It is strange that The Last Guardian exists. Beginning development in 2007 and announced in 2009, this spiritual successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus had become something of a joke in the gaming world. It was the new Duke Nukem Forever, consistently promised but endlessly delayed.
Now, after nearly ten years of development and eight years of patient waiting by Team Ico fans, The Last Guardian has finally hit store shelves. But like Duke Nukem Forever before it, The Last Guardian feels like it is stuck in an age of gaming that is long since passed.
It is conceptually a beautiful game, exploring a mechanical design space that few other games have. Its greatest moments are shining examples of the pinnacle of emotional storytelling, forging a powerful bond between player and character. But its flaws are so glaring, especially in the face of the rest of its excellence, that it seems like proof no game developed for 10+ years can live up to the hype that it inevitably builds.
Meet Your Best Friend Trico
The Last Guardian is the tale of a boy who awakes one day to find himself stranded in strange dilapidated ruins, covered in strange markings, and accompanied by a gigantic gryphon-like beast. Seeing no way out of his ancient stone prison, he begins to befriend the beast, working with him to find a way home.
Or should I say YOU befriend the beast, because interactions between the boy and the gryphon named “Trico” are the main mechanical focus of the game.
Trico starts off wary of you, like any wild animal would be. Shackled and injured, he lashes out at you if you dare to come near. Luckily, a little wandering finds you some conveniently placed gryphon food, which you can then use to gain his trust.
It’s not a simple as throwing the food at his face until his heart meter fills. Trico’s behavior is much more organic, not governed by visible numbers, meters, or statistics. You’ll have to nudge the food toward him and walk away so he doesn’t see you as a competitor. You’ll have to use the food to keep him occupied so you can pull out the spears piercing his body and unlock his chains. You’ll pet him when he doesn’t lash out at you and when he successfully comes to a call. All of this happens within the game's opening segment, and goes a long way towards establishing a real emotional bond between the player and Trico.
It’s obvious that a lot of research was put into animal behavior during the design of The Last Guardian. Trico’s actions and reactions are noticeably pulled from domesticated dogs and cats, and pet owners will find that the techniques they use in training their own furry companions apply just as well here. Players will instinctively know he wants to be petted when he lowers his head, or that he wants belly rubs when he flops over on his back. They will also instinctively follow him when he wanders off, sniffing something curiously, which ends up leading the player to their next puzzle in a smooth and immersive fashion.
Similarly, the player will also instinctively know when Trico is in distress, as he rears back on his hind legs, raises his tail, and shrieks. The panic shown in Trico is mirrored perfectly in the player, who then runs around desperately trying to find some way to calm his feathered friend. It’s a fantastic and natural way to manipulate the player’s emotions that we really haven’t seen much in gaming before, and it is employed time and again to make the player feel just the way the narrative wants him or her to.
No Trico! Bad Trico!
But this organic animal behavior is a double edged sword. While it is a wondrous step forward in emotional storytelling, it is a step backward in puzzle creation. Many of the puzzles in The Last Guardian aren’t hard. Their solutions are relatively obvious the second you enter a room. What isn’t obvious is how you’ll get Trico to do what you want him to do. Sometimes you’ll need to climb on him to reach a high platform, but his constant movement makes it impossible to line up a jump. Sometimes you’ll have to climb his tail to reunite with him, but he'll be too busy sniffing around some other part of the environment. Sometimes you’ll have to hold onto him and order him to jump across a long chasm, but he'll just sit at the edge scratching his ear.
At times Trico’s stubbornness adds to whatever puzzle you are trying to solve. The aforementioned food puzzle is a good example. Trico’s aggressive behavior naturally pushes you away from the beast and into the surrounding environment where you then find the puzzle’s solution.
But as the game goes onward, Trico’s animal-like behavior gets shallower mechanically even as it becomes more realistic emotionally. Many times the only thing you’ll need to do to get Trico to jump a chasm is press the call button over and over again. While this does portray a realistic animal behavior, since Trico has to learn what his name means before he can reliably be called on for help, it’s demoralizing as a puzzle solving mechanic. The player can literally walk to the exact correct area and do the exact correct action and nothing will happen unless they do it over and over again. This makes solving many puzzles exercises in frustration, as you’ll know the solution will have to wait till Trico’s A.I. lets you enact that solution.
Luckily, Trico can learn. His animal stubbornness gives way to obedience as time goes on. In the latter half of the game Trico becomes much easier to manage mechanically, and this does create a deeper bond with the beast. But one still has to wonder whether this could have been accomplished without the blinding white frustration in the mid-game.
No Strange Tattoo Boy! Bad Strange Tattoo Boy!
Trico’s unwieldiness can easily be explained by his animal nature, but the boy’s unwieldiness has no excuse. Running over the tiniest crack in a stone floor makes the boy awkwardly stumble. There is literally a button on the controller that, outside of any environmental context, makes the boy fall down. The boy fails to grab onto ledges time and time again, turning otherwise well-crafted pieces of the environment into annoying red herrings.
When you do manage to get him moving, his awkward sense of momentum forces you to let go of the control stick seconds before you actually want to stop. It’s like you are constantly playing with display lag. Once again this creates a feeling of realism, but to what end? It doesn’t pull you deeper into the experience but rather drags you out as you struggle against a control scheme not designed for efficiency.
Oh, and here is a game design tip: if your game is a platformer then “jump” should be assigned to the lowest face button on the controller (X in the case of a PlayStation controller.) This is the action you will be doing most often, and so it should be assigned to the button your thumb naturally rests on. In The Last Guardian, jump is mapped to triangle, the highest button on the controller, and it feels awkward every time you press it. It's a challenge to routinely remember the button’s function, even late in the game.
To compensate, The Last Guardian flashes tutorials at you throughout its entirety. You’ll be minutes away from beating the game and you’ll still see “press triangle to jump” tooltips pop-up. They are a distracting annoyance and they wouldn’t even be needed if the game’s control scheme made ergonomic sense in the first place.
That Beautiful Low Resolution Landscape
While I wouldn’t call the graphics of The Last Guardian technically impressive, they are certainly artistically impressive. The design team utilized clever lighting tricks and a contrast between the boy’s cartoony appearance and the photorealistic textures of the environment to create scenes that feel like moving paintings. Even with the PS4 Pro’s upgraded graphics the game feels noticeably a generation behind, but it doesn’t impact quality at all because the core aesthetic of the game is so strong.
The game is visually at its best when it is leading you through strange floating ruins that look like they came out of an M.C. Escher design, or pushing you through subterranean caverns that seem to glow with an otherworldly light and magic. Whenever you emerge into a new environment you are hit with a rush of emotions as the camera sweeps around in a showcase of your surroundings. It instils a sort of adventurous wonder in you as each new area feels like it is revealing more and more of The Last Guardian’s mysterious world.
It’s a shame, then, that the environs that connect these massive and beautiful locales are all the same mossy stone ruins. You will be so sick of the sight of mossy stone ruins by the end of your playthrough. Once again this is an effective bit of emotional storytelling, making you yearn for freedom as much as your tattooed avatar, but it’s not exactly an enjoyable experience. Rather, it makes you want to put the controller down and take long breaks to rest your eyes, which makes you wonder whether the verisimilitude is really worth the price.
Is the Payoff Worth It?
It is hard to describe the emotional payoff of The Last Guardian without spoiling it, but you’ll want to see this story through to its end. It’s a short game, only 12 hours on average. While you’ll encounter plenty of frustrating point that will make you want to give up, pushing through that frustration creates an emotional bond that the game exploits to the fullest in the last couple of hours. Trust me. You’ll get teary-eyed. The solid ending, the interesting puzzles, and the fantastic emotional bond you form with Trico come together to create a solid and rewarding gameplay experience that manages to entertain despite its numerous flaws.
But 10 years of development time promises something more than “entertaining despite its flaws.” 10 years of development time promises a game that runs to the best of this generation’s graphical capabilities. 10 years of development time promises a game where you don’t have to struggle with controls or the camera. 10 years of development time promises a mind-blowing experience, Team Ico’s magnum opus.
Sadly, The Last Guardian does not live up to that 10 year promise. It’s not of particularly higher quality than its predecessors, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, but it’s not of lower quality either. It’s just another decent game, and it kind of sucks to have to have waited this long for just another decent game.
You’ll enjoy The Last Guardian the most if you can just forget that it was Sony’s big promised title for the better part of a gaming generation, but shutting off a part of your memory is understandably hard to do. Despite the overwhelming quality of its emotional storytelling and the fantastic characterization of the game's protagonists, every frustrating puzzle, every quirk of the controls, and every graphical hitch will leave you wondering why, after such a painfully long wait, this was all The Last Guardian could shape up to be.