The Last Guardian

Ev­ery­body’s heard about the bird… and af­ter a decade of wait­ing it’s ready to leave the nest

Games Master - - Reviews -

It’s not a new thing for a videogame to cre­ate a bond be­tween player and an­i­mal. Whether it’s Epona in The Leg­end Of Zelda, Dog­meat in Fall­out 4, or Poké­mon Yel­low’s ever-present Pikachu, forg­ing a fleet­ing yet mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion with a digi­tised an­i­mal can help el­e­vate a game from sim­ply be­ing good, to be­com­ing one you never for­get. Like Ico and Shadow Of The Colos­sus be­fore it, Sony’s lat­est exclusive can stand proudly as one that can make you feel so many strong emo­tions: fear, joy, ela­tion, sad­ness. This is a mov­ing game, but was it worth the eter­nal wait? Af­ter be­ing an­nounced in 2007, it’s fair to say this is a game that has had it’s share of prob­lems dur­ing devel­op­ment. Orig­i­nally a PS3 game, Fu­mito Ueda’s di­rec­tion and Sony’s de­vo­tion to the project has fi­nally brought the fan­tasy ad­ven­ture to life on PS4 and made a game that has been kick­ing around for what seems like for­ever, ac­tu­ally feel fairly fresh, with a graph­i­cal sheen that, while it doesn’t com­pete with the very best the con­sole has to of­fer, cer­tainly looks bet­ter than it did when we first saw it nearly a decade ago.

In so many ways, The Last Guardian is some­thing of a throw­back. There’s no mul­ti­player, the menus are pretty sparse, and very few tro­phies pop up dur­ing play (most ap­pear af­ter the cred­its). No, this is purely a story driven sin­gle-player, third-per­son ac­tion ad­ven­ture ex­pe­ri­ence. And with­out the trap­pings of a mod­ern videogame or the machi­na­tions of a pub­lisher more con­cerned with push­ing mi­cro­trans­ac­tions or keep­ing play­ers grind­ing away months af­ter re­lease, it feels all the more fo­cused.

Bird watch

You play a young boy who meets Trico, a com­bi­na­tion of a bird and a cat (and a dog, prob­a­bly – it’s quite hard to tell) who is in­jured, trapped, and as lost as you are. The story feels very much like the tra­di­tional fa­ble of a lion with a thorn in its foot, only spread out over around nine hours, with a friend­ship that grows and ma­tures. Most of the time you’ll be clam­ber­ing up scenery, solv­ing rudi­men­tary puz­zles, and rid­ing Trico, but there are plenty of story beats de­spite the lack of di­a­logue. In fact, it’s a quiet game all round, with only the hero’s com­mands to Trico, his fre­quent roar­ing, skit­ter­ing feet, and gen­eral an­i­mal noises pep­per­ing the at­mos­phere. This world is al­lowed to breath, and it feels strangely alive as a re­sult. The sound­track is sweep­ing, grandiose, and ten­der when re­quired, but it’s the de­sign of Trico him­self that most im­presses. Whether he’s shak­ing wa­ter off his feath­ery body like a dog, sit­ting and preen­ing him­self like a bird, or even pounc­ing around like a cat af­ter a fight, Trico’s ap­pear­ance and au­dio de­sign are an ab­so­lute tri­umph. A good thing too,

“Trico never seems to fol­low com­mands with any kind of obe­di­ent reg­u­lar­ity”

be­cause else­where, he’s a se­ri­ous pain in the back­side.

The prob­lem with be­ing a game that started devel­op­ment nearly ten years ago, is that there are tech­ni­cal hang­overs. Hor­ren­dous, in­ex­cus­able hang­overs that drive you to mad­ness. The cam­era seems the best place to start, be­cause it’s the sec­ond most an­noy­ing thing in the en­tire game. The Last Guardian is a third-per­son game that re­quires you to make jumps over chasms that, if failed, cause you to die – you thus need to be able to con­trol the cam­era well. Sadly, for the en­tire run-time, it’s a real strug­gle to tame. In tight in­door spots (of which there are many), a few times we com­pletely lose sight of our char­ac­ter, and our view­point seems to get lost in­side a wall, caus­ing a com­pletely black screen for a frus­trat­ing few sec­onds.

The rea­son for this could be be­cause of the lengthy devel­op­ment time, but the root of the prob­lems per­haps lie deeper, and it’s cer­tainly re­lated to the big­gest is­sue with the whole game: Trico. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the huge, ever-present an­i­mal with the tiny child, on huge land­scapes, leads to an oc­ca­sion­ally con­fused di­rec­tion at times. The cam­era will zoom in far too closely at in­op­por­tune mo­ments, then sud­denly shift to the most in­con­ve­nient place. Mid-climb, you’ll sud­denly com­pletely lose sight of what you’re do­ing, forc­ing you to ad­just the cam­era be­fore sort­ing your­self out. Worse still, oc­ca­sion­ally it feels as though there’s an el­e­ment of over-ea­ger show­man­ship on dis­play, with the cam­era ex­er­cis­ing a wan­der­ing mind of its own and pan­ning to Trico at the ex­pense of the player char­ac­ter.

Cat call

Look, we know he’s adorable, with his whiskery face, over­sized ears, and weepy eyes. No­body is dis­put­ing Trico’s lov­able cre­den­tials. But there’s no es­cap­ing the fact that he can also be ex­cru­ci­at­ingly an­noy­ing at times. The first third of the story is about the two un­likely com­pan­ions form­ing a ten­ta­tive al­liance as they work to­gether to achieve a shared ob­jec­tive: es­cap­ing to free­dom. Af­ter a while, though, you gain the abil­ity to com­mand Trico by hold­ing R1 and press­ing a cor­re­spond­ing face but­ton to get him to do some­thing. At least, that’s the idea. In prac­tice, it’s some­thing of a dif­fer­ent story – Trico never seems to fol­low com­mands with any kind of obe­di­ent reg­u­lar­ity.

Of course it would seem un­fair to sug­gest a wild beast should not act like a wild beast. Trico is un­tamed, he’s of­ten ag­gres­sive, and fre­quently deadly. But this is a game. You are given the abil­ity to com­mand him, and he just doesn’t do it. Some­times he’ll do things af­ter one prompt, some­times three or four at­tempts, or maybe he’ll just com­pletely ig­nore you for ages, then do it any­way. There’s a dis­tinct lack of feed­back on of­fer to ex­plain why this is.

This isn’t, by it­self, a prob­lem, but The Last Guardian never gives you enough of an idea that what you’re at­tempt­ing to do is ac­tu­ally right. Large parts of the game re­quire you to cling to your friend as he

“when it hits its stride, you’ll lose your­self in the beau­ti­fully de­signed world”

bounces from pil­lar to ledge (places you couldn’t oth­er­wise reach, be­ing the small boy that you are). As fan­tas­tic as this mode of transport sounds, sit­ting and wait­ing for Trico to do things isn’t fun, nor is be­ing ab­so­lutely sure you’re point­ing him in the right di­rec­tion, only for him to do noth­ing. In a game about ex­plo­ration and dis­cov­ery, it’s hard to swal­low. Per­haps we’ve grown too used to games spoon­feed­ing us in­for­ma­tion, there are mo­ments here that leave us beg­ging to just be told what to do.

But there’s clearly been so much love and time in­vested in mak­ing this a spe­cial game. Our hero limps if harmed, he whis­pers to Trico in­stead of shout­ing if in a dan­ger­ous en­vi­ron­ment, and it’s ab­surd how much emo­tion the two char­ac­ters are able to con­vey. But the combo of game­play con­fu­sion and the bad cam­era can make for some ex­tremely frus­trat­ing mo­ments. When it hits its stride, you lose your­self in it – which makes it all the more heart-break­ing when it stum­bles.

This is Team Ico very much stick­ing to its es­tab­lished mould, and its third game may as well be set in the same uni­verse as its crit­i­cally ac­claimed and af­fec­tion­ately re­garded pre­de­ces­sors, such is the fa­mil­iar­ity of its look and feel. That does mean it has that slightly over-an­i­mated con­trol that can cause you to over­run ob­jects that need to be picked up or in­ter­acted with – though with the ben­e­fit of re­ally giv­ing your char­ac­ter a sense of life. Whether you’re clam­ber­ing across bro­ken beams as the sun breaks through dusky clouds, or squeez­ing through gaps in cav­ernous rocks deep un­der­ground, this is a world that begs to be both ex­plored and qui­etly con­tem­plated much as those of Shadow Of The Colos­sus or Ico’s did.

Dog fight

At the risk of giv­ing too much away, there is some form of com­bat present, but the ac­tual ac­tion is more akin to puz­zle solv­ing, with Trico do­ing the ac­tual dirty work. (It’s hardly sur­pris­ing that of the two char­ac­ters, it’s the gi­ant beast which is the more use­ful in a scrap.)

In an in­ter­est­ing twist, once your pal has gone feral on en­e­mies, you have to take some time to soothe him be­fore pro­gress­ing. This amounts to climb­ing him and press­ing the Cir­cle but­ton to pet him. Even­tu­ally he will calm down, and you can gen­tly pull any pro­trud­ing ar­rows out of his body, and con­tinue on your merry way.

Your quadruped com­pan­ion also has eyes that change colour to re­flect his mood – purple rep­re­sents an ag­gres­sive state, and yel­low in­di­cates hunger (Trico is a big lad with an ap­petite to match, and you’ll have to find and feed him lovely tasty bar­rels to keep him sat­is­fied).

It all com­bines to make a game burst­ing with char­ac­ter, and a story that is si­mul­ta­ne­ously sat­is­fy­ing and emo­tion­ally mov­ing.

The Last Guardian is a hugely mixed bag. On one hand, it’s fan­tas­tic that there’s a de­vel­oper so staunchly ded­i­cated to mak­ing games that veer to­wards the artis­tic while still re­tain­ing me­chan­ics we know and en­joy. On the other hand, this is a game full of de­sign de­ci­sions that feel stuck in the past, made ob­so­lete years ago.

One thing’s for sure, for ev­ery frus­tra­tion we felt while play­ing, there was an equally ex­cep­tional area that we loved ex­plor­ing, and when all’s said and done, once the fi­nal scenes played out and the cred­its had fin­ished, it felt like a jour­ney that was ab­so­lutely worth tak­ing.

So, no, per­haps it wasn’t worth the ten year wait, but it’s a de­cent game, and given all it went through to even ex­ist, that’s gen­uinely a mi­nor mir­a­cle.

For­mat PS4 Pub­lisher Sony De­vel­oper Sony ETA Out now Play­ers 1

The tat­tooed hero may be lack­ing a name, but thanks to some won­der­fully re­alised an­i­ma­tion he cer­tainly isn’t lack­ing in per­son­al­ity.

You ob­tain a mir­ror shield dur­ing the early stages which can be used for de­struc­tive pur­poses.

In wide open spa­ces, where the cam­era prob­lems are min­i­mal, the game shines and is thor­oughly en­joy­able.

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