REVIEW – After over ten years of development, the epic game of Fumito Ueda is finally here. Originally planned for the still new PlayStation 3 at the time, The Last Guardian skipped a whole console generation and a half: in fact, it’s out when even the PS4 is getting old, and we already have the PS4 Pro. It’s all fine and dandy but what about the final game itself? Is it a genuine masterpiece of the fantastic beast everybody was waiting for or is it rather a sad turkey full of technical issues?
The beginning of the game couldn’t be simpler – yet it strikes the whole mood of the game perfectly. An unnamed and unknown young boy (who’s also the Japanese narrator) awakes in a strange place covered full of tattoos on his whole body. There’s also a big, chained beast near him, who is both weak, hurt and depressed. The boy has to heal him, feed him and free him and thus the whole adventure can begin.
I have a bird; I have a cat… Uhh… Catbird!
Trico, the big beast – which could be best described as a cross between a cat, a bird and perhaps a dog – is first reluctant to follow you fully, or at least to follow your directives. Later he’s getting to trust the boy, and he will mostly do what we ask of him, but – as he has a mind of his own – he always stays a bit reluctant, sometimes slow to respond and many times not understanding what we want from him.
Indeed, Trico has a mind of his own and we can never direct him, only the boy, so to get around the enormous and fantastic world of The Last Guardian we have to persuade the beast to help us. To say it’s not easy would be an understatement. Besides, Trico being not always helpful, hesitant, or downward lazy – as a real animal would be – there are unfortunately some inconsistency or sometimes even bugs in his behavior.
Yes, I have to admit: nothing can be more frustrating than waiting, waiting and waiting some more for Trico to make his move finally and jump, fly to a higher point and advance in the game. As it is an environmental puzzle-based game, when Trico is not doing his thing, from a firm belief we are getting more and more doubtful: is this really the way to go? Didn’t I miss something? Sometimes it’s truly annoying to find out: yes it is INDEED how we should proceed, just Trico didn’t want to go first! While I understand what Fumito Ueda wanted to achieve: a complete simulation of an AI based beast, it’s still a bad idea to “discourage” players from the actual solution to a riddle.
Still, Trico’s design and behavior are a genuine artistic triumph in itself: since Black & White I have never seen such a success in creating a beast like that with an AI of his own. Still, in a story based exploration-adventure – as much I loved Trico – halting the player to advance, because the damn beast is too lazy/stupid to move is never good game design.
And then there’s the control… Yes, I understand that the boy is no Prince of Persia, but for Christ’s sake, sometimes he’s so freaking clumsy – because of the control itself – that I almost threw my controller at my television screen! Don’t be fooled: those are crucial, life-threatening moments, where you have to jump above an abyss, and one wrong move can mean instant death and reload of the game. (Fortunately, loading times are bearable, but you have to push eight buttons of your DualShock 4 to finish the game loading.)
The little boy is also unable to combat the animated soldier statues, who want to catch him and bring him into a strange blue chamber, which means death for him. To get rid of those annoying ghoul henchmen you have to kick around to free yourself from them and help Trico to get close to kill them, which (as you have guessed) is never an easy task. Finally, after the combat, you have to calm down the frenzied animal and sometimes pull the lances stuck in his body. While it’s fun for the first time (especially watching Trico obliterate the statue soldiers angrily) it can get repetitive the third or fourth time around.
Another note of complaint: even such easy tasks as throwing barrels of food at Trico, so he eats them can be a chore. It can happen, that he can’t catch them, he looks stupidly as the barrel hits his huge face and doesn’t eat them because for some reason the AI didn’t “acknowledged” that there’s food nearby. It doesn’t happen too much, but often enough to be noticed and it’s especially frustrating as bringing the barrel to him is usually a hard task in itself.
And finally, let’s not forget those annoying camera views which often even hinders the progression since we can’t see the way we should go. It’s especially infuriating in narrow corridors, where Trico has a hard to time to advance already. Since later in the game, we have to show him the way to go, fiddling with bad camera views will certainly get on your nerves.
Okay, now that I let the steam out, let’s see what’s indeed amazing in The Last Guardian. In spite of any frustration I encountered, Fumito Ueda’s title offers such a unique experience, that you have hard to find in any game today. Trico is a sight the to behold, and besides any frustration, it’s just incredible to interact with him. Sometimes you truly have the impression to have a big, real animal companion at your side, not just an AI controlled computer game character. As I have pets on my own (two cats and a parrot) I can vouch as to how realistically Trico moves and behaves.
The forming bond between the two character is also nothing short of breathtaking. While Trico is not a pet, but indeed a wild animal, he’ll become attached to the boy in a way no other game showed me so far – and I have seen quite a lot in my 25 years of game journalism. During the game, you’ll relate to both of them, and while the story is very basic, it will be an astounding experience which will stay with you for long, even after you finished the game.
The puzzles are also generally clever and well fitting the game’s general ambiance, not just thrown together, as we can see it in so many action-adventure titles.
Let’s get technical
Now that we have gone trough all those strong and conflicting emotions let’s see the technical aspect of the title. As a whole, the visual world of The Last Guardian is just astonishing. I was speechless as I advanced in an incredible world of massive, crumbling ruins, towers, and ancient castles overlooking a vast, foggy abyss. Those are not only “excellent graphics”: The Last Guardian is indeed a piece of art, it’s unlike you have ever seen in any video game so far. And it’s not only a still-standing beauty, or just a beautiful background to your adventures since those massive towers are also getting shattered while Trico is jumping on them and it’s a real sight to behold to watch them fall apart.
On the other hand, it has to be also added, that the long development phase is showing its age. Textures get muddy as we get closer to a wall and the vegetation is also a bit rigid and sparse. Thanks to the game’s stylized graphics, it’s not a big deal, but still, a thing you’ll certainly notice.
And if there’s one thing, which is absolutely amazing, that’s Trico’s design itself. He looks, moves and behaves like real animals do. While he’s a wild beast indeed, he has deep, dark, expressive eyes full of emotions which look at your character with care as he becomes attached to the boy more and more.
Trico also behaves like the animals to which he resembles: he’s scratching himself like my cat does and his lost feathers are sometimes flying away in all directions while he’s moving – a bit like my parrot.
And finally let’s not forget the epic soundtrack either, composed by award-winning Takeshi Furukawa.
The Last Guardian is indeed a fantastic title, but I had truly mixed feeling while reviewing the game. On the one hand, it’s the state of the art of the game design. Indeed, Fumito Ueda presented us not just a game, but a real piece of art with a simple, yet moving the story and the breathtaking world with that unmistakable “Japanese soul” in it.
On the other hand, the infuriating, dated controls, the bad camera angles, and Trico’s sometimes stupid behavior takes away from the pleasure of not only contemplating but participating in this piece of art. Those conflicting feelings stayed along the whole game with me – until its very cathartic end.
To sum up: if you are a true “connoisseur” of video games or just yearning for a truly artistic game The Last Guardian is one game you just should never, ever miss, but be also prepared: this fantastic journey will be ridden with lots of frustration.
+ Trico is nothing short of amazing
+ A fantastic world with top notch art style
+ Minimalistic, yet moving, intruiging story
– Technical issues: control, camera
– Looks very dated in some parts
– Sever framerate issues on vanilla PS4
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Release date: December 6, 2016