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Players have waited nearly a decade for ‘The Last Guardian, but can it live up to the hype?

Trico, from "The Last Guardian," is, by turns, adorable, frustrating and terrifying. Like any good friend.

SONY INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT/THE WASHINGTON POST

By HAYLEY TSUKAYAMA | The Washington Post | Published: December 16, 2016

It’s been a rough year for some video-game lovers. There have been some notable titles this year that didn’t live up to their sky-high expectations. Several high-profile games including “Tom Clancy’s The Division,” “Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst” and “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare” made headlines for failing to meet player ideals.

There was also “No Man’s Sky”: the super-hyped open universe game so out of step with some player’s expectations that the British government investigated — and ultimately cleared — it for false advertising claims.

And now “The Last Guardian” is in the spotlight. In terms of building expectations, none of those overhyped releases can hold a candle to this one. This puzzle-centric game was first announced nearly a decade ago, in 2007 with an expected 2011 release date. Very few details about the game have been released, apart from the fact that it is a puzzle platformer and features a small boy and a mythical creature called Trico that’s a cross between a bird, a dog and a cat.

So does “The Last Guardian” measure up to its long-building hype?

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. In several respects, “The Last Guardian” does not. Its long span of development, in fact, might have given the game its greatest weaknesses. “The Last Guardian” often feels like what it is: a game with foundations set a decade ago.

The game has a distinctive art style that could be an attempt at a retro throwback — or simply a retro holdover. It certainly has its beautiful moments and a style that give it an otherworldly feel fit for a game set in a remote magical temple. But given how far graphics have come in the past decade, it’s a little jarring to see a new game with graphics that would have looked at home on a console a generation and a half ago. For people accustomed to nearly photo-realistic graphics, though, it could be a drawback.

The controls, in particular, can be clunky. The game’s designers have laid out some wonderful, intricate puzzles that intersect in surprising ways and are a joy to solve. But some of that care is lost because, in my time with the retail preview of the game that Sony provided, the camera controls often had me looking at the wrong places. In one sequence, I had to crawl through some long tunnels to solve a particular puzzle, and I got the camera turned around in such a way that I was looking squarely at my own rear end for several minutes. That made navigation difficult — it’s not the best view for spotting tunnels.

Finally, it has an odd style of teaching you how to play. That can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you like your games. But the game sometimes gives you tips that you don’t need, such as a reminder of how to climb to a new ledge when you’re already halfway up a building. On the flip side, there is almost no instruction about where to go or what to do — something that can be nice if you like to be left to figure things out alone, but a fact that can also leave you trying bad options for too long.

Despite its shortcomings, however, “The Last Guardian” is perfect at one thing: the relationship between the player and Trico. And, ultimately, that may be the most important thing.

The core of the game is the story of the friendship between a boy and his strange bird-dog-cat creature. That comes through with amazing clarity from the first moments you spend together. When Trico whines, you feel pain. You have to develop an affection for Trico as you play — petting the giant beast is even a part of the game — and “The Last Guardian” does a strong job of building the relationship over time. Eventually, you can issue your gigantic friend commands, but the game artfully keeps the relationship from becoming one purely of pet and master.

With almost no dialogue to move the story along, getting players to invest in that relationship is the keystone to the game. And if the definition of a successful game is that you care about what happens in it, then “The Last Guardian” achieves that with flying colors.

In the end, of course, the real question is whether the game is worth the $80, and whether it continues this year’s troubling trend of games that didn’t live up to their potential.

Overall, it probably will feel overhyped if you’re new to the game. If all you know about the game is the advertisements you’ll start seeing on television, some of the issues I’ve pointed out might seem more glaring. That could be particularly true for younger players who might have a less forgiving eye for “bad” graphics or lack any nostalgia for the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, or the previous titles from this game’s creators such as “Shadow of the Colossus.” And if you’re not the type to get invested in game relationships, then the control and other issues will probably become too frustrating over time.

If you’ve been waiting for it for years, however, chances are nothing I say is going to stop you from buying it. If you’ve been that excited based on the very little information we’ve had over the years about this game, then you will probably be happy. The charm of the main relationship saves it from becoming just another cautionary tale about the danger of hype.

Platform: PlayStation 4
Online: tinyurl.com/hxf7tel

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