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'The Last Guardian' is a stripped-down sort of beautiful

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The Last Guardian needs to be perfect. Fans of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have been waiting for this, the third game from director Fumito Ueda, since it was announced in 2009. As issues with its production went public and development appeared to slow to a crawl, The Last Guardian entered the misty, nostalgic realm of what if in many fans' minds. Then, Sony opened its E3 2015 press conference with a gameplay trailer of The Last Guardian on PlayStation 4, and those nearly forgotten dreams were suddenly reality. The trailer featured a young, toga-clad boy and Trico, a massive cat-bird-dog creature, as they traversed cavernous, crumbling ruins bathed in brilliant sunlight. Their journey, however, has roots in a prison cell buried in the dead city's tall, grey walls.

Gallery: The Last Guardian (E3 2015) | 7 Photos

During a behind-closed-doors demo at E3 2015, Ueda played through the scenes leading directly into Sony's showcase video. It opens on the boy, surrounded by stone walls streaked through with greenery, grass poking through the floor. Sunlight streams though high-up windows as the boy runs toward a gate with wide-set bars, the gaps easily large enough for him to climb through. Beyond, inside a second cell, lies Trico, a creature the size of a tyrannosaurus rex. He's covered in fluttering charcoal feathers and he has four bird legs, tiny wings, a slightly beaky mouth, a cat-like face and round, dark, puppy eyes. Two cerulean dots stick out of the top of his head, as if he had horns that were sawed off. Trico is giant yet adorable, and as the boy wakes him up, he makes noises that combine a bird's screech with a dog's whine.

Trico and the young boy have just met -- the boy approaches Trico's huge face, raises a hand to pet his furry beak, and Trico leans into it. There are no on-screen prompts throughout the entire demo, allowing the sheer size and beauty of the world to own the screen. The game shines in close-up details, when you can see the individual, shining strands composing Trico's feathers, or the blades of grass rising through the floor. In wider shots, the graphics almost look dated, as if this were a PS3 game updated to run on PS4. Movement in the game, however, is gorgeous.

The boy wants to get them both out of captivity, but Trico is unable to stand because of two wooden spears sticking out of his back. The boy climbs Trico's feathers, wraps his arms around a spear -- it's as tall as he is -- and pulls. It takes a few, long seconds, but finally the spike comes free and Trico lets out a layered shriek. The boy removes the other spear and Trico stands.

They need to reach a ledge high up on one wall so the boy can get to the other side of a heavy gate and set Trico free. First, the boy finds a barrel and picks it up; Trico notices and immediately jumps into a playful-puppy position, bird feet spread wide, ready to catch it. The boy throws the barrel and Trico gobbles it up.

The boy can direct Trico by yelling commands or pointing and stamping his feet in place as if telling the beast to walk in a certain direction. In the beginning, Trico doesn't always listen to the boy right away, but as the game goes on, their relationship will become stronger and the pair will communicate more effectively, Ueda says.

Eventually, Trico extends his front claws to the high-up ledge, and the boy climbs his feathers and alights on the platform. There are even some more barrels up there, treats for Trico. Once on the other side of the wall, the boy switches a lever and the gate opens, releasing Trico. That's where Sony's demo started.

The boy could miss Trico's tail. He could die.

There's a moment in the Sony trailer where the boy leaps across a gaping chasm, the ground a pinprick thousands of feet below him, and Trico attempts to catch him with his mouth. He misses and the boy continues to fall, but Trico's tail swings beneath the platform and the boy grabs it, making it safely to higher ground. Time slows down as the boy falls and it's a tense, dramatic moment. It looks scripted, just as a lot of the game's action sequences do -- but it's not. That scene, the boy catching Trico's tail before falling to his death, is player-controlled. The boy could miss Trico's tail. He could die. The same goes for those barrels the boy was throwing earlier -- they won't kill anyone, but they might just smack Trico in the face rather than providing him a tasty treat.

The Last Guardian is packed with mystery. Where are Trico and the boy? Why have they been kidnapped and held captive? Are they trying to get back home? Where is everyone else? This veil of secrecy and legend is upheld by the game's lack of on-screen prompts (we haven't seen any so far, at least) and the knowledge that every playthrough will be just a little different, thanks to the game's robust AI system.

The Last Guardian hits PlayStation 4 in 2016 -- a phrase almost as unbelievable as the game's oddly pixelated, beautifully detailed, erratic world.

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