So The Last Guardian finally came out last week, and by some miracle it isn’t total garbage unlike most games that are in gestation for the better part of a decade (looking at you, Duke Nukem Forever). That’s not to say it’s brilliant, as it certainly has its fair share of issues from both a gameplay and a conceptual standpoint, but my time spent with the game hasn’t been an awful experience overall.
My full review will be coming soon after I’ve properly completed the game, but today I just wanted to highlight one particular aspect of The Last Guardian: it’s technical performance on the regular PS4 versus the PS4 Pro. One runs the game great, the other chugs along like a poorly maintained, chain smoking 1800s steam train. Guess which one is which, I’ll wait.
The Last Guardian aims for a baseline frame rate of 30fps across all three visual modes available: 1080p (1920×1080 pixels) on the regular PS4, 1080p on the PS4 Pro and 4K (3840×2160) on the PS4 Pro. The thing is, as evidenced by Digital Foundry’s analysis of these options, the only way to maintain a perfect 30fps is by playing at 1080p on PS4 Pro, as the 4K version does present some minor drops and the regular PS4 suffers from significant drops, sometimes down to as low as 20fps.
Based on my personal experience, as I’ve been playing The Last Guardian on my launch day PS4, the drops occur predominantly while running around large, outdoor areas and whenever Trico, the large cat/bird creature players are journeying with, carries the player on its back and leaps from one location to the next, which it does a lot. The first few of those leaping moments are supposed to be grandiose and awe inspiring, but on a regular PS4 the sudden stutter makes for one hell of an eyesore.
But eyesores aren’t the overall issue here. The real problem is how such a wildly fluctuating frame rate makes playing the game feel, and it honestly feels sluggish. Granted, slower and more sluggish gameplay is common place in developer Fumito Ueda’s games, often as a mechanic to simulate a player character who is not an unstoppable badass, but The Last Guardian’s performance woes go beyond that. This is a machine struggling to maintain the minimum acceptable frame rate in this day and age, and it’s exactly what I was afraid of way back when rumours first started flying about the idea of multi-tiered console generations.
I wrote a semi-controversial piece in March about how my biggest concern with the then rumoured PS4 Pro was that future releases would run perfectly on it but just passably on the original hardware. I had people telling me the Pro would just be for 4K gaming and that if I wanted to stick to 1080p then not upgrading would be fine and I should shut the hell up because yay, 4K gaming. But here we are, with the Pro being the only system capable of running a new release properly and the original PS4 just passing with enough playability to not be a faulty product, so now who’s laughing? Not me, because it means I have a game I’ve been looking forward to for years running poorly!
Since writing that article I had a think and followed it up with some thoughts on how this multi-tiered console generation could work and not be a kick in the dick for anyone who doesn’t immediately upgrade. My conclusion was that while image quality can certainly change, the frame rate must be the same across both old and new hardware. That way we all get a game that plays great, and the disposable income wielding 4K fans can have their 8 million pixels. The only way to do this is to either pre-program visual settings depending on detected platform or implement PC game like settings to tweak. Now with the The Last Guardian Sony did take that latter idea on board, the only problem is it ignored the fundamental principle of it and only applied it to the PS4 Pro.
Earlier I mentioned the 4K resolution mode suffers some minor frame rate drops while trying to render Trico in all its gorgeous, feathery glory, but if you swap your resolution down to 1080p in the PS4 Pro’s settings it runs much smoother. If you want the higher resolution and slight dips don’t bother you then you can go right ahead, but anyone wanting a better performance has the option to tweak the resolution and get that sweet, locked 30fps performance. What I want to know is why the hell can’t I do something similar on my regular PS4, when clearly it’s the system more in need of the option? There doesn’t need to be complex settings full of acronyms no one outside of hardcore PC players bother to understand, but just let me lower the res to 900p or something.
Look, hopefully this is an isolated case of poor optimisation and won’t be the start of a horrendous trend. But really, given The Last Guardian is a major PS4 exclusive, more effort ought to have been put into optimising it for the console the majority of its player base own. Regardless, it needs mentioning because it’s one thing to hypothesise about these concerns and it’s another to see them in action.
I’ve been enjoying The Last Guardian for the most part, so far at least, but its performance differences between PS4 and PS4 Pro are certainly a disappointment. Man, sometimes it sucks being right.