They say a feathery eagle-dog is a man's best friend - right?

You’d be forgiven for having all but lost hope in The Last Guardian. Since its original announcement way back in 2007 for the last generation, the Team Ico lead project has flown largely under the radar to say the least. That was, of course, until this year’s E3, when the team put widespread rumours of cancellation to bed with a trailer that offered a glimpse of a truly stunning piece of art that managed to stand apart in a conference crowded with heavy franchises.

It’s not just The Last Guardian’s visual style that’s peaked my interest, however, but rather its gameplay dynamics and indeed its development heritage, all of which point to the notion of a title steeped in indie conventions with the backing of an international developer.

Shadow of The Colossal Franchise (Not)

So who are Team Ico anyway? They’ve not, to my knowledge, released a futuristic shooter complete with a compulsory DLC in which players fight against hordes of the undead. Nor, I’m right in thinking, have they pioneered a franchise in which players step into the boots of one of a number of hooded figures struggling for equality and democracy one sharp object at a time. So what exactly have they done? Based in Japan, Team Ico are a subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment (that’s right, we’re playing with the big boys here), and made a name for themselves with two stand-out titles on the PS2.

The Last Guardian

Alternatively titled: Of Gryphon Rat Things and Men

Ico, the studio’s first project, and presumably where they took the inspiration for their name from, was released back in 2001 for the PS2, garnering a wealth of positive feedback from gamers and critics alike. Bearing surrealist-inspired cover art painted by the game’s director himself, the game carried a lot of hallmarks of a genre we’d label today as independent, before it had even really had a chance to take off. Guiding titular protagonist Ico, players navigated a series of 3D environments which are inspired, similarly to the games cover work, by surrealist art. Ico’s companion Yorda, however, who doesn’t share in his language or agility, complicated matters somewhat, and added depth to the game’s simple mechanics.

“There’s a sale at Primark and I need a new pair of cream chinos!”

Following on from Ico, the developers returned in 2005 with the unique and engrossing Shadow of The Colossus, a title comprised solely of boss fights. Borrowing shamelessly from conventions of popular fable and folklore, Shadow of The Colossus placed players in the shoes (or sandals, to be accurate) of Wander, a young soldier tasked with taking down sixteen colossi to restore the life force of a young girl. Building on what we briefly glimpsed in Ico, the 2005 release came to be defined by its charming visual style, which resonated with players to come, receiving a shiny HD upgrade back in 2011. A fresh proposition for a crowded action-adventure genre, Shadow’s only combat was to be found in its innovative confrontations with the massive creatures from which the game takes its name, all of which provided a unique, perplexing challenge.

Well that’s not at all unsettling…

A Spiritual Success

What I see when I look at the latest footage from The Last Guardian, then, is a game that keeps its heritage in mind for its future. Even looking at the game from an aesthetic standpoint, the influences from the previous two titles are plain to see. The crumbling architecture that shifts around the player tells a story of a civilization once lost and now utterly forgotten. When players enter the world of the as-yet-unnamed protagonist, they’re not trudging through a war-torn American landscape 50 years in the future; instead they’re visiting a land filled with vaulting architecture and terrifying precipices, a land that looks to draw inspiration from ancient Asian civilizations from the likes of Mongolia and Tibet. More importantly, however, it’s a land that we’ve never seen the likes of before.

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Much like the boy’s feathery companion, the game itself defies definition, looking to merge a multitude of gameplay mechanics into something almost entirely unique. Drawing inspiration from Shadow of The Colossus, The Last Guardian looks very much to play on the disparity in size between the player character and his surroundings; whilst the boy himself is light, he is unable to make large jumps or cover distance quickly. The animal, on the other hand, is much faster and agile, but as the footage demonstrates, isn’t exactly comfortable navigating thin, rotting planks of wood.

Interestingly enough, when trying to find a similar title to equate the game to, the closest I could come was last year’s evocative indie stand-out, Never Alone. Developed by Upper One Games, Never Alone shares much thematically and mechanically with The Last Guardian; both games explore a culture that we rarely see represented in videogames, both attempt to merge puzzle and platformer gameplay, but perhaps most importantly, they both forgo grandiose action set pieces in favour of a sincere, touching relationship.

A Small Concept on a Big Scale

What we have in The Last Guardian, then, is a game that’s heavily grounded in practices of independent development; the title doesn’t bear the burden of franchise weight, and neither is it under pressure (relatively) to perform well in terms of sales. What we have instead is a fresh IP born out of a rich heritage, helmed by a developer famous for creating out-of-the-box titles that really work. Given The Last Guardian’s clear links with and inspiration from the independent scene, I’m really excited to see what Team Ico can achieve with the backing of an international publisher; there are no corners to cut here, no stylistic limitations to adhere to. Potentially, we could be looking at one of the biggest, most jaw-dropping, independent titles to date, it only remains to be seen whether Team Ico manage to preserve the unique flair that makes their games stand out in a crowded generation.