The Last Guardian – PlayStation 4
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: JAPAN Studio
Release Date: December 6th, 2016
It has arrived. Nine years of waiting. Numerous painful delays. Countless months of nail-biting with the unbearable anticipation for perhaps the greatest game of 2016. The wait continues no longer. The Last Guardian has hit the shelves and I’ve delved into its mysterious depths to tell all about my experiences.
The Last Guardian is an adventure game presented by legendary designer Fumito Ueda, responsible for two of the most critically-acclaimed titles from the PlayStation 2 era: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It has been eleven years since the release of Shadow in 2005, and Ueda’s most recent project has been stuck in production hell for the majority of that time. Originally slated to release for the PlayStation 3, this highly-anticipated game ran into setback after setback, retreating behind the mists of obscurity to finally appear now, mid-way into the PlayStation 4’s life cycle. As painful as it’s been to wait this long, a game is better than no game, so let’s take a crack at it.
Controlling a young tribal village boy, the player awakens in an unfamiliar place, coming face-to-face with a gigantic, fearsome beast known as “Trico.” Just look at that thing! It’s like some king of gryphon-cat-dog! Though the pair’s relationship is adversarial at first, suffice to say that they quickly learn that they are dependent on one another in order to escape the confines of the strange place they’re in. Thus, the game truly begins as the young boy and Trico push forward along a journey of escape and discovery, revealing the mysteries of the world around them.
Over the course of its development, a lot of details about The Last Guardian have been shrouded in mystery, including how the gameplay works. I was pretty surprised and pleased with what we got. Throughout the game, the player controls one character, the village boy. They can do all of the basic platforming stuff, such as jumping, climbing things, and picking up objects. A lot of the button assignments are in slightly strange or unfamiliar places, and, much like Shadow of the Colossus, there are a few mechanics that the game requires the player to explicitly perform as carefully as possible, whereas most games would do some of these things automatically.
I’m fairly happy with how the controls are set up; they’re intuitive and consistent, and the extra mechanics add emphasis to the rigor that would naturally come with scaling large, ancient structures. A lot of adventure games these days trivialize the navigation of terrain in favor of the next epic and explosive scenario. The Last Guardian, however, slows itself down and makes the player feel the struggle of a small boy climbing a large tower, with the limited abilities that come along with that. This very real-world approach to adventure and platforming is pretty refreshing to see.
Traveling together, the duo are confronted by many obstacles and puzzles that they must overcome. For the majority of the game, each new puzzle feels fresh, introducing a unique concept that hasn’t already been tread over by previous ones. These puzzles are tightly crafted, requiring a sort of real-world problem solving that isn’t always present in games. Think of how many times the solution to a puzzle was something super esoteric that had you going “How was I supposed to know that?!”
The Last Guardian does away with that, presenting handcrafted puzzles that rely a lot on physics-based solutions that would be feasible in the real world, strongly reminding me of the puzzles found in Inside, which I wrote a review for here.
The level design that surrounds these puzzles is nothing short of fantastic. The world within The Last Guardian is a fantasy land, surrounding the player with ancient, vertigo-inducing towers and structures that beg to be explored. I’m very impressed with the sheer scale of some of these areas, and the game has a good draw distance to boot. The terrain navigation in this game isn’t necessarily hard, but it’s still fun in a Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time kind of way, hitting me right in the nostalgia. As you make your way from point A to point B, you really feel like you worked your butt off to get there, and that’s a pretty cool feeling.
As the game goes on, some areas start to get a little samey, as if the developers worked so hard on the other sections that they didn’t have much time left for the rest, which is a bit of a shame. Also, architecture in this game feels a little out of time and place, with very little of it seeming like it would have served any purpose other than to give the player an interesting space to move through. The grandiose nature of these spaces, however, is simply unparalleled.
Of course, a small boy from the Village of Nowhere isn’t about to conquer the obstacles of a towering, abandoned city all by himself, is he? No! That’s where Trico comes in, presenting the game’s most distinct feature; Trico is just awesome. He’s huge! He can climb up tall ledges, jump across wide gaps, cushion the main character’s fall, and even catch him in mid-air, among other, more spoiler-y abilities.
In this way, the gameplay of The Last Guardian becomes a collaboration between the boy and Trico. Oftentimes, a lever or useful item will be just out of the boy’s reach, either atop a tall structure or on the other side of a great precipice. Clinging onto the beast’s feathers, the boy can hoist himself up and take advantage of Trico’s immense size and maneuverability, reaching places he normally wouldn’t be able to.
Trico is not some empty shell waiting for inputs and commands; he can actually be a little challenging to collaborate with at times, kind of like the beast from Papo & Yo. And this isn’t a bad thing, either. As designer Ueda tells The Guardian (no relation), “There are two extremes – if you can fully control a character, what’s the point? It becomes a pet. But at the opposite end if you can’t control it at all it becomes a nuisance, a barrier to progression.”
The goal of The Last Guardian was to make Trico feel like his own entity, and I’d say that they hit that sweet spot as close as possible, with a very natural and unscripted feel to the way you can coerce Trico into doing what you want him to do.
Which brings me to the most interesting thing about The Last Guardian: Trico feels so real! His movements and animations are procedurally-generated and fluid, he can get distracted by random things, and he really feels like he has his own personality sometimes. When angry or scared, his posture changes in realistic manners as he adopts extremely emotive facial expressions reminiscent of a dog’s. Seriously, they could have just stripped all the other stuff away, leaving you in a featureless room with Trico and called it Fantastic Beast Simulator and that alone would have been cool. They really nailed the whole giant monster thing with this game, better than any other game before it. If this game is remembered for anything, it will probably be for the superb handling of Trico.
Trico’s realism lays the groundwork for a strong bond that develops between the two protagonists over the course of the game, displaying a common theme between The Last Guardian and Ueda’s previous two titles: companionship in isolation. In Ico, the player’s mission is to rescue a girl and guide her through an ancient castle. In Shadow of the Colossus, the player wanders a desolate land with their trusty horse Agro in search of giant beasts to slay. The Last Guardian carries on this trend, encouraging the player to become familiar with Trico, just like two old friends. The feeling of shared isolation within a hostile environment is the bonding agent that makes that connection even stronger.
And around this bond The Last Guardian scaffolds its story. Again, the game shows off its similarities with its predecessors, opting for a more subdued approach toward narrative. Sure, there is an overarching story that surrounds the events of this game, but the real story is the friendship between the player and Trico. The game uses cut scenes sparingly, relying on its atmosphere to capture the player’s imagination so that most of the story is more implied or experienced directly. In this way, the player personally develops a relationship with Trico, rather than having their relationship dictated to them.
In this vein, the game progresses at a pretty even and unwavering pace for the majority of the time, ramping itself up ever so slowly. Occasional spikes in action will heighten the story’s epic feeling along the way, with a pretty awesome finale in true Ueda style.
As sparing as The Last Guardian is with its story, it may actually have the most grandiose and cinematic narrative out of all three of Ueda’s titles, complete with a nice sense of closure that isn’t 100% present in the other games. And that’s not to say that ambiguity is bad; The Last Guardian sports a ton of narrative ambiguity along the way. But, it is definitely refreshing to see some variation here. It may go without saying, but the story is made even more potent by how well the player is able to connect with Trico during the gameplay.
The graphics are fine. They’re slightly below average when it comes to big budget games, but they’re passable. Trico is by far the best looking part of this game, and the main character, for some reason, is the worst looking part. For the life of me, I’m not sure why that kid is so weird looking. His face is weird, his hair is weird, I dunno. I did manage to capture this really awesome shot, so The Last Guardian definitely has its moments.
The soundtrack is quite good, consisting of stringed orchestral scores. Like just about everything else in this game, the music is pretty subdued and used sparingly, but its execution is on point, serving to heighten tension during conflict and to emphasize the wonder and beauty of the surrounding landscape.
Like Ueda’s previous titles, The Last Guardian contains a few extras and in-game rewards. They’re all cosmetic in nature, but they’re pretty cool, nonetheless. The only downside to them is that you have to perform really arbitrary tasks over and over to get them, so it feels a lot like grinding. And I hate grinding.
As much as I’d love to keep gushing about this game, it actually has quite a few serious problems that I’ve noticed. Which brings us to…
Nip’s Complaint Corner
Welcome to the second edition ever of of Nip’s Complaint Corner, a place where I air out all my grievances with The Last Guardian, back-to-back-to back! Settle in and enjoy some unadulterated game design rants as I explore everything the developers could have done better.
Literally the first thing I noticed about this game is how much the camera SUCKS. It just sucks, there’s no way around it. It’s like really sluggish and will begin responding to inputs a split second later than it should. “Maybe it was on purpose,” you might say. Okay, but why in the world would someone do that in a game that features tightly cramped spaces and really awesome architecture worth looking at? Kind of defeats the purpose, yeah? I spent a lot of my time ignoring my surroundings solely because I knew getting the camera to look around would be a hassle. Not a good thing.
Why is holding onto Trico automatic? Whenever the boy falls anywhere near Trico, his janky-ass little hands reach out to grab his feathers. But what if I specifically did not want to do that? In Shadow of the Colossus, the player was required to hit a button in order to grab onto things, so why get rid of it in this game? This is hands down the least intuitive feature of the controls. And it’s super frustrating when you’re just trying to get down and you keep grabbing back onto Trico without meaning to. At least make it easy to get down, god damn.
I’ve been playing this game for like five hours now. I know how to hang from a ledge. Stop showing me this. At least include an option to get rid of these messages. Options are awesome. Always include options in your games.
Why do I have to wreck the shit out of my controller when I die? For every game over screen, you’re required to just jam on all your buttons to get rid of these glyphs in order to wake back up. There’s nothing compelling about this. It’s just tedious.
These enemies are just terrible. There’s almost nothing interesting about the scenarios that involve them. Oh no, I got picked up! Time to wreck the shit out of my controller to get dropped back down. And then maybe get picked up again. I swear, there’s nothing good about the fight sequences with these guys. I’ll offer a simple solution, completely free of charge: make these guys a one-hit kill on the protagonist, and then just make them slower or something, or easier to dodge maybe. The whole mashing buttons thing is just lame and it doesn’t seem like anyone even thought about it.
This part is absolute bullshit. I died like ten times or more repeating this dumb-ass scenario. If you play this game, you’ll probably find out what I’m talking about. The secret is you have to hold the control stick forward to alter your trajectory midair, except the game never tells you that’s a thing. This isn’t even a spoiler, this is just necessary information to avoid throwing your system through the window. Game, why you show me what circle does every five seconds but you forget to show me this?
Phew. That concludes this edition of Nip’s Complaint Corner. Thanks for tuning in!
The Last Guardian, a heavily anticipated game, does a lot to align itself tonally with its predecessors, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It does this through an isolated, contemplative environment, as well as through a subdued, well-paced story that focuses on themes of trust and companionship. Presenting plenty of puzzles and obstacles to conquer amid towering architectural landscapes that entice the player ever forward, The Last Guardian challenges the player to learn to work with their new friend, who at times feels very much like he could be a real animal, thanks to the impeccable and ground-breaking work of the production team.
But, at the end of the day, I find myself hard-pressed to call this game fun. This is not the greatest game of 2016. But it just might be the most interesting. Sometimes it feels like more thought was put into Trico than into the rest of the game’s features, and this becomes painfully evident when considering the game’s many flaws, such as the shoddy camera work, unengaging enemy encounters, and downright ridiculously difficult moments that all work together to rupture the player’s flow. But despite all that, I didn’t hate The Last Guardian. I actually rather liked it. Though it may not quite stand up to the precedent set by Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian proves that designer Ueda can still present a true adventure of wonder and discovery in ways that not many games are really doing these days. Here’s to his next game, hopefully just a little sooner this time.
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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