Well, the day has come. A day many thought would never come. The Last Guardian has arrived, and many of us have now gotten to explore this strange and unique experience. The Last Guardian comes to us from Fumito Ueda, one of gaming’s most revered names and the creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It has been in development for somewhere in the range of a decade, and has persisted through several rumours of it being nothing but vaporware… but it’s finally here. And right after another game that was oft seen as vaporware’s arrival, no less.
The Last Guardian is the tale of a small, unnamed child’s journey to escape a strange set of ruins alongside a giant beast he calls ‘Trico’. Upon awakening in a mysterious place next to Trico, he helps free him from his bindings and then tries to befriend the wounded creature.
The Last Guardian’s greatest accomplishment is the way it portrays this budding relationship between these two characters. These growth of this friendship is spectacularly handled. It is so incredibly believable. They clearly did their research on the way animals behave when being tamed for the first time, and it paid off in that regard. Trico is given more respect and personality than the human cast of many games, and it helped to make the game engaging and fascinating.
The game has a charming, colourful art direction that worked really well for a story of this type. The lighting and effects, combined with the overall vibrance of the world, help to create just the right atmosphere for each scene. The characters have a very distinct design that simply fit perfectly with everything else. They really felt like they belonged in this world, while still maintaining the feeling that our main character didn’t quite belong to this part of the world. It was a truly impressive aesthetic accomplishment.
The sound design is mostly unmemorable. The soundtrack doesn’t take away from the game, but also does little to contribute overall. There’re a few points where I felt the soundtrack was really fitting, of course, and some of the sound effects were incredible. The one exception to the sound design being a concern is the narrator, who does a great job of ensuring the game retains a tense, serious tone. Our narrator is clearly intended to be the boy telling this story years later to someone else, which puts the story in a different perspective. And the story he tells is fascinating. It is clearly left ambiguous for a reason, and I think in this case that was the right decision. We’re not meant to know the exact details, just what our protagonist would have known. That level of mystery does a lot to build up anticipation, and it works extremely well.
Sadly, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. While the game’s story, music, and art direction are phenomenal, it is a mechanical disaster. The controls are sluggish and unreliable, which results in the game’s more elaborate platforming sequences becoming frustrating trial and error pieces based entirely on how lucky you are. For one example, there were numerous times where I would go to the same place, face the same direction, tell the kid to throw an object… and have him throw in two noticeably different directions. Nothing had changed that I could tell, but the game somehow interpreted differences imperceptible to the human eye in such a way to produce drastically different aims for my throws. They even have a frequent mechanic that forces you to randomly mash buttons on your controller in order to avoid dying, which is possibly the most out of place mechanic I’ve seen for a game like this. I won’t spoil the exact circumstances, but suffice it to say that it comes often and it’s very annoying.
But even worse was the AI and ‘control’ for Trico. As the game continues, Trico and the boy’s bond deepens, which is supposed to mean that the two understand each other better over time. I found the opposite to be the case… as the game gave me more commands, I noticed more and more problems with the controls. The biggest of these is that the commands are abstract and inconsistent. I frequently noticed cases where I’d just start to figure out what a command does and suddenly it wouldn’t work. One key example is that after several water scenes I figured out that a certain button combo would order Trico to dive. Then I reach another water segment, and after significant frustration trying to figure out the specific puzzle, I solve it and just need to get Trico to dive so we can leave this area. So I push the exact same buttons that had triggered him to dive previously and he just looks at me strangely. So I try a random other button combo, and suddenly he dives.
But inconsistent commands and awkward controls simply aren’t frustrating enough for this game. They also have to incorporate puzzles with relatively precise solutions. Most of the puzzles are fairly easy, which is truly fortunate because if they actually made complex puzzles, I don’t think they would’ve been solvable at all. There were, however, puzzles that required some pretty tricky jumps or very specific placement. These became extreme tests of my patience, a patience honed by nearly a decade of tech support experience.
And, as a final kick in the teeth, the game’s mechanics are severely unpolished. There were bugs, glitches, and issues where the game simply didn’t make any sense. My favourite example of the former is one of the game’s more cinematic moments – an epic climax ends with Trico catching you and then throwing you onto his back to save you. Or at least, that’s what is supposed to happen. In my first attempt, Trico threw me as if onto his back except I just bounced off and fell to my death. Other similar cases involved Trico throwing me from his back during some of the game’s more epic jumps, and Trico pushing me off a cliff while trying to adjust to get his footing. I even had one point where I fell through a stair and ended up clinging to the rigging behind it, but unable to climb up since you were never intended to hang there. These types of issues compounded to ruin many of the game’s big climactic moments for me.
There were moments where I truly loved The Last Guardian. Sadly, they lasted nowhere near long enough, and the game was all too effective at reminding me of its many problems. In the context of the ‘soft’ elements – art, narration, story, character design – it is one of the greatest games I have ever played. Few games have created such a believable bond between characters, few games have reached the pinnacle of artistic expression this game hits. But, that’s as far as it goes. In terms of the ‘hard’ elements – the game’s mechanics, controls, and playability – The Last Guardian is the exact opposite. It’s one of the shoddiest, most inconsistent, borderline unplayable messes I’ve ever encountered. In the end, the Last Guardian would’ve been infinitely better had it been a movie. Because they would have been able to focus on all the beauty the game has to hold, while removing every negative aspect of the game. But as a game, it is one of the biggest disappointments of my life as a gamer. To see something with this much potential fall so incredibly flat is heartbreaking.