The Last Guardian is a must-play for fans, but it struggles under the weight of years worth of anticipation, due in large part to troublesome AI and a finicky camera.
After 9 years, numerous delays, and one presumed cancellation, The Last Guardian has finally arrived. Developer Team Ico knew that its pedigree and success with titles like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus would put a lot of weight onto the shoulders of The Last Guardian, but even that’s an understatement at this point. Somewhere along the road The Last Guardian became a reality, and for better or worse, that means fans finally have a finished product to enjoy.
It’s worth highlighting the history of The Last Guardian’s development because it feels intrinsically linked to its quality. Knowing that the game was originally a PS3 product and a follow-up to Shadow of the Colossus helps better illuminate its approach and also its struggles, especially in comparison to modern platformers. Without mincing words, The Last Guardian feels like a game whose flaws were well-known, but rather than can the project, Team Ico and Sony Japan tried to make it as playable as possible.
For those who might not be familiar, The Last Guardian puts players in control of a nameless boy who awakens next to a massive bird/cat/dog hybrid called Trico. It’s unclear how the boy ended up with Trico, but eventually he realizes that Trico is his only hope for escaping from a large castle-like installation that's built into a lush valley. Like one would do with a dog or cat, the boy learns to teach Trico actions, and in turn the creature helps the boy progress.
However, as Trico helps the boy (and the boy helps Trico), the two develop a bond not unlike that between a child and their first pet. And in turn the player begins to connect with Trico, despite the mysterious nature of the creature. It’s in the storytelling that Team Ico shows that it has not lost a step, and is capable of delivering an emotionally moving narrative that is predicated on a visual language. That, coupled with an art style that’s a bit dated but has a wondrous painterly approach, makes The Last Guardian an accomplishment on a creative level. By the end, the player will truly have connected with Trico, and will be extremely invested in the story.
But while the story in The Last Guardian stands up to the developer’s strong pedigree, the gameplay is a very mixed bag. On the one hand, the game never holds the player’s hand, and asks them to figure out how to progress with very few hints. Occasionally narrative might explain a basic goal, but it is up to the player to figure out how the boy and Trico can work together to accomplish a goal. In some cases that goal may be as simple as opening a door, while in others it requires a more advanced puzzle-solving approach.
When it works, The Last Guardian’s platforming and puzzle design is a joy and it feels like a legitimate accomplishment getting from place to place. Analyzing a room, seeing what looks to be a solution, and then finding out how to use the boy and Trico’s abilities to execute that solution is extremely engaging. The game is full of little aha moments that feel genuine and the story is so engrossing that the player will always want to push forward.
Unfortunately, a desire to push forward and being able to do so are easier said than done, largely as a result of The Last Guardian’s clunky controls, its antiquated camera, and temperamental AI. As far as the platforming goes, the game is fairly standard if a bit loose in the physics department, with a camera that works against the player way too much. It’s nothing that Team Ico fans haven’t seen before, but when platformers have come so far in terms of fluidity, animation, and framing, it’s hard not to notice how finicky the game can be. Jumping the wrong way, having the boy flail wildly while trying to climb Trico, or just losing track of the boy are some of the problems that plague the game the whole way through. These are problems that might have been forgivable in the PS2 era, but now are hard to overlook.
To make matters worse, controlling Trico can be equally as frustrating simply because The Last Guardian is, by its nature, a game about testing hypotheses. Trico’s actions are very basic (he can jump, he can raise the boy up on his head, and he can occasionally interact with objects), but getting him to do those actions is never consistent. Sometimes he will stand in front of a jump that he can clearly make and do nothing, and other times he will effortlessly transition into the jump animation. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why one action happened over the other, outside of the fact Trico must be in the perfect spot and the AI was ready for the command.
With that in mind, puzzles become less about finding a solution and more about trying to make a solution work. Players will constantly be asking themselves what they are doing wrong, when usually it’s Trico that is simply not in the right position, or the order of actions is not perfect. For example, there was one jump that we were certain Trico could make but each command to jump resulted in him merely leaping into the air and coming back down. But then, on what had to have been the 10th try, Trico finally made the jump and it was never clear as to why.
It is situations like that which take away so much from The Last Guardian and make it a frustrating experience. You begin to doubt whether your presumed solution is right or if Trico simply isn't cooperating, and not in a likeable this-animal-is-stubborn type of way. It’s one thing to enter a puzzle and be stuck because you don’t see the answer, but it’s another to question whether Trico simply isn’t hitting the right animation trigger.
To be fair, there will be plenty of times when Trico does exactly what he is asked, but there are a bit too many momentum killing areas where the controls or animation or AI pathing get in the way. Players are going to get stuck in The Last Guardian and occasionally they are not going to be pleased when they find out what they were doing "wrong." That’s a problem.
Knowing the history behind The Last Guardian’s development and all it took to finally get the game out, players will start to wonder if the mechanics behind the game were never going to be perfect. They will also wonder if Sony simply decided to acquiesce to fan requests and release the game knowing that it was polished enough for players to see it through to the end, but not without some major flaws. There are so many things about The Last Guardian that feel lesser when compared to today’s quality of triple-A experiences, and for a game with so much anticipation fueling it that is going to crush a lot of dreams.
Story wise and visually the game has a lot going for it, but mechanically there are some genuinely troubling areas. Everything works, but it is nowhere near as polished as it should be, and occasionally that lack of polish hurts the overall experience. The Last Guardian is going to be a memorable release; there’s no doubt about that. But its legacy won’t be quite what fans had hoped.
The Last Guardian releases December 6, 2016 for PS4. Game Rant was provided a PS4 copy for this year.