Pure. The singular word that came to the forefront of my mind when looking back at my 8 hour odyssey with The Last Guardian. Fumito Ueda and Team Ico’s long in development Sony exclusive, is a beautifully uncompromised piece of art, a video game completely untampered by trends or corporate interaction. The Last Guardian is so purely dedicated to being a complete and embodied experience that it is truly unlike any triple A video game available today. And its this dedication and beating heart that lies at the centre of the game that made pushing through its various rough edges and frustrating design decisions completely worthwhile. The Last Guardian isn’t perfect and the various growing pains and archaic design issues can be painfully clear at times. However, when the credits rolled (and so did my tears) I couldn’t help but feel absolutely awestruck and satisfied with my experience, of a small boy and his dog/cat/griffin friend.
The entirety of The Last Guardian’s story can be summed up by its back of the box text. “A young boy encounters a mysterious feathered creature. Their fates are intertwined…” While it has its twists and reveals, the core of what The Last Guardian is and has to say is in that sentence. Behind all gameplay, graphical fidelity and level design sits this relationship between the two characters of the boy and Trico at the heart of the game. All of the games scenarios and mechanics seem invested in this core idea, everything in The Last Guardian is tethered in some way to furthering the bond and relationship between the two characters, whether its something as simple as opening a door for Trico as the boy or Trico carrying the boy over giant ledges.
This means the growing connect both the two and you as a player form towards them is seamless, I couldn’t tell you the exact moment I formed an emotional connection with the two but I can say that late in the game I was in fear when they were in danger and cheering them along in moments of hardship. The games focus and devotion to the power and effectiveness of its central characters and the journey they embark on is what makes The Last Guardian so unlike any other game out there.
Though the game is framed as a flashback with narration throughout, for the most part events play out like a silent movie with the very small amount of dialogue being spoken in a made up language. This leaves all hints and subtleties down to the finer details, such as Trico’s cries and eye colour changes when he is scared or the way the boy has to pat his feathered friend to calm him down after a fight. The Last Guardian manages to say so much and feel so complete from a narrative perspective without actually saying much at all. Culminating in an ending that spearheads all the subtleties and little moments into a gut punch that had me in tears equal of both joy and sadness. As a story The Last Guardian captures similar magic to a Studio Ghibli film, presenting a world full of wonder and fascinatingly vague depth but never telling you more than you need to know, keeping all of its mysteries as close to its chest as when you started up.
Unfortunately, though The Last Guardians status as a video game and your interactivity with it is integral to what makes it such a special experience, it’s also its Achilles heel in the end. Though I cherished my time spent playing through The Last Guardian, the prospect of playing through it again is not one that I think I will be excited for any time soon. The game has a number of pretty prominent issues from terrible performance and frame rate issues, to clunky gameplay and encounter design and of course the piece of The Last Guardians design that has proven the biggest difficulty for development Trico’s AI. Now to give it credit when it works it works flawlessly and the way your feathered friend reacts not only to you but the environment around you is nothing short of incredible. His animation and AI plays nearly perfectly accurately to a pet dog or cat. (After playing the game for several hours I sat and watched my dog and found him doing similar movements and actions)
However, when it doesn’t work oh wow does it not work. I accumulated numerous deaths and retries from Trico failing to catch me from a fall or not following my instructions during a puzzle. The more frustrating moments come when his co-operation is required to progress and his AI decides to have a nap day. Though it should be reaffirmed that this is more the exception than the rule, for the most part Trico’s AI did work (at least for me) and again when it does work its truly impressive to see him respond and even take the initiative at times.
Elsewhere actually controlling the boy is competent. The game uses similar platforming mixed with puzzles as uncharted (minus the gunplay and plus more puzzles) though it feels more Drake’s Fortune than A Thief’s End. The boy’s movement feels fairly floaty and jumps can often feel imprecise, it’s not bad per say and once I became used to it the game has some brilliant platforming sections and a few smart puzzles. Such as a vertigo inducing climb up scaffolding and chains to remove giant mirrors that blocked Trico’s path, to using Trico’s strength to propel the boy to inaccessible areas. However, for all the enjoyable and fun moments there are also a decent amount of completely unbearable ones that really highlight the games troubled past. No where is this more apparent than in the multiple sections in which the boy must face up against enemies by himself. Though it seems to present these numerous sections as stealth the games doesn’t actually have any stealth mechanics at least that I could find. (I tried multiple times to sneak or move undetected and found areas where too small to avoid sight)
What they essentially boil down to then, is a frustrating series of butting you head against a brick wall, as you possess no real means of fighting back these enemies will consistently grab you, forcing you into a button mashing flurry to free yourself, run just a little bit further (or incrementally open the door barring Trico’s way) before being grabbed again by another and having to button mash yet again. This can go on for several infuriating minutes until you either cheese the enemies into gathering around one ledge and running back around them for a few extra minutes before they come back or hoping that Trico has gotten far enough through the door to take over.
The game unfortunately has numerous sections like this and the particularly tedious ones really made me consider quitting out of frustration. Again I have to reiterate that these moments of frustration and tedium are just that moments, there are a lot of good and exciting moments all through The Last Guardian. However, when looking back these poorly designed and frustrating sections stick out like a sore thumb. The gameplay here works best when the pair are together and the full extent of their skills are used, there are some great and genuinely memorable parts to The Last Guardians and I will remember them the most when looking back on my time with the game. Its just a shame the bad parts make me feel the game won’t be back in my disk tray anytime soon.
Graphically the Last Guardian can be absolutely jaw dropping with moments that are so strikingly beautiful I got goosebumps, at times it is one of the most visually enchanting games I have ever played. The architecture and design of the games environment feels so meticulously crafted, with sweeping vistas and incredible scope. I also like how everything you see you will eventually explore, early in the game I looked up at a far off tower and wondered if it would play a part later, only to look down from said tower hours later and absolutely marvel at my progress. Though the game technically all takes place in the one castle (well its more like 7 castles mushed together) the game keeps it varied with excellent use of vegetation and contrast. The light and use of heavy bloom (I’m talking Wind Waker levels of bloom) leads to some absolutely magical moments, as you exit the grey brown of the castle halls into a whitewashed forest, with trees and insects dancing in the wind. The games graphics have that same captivating magic I mentions near the start of my review, each environment feels densely packed with detail yet still completely distant and empty. (I mean this as a positive, since the environments are supposed to be lifeless, not like Kingdom Hearts ghost towns)
So it a shame then that yet again the games growing pains show themselves in some seriously poor performance issues. The game frequently seems to crack under the weight of its own beauty with a frame rate that dips into single digits at times that makes some combat sections a nightmare. It luckily doesn’t happen all the time and seems to rear its head more in crowded outside areas more so than anywhere else, though there were a few occasions when the game took a huge dip for no real reason in areas where nothing was really happening. I’m reviewing this game five months into 2017 and these issues still haven’t been resolved so don’t expect a patch to fix them anytime soon (maybe we’ll just have to wait till another HD 4k re-release comes out next generation like with Shadow of the Colossus)
The game also has a few graphical glitches that I ran into and some wonky animation, though like with gameplay the good really does outweigh the bad here, the game has some of the most stunning graphical moments I’ve witnessed in a game and the beautiful art direction and architect stood out even if they can look like a slide show at times.
The games soundtrack and overall sound design are both exceptional. Featuring a truly beautiful orchestral soundtrack that manages to punctuate every moment it plays with an incredible amount of weight and emotion. Tracks like Victorious and Wounded fill the current scenario with so much significance and gravitas that I’ll be hard pressed to forget them. It’s telling how good a video game soundtrack is when the only negative you have to say is that it doesn’t play enough, though its sparring use makes the moments it does play truly special. Sound design is similarly excellent with every echoed shout from the boy and shrill cry from Trico ringing with a sense of place, the sound design couples perfectly with the games graphics and design to just complete an experience that is completely engrossing and takes you in. The voice acting despite being entirely in a made up language is excellent, with the booming voice over demanding my attention through and the numerous commands that the boy gives to Trico being stuck in my head ever since. Similarly Trico himself is layered with sound details from his scared whimpers whenever he must enter a tight corridor to the sound of his rustling fur as the boy climbs his back. Both the soundtrack and effects are all handled with such a brilliant level of refrain with them used sparingly for a far more engrossing effect. Sound is a highlight thankfully not held back in some form for the The Last Guardian.
The Last Guardian is the kind of experience that makes reviewing it as a video game so hard. Its a truly unique, singular and completely pure experience from the moment you press start, a game with true heart at the centre of its design. Yet its held back by the very medium that makes it so special. The Last Guardian similarly to Fumito’s previous games Shadow of the Colossus and Ico wouldn’t work as anything other than as a video game and carries on a good fight for showing video games as true forms of art. But The Last Guardian also comes with a fair share of gameplay and tech issues that do muddy the experience somewhat. As the kind of gamer who champions the unique and powerful possibilities the video game medium offers to tell unique visions and stories I love The Last Guardian warts and all. However, if you are the type of gamer who appreciation technical performance and gameplay over all else its likely an experience with a little too much baggage for you. Either way I’m glad that Fumito Ueda’s tale of a boy and a cat/dog/bird saw the light of day in the end.