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