I’ll admit it: I cannot let this game go. I’m not ready to get over it yet. I have to write something about it.
The Last Guardian has been in development for nearly a decade. Like its predecessors, Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, it challenges what a game should be and what to expect. When the game arrived, I never considered playing it. But as I watched my husband play the game here and there, my curiosity flourished. I felt like I needed to play the game, and I’m so glad I did.
(Image from Gamespot)
I don’t think there are any major spoilers in this review, but as always read at your own risk.
The Story: At its base, the story is about an unnamed boy (hereafter called ‘The Boy’) who wakes up in an unfamiliar ruin next to a giant, injured feathered beast called a trico (who is also called ‘Trico’, kind of like calling a dog ‘Dog’). They work together to explore the ruins to find out why The Boy is there and how to escape, and over the course of the game develop a heartwarming bond with one another.
The best part about The Last Guardian’s story is what it doesn’t tell. So many stories these days rely on extensive world development and rich histories to set the stage, but The Last Guardian gives you almost nothing to work with and gets away with it. Its open-ended culture allows you to insert almost any theory you want about the ruins as you discover the area, and at the end draw your own conclusions. And the main crux of the story is between Trico and The Boy, which you get to witness at every stage from uncertain trust to unbreakable friendship, as you strive to find the meaning of the ruins while simultaneously trying to get out. The emotions you experience as they bond cover a spectrum, ranging from calm to depressing to edge-of-your seat thrills to tear-jerking elation. It’s a simple story, but provides enough engagement to make it feel more meaningful than more complex games.
The Graphics: While not the prettiest game of the PS4 I’ve ever seen as far as first impressions, the game goes to no end to immerse you in a mystical realm. The dilapidated ruins and caverns cast shadows to the atmosphere, giving any outdoor area you enter that bit of extra brightness you have to adjust to – kind of like walking from a dark basement into direct sunlight. It could be slightly better at parts (such as water and trees), but the details you do see give the impression that something huge once happened at the ruins. It’s also a vertical-based layout, and amazing to look down from high above and recognize places you once were, or look above to see your destination in the distance. While the saturation takes a bit to get used to, the lighting and somewhat cel-shaded design suit the story perfectly. It’s as though the developers didn’t want you to get distracted by pretty graphics, preferring a simpler style to enhance the world rather than striving for details to draw you in – and it works.
(Image from GameSpot)
The Characters: When all you have is two characters, they better have a relationship on a level few people can ever experience. It needs to be something legendary, and the relationship between The Boy and Trico is not just epic, but shatters just about everything you knew could develop between man and animal. I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers, but if your eyes are dry at the game’s ending, then you’re probably not human.
Trico is a feat in of itself, and is likely the main reason the game took so long to develop. You only play as The Boy during the game, giving commands to your cat/bird/monkey/dog/everything beast in hopes that it does what you want. And it does…some of the time. Having lived with cats, birds, and dogs for most of my life, I’m amazed by how lifelike Trico acts – at times I forgot that it is an AI in the game because it acted like a real animal. It learns what words and gestures mean, but doesn’t always understand why you’re commanding it. Trico is supposed to be somewhat wild, not exposed to human interaction and training, so The Boy is Trico’s first experience with this sort of contact. It hesitates, is wary or even scared at times, gets distracted or curious, wants to play, gets hungry and tired, and sometimes even refuses the orders you give it. In other situations, Trico does what it wants to do – it will jump to platforms and ledges regardless of what you command, or won’t move until you entice it. Just like real animals, Trico requires time, patience, and incentive, and you can’t help but love its inquisitive charm so it’s easy to forgive when it doesn’t obey you.
Seriously, how can you stay mad at this face? The developers really played into peoples’ love of cute creatures. (Image from Sony Interactive Entertainment)
Trico (that is, the AI) comes, on its own terms, to treat The Boy as one of its own, making their relationship even more impactful than the ordinary ‘boy and his dog’ adage. Some pet owners treat their pets as they would another human, but rarely does the animal treat its human owner like a fellow animal – dogs don’t play with their owners as they would other dogs, and cats rarely meow at other cats. Domesticated animals show us love and respect and allow us to interact with them, but they recognize we’re not the same species, and thus our communication with them is very limited.
Trico, over the course of the story, treats The Boy as it would its own kind, not as a human, even though it recognizes The Boy as human (or at least, not another trico). Its instincts don’t interfere with protecting and bonding with The Boy. One thing I believe as evidence of this is, whenever you’re grappled by a guard, Trico will always attack that guard first, regardless of how close or far away you are taken or if it’s the nearest enemy or not. It won’t just fight, but it will save you first. Again, I won’t spoil too much, but Trico’s immersive, animal-like AI is really what makes the relationship with The Boy come alive, and playing as The Boy allows you to experience this relationship first-hand at the risk of leaving you misty-eyed a few times.
(Image from Game Industry News)
It reminds me that sometimes the simplest relationships between characters can have the deepest impact on a story.
Controls/Cameras: If there’s anything about this game that brings it down, it’s the controls and camera. If not for the frustrating, wobbly awkwardness of The Boy’s movement this game could have been one I play again and again. But now every time I think of playing the game, the controls come back to haunt me. It isn’t as though there are a lot of controls – there’s no inventory, upgrades, or stats to monitor and scroll through. But the controls change depending on what you’re standing next to and how the camera is angled, which means they change often and are therefore difficult to execute what exactly you want to do. There was one point in the game I had to take a break for a bit because the controls got the better of me.
As for the camera, it ‘black outs’ and auto-focuses when the view is ‘stuck’ in a corner, so there are times when the scene fades to black for seemingly no reason. You almost get used to this, but then there are times when camera doesn’t do this, and stays black until you manually move the camera back around – if you can.
Its infuriating to see such a wonderful game faulted by a relatively simple technicality – more complex games have better streamlined controls that this one. Every game has its faults, but the controls shouldn’t have been one of them for this game. I might be more forgiving of the camera, but it’s because of the camera’s interface with the controls that make routine platforming a nightmare at times.
Puzzles: This game is a combination of platforms and puzzles, but the puzzles are so easy they’re really not, well, puzzles. They’re more like obstacles that have fairly straightforward solutions – pull a switch, move a box, climb a tail, or entice/command Trico. The most frustrating puzzle came from the times when you had to find food for Trico (in the form of barrels), but moving these barrels from one location to where Trico was waiting often involved tossing barrels – which meant dealing with the damn controls, so they weren’t so much challenging as they were frustrating. I also hate it when a game – any game – attempts to makes a simple task a puzzle. Getting out of a room, progressing to the next area, and manipulating Trico in the right way should be puzzles, but finding barrels to feed Trico is something that should take no more than a few minutes, not a half-hour of barrel tossing across gaps and gates (again, no thanks to the lumbering controls).
Another thing I noticed is that many of the ‘puzzles’ come in duplicates, which isn’t so much a problem as it is lacking in ingenuity. Is there a room in which you have to avoid guards in order to proceed? Expect two in a row. Need to find a switch to open a gate for Trico? Expect two in a row. A room with a pool puzzle? Expect two in a row. Climbing towers while destroying stained glass eyes which otherwise frighten Trico? Expect two in a row.
As I stated a few times throughout this review, sometimes simplicity is the best form of story-telling. There’s no need of complex backgrounds, multiple character dynamics, or plot-moving drama. The Last Guardian is about two unlikely friends who find each other at just the right time. They overcome communication gaps – one is an animal after all – and soon learn that they not just need each other in order to escape, but need to trust each other in order to escape. And what develops between them is put to the test again and again which, in the end, blossoms into the tightest friendship between man and beast I’ve ever seen in a game or any other story-telling media. It’s not only awesome to be a part of this, but almost addicting, because their relationship is something that most of us only dream we could have, even with our fellow humans.
(Image from GameSpot)
It’s a relatively short game – around 10 hours, so despite the controls it’s worth playing once. I would play it again if not for the controls, and will likely do so in the future, but right now I’d rather not experience the frustration again.
I could go on and on about my own theories regarding the ruins too, but I don’t think now is the time/place for it.
In short, if you don’t have it in your collection, get it, or plan on getting it.