Well, it’s finally here.
Developer: Team Ico
Released: December 6, 2016
Copy provided by publisher
The Last Guardian, a game many people bought a PlayStation 3 for, has finally materialized in the realm of mortals, though by now we’re far into the PlayStation 4’s life cycle and Team Ico long since abandoned the previous generation’s console. I hope those who bought PS3s back in the day enjoyed playing Resistance: Fall of Man.
Team Ico’s previous games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, are beyond beloved. Famed for their clever environmental puzzles and enthralling narratives, the studio uses conservative dialogue and vividly animated visual cues to convey some of the most heartfelt ideas the medium has ever enjoyed.
I’ll admit right now to not being the world’s biggest Ico fan (you’ll need this admission to justify your reactions to this review later), but I can at least admire the sincerity of both it and its spiritual sequel.
Like Shadow of the Colossus before it, The Last Guardian is not a direct sequel but a successor to Team Ico’s work in every other way. In many ways, the magic of the studio’s prior work is captured in The Last Guardian without missing a beat. In fact, you could say it feels like Colossus came out only a few years ago when compared to this latest production.
This is both a blessing and a curse.
To speak positively, The Last Guardian misses no beats in capturing all the things that made its predecessors such critical darlings. It candidly explores how relationships blossom through mutual adversity, its world is both haunting and beautiful, and its characters feel truly alive, more than simply playable avatars.
To speak negatively, Shadow of the Colossus was released in 2005, and The Last Guardian feels like it should have been as well.
A boy wakes up in a dark cave, his body covered in symbolic markings, with a large wounded creature chained nearby. Feared for its size and tendencies to eat human beings, this creature – known as Trico – is just as much a prisoner as the boy, and it soon becomes clear they need each other in order to escape their mysterious surroundings.
Like a mouse removing a thorn from the lion’s paw, our boy hero first tends to Trico’s wounds and finds him food, discovering glowing barrels that the gryphon-like feathered dog swallows down eagerly. After earning enough trust, it soon becomes apparent that Trico’s immense body can be gripped onto and climbed, allowing the boy to remove the spears stuck in its flesh.
After finding the lever on Trico’s collar and freeing him, the boy discovers a strange shield that emits a long shaft of light. This light guides an arc of lightning that flies from Trico’s tail, destroying portions of the environment and eventually leading both of them out of the cave.
Despite a plan to go separate ways, the two find out they’ll need to do more than simply escape a cave if they’re to leave a world of bizarre architecture, hollow suits of armor that pursue them relentlessly, and eye-shaped wards that appear to terrify Trico and keep him at bay until they’re destroyed.
The adventure running through The Last Guardian is a quiet and reflective one, though it’s regularly punctuated by tense, dangerous, and effectively terrifying moments. As the bond between the boy and the beast deepens, it’s difficult not to care for Trico, lovingly brought to life by Team Ico and remarkably adorable in its every movement.
Those moments where it looks like the beast might be in peril are truly frightening. Every time a pursuer jabs a spear into its body, every time the creature scrabbles at a ledge trying not to fall to its death – it can all be felt intensely by the player, and the work done in making Trico both an impressive monster and a vulnerable friend has paid off most successfully.
A vast majority of time is spent navigating caves, ruins, and cliffs in order to find a means of escape. Lots of levers must be pulled, many ledges are to be climbed, and Trico himself is essential in creating feathery bridges or leaping – with the boy clinging on – across otherwise insurmountable gaps.
The Last Guardian is full of clever environmental puzzles, and at many points it will subtly clue players into what needs to be done in a real smart way. There are moments that left me wide-eyed, impressed at the thinking behind an obstacle and its inventive solution.
It generally avoids repeating itself, with each new area of the game full of different ideas and fresh obstacles. It’s littered with unforgettable moments, such as the section in which the boy is trapped in a rolling cage and needs to find freedom from the confines of a glorified hamster ball.
Some of the best segments involve the aforementioned wards, as players navigate intricately designed structures riddled with boardwalks and scaffolds in order to reach and smash the objects of Trico’s fear.
Sadly, the positives of The Last Guardian are marred by a strong undercurrent of interconnected problems that course underneath its surface and frequently rise up to absolutely puncture both the mood and the accrued goodwill of its best portions.
To begin with the most glaring fault, Trico truly puts the “artificial” in “artificial intelligence.” While sometimes he’ll follow commands and do what’s necessary, trying to get him to perform simple tasks is all too frequently like pulling teeth.
He’ll regularly turn around and go back the way he came, unresponsively dawdle around despite repeated calls for action, and generally be a complete pain in the arse to deal with. I cannot thoroughly enough express the sheer frustration involved in knowing exactly what the beast has to do, knowing how to get him to do it, and being left exasperated as Trico just won’t do it.
Sometimes I had to lead Trico away from an objective and then lead him back in order to get him to act. Sometimes he’d just take ages to do anything and I frequently was left in quiet suspense, not knowing if the game had ignored my command or was just taking forever to process it. Despite knowing how to provide visual clues, The Last Guardian is frequently awful at communicating or confirming things, and you just never know if the game’s working as intended.
Trico can’t even eat those barrels without great difficulty, needing them in exact spots before he’ll gobble them up. Sometimes you can throw the barrels and he’ll snatch them in mid-air, which is both cool and cute. Sometimes he’ll let the barrel just bounce off his stupid bloody face, and it’ll look bloody stupid.
A command system is in place, but it’s bizarre, relying on holding down a button and using the left stick to point at things. What are you pointing at? The game provides no HUD elements or visual stimulus to let you know. Most of the time, you’re commanding blindly and hoping for the best.
It seemed beyond Team Ico to make things clear when it comes to commanding Trico. You have to guess what the developer was thinking and then hope to God that Trico will guess it too.
[Addendum: By the way, for those set to defend this by saying it’s “realistic” for an animal not to listen to you, I should remind you that purposefully bad game design is still bad game design. It’s antagonising to not have this creature respond, especially at a rate inferior to my own real-life dog, who happens to be an asshole.
More to the point, Trico is a dog with feathers and wings. Let’s not start throwing “realism” around as an excuse.]
Nothing in the game is highlighted with much clarity. A platform Trico can reach and a platform Trico can’t reach is differentiated not by height or distance, but by what Team Ico wants to have happen at that current time.
This design leads to environments with a ton of red herrings – false ledges, paths that lead nowhere, and large areas with tons of potential routes and only one real one.
At various junctures, one can’t help but feel these falsities are deliberate, especially when you find one of the game’s rare spots of climbable vines and find that, unlike every other time they’ve appeared prior, these vines are insignificant and actually aren’t part of the area’s puzzle. They just exist to waste time.
From a control perspective, The Last Guardian has severe issues. A single button, for example, is used to grab things, to climb things, to use the shield, and to pet Trico’s feathery body, which can lead to a confused interface if more than one interactive item is nearby.
The boy’s jumping and hanging abilities are unpredictable and often off-kilter. You can think you have a jump lined up perfectly, only for the protagonist to veer wildly away from the chain or ledge you wanted to grab and come tumbling to his idiotic death – or worse, he’ll break his leg for a few seconds and spend ages hobbling about incapable of action. It’s actually quicker to die and restart than to survive and limp.
At one point I simply randomly fell of Trico during the beast’s jump animation. At other points I failed to grab clearly grabbable ledges. The Last Guardian just doesn’t work periodically.
All these faults are worsened by ponderous animations and unwieldy physics that often see unnecessary stumbling, characters snagged on bits of scenery, and things taking much longer than they ought to. The simple act of putting down a barrel for Trico can be a nightmare as it rolls away from the perfect spot or Trico himself bats at it and sends it trundling away.
Hell, some of the puzzles themselves rely on the game’s wonky physics and are by far the worst portions of the game, requiring luck more than skill or thought.
Then there’s the camera. An unhelpful, unwieldy camera that is difficult to steer in some of the directions needed to locate the next objective, often blinks into darkness abruptly while correcting its unprompted, and generally fights the player whenever it can.
For all the times The Last Guardian made me smile, it had me cursing at my screen. I’ve yelled at Trico dozens of times, especially when I was led to believe a solution was wrong due to his inactivity only to have it suddenly do the thing I’d spent the last several minutes trying to make it do.
I’m willing to put a lot of this down to age.
Despite releasing in 2016, The Last Guardian absolutely looks and feels like a PS3 launch title, and the burdensome A.I., weird physics, and glitchy animations reek of the PS2 era. There are advances made in audiovisual feedback, controls, level design, and NPC behavior that simply aren’t present in this game, as if the last ten years never happened.
On the one hand, it’s understandable that a game with more than a decade of development time feels dated. On the other, it’s still a game being released for the modern age, and it’s quite far removed from modernity.
If judged on a purely technical level, I’d go so far as to say The Last Guardian is a disaster.
For all its environmental beauty, this game’s chaotic physics and capricious controls conspire to erode the trust a player ought to have in their game. I couldn’t trust this game to be straight with me, to offer a working solution or let me know when I was on the right track.
After so many false starts, random deaths, and obfuscating level design, I was left perpetually unsure of both myself and The Last Guardian. So much waiting to see if Trico would actually respond, so many opportunities provided by the designers to go in the wrong direction, so few clear indications that Trico’s working instead of just faffing around.
I can forgive some of this due to clearly troubled development and the excruciating amount of time this thing took to materialize. What I can’t look past, however, is the sheer number of times this game made me feel completely lost even while knowing exactly where to go.
The kicker, of course, is that there’s still so much about the game to like despite its many flaws – and there are many.
Its second half is infinitely superior to the first, easing up on some of the randomness and Triconfusion that nonetheless does persist. When The Last Guardian opens up its world somewhat and starts to really get into the friendship that blooms between its principle characters, it reaches heights that are truly enchanting.
Trico is fascinating simply to watch, at least when the camera lets you keep a bead on him. Great pains were taken to ensure every part of him moves individually, and his idle sniffing of the air, shaking out of his feathers, and concerned looks toward the boy are simply darling.
At times, the beast will face off against those armored antagonists, and these battles are never not thrilling. Players themselves are almost entirely defenseless and forced to play a minimal support role at best, pulling spears from Trico and occasionally shoving some of the hollow knights to make them drop their own little eye wards.
It’s an interesting concept, taking the power completely out of the player’s hands. It’s hard not to feel like the Yorda to Trico’s Ico sometimes, and it’s a reversal of traditional player roles that I admire.
The knights themselves – if “knights” is the right term – are a real highlight of the game.
Clunking and creepy, they’ll try to catch the boy and drag him to one of many strange doors that litter the world, forcing players to button-mash in order to break free. Silent except for the clang of their armor, they’re as curious as they are unnerving and their appearance generally signifies the onset of some great gameplay.
The Last Guardian is a game of its time, but sadly that time was ten years ago. With its cumbersome controls, clueless companion behavior, and archaic design sensibilities, it’s tough to appreciate for all but those who think nothing of the advances made in games since Shadow of the Colossus first arrived.
It would be remiss, however, not to take note of the love and care that’s gone into it, a love and care that reflects back onto its audience and weighs the experience of the journey against the mechanics of the product. Taken simply as a puzzle game, The Last Guardian is awful, but as an honest story of friendship through adversity it manages to retain some merit, even though you need to fight tooth and nail to see it.
I wish I could say I love the game, that its plagued by only minor setbacks, but I cannot honestly do that. I can’t look back at how much time was spent not enjoying myself, at how much time was spent actively wrestling with the game to wring anything worthwhile from it, and say I played the masterpiece many are going to say it is.
Maybe, a long time ago, that’s something I’d have been able to say. Not today though. Not today.