Following off of the widely acclaimed Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian had a lot of high expectations. Those expectations began growing to monumental levels the longer the game took to come out. Now, after years of development, tons of behind-the-scenes shakeups, and a dramatic re-reveal at E3 2015, The Last Guardian is finally here on PS4. The game likely could never have lived up to the lofty bar set by its predecessor, but thankfully it got much closer than anyone could have expected. The finished product is one of the finest gaming creations of a generation, though it does have some scars from its long, winding road to release.
The Last Guardian is told entirely as a flashback, with the main character now an older man telling the story of when he met Trico. This massive griffin-like creature is an amalgamation of various animals, creating something both familiar and alien all at the same time. The two will work together, with Trico providing transport and protection through the massive labyrinthine castles that the boy has found himself trapped in, and the boy helping point Trico in the right direction, while feeding him mysterious glowing barrels whenever he gets hungry. This partnership forms the basis of the story, and the emotional impact that it brings is truly something wonderful.
The gameplay is very much a mixture of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. As the boy, you explore the many castles of this mysterious land, climbing, pulling switches, and opening doors, all with the goal of leading Trico and yourself to safety. Navigational puzzles will block your way, but it never reaches the brain-bending levels found in Ico. Instead you usually have a good idea of where to go, and what to do, with only a few moments where you might truly become stumped, at which point the narrator usually chimes in with a helpful hint. The game even eliminates side content, keeping a linear path from start to finish. The Shadow of the Colossus influence comes in with Trico, who you will crawl around on like a Collosi, but as his friend, instead of his foe.
You may play as the lost boy in The Last Guardian, but Trico is easily the star of the show. Put simply, Trico is one of the best characters ever created in a video game. His mannerisms, animation, and overall connection with the player is astounding. It’s clear, right from the beginning, that players will grow truly attached to Trico, but as the game progresses that connection grows deeper and deeper, eventually crafting a true friendship. Players will find themselves going out of their way to take care of Trico. I actually caught myself talking to him in much the same way I do my own dog, saying things like “why are you looking over there?” or wincing when he was in some kind of pain. That this is done with no real words spoken between the two, with the game using subtle, but understandable body language and sounds, is an amazing achievement.
With that said, this gets into one of the problems with The Last Guardian, and likely one of the reasons it took so long to come out. Trico is amazing in his realistic behavior. He truly acts like an intelligent, but confused animal. Some of these moments are scripted, but The Last Guardian does a masterful job of hiding that. Riding on Trico’s back, or directing him from the ground, you watch as he looks around the environment, assesses the situation, and figures out where he can and should go next. However, this involves a whole lot of waiting at times, and if Trico isn’t following your direction, or if you are confused about where to go and are directing the wrong way, it can be an exercise in frustration.
The Last Guardian requires patience from its players. As I worked my way through the surprisingly long story, I found myself actually yelling at Trico at times. Sometimes it would be because the game messed up in some way, having Trico go the wrong way, or not recognize something that was clearly in front of him. These were the rarities though, with Trico more often doing what he’s supposed to do, but sometimes taking longer to do it than impatient players might want. In these moments though, there are more wonderful things to discover about The Last Guardian.
The Last Guardian is a gorgeously crafted experience from top to bottom.
The Last Guardian is a gorgeously crafted experience from top to bottom. The music is subtle, yet wonderful to listen to. The world that players will inhabit is unique and beautiful. Some textures might not look as clean as players would like, but the architecture of the buildings is constantly intriguing, and the few moments where you encounter expanses of nature will really impress. Most impressive once again though is Trico himself. The character has been meticulously crafted to appear lifelike in every way. Each feather on his back stands out, and when he gets angry, such as when guards appear, you see the feathers raise and ruffle realistically until you calm him down again.
But all of this visual power comes at a cost, and the PS4 is obviously struggling to keep up. Most of the time, the game runs fine enough, but if there is any extra action, or the environment opens up in some way, things can get really bad. At certain points the game felt more like a slideshow, slowing down considerably. This isn’t an action game, in fact in an interesting twist on Ico’s framework the combat is handled entirely by Trico, with the boy simply having to avoid the guards, or give them the occasional shove. This helps alleviate some of the damage from these technical problems, but they are unfortunate, and will hopefully be resolved in a post-launch patch of some kind.
Unfortunately this isn’t the only place where The Last Guardian struggles, likely due to the many development issues that delayed it for so long. The two preceding games were known for controls that felt a bit off for some players. The team seems to prefer a realistic feel, over more precision. This leads to slow moving characters, who sometimes don’t do what you might expect. This is true once again in The Last Guardian, but years after Shadow of the Colossus, it feels like the same sensation could have been accomplished without ending up causing quite as much frustration.
The boy has two speeds, either creeping along stealthily, or sprinting at top speed. This takes a while to get used to, but can be managed, and is actually fairly accurate to how children like to run. What can’t be managed as well are the problems with crawling around on Trico, and the overall feel of the camera. Most of the time it will frame things well, and you can sort of work your way to where you want to get on Trico’s back. More times than players will like though, you’ll find the boy crawling in very odd directions, and the camera getting hung up inside of walls or blacking out and refocusing in strange ways. These problems do have impacts on the game, including a time for me where the boy simply glitched out, flailing on the ground during a very impactful moment in the game.
What got me past these moments was the amazing quality of the game when it is working as intended. There are problems, and they do take away from the player’s enjoyment, but when The Last Guardian is telling its story and putting players through complex navigational puzzles, it is an experience like no other, save its critically acclaimed predecessors.
The Last Guardian is a marvelous achievement in a number of ways. Its story is subtle, but beautiful. Its world is fascinating and mysterious. And Trico will go down as one of the best characters ever made for a video game. Players are in for a wonderful treat, but that quality comes at a cost. The game struggles to run well at times, and the controls can be a chore. You will also need to be patient, as Trico truly acts as a living animal, not something you can just control like any other video game character. If you can get past these things though, you will find an experience like none other, and one that is truly worth the effort.