ueda told Polygon before we got our hands on a 45-minute demo of the game.
"The beginning" — as those who follow Team Ico, moody puzzle games or E3 press conference history know — means 2007, when the game entered development; we first saw it at Sony's 2009 E3 event. Back then, The Last Guardian was a gorgeous adventure game bound for Sony's fledgling home console, the PlayStation 3.
Obviously, that didn't happen. But even with a change of platform (to PlayStation 4) and a long, long production, Ueda promised that the "core vision" has always remained the same. That's what makes finally playing The Last Guardian as it is today a strangely nostalgic experience.
We played the game from the very beginning. The opening area doubles as a tutorial, but we didn't really need one: Your character will primarily be jumping, climbing and hanging on to ledges and Trico's fur. The gameplay harkens back so closely to Team Ico's other two projects — Ico and Shadow of the Colossus — as to contribute to that feeling of deja vu. We scaled Trico for some puzzle solving and pulled out bloodied spears from his back, which reminded us of the boss battles in Shadow of the Colossus. There's also narration that points you in the right direction, spoken in the foreign tongues used in Team Ico's other games.
Once you've earned Trico's trust through these loyalty-testing trials, he'll begin to follow you around. Lovable as he might look, don't expect him to become man's best friend all of a sudden: Trico is a feisty cat-dog-bird, and he was slow to respond to our calls for help in solving some height-based puzzles. (And the way he rewarded us for removing the objects from his body in the beginning was by slamming us against a cave wall.) Still, having the AI-controlled companion seems borrowed from Ico, where the title character must escort and protect a young, helpless girl.
The Last Guardian doesn't diverge much from the older two games visually, either. It features the same washed-out palette as its predecessors: natural settings awash in grays, greens and browns. The game's beautiful, but it also clearly doesn't make exhaustive use of the PS4's more powerful tech.
But the game isn't a simple retread. The anonymous hero wields an illuminated disk that, when it comes in contact with Trico's tail, unleashes burning lightning strikes. That's a new way to solve puzzles, one that makes the animal more effective than Ico's vulnerable partner. The fiddly camera means that executing these attacks isn't always so easy, but we didn't have much time to gain mastery over the skill during our playthrough.
It's hard to complain about similarities
"There's some comical things that we can do and we have shown in the previous trailer where Trico's head is stuck," Ueda added, suggesting there's a sense of humor amid the studio's trademark pervasive sense of dread.
It's hard to complain about similarities, though. Team Ico's earlier games still stand out as quiet, atmospheric and simple. The Last Guardian fits right into that mold, based on our time with it; running around as its hero felt natural, thanks to years of playing and replaying Team Ico's games.
With us having anticipated it for so long, it seems unreal that The Last Guardian exists in fully playable form, and that, according to Ueda, development on it is almost done. (Team Ico is still putting on finishing touches in anticipation of the Oct. 25 release, he told us.)
"We really wanted to focus on getting the game to completion," Ueda said, describing himself as a perfectionist. "I think there's a certain expectation that we have to set for ourselves when something is going out into the public."
Those internal expectations are why the game has taken so long, Ueda told us. "If I were to be really selfish, I would have still gone for, 'No, let's not even bring it outside to the public, let's finish it.'"
Fans can take heart that The Last Guardian, in its 2016 build, appears to be that same game they've been waiting for since 2009 — and, so far, that seems just fine.