The Last Guardian Review
A touching exercise in frustration
It’s always unfortunate when games get stuck in a seemingly never ending cycle, or the so-called development hell. These often ambitious and promising projects, for one reason or another, do not see the light of day for many years after their announcement, if at all. Some games end up being worth the wait, like LA Noire, StarCraft II, or S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl; while others are not as lucky, among them being Duke Nukem Forever, Too Human and Aliens: Colonial Marines. The Last Guardian is also one such title, announced back in 2009 for the PS3 and having spent many years in limbo, it is finally available for the PS4. Created by the team behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, the game carries with it the weight of expectations from fans that have waited so many years, and even from those simply curious to see what the end result looks like. Regrettably, in this case, the wait was not worth it.
The Last Guardian follows a brief story of an unnamed boy. He awakens to find himself in mysterious ruins, far from home, and a large mystical beast is sleeping nearby. The beast, we later learn is named Trico, appears to be injured. The boy springs into action and frees the beast as well as removes some spears lodged in it. He also locates a couple of barrels full of mysterious glowing liquid, which the beast appears to enjoy consuming. After both feel strong enough to move on, they begin exploring the ruins and trying to find a way to a tall tower that Trico seems to be drawn to.
The story here is relatively mysterious, though the game does feature a couple of tell-all cutscenes that feel a bit like shotgun exposition. As the pair explore the crumbling structures and keep each other company, a sort of bond begins to form. There is very minimal voice acting, with an older man occasionally narrating the thoughts of the boy. Fans that have played the developers’ previous titles will feel familiar with the story structure and elements. Though it may appear the game would try to pull at players’ heartstrings with some drama, that never really occurs apart from a sequence at the end of the game. It’s an overall interesting and original tale, that has a bit of heart to it.
Players only control the boy throughout this platforming/adventure title, while Trico acts as an AI companion. As the boy, players will jump, run, swim and pull/push levers in order to progress through the ruins. Compared to Ico, the gameplay elements are similar, however they come with a share of issues. The controls are a bit unorthodox – X is used to crouch/let go, an action you seldom perform, while Triangle is used to jump and grab on. You can also pick up/drop items such as barrels, and push enemies. The inputs will appear convoluted to the uninitiated, but you do get used to them after a while.
But it’s not the controls themselves that will cause you grief, it’s how the boy behaves. The platforming in The Last Guardian is imprecise and overly busy. The boy will often stumble, bump into things, and create way too much movement for the simplest tasks. Combine this with an overly aggressive physics system, and you’re going to end up with a bunch of needless falls into the abyss. The environments are not exactly adjusted to this either, featuring all sorts of uneven and complex geometry that requires some finesse movements, and tiny ledges / platforms. So you’ll stumble and fall plenty, for the reasons other than your lack of skill or precision, though thankfully checkpoints are generous. Still, it doesn’t make for satisfying platforming.
Then there’s Trico. As a virtual animal creature, he is quite expertly designed. He is thought to be a mythological beast, along the likes of a phoenix or a dragon, and combines features of a four legged animal with that of a bird. Trico is covered in feathers, has a sort of beak-shaped mouth, bird feet and wings; while his body is more like a cat’s, with four legs, big ears, whiskers, tail and eyes that can glow. It’s an interesting creature design, and one that behaves quite realistically. From Trico’s large jumps and roars to his much more subtle sneezes, sniffs and muted sounds, it creates a very life-like experience, aided by expertly-made animations. The way Trico moves through indoor environments that are obviously too small for him, and the way he awkwardly makes jumps after working up the power required, makes him a believable, cute and lively creature.
Many gameplay elements involve interaction between the boy and Trico. For example, you occasionally use a mysterious shield – pointing it at a specific object for a few moments causes Trico to shoot a bolt of lightning out of his tail. You use this a few times to clear a path, or defeat enemies. Like in Shadow of the Colossus, players can grab on and climb all over Trico. The controls are helpfully straightforward and you simply need to grab hold once; there is no need to hold any buttons once you’re on. On the other hand, it can be quite tough to disembark as the boy will grab on to Trico anytime he is falling; but perhaps it’s better safe than sorry, and this way you avoid even more unnecessary deaths.
There are moments of combat against mysterious suits of armor that seem intent on taking the boy away. You can mash buttons on the controller to wrestle free, and then run around and wait until Trico defeats them all. The boy can also get involved in combat later on, as enemies carry shields made of colored glass that Trico seems to be fearful of – you need to tackle them so they drop the shields and Trico can attack. You’ll also encounter other creatures that are the same as Trico, but these play out more like action setpeices where the boy is not directly involved in combat between the two beasts, but can instead assist in other ways. Last, but not least, your most common way to interact with Trico is to give commands, and this is where the game begins to further fall apart.
Trico’s AI is meant to be obedient, but also "unpredictable" since this is a creature with its own mind. Unfortunately this only results in endless frustration throughout the game. When you’re separated, or otherwise not directly interacting, Trico behaves like a fairly smart animal, able to make decisions, pick paths, and save the boy. But when you’re together and attempt to give the beast basic directions (go here, jump, perform an action), it’s an endless loop of him doing something else, or nothing at all. Entire minutes are spent getting Trico into position to perform an action – like stand up on his rear legs so you can reach a high ledge, jump between platforms, or even just follow you. It becomes more and more frustrating as the game drags on and the problems persist, and you could get stuck in some areas for eternity because you’re not sure what to do next, and it’s all because Trico won’t perform an action that reveals the solution.
The game’s levels are at their best when the boy is on his own (or at least doesn’t require Trico’s help to progress), and these linear platforming and puzzle sections can be satisfying enough. It’s also a very interconnected game, and as you reach new areas you can often look down and recognize the terrain that you explored earlier in the game. But then roughly half of the game’s puzzles involve Trico doing something, and because of his complete randomness, you could get stuck for no good reason, even if you see where you must go next. And in some cases you don’t, because the path forward is hidden away really high or far away, and you’re not sure if there is another way that was missed, or you need to keep spamming Trico’s commands. There are often side paths that lead absolutely nowhere, and you’re never sure if it’s just something you are missing, you need to wait for Trico, or it’s just a plain dead end. It also doesn’t help that some solutions are just poorly designed – for example, in one spot you’re supposed to use Trico’s eyes to illuminate a dark room off to the side and reveal the path forward, a mechanic that was never introduced nor ever used again.
In another area, Trico needs some barrels to recover, but after scouring the entire area, they were nowhere to be found. Turns out, the boy needed to climb a bunch of overturned carts that you can clearly see lead nowhere in order for them to overturn and reveal the barrels. Why would developers expect the players to climb things that, up till now, were mere environmental props, and when the player can clearly see that the path is a dead end? There’s other pointlessly infuriating moments too – when the boy is trapped in a cage, for example. You spend 5 minutes helplessly rolling around, trying to understand how to escape, only for the game to fade the screen and trigger a cutscene where Trico arrives to free you. Why waste player’s time and patience on pointless "fail states" like this? It just compounds frustration when patience is already running thin dealing with Trico’s AI.
As we just mentioned barrels and as touched upon earlier, physics are troublesome, and in this case (and other occasions) Trico was unable to eat a barrel because it kept bouncing off his own mouth and away. Wonky physics could also prevent you from progressing; for example at one point the boy was unable to complete an action sequence because the game thought a cart was stuck on rails, and unable to move further. It required multiple checkpoint restarts to get the physics engine to cooperate and let the cart slide off. Another example required Trico to position himself so that his tail would become your way out – so you are up against a random AI and glitchy physics of his tail.
When large-scale creatures are involved, and with a game focused on creating a more cinematic experience, the player’s camera needs to be carefully positioned and also easy to control. The Last Guardian sadly fails in this respect, offering one of the most unwieldy cameras of recent times. It’s slow to turn your view and especially to pitch up and down (though a setting exists for sensitivity), which becomes not only annoying but also makes you miss out on Trico’s many cute and unique behaviors because you’re staring at his feet. Jumping off ropes or Trico’s tail is needlessly uncertain, as the boy will usually jump in the opposite or side-angle away from your camera view, meaning a lot of the times you can’t even see where you’re jumping. And finally, because the game features tons of indoor areas and hallways just big enough for Trico to walk through, if you happen to be hanging on to him the camera will go absolutely crazy, spinning and glitching through walls. The camera was clearly not made for the smaller and mostly indoor environments of the game.
The Last Guardian has been in development for many years, and as a result the game looks more like a PS3 title than a modern PS4 release. The art direction is timeless, of course, and Trico looks quite good most of the time, helped by the excellent animation. But many of the textures are bland as you explore similar looking ruins throughout, with occasional areas of grass and natural sunlight – this worked for Ico, but it feels too basic for a modern adventure to feature the same visual style and color palette the entire game. Although yes, the sun does set over the course of the story and the sky eventually glows orange in the evening, which changes the way shadows, grass, and the ruins feel, the change comes rather late. Many of the textures look quite low resolution and are obviously untouched since the game’s PS3 days. The sound design and music is minimal, though it is pretty good when it does play. But the game’s biggest presentation transgression is its poor performance. Despite looking very much like a game from a previous console generation, The Last Guardian performs very poorly on the launch model PS4, struggling with framerate issues throughout its entirety. There are many moments when the framerate dips as low as 10fps, making for a jarring slideshow. It’s definitely one of the worst performing first-party PS4 games ever.
Whether it’s because of the multiple delays, or simply spending too long in development, The Last Guardian is a game stuck in the past. Its ambitious combination of elements from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus works on a basic level, and the story has some heart, along with an original setting. Trico is quite lifelike and neat to interact with, but the goodwill towards the creature is lost when you’re stuck in areas for what feels like forever, because it refuses to perform an action. Imagine trying to play with a cat on your hands – it’s cute for a while, but eventually you can carry it to its bed and proceed with the game, but with Trico you’re stuck trying to get an AI to do something without direct control. The rest of the game you’ll be annoyed by the ambiguous level design, poor platforming, and overactive physics. Despite a solid art direction, the poor visual quality and terrible performance will damper whatever joy you try to extract from this experience. No single element of the game is outright bad, but it's simply too frustrating all around. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were great games for their time, and whatever shortcomings they had were overcome by their positives. The Last Guardian is unable to replicate that magic.