December 7, 2016
Sony Interactive Entertainment
SIE Japan Studio, Team Ico
The Last Guardian is at once a beautiful, breathtaking, frustrating and memorable adventure, between a young boy and the strange giant bird-dog hybrid, Trico. While the game may have a reputation that precedes it based on its incredibly long development cycle, Team Ico have created a third masterpiece to sit proudly on the shelf alongside Ico and Shadow of the Collossus, but the control scheme and AI in The Last Guardian are a struggle, and don’t live up to the lofty expectations of its concept.
There is no major setup behind the tale, other than you waking up next to Trico in the beginning and trying to figure out how to free it, feed it and make your escape together. You’ll be spending a lot of time together, navigating puzzles and platforming sequences, relying heavily on Trico to explore your surroundings and reach areas that you would be unable to as a human.
The connection to Trico is instant. While the creature may be gigantic, there is an innocent and adorable quality not unlike what you would see in a puppy. That’s not to say Trico doesn’t know how to fight and defend itself, with a tail that can shoot lightning and a loyalty that becomes unwavering when you’re being attacked. As the young boy, you’re defenseless by yourself, and there are plenty of puzzles that separate the two of you which creates a neat sense of vulnerability.
The Last Guardian genuinely took my breath away during several moments during a campaign that was longer than I was expecting. Elaborate set-pieces play out like a great adventure movie, with a soundtrack that is well-matched and crafted to really get your heart beating during some very tense scenarios.
Through all of these memorable scenes, it’s actually the quiet and understated moments that I will keep more fondly. Removing spears from Trico and bringing food, along with receiving a nuzzle of thanks when I managed to be the saviour for a change was enchanting and touched my heart in a way I didn’t expect.
The visual cues throughout also tell the story without requiring a literal explanation. Stained-glass eyes frighten Trico for an unknown reason, halting its progress, which is enough motivation for you to want to destroy them. There are enemies that are essentially suits of armor which come to life when you near them, attempting to drag you through an ominous blue door as your screen floods with seemingly random symbols. The Last Guardian is remarkably clever with the way it has designed each level; objects have purpose and experimenting with how you interact with your environment is key to your progression.
It’s such a shame, then, that littered throughout are inconsistencies with the controls that left me so frustrated that it pulled me right out of it. The boys movements could be described as floaty at best, downright irritating at worst. Jumps seem unclear, the way he climbs and navigates ledges doesn’t seem to click like it does in other platforming games of this nature and I found myself falling to my death on numerous occasions from what really felt like no fault of my own. One particular scenario which has you throwing a heavy barrel up a series of ledges had me actually yelling in my home because of how finicky it was.
Then there’s Trico. Again, so adorable that I almost wanted to forgive it, but sometimes it felt like it would do the absolute opposite of what I was hoping it would do. There are some vague commands that you can give Trico to assist you in your quest, but like most wild animals, it often disobeyed or didn’t seem too interested in what I was trying to achieve.
The first few times this happened, I wasn’t too annoyed – I mean, there are behaviours in Trico not paying attention to my instructions that were reminiscent of the early days training my dogs in real life. If I break it down as a cooperative partner in a video game context though, it’s a tough pill to swallow when you can clearly see the solution laid out in front of you, but the AI refuses to let you progress.
I do have to say that as frustrating as these segments were (and there were probably about 3 or so where I found myself “stuck” in this way), it is tough to stay mad at a character like Trico. When the commands actually work, they work well; it’s just not consistent, which makes for an occasionally disjointed experience when the rest of the world has been constructed so carefully.
On a technical level, the game isn’t perfect either. There are some problems with the frame-rate and also clipping issues. When you’re outside in a big open space it’s not so bad, but as soon as you’re navigating corridors or towers, the camera struggles to find a good angle of you due to the huge feathered creature constantly getting in the way. When the camera really doesn’t know what to do at all, it just flashes black for a second and tries to re-position, which is incredibly disorienting.
“…there has been real thought in the creation of this pivotal character, and Trico is all the more iconic because of it.”
Despite this, the visual aesthetic is beautiful, with clever use of lighting effects and a lot of emphasis placed on the animations of Trico and the way it interacts with the environment. Batting lightly at its food before eating it, leaping from platform to platform and the way its eyes change colour to indicate how its feeling show there has been real thought in the creation of this pivotal character, and Trico is all the more iconic because of it.
- Trico is the actual best
- Gorgeous art-style
- Engaging and memorable
- Clever design
- Controls frustrate
- Trico AI can be annoying
- Camera issues
Even with the frustrations, I am still thinking about The Last Guardian long after I’ve finished it. It’s an experience that includes some of the most exciting and gorgeous moments I’ve seen in gaming but is let down by a control scheme that could really have benefited from some more refinement. It’s weird to think that a game can contribute some of my absolute favourite moments this year while also delivering some of my most cringe-worthy at the same time, but on reflection, the pay-off is entirely worth it. The themes of loneliness, companionship and an unspoken understanding of one another are strong and I am not ashamed to say that I was emotional at several points in the story. Given The Last Guardian can bring out feelings in that way, it’s a game that is absolutely worth playing and comes with a very high recommendation.