Cats. They never do what you ask. The longer you care for them, the more likely they are to pay attention, but you can't boss them around like you can a stupid old dog.
Thank goodness, then, for catnip: a potent kitty-cat drug that will have them follow you just about anywhere. And so it is for Trico, the colossal cat-bird hybrid beside which our hero, a small boy in robes, awakens in The Last Guardian.
As the boy, you must first rouse the creature, which is snoring loudly, by jumping on its head. It rises, its frame towering above you without menace. You discover a fuming urn in the next chamber, and suddenly the Trico is alert, pushing its ginormous head through the archway inquisitively but unable to reach you, or more precisely, the urn - which contains the cat-bird equivalent of catnip.
Finally, you're in control. For now, anyway. The playthrough demo shown to us by Team Ico's head genius Fumito Ueda at SCE Japan's Tokyo office confirms the one thing we've suspected about The Last Guardian: it's going to be special.
Blending elements from Ueda's first game, Ico (a hand-holding mechanic, a clutch of environment-based puzzles and a bloody great big citadel to explore, and his second, Shadow Of The Colossus (a huge creature who you must scale, albeit not to kill it this time, it also has you nurture an emotional bond with your Trico that recalls Nintendogs or a Tamagochi.
Just as in Ico, you'll often need to move ahead alone to clear a path for your companion to follow, then attract its attention with objects like the urn or by shouting its name. But unlike Ico's helpless ladyfriend Yorda, the Trico is big (good for scaling to reach high-up places) and strong (for batting away guards with its mighty paw).
It's just as well, because the boy is kind of a wimp. Lifting objects or climbing the Trico reveals a Stamina gauge, which drains as you maintain your grip.
Get caught by a guard and he'll squeeze the life out of you, unless you're able to escape by waggling the analogue stick. Luckily you can outrun the heavily armoured guards and scale chains or walls to reach higher ground.
Even this early build oozes gorgeousness. Butterflies flutter through the dust-filled air, playing in and out of sunbeams that stream across stone tiles and Trico's webbed feet. Ornate bannisters decorate deteriorated staircases, flame torches lend the air a gentle haze, and a mandolin-based soundtrack sets the sublime tone.
Ico-esque levers and switches can be used to open doors and who knows what else. Sometimes the textures look a little fuzzy, but that will surely be improved later.
So what do you do with the catnip? Tossing it onto an unreachable balcony causes the Trico to go sniffing after it, allowing you to clamber up the majestic beast's hind legs to the next floor.
Later, having scaled several levels into the rafters on crumbling wooden beams, you must call down to the Trico, who jumps up to join you in a single bound. The longer you play, the greater your bond will become and the more Trico will obey your commands.
The scene is set for an engaging, emotional experience of the grandest proportions. At this stage, our only complaint is having to wait until its Christmas 2011 release date.
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