It’s been nearly ten years, so I’m not going to leave you guessing: The Last Guardian is a great game. At times, it’s an incredible one. Others, a severely old, frustrating one. Fumito Ueda and his Team Ico have been working on their third title since the PS2 era, and the culmination of their efforts is a game that at times feels as stuck between generations as you’d expect. Yet despite that it time and time again rises above expectation, delivering a bewildering, heartfelt journey that leaves little regret in the undertaking.
The Last Guardian is first and foremost a puzzle platformer, and it’s of two minds of how great it wants to be at it. In what almost feels intentional for Team Ico at this stage, The Last Guardian doesn’t get off to the greatest of starts with its control scheme. Getting around in a game all about, well, getting around shouldn’t feel unintuitive, but that’s exactly what it is at the outset. Jump, for example, is mapped to Triangle. Dropping from ledges mapped to the Cross. It’s completely against what players have been taught to assume from a game, and it just feels wrong out of the gates.
A shame too, given that The Last Guardian’s opening offers up a compelling reason to immediately forget about its noticeable problems on focus solely on its two main characters. You’ll ferry around a child who’s somehow found himself at the bottom of a massive, sprawling city in a crater, his only companion a hostile feathered beast who lays injured beside him. Removing a few spears from his torso and feeding him some food soon earns his middling trust – a bond which is strengthened and tested throughout the events of the game.
Trico, as the boy names the beast, is central to what makes The Last Guardian so great and frustrating in equal measure. He’s a behemoth when compared to the size of your character, allowing you to reach otherwise impossible areas, offering protection in fights and otherwise just being a friendly face to accompany you on a journey to escape. His behaviour is captivating to just watch at times. Trico will survey areas at his leisure, let out whimpers when you get too far away and react to your soothing strokes after a stressful fight. Trico is the embodiment of what a companion should be – alive, reactive and, sometimes, unpredictable.
Trico’s unpredictability is the main source of wonder and frustration in the opening portions of the game. When you begin, your actions are limited. You’ll be able to run and jump at leisure, or climb Trico’s thick feathers to catch a ride to higher areas. Scaling Trico is a treat, bringing back fond memories of Team Ico’s last Shadow of the Colossus, if only on a much smaller scale. Climbing Trico (or anything for that matter) can often be more finicky than it should be, and I often ended up jumping off ledges to my death after he violently shook me from where I thought I was perched.
The limited interaction you have with Trico at the start of the game also leads to some immense frustration when navigating areas only he can reach, given that he sometimes either wouldn’t trigger a jump or backtracked needlessly for no reason. At that point you’re just a passenger hoping for him to reach the eventual destination. When he reacts as he should, it’s fascinating. Watching this hulking but nimble beast seemingly figure out paths and guide himself through terrain is mesmerizing most times – an illusion only broken when he makes some truly baffling decisions.
Eventually you’ll be able to nudge Trico in the direction you want to go, while also suggesting commands for him to carry out. I say suggest because there’s never really any sense of control over Trico, which only adds to the credence of him being a living, independent partner. You might point to a ledge above only to have him bark back at the idea. Other times he might know exactly where you want him to go without a gesture, and others Trico will be the one guiding you when you’re lost. There’s a very tangible bond that forms from this moment on between your avatar and Trico, and my understanding of how he responded to my actions only grew with our time together.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t times I truly wish I was journeying alone though. Some sticking points arose during more tightly spaced corridor sections, where, Trico is a little more difficult to move around. One area involved unlocking gates and diving through underwater caverns, where Trico’s aversion to water really ended up getting on my nerves. Despite numerous commands he refused to dive, instead swimming back to land only to repeat the same loop again. These sorts of misbehaviours cropped up now and then, and despite their attention to realism they still broke down the pacing and made the act of playing feel like a real chore.
These moments are offset, however, by the more frequent and utterly breath-taking sequences outside of the game’s many gothic structures. The world that The Last Guardian takes place in wouldn’t look out of place in something like Dark Souls, albeit with a lot more colour. The light bathes the distant Spires in gleaming sunlight, offering you a glimpse into the enormity of the chasm you find yourself trapped in. It’s even better when you start recognizing distinct areas you previously visited as you work your way up, with the entire setting being a single, interweaving maze that just invites some thought into its design.
The puzzle sequences and numerous set-pieces here also elevate The Last Guardian’s gameplay beyond some simple navigational and physic puzzling. Instead, you’re forced to use your wit to get around areas that don’t immediately suggest where you turn. And since you’re juggling not only your own abilities but those of Trico, these areas often left me spinning the camera around looking for a ledge or overgrown vines to scale. Puzzles here are often large and drawn out, allowing you to truly feel a sense of accomplishment when you double round to your starting position to open a door or get rid of an obstacle that once seemed impossible to overcome.
Set-pieces also start really delivering around half-way through, but it’s probably best not to read into them before attempting to experience them yourself. Moments of grandeur follow tense chase sequences, as structures crumble underneath the weight of time and Trico’s less than delicate touch when getting around. The best of these involve changes to the way the game aims to be played immediately afterwards, whether it be your separation from Trico, the acquisition of a new tool or a change to the way you used to approach a familiar puzzle. The Last Guardian does this a lot more in its second half, and it makes the rush to the conclusion a lot more thrilling than its slow burn opening.
These moments also put some strain on the game technically, which happens a lot more than it should for a game of this stature. The Last Guardian is a gorgeous game in some respects, especially when it comes to detailed lighting and the stunning attention to detail on Trico. But other times the world seems a little flat, with drab, overused textures and some very similar corridors following one after the other. The frame rate suffers a lot of the time as well, and moments of intensity saw it brought down to a noticeable crawl at times (even on the PS4 Pro).
It’s a pity many of these instances occurred just when some of the most amazing scenes were playing out, as they detracted from what could’ve been blemish-free high points for a tale that is likely to hit you deep. The Last Guardian is many things with few words, but the kinship between your character and Trico is where the heart is. Seeing the bond form between both characters coupled with some curious backstory makes the ending a worthy climax, with a sombre closing that only seems fitting for a game of this ilk.
It’s a game that, quite frankly, has no business being this good. After so many years of troubled development and what I can only imagine to be an enormous amount of stress, Team Ico have delivered arguably one of their best titles to date. It retains many of the flaws that still plagued their previous efforts, but it also learns what made them so captivating in the first place. The Last Guardian is many things – but when you boil it down it remains just one:A great, magical journey that I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.
Last Updated: December 5, 2016