Expectations were justifiably high. Eleven years is a long time in the videogame world, Team Ico and its latest project faded beyond the mists like it were its own ancient worlds. The wait for The Last Guardian became an entire narrative of its own with its contained acts of excitement, doubt, ridicule, obscurity before finally resurfacing in 2015, many years later and a different generation of console than expected. Back then, it hinted at the artistic and evocative outpourings of the bond between boy and beast with all the trappings of its older siblings, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. For anyone following the game since its initial announcement, questions might be raised querying how the game has changed in purgatory, if the themes and ideas conveyed at first still echo in 2016 or became a compromising mess of features lacking a coherent, entertaining package. The response to this is mostly positive but painful elements overall prevent the game from being an unmitigated success.
The Last Guardian still delivers on its promise of taking players through a wondrous, mythological journey and experiencing a gloriously deep bond between the boy and its beast, something which I haven’t experienced in any other medium. Their story with a fairy tail-like simplicity and presentation, is one with two characters each with their own tortured fates and differences that blossom flawless simpatico throughout the game as you work together solving puzzles and scaling ancient, crumbling towers. However wonderful you may find this comes with an ebbing flow of disappointments and frustrations with an unwieldy camera and obstructive controls interrupting gameplay. The positive aspects of The Last Guardian, such as quality of story and characters for outweigh its shortfalls overall, its deeply emotional underpinnings are rooted in a powerful bond forged between the boy and Trico.
The game begins with this in mind, a young protagonist wakes up in a dark cavern with neither player or him knowing how he got there in the first place, only that next to him is a gigantic hybrid creature bearing resemblances to different animals. Its feathers, talons but dog-like face and feline tail helmed with the stubs of horns place Trico in the same category of the sphinx or hippogriffs. Initially hostile, the player attempts to appease the rowdy and dangerous creature through finding barrels, removing spears from its body and unshackle the chains and armour that binds him, thus gaining its trust. It’s a few simple moments of interaction that already begin to foster the admiration the player has, especially as we catch the first glimpses of this incredible creature that moves and behaves in a manner so realistic.
In fact the realism of his motions, the way it moves, the cries and whines it makes is reminiscent of what players might see their pets. Its behaviour feels true to life which is a surreal thing to say but one that’s engrossing in the first few hours of the game, especially as we watch the boy attempt to interact with Trico and attempt to direct him. Trico’s expressions feel expressive, you can read uncertainty in his face while player has the boy make exaggerated gesticulations and commands to interact with certain objects or jump to certain locations in the game. I’m so certain something so natural undertook a monumental amount of work in programming, animating and design to perform so seamlessly and look real and it’s something this game deserves high praise. In action, it makes tense or sombre moments much more palpable and every jump or button prompt much more meaningful when you lose disbelief and feel more immersed in your surroundings.
Players find themselves in a strange fantasy where the narrator exposes us to the world and game events while keeping us at an arm’s distance making a curious player wanting to explore and seek out truths for themselves all while helping the boy and Trico’s to flee from “the Nest,” this cavernous, dilapidated world fraught with perilous descents and otherworldly enemies. No doubt this is a game in the same vein as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Their influence is evident whether your climbing on top of Trico or guiding him through ruins and avoiding ghost-like guards. What makes it more than just various elements of previous iterations is how it serves the core thematic structure of the game, the relationship between the boy and Trico. I love the look and feel of the game which can be boiled down to “it’s a magical castle with conveyed feelings of childhood, the majesty of nature in fantasy genre” yet intersecting this is a gritty realism of desolation and overall decay. There’s a weird loneliness that amplifies the relationship between the boy and Trico, making the dependency of each other on the forefront of the players’ minds.
This dependency can sometimes become more urgent as the daunting ruins become threatening when its statuesque henchmen come to life seeking to capture you. These stressful moments make the already inter-dependent relationship even more entwined as players learn to play the game in a way that makes them not only think for their sake but for Trico. You learn how to treat Trico’s injuries or calm him down after an onslaught of soldiers then attempt to instruct it through puzzles as it looks on befuddled. Moments like these have a use in the game besides strengthening the relationship between both characters as each section traversed successfully is another step closer to your main goal of escaping the Nest. It’s an almost seamless experience exemplary of what Team Ico games previously achieved in the past, you can dive into the essence of the game’s themes and emotions without constraint or any gameplay learning-curve to interrupt the flow of the experience (besides the obvious camera and controls). The game gradually opens up to the player, showing them abilities such as instructing Trico, or using a shield that the player obtains early in the game. The Last Guardian exhibits fresh approaches to gameplay situations that always feel unique and encourages interacting with the world more and more. Driven by curiosity and great pacing, the player delves further into the fantastical surroundings.
Throughout the course of the game, the players find themselves travelling up and cascading down and through dishevelled ruins, all the while playing a game that aptly portrays an ever-growing bond between the boy and Trico. Solving puzzles is a means of getting from area to area in hopes of escaping the enclosed valley we are trapped in, but also one where you have to solve getting not just you but Trico out safely as well. The game makes clear the inter-dependency needed to beat this game and it’s one with powerful emotive connotations thanks to ever-clever design and story established over the course of the game. Puzzles make good use of Trico’s behemoth size and agility in order to scale the towering ruins and large expanses in the game and require figuring out the solution and then carrying it out through instructing Trico much in a manner that you would realistically expect it to comprehend. This palpable bond of connection to this lifelike creature and this mythical world is the principal force that woos players but is consistently marred by abrupt, uncontrollable issues, which is such a shame for a game that players could marvel at its splendour otherwise.
Realism helps bring us closer to the game but at the same time can wound the experience when the interface involved in interacting with the world is so cumbersome and unwieldy. Everything from how the game looks in action gives it a powerful, breathtaking impact but the game loses a bit of its magic when the player feels like they’re constantly fighting the game and not really be able to take part in the experience. Controls and the camera were also an issue with Shadow of the Colossus, one distinction is that The Last Guardian’s environments features narrow hallways with characters located in between or pushed against walls and objects that obscure player’s view of the action. These recurring problems throughout the game are constantly at the forefront of the player’s experience which keeps the game’s overall impression in an uncomfortable place.
So much of the game’s premise relies on the ability to jump from one part of the world to another, to climb and shimmy around ledges overhanging perilous drops and coordinating with Trico, camera and controls all in unison. Sometimes the camera feels unresponsive or when it does respond it erratically orbits the player. At the very least, when the camera zooms out to capture Trico and the surroundings in certain cutscenes and sequences, we catch a good glimpse of the sheer size of him capturing that sense of scale between large and small, but often in this world of expansive views of gigantic ruins and creatures tempered with miniscule characters and narrow corridors, the camera turns and shifts obstructs the player’s focus causing discombobulation and annoyance. This, in part with the controls, only serves to make the game more difficult to use than it should be.
Playing the game, you can sense that the developers aimed to have a naturalistic feel to how the boy protagonist moves and behaves, in a way that whoever is holding the controller hopefully could empathise with a boy character who depends on his beastly accomplice in a world difficult to traverse. Sadly its final product can feel like another barrier, making the game disappointingly hard to use. I wish there was something else they could have achieved to make it fun to use while still keeping a feeling of realistic helplessness while grounding the player in the world instead of doing the opposite. Platforming and jumping is made much more difficult, especially when contending with ledges and edges of paths while trying to contend with a camera and a giant creature obstructing the path and the player’s view. Additionally, there are clearly noticeable drops in frame rates that stutters intermittently throughout, while less problematic on PS4Pro, annoying and ruins the immersive qualities when they occur.
This is when the game feels less like the immersive, transformative experience that Team Ico was lauded for in its past and more like a hindered, obstructive grapple with fundamental gameplay mechanics that are not so easily forgiven in modern gaming such as controls and camera (this from a game that spent ten plus years of emptiness and development purgatory where you would hope these glaring flaws would have been fixed). It’s such a high contrast of quality, the core element of boy/trico bond is ruined by how we see and act out the game in controls and input.
The essence of The Last Guardian is magical, deeply emotive and moving but for a game that feels like an achievement in some regards, it also feels exemplary of the most common, rudimentary errors and failures that mediocre games exhibit which reduce players’ enjoyment of the overall experience. Truth be told it can be very conflicting trying to talk about this game. It’s jarring to praise and damn the extremes, like giving an impression of two different games at once yet this is what The Last Guardian is, a multifaceted game with many different aspects and backstory with an end result that achieved neither greatness nor shame, although I like to believe it exists on the higher end of this scale.
It’s a game that was in the works for so long that I would hope it would be nothing but a pristine uplifting product that touches the gamer almost on an intensely profound level without fault but in truth that’s not the reality of The Last Guardian. The years of development probably help shape the game and achieve a vision its creators would hope but switching consoles, studio problems and time itself seemed to hinder the final result.
With that, I still maintain that The Last Guardian is a terrifically moving game. There’s a terrific pacing to the story and gameplay progress that culminates fantastically with excellent attention paid towards the bond between Trico and the boy as well as an interesting visual design and soundtrack. When I finally finished the game, the camera, controls, frame rate drops felt somehow less important in the face of a powerfully touching conclusion to the story of The Last Guardian. Yet they still remain evident and ultimately prohibit any consideration of this game being an unblemished, unique masterpiece of gaming.