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The Last Guardian is an adventure game out now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro. This review comes to you from Comiconverse’s very own Alan Stock.
Game Review: The Last Guardian
It’s been a long time coming. Nine long years of troubled development. Teaser trailers and imagery whipping fans into a frenzy, before the game would vanish into the void. Many believed it would never hit the shelves, and if it did, it could never live up to the hype. But here it is. The Last Guardian, one of the longest laboured videogames of all time.
The Nature of the Beast
The story behind the game’s creation is long enough to be it’s own article, and sheds some light into how the title ended up in its current state. The Last Guardian had a heavy weight resting on its shoulders. Creators Sony’s Japan Studio were responsible for the groundbreaking and hugely critically acclaimed games Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Those titles never broke sales records but were huge influences in the gaming world and can be found in many “Best Games of All Time” lists. They were flagship platform exclusive titles for Sony, which pushed the boundaries of games and reinforced the argument that games were an artform.
The expectations for the next game in the series were understandably massive. And the creators set the bar high – so high that the technology of the time couldn’t handle the scope of their ambition. A large chunk of The Last Guardian’s insane development time was spent porting the entire game from PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4 (and it even supports PlayStation 4 Pro). Many of the team, including the series creator Fumito Ueda, also split to form their own studio, genDESIGN, which Sony then hired as contractors to finish the game. For Sony, it must have been a troubled time, continually pouring money into an seemingly endless project. They were probably unable to do otherwise, due to the gaming world’s rabid hype for The Last Guardian and the inevitable backlash that would happen if they canned it. Whether it was for this reason, a stubbornness to see the game hit the shelves, or just support for Ueda and his team’s vision, it eventually paid off – if not in sales, but at least in a groundbreaking game which is worthy of sitting alongside Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.
The Last Guardian is a tale of a childhood adventure, narrated by a grown man as you play. It begins with him as a young boy, your character, awakening on a stony dungeon floor. Next to him is a huge, chained beast – Trico. A mythical creature, a strange hybrid mix of bird, cat and dog. He sports four legs, tiny wings, a tail, beak, sad dog-like eyes, glowing horns, and is covered in feathers. Somehow it works. The game follows the adventures of the boy and Trico as they work together to escape the mysterious ancient ruins in which they’re imprisoned.
You control the boy (who remains nameless) and spend The Last Guardian exploring, puzzle solving and platforming from a third person perspective, with the help of Trico. The platforming is straight from the game’s predecessors, with lots of cliff-scaling, precarious edge shuffling and tightrope walking. You’ll also leap over vast drops, and clamber around high crumbling structures and rusting machinery. The scale and sense of vertigo are pretty amazing, but mechanically it’s all familiar stuff. Falling to your death is pretty rare, as you can hang off ledges, and usually come to an automatic stop at edges with fatal drops. The platforming is fine if, unoriginal these days when we’ve seen it in so many other adventure games. The thrill comes more from the environments and their scale, and the puzzle solving element of how to get to the destination, rather than the traversal itself. There are occasional enemy sections, but they aren’t much of a challenge – as although the boy can’t fight and must run away, Trico will step in as the muscle whilst you watch him deal out some giant justice. Some epic set-pieces, especially in the last half of the game, add some great drama and help to break up the slow but steady pace of proceedings. Things putter along nicely with locations rarely outstaying their welcome unless you get stuck, which we’ll get to in a bit.
But forget the boy. Trico’s the real star here. Your companion throughout the game, the weird bird-cat trails you through the conveniently massive passages and gateways of the ruins. Like the Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, you can climb him, using his feathers for purchase. Clamber up his haunches, use his tail as an ad-hoc rope or even perch atop his head. The boy hangs on for dear life and flails around as Trico thrashes around in combat or performs huge jumps. Technically this is impressive and it also looks great, leaving you feeling like a helpless ragdoll at the mercy of a giant.
Trico’s size and agility allows you to reach places you couldn’t get to alone by piggybacking on him. It works both ways, you’ll have to run off without Trico to tackle smaller problems he can’t handle, often opening the way for him to join you. Somehow, the boy running around the stomping feet of this giant beast doesn’t usually cause problems. It’s rare that Trico will accidentally kick or knock you off a ledge, but it can happen. Trico doesn’t feel like a tacked on part of the gameplay, but an integral part of the game’s progression and design. There are some ingenious puzzles and action sequences involving him which are completely unique.
A great deal of attention has been spent by the developers to make Trico feel like a real creature with his own personality. Creator Fumito Ueda even got himself a pet cat to study to inspire how Trico should act. When the game’s development began, the cat was a kitten – now he’s very old! The dedication to detail has paid off though. Trico’s actions are incredibly expressive and he feels like a genuine animal with his own motivations and emotions.
The amazing animation supports this fully. Look at the way Trico pads down a corridor, sits and scratches his neck, yawns or whines, ears back, when you pull spears from his flesh. He reacts realistically when scared or happy, ears pricking and eyes widening. He’s always aware of your presence, watching to see what you’re up to, turning his head to look around when you climb on him, or perhaps thomping over to investigate if you run off somewhere. He “barks” when he’s angry or excited, or just doesn’t know where you are – his call echoing over the ruins. When he arrives in an area, he likes to explore: sniffing around, perhaps noticing a ledge he could jump to and looking up at it expectantly. He navigates the environment with grace and ease, doing huge leaps to far ledges and scrabbling for foot purchase realistically, and tiptoes gingerly over narrow walkways, tail weaving. He feels and acts totally believably, and you quickly accept him as a conscious entity – not just a dumb AI companion. You start to care.
Trico’s appealing behaviour and shared adventures between the duo really make you attached to him. They help each other out all the time. The boy feeds Trico when he gets tired and hungry with strange glowing barrels, and can pet Trico to calm him down or just show affection. As the game and story progresses you really start to get attached to the beast.
Although Trico’s AI does a brilliant job of making him feel real, it comes with some issues. Initially, Trico basically does his own thing, but you can call him, and generally he’ll saunter over and then fit into your plans, whether that’s to jump over a huge gap, or maybe dangle his tail over an edge so you can climb down it.
Later you gain the ability to give Trico basic commands; to move or jump. The boy points in the direction you indicate and shouts at Trico to go there. All well and good, except Trico is an animal, and doesn’t necessarily want to do what you tell him. Maybe sniffing that corner over there is more important to him right now. Perhaps it’s just the time to sit down and have a rest. If you’ve climbed on his back, maybe he decides he wants to walk back all the way you just came. Sometimes Trico does what you want almost immediately, at other times epic battles of wits and patience with the beast ensue. The internet is full of stories of frustration, with people spending twenty minutes to get Trico to make a jump, or go to a certain spot. I seem to have got off lightly, with only two times that he was very uncooperative.
One things for sure, this cements the impression that Trico is a real creature with his own motivations. From a gameplay perspective though, it can be pretty frustrating. Whether it’s an issue for you will depend on how much you buy into his character. Do you blame the game designers, or do you blame Trico, just up to his old tricks again? I personally didn’t mind too much, as I was invested in him, and often soaked in the atmosphere of the environment and watched his actions with interest as I waited for him to cooperate. But there were moments when I’d sigh in annoyance or mutter curses when Trico did things like turning around and retracting a bunch of jumps we’d just done, or simply refused to leap to a ledge.
Some players have understandably found his behaviour an infuriating barrier to progression. When Trico does do what you want, it always feels like a minor victory. There’s even speculation that if you treat Trico well (by feeding/petting him and not ordering him around much), that he may be more cooperative. Another consequence of his behaviour is that it’s possible to get stuck. Although the game does give you some visual clues like Trico looking at items of interest, you often don’t know if you can’t progress simply because Trico isn’t being helpful, or if there is another solution you’re missing. Trico’s stubbornness is a fascinating idea to make him more authentic, but is definitely divisive. In a game as linear as this one, his uncooperative nature may be a step too far.
The story borrows many themes from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and like them is very light on detail – relying on intrigue to draw you in. Rare cutscene snippets give some background to the story, and things get a bit meatier and more emotional towards the end of the game where the plot builds to a great conclusion – but will still leave you with questions. Such is the nature of Fumito Ueda games, the minimalist approach focusing more on actions to tell the bonding story of the boy and beast in the ruins.
Graphically, The Last Guardian keeps the hazy, sun bloomed and muted palette visuals of its predecessors. The crumbling, vast and overgrown ruins are very reminiscent of Ico’s castle. The “city” is a fantasy medieval marvel – epic in scale with hints of Aztec architecture – stone ruins full of arches, pillars, metal gates and grills; with mighty towers soaring into the sky. Various elevated viewpoints and outdoor sections help to showcase how vast the place is. From time to time, splashes of colour and light burst into the scene. Emerging from an interior into bright daylight and vibrant sun drenched green trees is glorious. Some caverns are lit through sunbeams shining through holes and are full of colourful butterflies. This game is beautiful. Although the graphical fidelity may not be as high as other titles of this generation and you can tell it started life in the PS3 era, it really doesn’t matter due to the unique and distinctive art direction.
Excellent animation is the cherry on the visual cake. The boy’s exaggerated movements are enchanting (especially his cute running on the spot move!), and Trico is a masterpiece in movement. His animations remind you of a cat or dog and feel totally authentic. Somehow, his dynamic movement never glitches and always looks natural, despite features like his physics-based tail movement and the large amount of movements required from the variety of environments he clambers around. Trico’s weight is also well conveyed through little details like sprays of dust and mortar when his body brushes against walls. An amazing touch is that his “claws” individually wrap around uneven surfaces. Other touches like the boy putting a hand against walls if he stops close to them, or scratches himself whilst hanging onto Trico, just add to the sense of immersion. Outdoors, trees and ivy sway in the wind, leaves rippling. The boy’s shawl billows and Trico’s feathers ruffle individually. It’s captivating; The Last Guardian looks great from static screenshots, but to see it in motion is something else.
The presentational polish extends to the sound design. A minimal soundscape enhances the feeling of isolation in the environment, its size accentuated with echoing sound effects. The wind rustles through leaves and howls in corridors, ancient gears grind when machinery stirs to life, mortar crumbles and dust hisses as Trico leaps onto a ledge. Trico’s sounds are expressive from pet-like fawnings to beastial roars of anger. Although the boy speaks in Japanese without subtitles, you don’t need to know the language to understand the emotion as he comforts or yells in panic at Trico. The orchestral music is sparse but effective, mainly coming out to play to add sinister notes to tense scenes, burst into life in a flurry of action, or adding some gorgeous melodies during big vista reveals. With such great sound and visuals, the atmosphere is thick.
Unfortunately, despite all of these positives, The Last Guardian is not perfect. Besides Trico’s “personality quirks”, there are other issues here – nasty hangovers from a bygone era.
The biggest of these is the camera. In theory it’s supposed to be left alone to show you an appropriate view. In reality it does a woeful job of this, constantly moving around (which affects your character movement) or just doesn’t show you what you need. You can use the right analog stick to manually adjust it which helps, but it still has plenty of issues. Aligning the camera correctly for jumps and other maneuvers can be needlessly difficult. It also often gets into trouble in enclosed spaces, and can go completely black when squeezed against Trico or walls.
The camera’s annoying behaviour rarely gets you killed but when it does (and it probably will) this is a frustration that you probably haven’t experienced for years. Times have moved on but the developers haven’t. For me though, it’s biggest problem is that it often causes you to miss important scenes and does a poor job of showing Trico. Although you can hold a button to look at him I only found this out half way through the game – and even that isn’t reliable. There’s a fundamental issue with the narrow confines of the ruins interiors and Tricos size – it’s always going to be hard to properly frame a massive creature in these situations. You spend a lot of time, especially in the early game, looking at his legs or back because you can’t get the camera to show what he’s actually up to. The camera is very much PS2 era – players from that generation may be more forgiving but newer players will definitely balk at its behaviour.
Next up on the gripe list is the rather wonky controls and sensation of movement. Combined with the camera behaviour your movements don’t feel very controlled or precise, except when doing constricted actions like ledge shuffling. Your inputs feel wooly, which is a problem in a game that relies on a lot of platforming and item manipulation. Tasks like picking up and precisely throwing barrels are infuriatingly hard, as are certain jumps and action sequences. It doesn’t make the game unplayable but the general jankiness of the control and movement is noticeable throughout. And weirdly, there are no options to rebind controls, a game standard these days. Jump is on the Triangle button, when almost every game today uses the X button. Fair enough, but gamers can’t change this. I personally died a number of times because my muscle memory had me pressing X to jump – when actually that drops you off edges. Over 9 years, how did they not take some time to overhaul the camera and controls?
Although it took them years to port The Last Guardian to PlayStation 4 to take advantage of its increased power, the frame-rate is still poor in many places. This is particularly noticeable when you move outdoors or to a new area, and in big action scenes. It’s not a deal-breaker but it adds to the feeling of general wonkiness in the game. Apparently the framerate is better on PS4 Pro, but most players will be on the base model at this time.
The last gripe is about the hints systems. The interface-free screen is very welcome in an age where icons usually adorn every inch. With one exception – large and intrusive button prompts appear to remind you of the game controls. This is fine at the start of the game when you’re learning, but these annoying prompts continue to appear throughout the entire experience. Its ridiculous and condescending to assume that people will not remember how to jump, or pick up an object, after 5-10 hours of playing. They even appear when you’ve already performed the action in that area.
The way that in-game hints are done is also unwelcome. The joy in these types of games is figuring out the puzzles for yourself – but in The Last Guardian often the narrator or a button prompt will chip in to tell you what to do, spoiling the secret too early. It’s also a joke that the game attempts to hurry you along with hints, when other aspects of the game actively work against speed, like Trico’s stubborn behaviour. There are even times when the game “helpfully” suggests that you order Trico around to progress, when actually you’ve been trying to get him to move for the last fifteen minutes!
These multiple issues are enough to spoil the experience somewhat, but although I’ve dwelled on them, fortunately the game is so strong in every other aspect that they overshadow the flaws. You can overlook the wonky camera and controls when you’re sucked into the immersive adventure of exploring the ruins with Trico. It’s bursting with atmosphere and has huge environments with a real sense of place, gorgeous visuals and excellent sound. And there’s a captivating and moving story about a boy and his friend, who happens to be a strange giant cat-dog-bird. What more could you want?
Trico is something special and unique, and I’m happy to say that after 9 years, even though it bears scars from the past, it was still worth the wait.
An enchanting adventure with an amazing atmosphere and an incredible creature with loads of personality. Camera and controls are a let-down but aren’t enough to stop this being excellent overall.