By Chris Byrne
We’ve waited a long time for this game - through the migration from PS3 to the PS4, lead creator Fumito Ueda leaving Sony, and the game wrestling its way out of development hell. Here we are though, 7 years after its initial release trailer, and we finally have our hands on the follow up to Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus. The question on everybody’s mind of course is this: ‘has it been worth the wait?’
Let’s get some negatives out of the way first. The controls are nearly as frustrating its predecessors. Not quite as bad, but that really isn’t saying much. This game is, in its core gameplay philosophy, closer to Ico, so 3D puzzle-solving with a strong emphasis on platforming is one of the main mechanics of the game. There are times when this will frustrate you; even kill you due to the controls maybe not doing exactly what you wanted. Then there’s the camera. It will frequently jerk all over the place, making it hard to get into focus what you’re trying to look at. These are two of the main criticisms against the game, which are both incredibly fair reasons as to why some people just won’t get along with it. Finally, we have to remember that it was was designed and conceived in the era of the PS3, so, for some, this game will look many years out of date. This adds insult to injury when you consider the issues with frame rate the game has, sometimes dropping down to slideshow levels of abysmal. Considering how long this game has been in development and the time it was initially planned, some optimisation can’t be too much to ask for?
And yet, frankly, I couldn’t care less about those issues, because I bloody love this game. Fumito Ueda has, as far as I’m concerned, knocked it out of the park again. The Last Guardian pulled me into its world from the instant I started playing it, and had me hooked until the end.
Arguably the strongest part of this game is Trico himself. Merely watching the giant creature in action is nothing short of astonishing. His behavior is close to that of a real-life animal; it’s genuinely enchanting. The team behind his AI did an incredible job of bringing him to life and making him the focal point of this game. The way he interacts with the environment, such as being able to leap great distances, splashing around in the water, reacting to you if he feels like you’re leaving him behind and even nuzzling up to The Boy - the character you control - add so much depth and really help build and establish a relationship between you and your cat/dog/bird hybrid.
These all tie into the core gameplay. The Last Guardian is, at its heart, a puzzle/adventure game, and the process will involve both you and Trico in order to solve most of these puzzles. I always found them on the right side of challenging; not too easy, nor too hard. There were few to no situations where I was left thinking ‘how was I meant to figure that out?!’ - a frustration which can occur in some puzzlers.
There are caveats to this though. Sometimes Trico won’t do exactly what you want him to do, which can lead you into situations where you can miss the solution to a puzzle simply because he’s a will unto himself. It can be frustrating, but my advice for this would be to remember that he might not always know exactly what it is you want him to do, because he’s an animal. You have to be clear to him and use the game’s direction mechanics to help make it obvious where to go. This actually ties in quite nicely to certain aspects of his behavior. As the game progresses throughout its story, the bond between The Boy and Trico strengthens, thus leading to him gradually understanding your directions better. Also, looking after him - making sure you pull out spears from the enemies when he is hurt, petting him when he is frustrated and so on - affect how he responds to you.
This is for me where the game truly shines. The building of that relationship and the subsequent journey that this game takes you on as a result left a lasting impression on me, with a strong bond at its core and a story that is equally as surprising as it is enthralling. I honestly can’t think of many games that have done this as successfully as The Last Guardian.
Mechanically, it's not just puzzles you'll have to figure out. Trico will become hungry at times and need feeding in order to continue, so you’ll need to locate food barrels for him. Luckily, this also gives you some unlockable costumes for The Boy, so this should help encourage repeat playthroughs, as well as the speed-running aspect, which its predecessors had. You’ll also encounter enemy NPC’s which will try to abduct you in some areas of the game. It’s possible to counter them by letting Trico destroy them for you, but you can also help by knocking them over by rolling into them and even pulling their heads off. Unfortunately, for the most part they’re a little dim-witted and blindly follow you around, so they present little challenge. Being picked up by one becomes more of a nuisance, as it’s easy to make them drop you again. You’re seriously more likely to die from messing up a jump at a platforming section, which can be easily done due to the aforementioned issues with the controls. These sections, however, can still be enjoyable and tense, as you try to solve the puzzle whilst your captors are hounding you.
Outside of the gameplay, the artistic merits of this game are fantastic. Yes, this game was initially meant to be a PS3 game, but as far as I’m concerned, the artwork and environmental detail here is some of the best on the PS4. It still follows the ideology of its predecessors by keeping the world to just the essentials of what is needed, yet reaching the open sections of the game and seeing the world you are trapped in, the scale of the buildings you climb, the way the environment conveys a scarce yet beautiful world, and the overall attention to the design of everything truly pulls you in and brings it to life. When you accompany this with the soundtrack composed by Takeshi Furukawa managing to hit all the right beats in the game, you have something that really adds the final ingredient to this package.
And now we come back to the start of the review, with my criticisms. Yes, the controls can be annoying, causing you to mess up unjustly in some sections, but I’d still argue that the design of these controls is right for this game. They feel human, it’s a struggle, and it’s not meant to be perfect and precise. Yes, the camera can be woeful, but when you bear in mind it has to adapt for you, Trico AND the environmental puzzles all at one time, it’s a miracle the camera works at all. Yes, there are some issues with optimisation, but none of these things could truly take away from just how special this game is. The ending of the game left me in tears; both from the rollercoaster of emotion this game takes you on from start to finish, and knowing my journey has ended.
You can’t ignore its faults, and I can certainly see how, for some, this game won’t connect with them. The Last Guardian’s minimalist design, stripping out everything except what is necessary, probably won’t appeal to the Skyrim generation, and Trico can be as frustrating as he is endearing. For me though, Fumito Ueda has done it again and successfully combined the intimacy of Ico, the scale of Shadow Of The Colossus, improved on those elements, knowing what made those games special, and crafted an experience unlike any other in gaming; one that has firmly made its way into my personal list of favourite games of all time. In short, like Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus before it, The Last Guardian is a masterpiece.