The Last Guardian is one of the most frustrating and rewarding video game experiences I’ve seen over the past few years, mainly because of the way it approaches core gameplay mechanics. The Last Guardian is basically built to frustrate the hell out of you, but in doing so it creates one of the most believable bonds you’ll probably ever see between human and animal in a video game.

From the second the game kicks off, The Last Guardian is hard at work building this very relationship. You wake up in a cavern in control of a young, unnamed boy who is trapped with a large man-eating beast named Trico. Instead of simply being threatened by the beast however, you’re prompted to try and remove the spears from its body — at which point he slams you against the wall in confusion and knocks you out. When you wake back up, he’s a little more used to your presence and starts to eat some of the food you bring him while you continue to remove the spears and help him along the road to recovery.

This beginning process comes to an end when you’re knocked out again by him only to wake up the next day with Trico staring down at you intently to make sure you’re all right. Here, you’ll get the opportunity to pat his nose for the very first time. It’s a moving moment for sure, one where he’s thanking you for saving his life instead of hurting him like the rest of your people.

From this moment forward, The Last Guardian becomes a puppy training simulator as Trico develops an uneasy sense of trust towards you. He won’t leave your side, but he’s just as afraid of the world as a new, fluffy puppy walking outside of his pen for the first time. Everything is scary and dangerous, every new room makes him uneasy, and you’ll have to calm him down after every combat encounter you work through.

For example, take the first water-filled room you come across where you easily jump down into the cavern by yourself. Behind you, Trico stands idly looking at you and shifting his gaze to the water. He’s afraid to follow you down because he’s so unsure of the water. He’s never seen it before and he doesn’t know if the water is fine, so naturally he looks to you for guidance. Once you find some of the barrels he likes to eat nearby, you can throw them into the water to lure him down into the cavern — where he thrashes about for a minute after realizing that the water isn’t half bad.

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These types of encounters are the meat of The Last Guardians’s gameplay loop, which, while frustrating at times, crafts one of the most beautiful relationships between digital man and beast I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing through. Throughout my time with the game so far, I’ve had many moments that directly mimic the ones I’ve shared with my dogs in real life over the years. It’s hit me hard, but in a good way. For me, The Last Guardian couldn’t have released at a better time, namely because I recently lost my best furry friend to cancer following a hard-fought battle over the last year.

When Liberty, my dog, passed away this October, I had a difficult time filling the sudden void that appeared in my life. The usual cures like video games, movies, writing, and work didn’t take away the pain I felt, but to my surprise The Last Guardian helped. Much like how Trico is to the player character, Liberty was a best friend I learned to love and trust as we explored the world together.

Throughout the years, I knew he wouldn’t leave my side, and he knew I wouldn’t stop fighting for him, which, for the first time in nearly two months, is the same feeling I’ve had while playing through my journey with Trico. We’ve had some difficult encounters and some emotional moments where I thought I was going to lose him. But I know Trico and I are just getting started.

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It hasn’t been easy to progress though The Last Guardian, but the bond between my character and Trico is something I’ve never experienced in a video game before. It’s the single aspect of The Last Guardian which makes the game stand out from other similar games this year, even with its numerous performance issues. By building an experience that so closely mirrors the actual relationship between human and animal, Fumito Ueda and Team Ico have successfully made an incredibly accurate puppy training simulator.

Photos via Nicholas Bashore