The Last Guardian was a game 7 years in the making, one that launched to a wide variety of critical reception. I finally got around to playing it during my recent Christmas Vacation, but without all the hype it had upon release. Was it worth the wait?
At a Glance – 9.5 / 10
Yes, it most certainly was. If I had known what I was in for upon finally playing this game I would have made time for it much sooner. The Last Guardian is a triumph in animation and AI, creating a character in Trico that is among the most real I’ve ever seen in my 36 years of gaming. If you have an affinity for narrative and traversal based puzzle solving you will not regret picking up this game.
Shadow of the Colossus is a massive shadow for any game to be developed under, yet that is just the sort of shadow that The Last Guardian found itself under. The follow up to what most would argue a masterpiece of the PlayStation 2 generation, this new game was expected to blow everyone away. The gaming community waited, and waited, and then waited some more as it seemed to become ever more likely that this game would never release. After a reintroduction in 2015, The Last Guardian finally made its debut in 2016, but it wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms.
There was a lot of negativity surrounding the game at launch, or so I seem to recall from the many reviews I read, or podcasts I listened to. It was this feedback, and the price tag looming over what seemed to be a shorter experience, that made me not pick it up on launch.
After finally playing the game I think the length of the game’s development and the resulting hype was horribly unfair to the game. It is better in all regards to the studio’s first title with Ico—and though it really can’t compare in the type of game it is—I think it approaches the heights of Shadow of the Colossus. It does this not by a great achievement in gameplay, but in realizing some of the most stunning AI that I’ve ever witnessed in a video game, partnered with animations to make the creature seem completely life like.
At the beginning of the game your character awakes in a cave, covered in strange tattoo like markings. You are not sure how or why you came to be in this place, but chained just feet away is a giant monster that looks like a strange off-breed of Gryphon—a merger between a dog and a bird that moves like a cat. It is injured and it regards you with distrust, emoting the distinct body tells of a dangerous animal that is cornered.
Approaching this beast, one that I already knew from the marketing I would form a bond with, I was actually a little afraid. That was my first taste of what made this game so special as the developer used a combination of ambiance, superb animation, and AI programming to make me feel like I was in the room with a wild animal and not just a series of code. Approaching the monster the boy seeks to remove a spear from its back as it can barely stand, and for his effort is rewarded by being hurtled into the wall by the force of its movements.
On awakening you continue to care for the monster, removing spears and feeding it, until at last both you and it are ready to leave this location and escape. Unshackling the beast—a type of mystical man eating creature known to the boy as a Trico—you begin a journey together. It is the bond between Trico and the boy, and by proxy yourself, that drives the entire experience. As you would with a real animal you will build trust with Trico by feeding him, petting him, and rallying to his side when you can. Over my 7 to 9 hours of gameplay I came to care more for Trico than I have for any computer generated companion ever, in all my 36 years of gaming. When Trico was in trouble I wanted to help, not out of a desire born from a gameplay mechanic, but because he was my friend. I felt the same way we all do as we see someone bullied in a movie, and though my character was clearly helpless to strike back for the creature, I came to his defense anyway.
The bulk of the actual gameplay is in solving light traversal puzzles alongside your trusty companion. At first, Trico essentially does what he wants, though he can be goaded on by food and the like. You can climb freely on the beast, and use him to leap to ever higher platforms which the developers use to full effect during the game. Initial puzzles and challenges are quite rudimentary, meant to slowly let you both engage with the monster while coming to grips with the gameplay, but they ramp up beautifully in both creativity and difficulty.
Eventually you’ll be able to ask Trico to do what you would like as the child pantomimes what he wants, and as the game continues the creature is ever more likely to do just that. It was this conceit that many people took offense to, becoming frustrated when Trico wouldn’t do as he was told the first time. I don’t know if it was due to patches, or I just understood what to do when it was presented, but I never found this to be an issue. Trico didn’t always do exactly what I wanted, exactly when I wanted, but this made him feel more like a pet or companion than an AI triggered by a button command. It is this combined with his animations as he plays with the environment, is curious about things, or becomes fearful that sells him as a real being. It is integral to what makes this game special, and I stand by the idea that removing that would have made this a worse game.
The narrative itself is told by the boy in flashbacks, but it is cryptic in many places and I found myself driven ever onward to solve mystery after mystery about what function the location I was in served, why the boy was there, and more importantly what Trico was. In time most all of these are answered in an incredibly satisfying way, one that took twists and turns I didn’t quite expect. I simply don’t cry for most any games, but there were multiple times that the game pulled my heartstrings in ways I wasn’t ready for, and at least once tears did indeed fall. The narrative is helped along by an ambient noise and beautiful soundtrack that always seemed to peak in the right places, and feel woefully sad when the game required it.
There are moments of frustration when the game stumbles–times the camera will get caught too close to your beast, or when you know the solution to a puzzle but Trico won’t stop pawing at some random item on the ground. Graphics don’t hold up to the best this generation have to offer–they can’t hold a candle to something like God of War–but the art direction is absolutely stellar as you would expect from the pedigree of this developer. Muted colors stand highlighted against beautiful backdrops, and Trico’s feathers rustle in the wind so believably–and looked so fuzzy–I almost felt as if I could reach out and feel them.
I found the gameplay of The Last Guardian satisfying, the puzzles are engaging without being overly difficult and they provide that welcome sensation of cleverness when you achieve your goal. Though many people felt the controls were off when the game first released I had no problems with controlling my protagonist and found the button mapping to be sufficient for every encounter in the game. These elements made it feel more like a game to me and gave me a stake in the proceedings, but it always came back to Trico. At the end of the day the bond I formed with him was strong enough to drive the entire game and create a narrative experience that I will never forget.