An extraordinary journey, a troubled path
Review: The Last Guardian
Acclaimed video game director Fumito Ueda’s latest game, which is about escaping an abandoned fortress with an enigmatic half-bird, half-dog beast known as Trico, is simultaneously one of the best experiences on the PlayStation 4 and one of the most frustrating. At it’s highest points, exploring The Last Guardian’s lonely, crumbling world with the loveable but stubborn Trico is profound in a way that few games can claim, but at it’s lowest, it is downright maddening.
As a thematic follow up to Ico and cult masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus, long awaited hardly begins to describe it. After a show stopping reveal trailer was shown at Sony’s E3 conference all the way back in 2009, it would not be until the very end of 2016 that The Last Guardian would finally see the light of day after 9 long years of development. For a long time, fans suspected that the game may never come out at all. Release dates came and went, and the game was nowhere to be found. Sony and the development team remained silent on its progress, and for a time it was presumed to have been lost to development hell. But it did finally come.
With such anticipation, and such a long time in production, one might expect The Last Guardian to be massive in scope: a behemoth of a game befitting nearly a decade of hard work from one of gaming’s few auteurs. But Guardian is, after all, a Fumito Ueda piece. Like with its predecessors, Ueda employed “design through subtraction” while creating the game: anything irrelevant to the player’s relationship with Trico was removed.
This minimalistic approach informs the entire production. Environments, color palette, frequency of dialogue, even the pacing.
The Last Guardian’s world is wide, empty, and lonely. Wind blows through the long forgotten ruins of a fortress nestled in a never-ending valley. It’s quiet and uninviting, and it instills a kind of mystery which makes it interesting both to look at and to travel through. Unlike the sea of rolling green hills around Shadow of the Colossus’ temple hub, the fortress here is a huge, harrowing structure with no clear purpose. It’s a groaning, crumbling castle that threatens to collapse at any moment.
The player’s character is referred to only as The Boy. The Boy and Trico must use their abilities in tandem to find creative ways to move through the world with the eventual goal of escaping. It’s rather impressive how many types of puzzles and set-pieces the game is able to squeeze out of that single, large location. From crossing broken bridges, to scaling destroyed buildings, to more unique and memorable moments, there is always a surprising amount of variety to both the visuals and gameplay challenges of each area. Moving forward feels almost like conquering the castle itself. Seeing previously visited areas in the distant background as you make it further and further from the massive fortress’ center also makes the world feel both real and huge. It does more than give the player a sense of scale, it gives them a sense of progress. To come out onto a lookout, stand next to Trico, and look down at the world around you and be able to say “remember when we were stuck in that little tower way down there? It looks so small now,” is a powerful way to subtly reward players.
The Last Guardian’s laser focus on The Boy’s relationship to Trico, however, is its greatest strength. With any other companion, such a stripped experience would risk becoming a one trick pony, or worse: an extended escort mission. But Trico is fascinating and unpredictable, and remains entertaining to interact with throughout. Like an oversized, anxious puppy, he is remarkably emotive. From the way he bounces around when excited or scared, to the way he timidly sniffs and claws at his food, Trico is uncannily lifelike in his mannerisms. As the bond between the player and Trico grows, so too does his behavior towards the player. Like a real animal, he opens up, becomes more vulnerable, more protective, and more attached. That arc isn’t just told in the story, it is represented in the gameplay itself. Because of Team Ico’s remarkable success in crafting Trico, The Last Guardian’s best moments come with a real emotional punch. Growing closer to Trico as a friend and a companion is wonderful in a personal way that almost no other game has managed to achieve.
However, just like a real animal, Trico is also stubborn. Often he will ignore player commands due to some distraction, or even hinder the player and make things more difficult. It can be incredibly frustrating. In one sense, that reinforces him as his own independent being. There is something to be said for the merit of that. However, far too often after already having solved a puzzle, Trico refuses to act on the player’s solution, leaving them stuck waiting around for him to listen. Other times, a command given to Trico could be misinterpreted leading to either death or lost progress.
If Trico’s stubbornness were the game’s only problem, it would overlookable. But The Last Guardian is also plagued by questionable and inconsistent controls. Sometimes the game will read certain variables wrong resulting in player injuries that make no sense. Sometimes basic platforming challenges end in failure because of the imprecise controls. Similarly, the camera can get stuck in pieces of the cramped environment and make it impossible to see anything. There’s no excuse for a game like this to make the player wrestle with the camera just to see.
The long development time can also be seen in the game’s graphics, and not in a positive way. For a game announced in 2009 and released in 2016, it still largely looks like it belongs in 2009. Fumito Ueda’s signature direction and it’s brilliant art style help to alleviate this issue – it still looks gorgeous at times – but, combined with terrible and far too frequent frame rate issues, it could certainly be better.
But in a way, the technical issues of The Last Guardian feel trivial in the grand scheme of things. Its massive, sun soaked vistas carry the same grandiose sense of history and scale as Ueda’s greatest works. It’s music is at times awe inspiring, almost reverent as though recalling a lost world. Like in Shadow of the Colossus, the air itself, the ruins, the remnants of something we never get to see, feel like it’s speaking to you, calling you deeper in, to unfurl the great adventure, to overcome the perils, and to together feel that triumph that only an excellent video game can give.
And it is triumphant. Despite its flaws, The Last Guardian is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.