Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
11 years after the release of the artistic masterpiece that was Shadow of the Colossus on Playstation 2, developer Fumito Ueda has released his long gestating game: The Last Guardian. Trapped in development hell for many years and even thought to be cancelled at one point before making a grand return at E3 in 2015, The Last Guardian is now a game you can go out and buy. There were some of us who never thought we’d see the day, yet here we are. So I kindly ask the gaming gods: can we get Half-Life 3 next?
In The Last Guardian, players control an unnamed boy who has woken up inside a cave and is covered in tattoos of mysterious symbols. Nearby is a wounded creature that resembles a cat crossed with a bird with a dog’s face named Trico. What follows is an adventure where the player and Trico slowly traverse the desolate nearby ruins together, where the journey isn’t so much about the destination but the bond players form with their new found animal friend.
Expectations for The Last Guardian have certainly been high, what with the brilliance of Shadow of the Colossus as well as the drawn out hype. And while I found the artistry of the concept and the attention to detail to be worthy of the developers, the actual experience playing the game left much to be desired. This is due to a number of factors, from both a design and gameplay perspective, one of which I would describe as executing the concept too well, as strange as that sounds.
Let’s begin with the positives of the aforementioned concept. The Last Guardian is, if nothing else, incredibly different compared to other games out right now. Where a lot of games are all about violence, quests and playing sports, none of them are really about solving platforming puzzles by interacting with an incredibly realistic, and also gigantic, creature.
Players interact with Trico through vague commands, initiated by pressing or holding the R1 button and then pressing the corresponding action buttons to indicate certain gestures, like “jump” or “push”. Trico will then do its best to interpret your commands within the context of the environment you gave them in. Throughout the game Trico will stand on its hind legs to let you climb its feathered body to a higher location, pull on ropes to hold gates open and even carry you on its back as it leaps across massive gaps. As the game goes on, Trico’s ability to do and understand more complicated things increases, like a dog learning new tricks, and the sense of companionship between it and the boy grows stronger.
Trico also defends you against the enemies that patrol the ruins, these sentient suits of armour, as the boy is powerless to stop them. They come to try to steal the boy away into these mysterious gateways, so luring them to Trico’s location, or vice versa, so it can decimate them first is your only option for survival.
Trico is also much more than a tool to use to solve the game’s puzzles and fight your battles, it’s a living, breathing animal brimming with personality. Every new area brings out its cute sense of curiosity, smelling random things and pawing playfully at hanging chains. On several occasions I noticed Trico poking its head around corners, watching me from a distance, not wanting to crowd me but at least wanting to make sure I hadn’t gone. And sometimes, maybe after an intense clash with enemies or out of nowhere, Trico would lower its head in front of me seeking comfort, which opened up an opportunity for my favourite mechanic in the game: patting Trico and watching it love every second of it.
As a simulation of animal behaviour, Trico is a triumph. From an artistic perspective, I am very impressed with what Ueda and his team have achieved. However, from a gameplay perspective Trico’s verisimilitude can be a goddamn nightmare.
Trico has a mind of its own beyond adorably exploring the surroundings; like a poorly trained dog it also decides when it wants to respond to your commands. It was not uncommon for my first instinct to solve a puzzle to be the correct one, but Trico didn’t really respond to my commands so I assumed I was wrong and tried alternatives, only to return to the first one later and have it suddenly work. By the latter half of the game, I had begun resenting my feathered compadre Trico every time it responded to commands with nonplussed stares or walked in a different direction to where I gesturing for it to go.
Again, this is very much like commanding a real animal, but it’s frustrating as hell as a video game mechanic since Trico’s inaction cannot be used to deduce your proposed solution to a puzzle is incorrect. And that’s, you know, kind of important in a puzzle based game.
Other aspects of the gameplay, namely the controls and in-game camera, are a mixed bag. Fumito Ueda’s games aren’t known for having smooth controls as they often try to simulate a player character who is flawed in their athleticism or strength. The Last Guardian‘s protagonist is a child, so it makes sense he is less agile than your classic video game warrior. Granted sections where more finessed actions like throwing barrels or pushing crates were required things got rather clunky, but on the whole the boy’s movement works.
The camera on the other hand is something you often have to battle with. While the camera can be moved at any time using the right analogue stick, The Last Guardian wants to wrestle it out of the player’s hands to set up a cinematic angle of something in particular, usually Trico, which can totally throw off you orientation. It also has a nasty habit of losing its mind when you pass through a doorway into a narrow space, pulling really tight in on the boy’s back, pointing at a wall or just generally showing everything but the area we just walked in to. While hanging onto Trico’s back as it leaps through the world the camera would sometimes go a little wild and get stuck really close to Trico’s feathers, obscuring everything else from view.
Suffice it to say, there were plenty of moments throughout the game where I thought “that looked like it was cool, I wish I’d seen it.”
One of those cool things I wished I was looking at more were the gorgeous visuals. The Last Guardian is quite beautiful, despite having some lower quality textures in certain areas, particularly human skin. Trico’s body is covered in individually wafting feathers, and the environment is covered in stunning greenery, dynamic lighting and the ruins make for some amazing views.
But this level of visual quality sadly ties into a certain elephant in the room: the game’s poor performance on the original Playstation 4.
While The Last Guardian runs at a smooth 30fps at 1080p on the new Playstation 4 Pro, and with very minor dips at 4K resolution, the base PS4’s 1080p frame rate struggles to keep up, often dropping to 25 and even as low as 20. The drops occurred primarily whenever I was in a large, outdoor area, if there was lots of grass swaying in the breeze or if Trico was doing something impressive like fighting enemies or leaping around; all of which happen a lot. And in a puzzle game where you’re constantly surveying your surroundings looking for possible solutions, the chugging frame rate makes an unwieldy camera feel even worse.
Of course, players using a Pro won’t experience these issues, and some may find it harsh to judge a game based on its performance using older hardware. But if Sony wants to push the mid console generation upgrade thing with the message that both units live alongside each other, and not allow for tweaks to image quality to improve frame rate like on PCs, than the game’s performance on the base PS4 is relevant. And while it may not be unplayable, it’s pretty glaring and negatively impacts the experience, and is a potentially concerning aspect of multi-tiered console families.
Lastly, while The Last Guardian’s story is oddly compelling, it’s not exactly what I’d call coherent. Although the companionship between the boy and Trico held things together pretty well, I certainly experienced some intense feelings whenever Trico was in peril despite his frequent disobedience, by the time the credits rolled I was left very confused and unsatisfied. That’s because while I could describe to you what happened in the story, I couldn’t tell you why any of it happened. This is a real shame, as Ueda’s previous story in Shadow of the Colossus was a brilliant example of minimalist video game storytelling.