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It’s been a long journey. The Last Guardian, the latest game from the mind of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus auteur Fumito Ueda, has been in development in some form or another since 2007. During that near decade the game has suffered numerous delays, years without any substantial updates, and the departure of Ueda from Sony, and yet, nobody involved would declare this misbegotten beast dead. Of course, most of us expected that’s exactly what it was.
Turns out most of us were wrong. At E3 2015 The Last Guardian once again reared its feathery head, with Sony announcing a 2016 release date. Yes, you can finally play The Last Guardian, but what has a decade in Sony’s labs done to the game? Would it have been better if this monster had remained in the shadows? Time to put this beast through its paces…
The Last Guardian (PS4)
If you’ve been paying attention to gaming news at all over the past decade, you probably already know the basic premise of The Last Guardian. You play as an unnamed child who awakens next a bus-sized creature that’s equal parts eagle, cat, and long-haired Chihuahua. The kid feeds the monster, frees it from its bonds, and dubs it Trico, forming an immediate bond. From there, the boy and his massive mythological pal try to discover a way out of the mysterious ruins they find themselves trapped in.
It’s an arresting setup. One that pretty much singlehandedly kept The Last Guardian alive and kicking through a decade of turmoil. The sight of a fragile boy aside the giant beast, the pet-owner relationship writ very, very large. It’s impossible not to be fascinated. Unfortunately, The Last Guardian has trouble following through on its striking premise.
Make no mistake, Trico is a laudable technical accomplishment. The beast’s expressive face, body of shimmering feathers, and uncannily realistic animations are impressive, and yet, I didn’t feel that instant connection with my new pet. Many have compared Trico to a trusty family dog, but the creature struck me as more feline in nature. Trico knew I was a provider of food, and perhaps understood he’d need human hands to get past some of the obstacles ahead, but I didn’t sense much genuine devotion. An odd thing to say about a video game AI, I know, but I do think the developers of The Last Guardian were hoping to simulate that special pet-owner affection. I’d frequently lose track of Trico, only to discover him lurking behind me in the shadows, staring at me empty eyes. Perhaps gauging whether it would be more useful to wolf me down as a quick protein snack.
Clunky mechanics and controls also serve to diminish you connection to Trico. Your kiddie avatar moves around like he’s on a severe sugar high, or perhaps drunk – racing, stumbling, tripping and flailing. You’ll beg him to run in a regular straight line, just once, but he never will. You can clutch onto Trico’s feathers and drag yourself up onto his torso, but it isn’t an easy or reliable process. You’ll constantly find yourself struggling to climb up the beast’s chicken legs, or, embarrassingly, stuck somewhere around its butt region. While trying to climb onto Trico’s back, the monster will blithely continue his various idle animations, shaking you like a rag doll and contorting your body into various unnatural bone-shattering shapes. More than once, Trico sent me tumbling into a bottomless chasm, because he decided he needed to shake out his plumage while I was teetering on top of his head. I didn’t get the sense this terrifying predatory beast particularly valued my wellbeing.
Thankfully, your young avatar is nearly indestructible. 100-foot drops result in a minor limp that lasts all of 10 seconds. Trico can leap over a wall directly onto your face and you’ll be completely fine. The Last Guardian would be completely unplayable if you were as vulnerable as a real child, but the game’s juxtaposition between the frail-looking player character and the fearsome Trico loses much of its impact when you realize you’re basically playing as a pre-teen Superman.
The Last Guardian’s approach to level design takes some getting used to. Early on, most of the game’s “puzzles” consist of you simply waiting around or patiently nudging Trico until he decides to jump to the next area. People looking for overly complex solutions will find themselves lost and frustrated. Fortunately, about a third of the way through, The Last Guardian’s level design starts to open up. The game begins to throw elaborate, death-defying platforming segments at you, which are often genuinely thrilling. You also gain access to a more precise set of commands for Trico, which allows for more complex puzzles. Most of them still consist of pulling a lever to open a door or bringing Trico food, but finding your way to those levers/food gets increasingly complicated.
The Last Guardian also serves up a surprising amount of action, with mixed results. You’ll frequently have to deal with pernicious suits of living armor, which will grab you then try to carry you off to some dark fate. Trico can take these enemies out with ease, making them little more than an annoyance, although, trust me, they are indeed annoying. More successful are the game’s big action set-pieces. Just barely surviving a collapsing bridge by grabbing onto Trico’s tail, or helping him fight a vicious rival monster is truly heart-racing stuff.
And I must admit, bit by bit, close scrape by close scrape, my misgivings about Trico began to melt away as I played through The Last Guardian’s 10-to-12-hour adventure. Yes, on a basic, mechanical level, The Last Guardian has a lot of problems, but it largely overcomes those issues with good old-fashioned storytelling. I’m not afraid to say I let out a cheer when Trico finally overcame a crippling fear to save me from an army of baddies, and yes, my heart melted a little during a later sequence when I had to nurse the big dumb beast back to health. I’m not made of stone. Also, not to give too much away, but there are some pretty killer twists and revelations in the back half of this game. There’s more going on in The Last Guardian than you might initially expect.
Worldbuilding – The technically astounding Trico and Team Ico’s trademark aesthetic make for a striking world, although you may get a little tired of sun-bleached ruins after a while.
Innovation – Trico and some surprising storyline twists greatly elevate what would have otherwise been a relatively standard puzzle-platformer.
Playability – Unwieldy controls and sometimes-unclear level design will lead to plenty of profanity. Developer fixes for these issues, such as making the main character almost invincible, are kludges that often play against the game’s story.
Durability – The Last Guardian is relatively brief, but those who truly connect with their cat-bird-dog, or simply want to collect the game’s particularly tricky trophies, will want to return for more.
The Last Guardian may be Fumito Ueda’s greatest contribution yet to the conversation surrounding games as art. It isn’t a perfect game, far from it, but it soars over its sometimes deep flaws on the back of a singular artistic vision. Wonky fundamentals and sometimes frustrating design end up being no match for carefully built characters, well-deployed story beats, and unmistakable creative passion.
Like the new puppy who pees on the carpet, The Last Guardian can be infuriating, but is ultimately worth your time and patience. If you’re up to the challenge, this griffin deserves a good home on your PS4.
This review was based on a copy of The Last Guardian purchased by the writer.