Like its fellow December release, Final Fantasy XV, The Last Guardian is a game that has been in development for the better part 10 years. Despite multiple delays and a variety of other development issues, the creators of acclaimed Playstation 2 games Ico and Shadow of the Colossus finally released this charming game on December 6th (7th if you’re in Australia like me, 9th if you’re in Europe). And like Team ICO’s previous offerings, it is an action-adventure game which is filled to the brim with puzzles.
The Last Guardian centers around the journey shared by a young boy and a humongous beast resembling a cat-dog-bird-bat…thing named Trico. Let’s call it a griffin. Close enough. The story is told through a flashback narrative as told by the boy after he has reached adulthood. The game begins with the boy waking up in a cave, covered in strange markings and only meters away from the giant beast. While Trico is initially aggressively guarded around the boy, after being showed kindness in the form of pats, food and having his injuries treated, the creature grows to trust the boy and willingly travels alongside him.
I would like to preface the meat of this review with a disclaimer: I absolutely adored the game, and because I adored it, I spent a good amount of time after finishing it (approximately four days after I fired it up for the first time) reflecting and even watching my boyfriend play through the game. When the premise of “boy and beast grow to trust one another as they travel together and triumph over adversity” is coupled with an objectively adorable and endearing creature like Trico, it is inevitable that gamers are set to board an emotional roller coaster. Tack on the fact that this is Team ICO that we’re dealing with, and a single, manly tear is almost inevitable, right?
I’ve had many lengthy discussions about the game since completing it and have read a number of forums discussions and reviews, not to color my own perception, but to compare my experience with those of other gamers. Much like with Final Fantasy XV, when a game is in development for almost a decade, one’s new experience can be dripping with old expectations. I barely knew about The Last Guardian until about two or three years ago, and while I’ve drawn attention to the long development time, I was not as affected by it as others may have been. Hell, I only played Shadow of the Colossus to completion post-PS3 generation.
To begin, I will first focus on everyone’s favorite gripes: AI and controls.
I haven’t played Ico, so I can’t comment on any improvements between that title and Shadow of the Colossus, but I (like many others) have had many agonizingly frustrating throw-the-controller moments during the latter title due to the goddamn controls. On the one hand, in games like Shadow of the Colossus, a certain degree of awkwardness should be expected. Wander, presumably, did not go into his challenge with a tertiary degree and 5+ years of experience in Sacred Beast Scaling. It’s understandable that his grip may slip or that he may not jump very far at first when trying to leap from one section of towering colossi to another.
The same can be said for The Last Guardian. The boy (who is unnamed, to be clear) may be able to jump incredible distances and fall from dizzying heights only to come away with a temporary limp, but he is still just a small boy. Any awkwardness controlling the kid as he scales not only Trico, but buildings in various states of disrepair, can be attributed to his lack of experience in such matters…to an extent.
I’m really trying.
I can only applaud awkward realism in games so far because the sole reason gamers choose to game, particularly in single-player titles, is to have fun. There can be a lot of fun in pursuing challenges, but in this case that challenge should come from the puzzles the developers have provided. I’m here to fight enemies, not my controller or my character on the screen. Does The Last Guardian feature better controls than Shadow of the Colossus? Absolutely. Are the controls what I would call good? No. They are extremely simple – pick up, jump, pat (oh god, the pat command), pull, push, climb and so on for the boy and an even smaller selection of AI commands for Trico (jump, go that way, calm down). However, they still aren’t great to execute.
I don’t actually believe that the controls are completely horrible, but they aren’t fantastic. At times the boy can feel almost floaty when he jumps, there are still issues with hanging off the side of ledges and stretching out to jump to another ledge (a major gripe I had with SotC), and much like trying to cover a bowl of leftovers with plastic wrap, your character will grab onto everything you don’t want him to and fail to even lightly grasp the item on which you desperately need to cling.
A lot of this would be made simpler were it not for…
The camera – not even the camera controls, but simply the camera itself – in The Last Guardian is absolutely godawful. The most glaringly obvious issue with the camera shows up fairly early in the game, often in tight areas like when you are going through a small walkway while on Trico’s back where the camera should simply cut through (maybe with some weird pixelation or graphical oddity) to the next room. It can also happen when you’re up close to a wall and manually rotating the camera so you can see what you’re about to jump onto.
In these instances, and many others, the camera will cut to black for half a second and then return you to where you were viewing a moment ago. On occasion it will drop you into a completely new, ultimately unhelpful view (e.g. making you face an unwanted corner). The game seems to be allergic to “naturally” phasing through walls when the camera is pushed in that direction and almost forbids you from doing what you need to do.
The camera will also decide on fun angles at completely inopportune moments and refuse to let you move out of them. Have a precarious jump you need to make or need to delicately slide off Trico’s nose into a tiny hole in the wall? Better view this from a few meters away, side-on.
The camera issues aren’t game-breaking, but they are very noticeable. People who struggle with finicky cameras in games where there are limited settings to fix said issues will find themselves frustrated more often than not. In my case, I was annoyed, but it wasn’t enough to ever make me quit playing for a while purely based on the camera.
Moving on to the AI – let’s talk about Trico.
A large part of Trico’s charm is that he responds to you, he listens to you, performs commands, and can do lovely things like affectionately nuzzling you with his big dopey face of his own accord. I will go into all the things that make Trico endearing and wonderful later in the review, and so I’ll focus on the technical side for now. In any game where you can mash a couple of buttons to give an AI-controlled character a command, the player is bound to see some bugs. Just once I had to reload because Trico got his head stuck through a wall and couldn’t get out. Likewise, my boyfriend had to return to checkpoint during a puzzle because Trico forgot to jump down from a window ledge in order to make the next room accessible.
If you search online for discussion and reviews about The Last Guardian you will find a wealth of complaints about the horrible AI. You will be inundated with groans about Trico “not bloody jumping when I tell him to jump – ARGH!” and screams of “WHY WON’T HE JUST DO THE THING I ASKED HIM TO DO?!” In my opinion, the AI really isn’t bad at all.
I already talked earlier about awkward realism in gaming and in the case of the AI fumbling around a little, the impact on the game is significantly less than just about any issue with the controls. Obviously individual experience will differ, but I found that any issues with getting Trico to do what I needed were almost entirely because I was giving him the wrong kind of command. While the boy was aggressively stamping his feet and pointing left, Trico’s AI no doubt saw the answer (a window ledge high above that I was also looking at), but didn’t receive the trigger – a jump command pointed in the exact same direction.
The controls for Trico are super simple, but you have to use them correctly. I think many gamers likely fell into the same trap that I did – getting impatient. Here’s where the awkward realism comes in – Trico is an animal. He is a big, mystical animal in a magical game land full of mysterious things, but he is a huge, lumbering animal all the same. If you were teaching your border collie to run to a certain point in the yard, pointing in a variety of places near to the target in quick succession and shouting variations of the same command would not help the dog to understand. It may understand eventually, but it may take its time, look at you, look at the general direction you’re pointing, and may slowly wander over after a bit of careful reasoning. Or it might wander off to somewhere it thought that you pointed. I seldom had any problems with the AI when I wasn’t button-mashing indiscriminately.
The Last Guardian’s AI? Fine. I have almost no complaints, and the ones that I do have, I will happily allow under the ‘awkward game realism’ excuse. Learning to use the AI to control Trico is a lot like moving into a new place and trying to find the sweet spot in shower water temperature. It takes a bit of fiddling around, but eventually you find the right combination of turns, jiggles and gentle pokes to get it to work the way you want. After all that fiddling, the result is very satisfying. However, push it too far in the wrong direction and you’ll end up screaming.
On that note, when Trico appears to “learn” your preferred way of dealing with things (i.e. he jumps up near a high platform so you can run up his back, then he jumps to the platform himself so you can grab on and be brought up even higher), you feel a sense of happiness and pride that doesn’t work as well with a shower analogy.
A core part of The Last Guardian’s gameplay is made up of puzzles. These puzzles typically involve commanding Trico so that he can allow you to access higher platforms, scaling walls, knocking down barriers, avoiding enemies, finding hidden levers or pulleys to open doors, and using Trico’s animal instincts to manipulate situations so that you can reach new areas (e.g. putting an apparently irresistible pot of blue goop in a very specific place so that Trico will stand beneath a ledge that you need to reach).
The game doesn’t hold your hand too much. If you take a while to move in the right direction to complete a puzzle, Trico may linger beneath a certain wall to give you a subtle hint of where to go. Other times, he may just sit beside the final objective (i.e. a locked door) and provide no help. The game often gives little to no indication of your next objective, which is very refreshing since most games have a mini map and waypoints for everything. Obviously a game of this size, a mere 12 hours on average, would never have any need for such a thing, but I have found that my brain has been trained out of using puzzle-solving abilities in most games. One way or another, I’ve become used to having my hand held, which is something I’ve resented a little even though my puzzle-solving skills have always been quite meagre.
In the last two months, I have been faced with three brand new games (Pokemon Sun, Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian) which haven’t had separate overseas releases and as such, had no or few guides to turn to in the first few days post-release. The puzzles in The Last Guardian weren’t stupidly easy by any means, but they weren’t terribly hard, either. In spite of this, I still felt an exhilarating sense of accomplishment when I didn’t have to check for solutions for any of the puzzles (barring one instance where a glitch meant that my puzzle solution, while correct, did not activate as it should have). Thank you, Trico, for not reminding my character every five seconds where he needed to go. I feel just a little bit smarter for it.
On a small note to the contrary, I did get annoyed in the beginning of the game with the persistence of the how-to-play reminders on the screen. There wasn’t any way to turn them off, and while it’s nice to have new skills displayed on the screen for a while after they’re introduced, I didn’t need to be reminded on how to jump when I was five hours deep into the game. The puzzles were appropriately challenging and just varied enough to keep me entertained throughout the game, barring some issues which I will discuss in the next section.
The Story and Game Progression
Much like Team ICO’s other two games, the few characters you interact with will speak in a nonsense language that I swear sometimes sounds like Japanese, but is, in fact, gibberish. The Last Guardian shares a similarity with Shadow of the Colossus that is not shared by Ico – the gibberish language is given subtitles at the bottom of the screen. That said, on occasion the game will, either intentionally or unintentionally, jury’s still out on that one – neglect to include subtitles for what I can only assume are little bits of flavor text. This only happened twice in the game and in at least one of those two times I don’t think any amount of translation was necessary.
It is only through flashbacks and the narration (also flashback narrative) from the grown boy that you receive any storyline. The game hands you little nibbles of story at fairly regular intervals so you’re not starving for answers, but like any Team ICO game, the plot isn’t exceptionally complex (although it is full of open questions even at the end of the game), so over-explaining would only lead to more unanswerable questions. The game is only around 12 hours long – maybe 30 (according to the trophies) if you’re not that spry or you’re deliberately trying to earn some trophies or find certain items.
In a way, The Last Guardian reminded me of my time playing Uncharted 4. I was often tasked with scaling the walls of amazing ruins and was given gorgeous scenery to appreciate while I did it. Much like my experience with Uncharted 4, I felt bored towards the two-thirds mark of the game because it had gone on for hours and offered so little variation in scenery and gameplay. While I didn’t feel like ejecting the disc forever like I did through most of the final five chapters in Uncharted 4, The Last Guardian does suffer from moving from one very similar environment to another. Its saving grace was the stark change in environment towards the end, but while closing in on that point I was very sick of moving from the inside of a ruin to the outside of another ruin.
Likewise, through puzzles and I suppose what you could call story sections of the game, there is a reasonable amount of variety in what you can do during your time playing The Last Guardian. That said, another way the game falls into the Uncharted 4 trap is having very samey results from similar actions. For example, if Trico jumps from a long distance, there’s probably a 50/50 chance that the wall will crumble and he will go flying down to a lower platform or crashing on the ground. Realistic, sure, but it’s neither fun nor entertaining to watch it happen three times in the same hour. It’s nowhere near as bad as what you’d expect in Uncharted, but I don’t want to be sighing and waiting to see if the ledge crumbles every time a storyline-centered leap is made.
In terms of the ending – well, I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t played the game yet, but I can say that the ending won’t be what you expect and that yes, the emotional rollercoaster does exist. That is all.
You won’t hear a lot of music when you play The Last Guardian, and that’s a wonderful thing. You’ll be able to hear every pitter-patter of the boy’s feet, the lumbering sounds of Trico moving through small spaces and his every whine, howl and growl as he reacts to his surroundings. You’ll hear the sound of light stones rolling over larger ones as they’re dislodged by the beast as he makes his way through a destroyed ruin. You’ll hear the whisper of the grass in some startling green areas outside the ruins and the rustle of the leaves on the trees. When the music does kick in, it’s used to great effect. Actual musical accompaniment is reserved for truly intense scenes where you would expect to feel deeply sad, extremely satisfied or downright terrified.
One of the most intense and memorable uses of music, in my opinion, was the enemy encounter theme. It’s perfectly intense and really captures the panic you would feel as a defenseless child with no weapon, separated from your giant, enemy-smashing friend. The sudden addition of music during these times never failed to heighten my emotions, whether fear, elation or sorrow, in accordance with the scene that was unfolding before me. Even the brilliant, bright piano medley upon entering a lush, green area with a picturesque view, however short, was used to great effect.
Surprisingly, not suspenseful enough for musical accompaniment
As you may have gathered from the previous sections of the review, The Last Guardian offers a number of stunning vistas. As the game progresses and the time of day flips into afternoon, the interplay of light and shadow colored with dusky orange and shards of bright light from the sun makes the every area it touches unbelievably beautiful. Even in the early morning or middle of the day, the bright blue sky and puffs of white cloud set over the lush green outdoor areas makes for a beautiful scene.
Every individual leaf or blade of grass appears to move on its own, which makes the wind blowing through the valley seem very real. But Team ICO really has a way with ruins (and really should be the poster child for the Ruins for Ruins’ Sake trope). It appeared that each building in the game was carefully crafted, even though it was abundantly clear that some of the towers presented zero practical use.
Moving to Trico, project leader Ueda stated that each of Trico’s feathers was animated separately, which (even with some inevitable clipping) is evident in the final product. I can only imagine the difficulty programmers endure when trying to animate an animal character that is simultaneously feathered and furred. Trico looks unbelievably soft and natural, despite clearly being a mythical creature. Trico was also animated in such a way that every movement appeared so very natural, from his angry-fearful lip quivering and growling to the heavy, curious use of his claws. Trico doesn’t clip walls too often, which isn’t bad for a creature of that size, although the kid could stand to ragdoll a little less during serious scenes where he is being carried around in Trico’s mouth. It’s clear that Team Ico studied the movements of a variety of creatures before beginning to animate Trico. He’s the most natural unnatural creature in a game that I have seen in many years.
While the boy’s design is comparatively simple compared to Trico and their surrounds, the way he runs in place when frightened, loudly shouts out to Trico while thrusting his pointed hand in various directions and bounces himself around when he wants Trico to jump is exactly what you would expect from a child around his age. This ensured that both Trico and the boy seemed natural in the settings as individuals and while working together.
I could do this forever
Your Friend, Trico
Team ICO clearly set out with one main goal: to make your growing relationship with and the general appearance of Trico downright endearing, and did they ever deliver. Part of Trico’s charm is that he’s not opposed to being more than just a helpful steed and companion – he’ll rub his big face up against walls or pillars when it’s itchy, he’ll whine pathetically if left behind and he’ll groom himself casually while you’re trying to sort out the next puzzle. I recall that at one point I re-entered a room from a higher place and caught the big dope batting at a big metal chain hanging from the ceiling.
The developers weren’t idiots, either – they knew people were already endeared to Trico from the moment the first trailers came out and so they did the smartest thing that any game developer can when including animals in their game – they added a “Pet Trico” action. This action actually has in-game effects like calming him down after battle, but of course you can do it any time. Sometimes Trico will even make happy noises and push his face into you expecting pats, which will elicit a giggle and endeared “Trico!” from the boy. Color me endeared, devs. Color me the deepest, richest color of endeared in your imaginary crayon box.
Without any words (or at least, any understandable words) exchanged between the two, later in the game Trico made me trust him. I took a literal leap of faith at his insistent howls and pawing at the air and he caught me at the last second and hauled me to safety. I felt the rising tension in my chest as I did it, too, hoping that I wasn’t making a mistake. Over time you begin to feel Trico’s trust in you grow as well. He begins to face his own fears at your call or when you’re in danger. He puts himself on the line for you as much as you do for him. This is one of the core reasons I enjoyed the game so much – you can see the relationship between the two main characters developing in such a profound way, and not a single conversation needed to take place to make it happen. You begin to care not only for Trico or for the boy, but for their continued friendship.
Any slight against Trico becomes a slight against your friend – how dare they pierce my friend with a spear? You give me five seconds to pull it out of his side and to give him a pat and we will have words, let me tell you. Likewise, you can feel that Trico feels the same way about the boy when, even if he is trapped by enemies or his own specific fear-inducing stimuli, he will roar angrily when his friend is being attacked in his line of sight. I could go on forever about the relationship between Trico and the boy and how it colored my experience of the game, but I may turn into a rambling mess if I indulge myself in such a manner. Team ICO have done an amazing job of endearing me to the characters and their plight and it’s not an experience and subsequent shower of emotion that I will soon forget.
To wrap up, The Last Guardian is not a perfect game. It would have benefited from one less ruins area at least, slightly fewer Uncharted antics, a significantly better camera and slightly more intuitive controls. The story had good pacing, a satisfying ending, and was interesting in general. The AI is much better than I ever could have anticipated and Trico was so incredibly endearing that I want to jump back in and play the game just so I can pat him a few more times. The graphics and soundtrack were absolutely superb and I honestly think, in an admittedly empty year for game releases, The Last Guardian is my personal choice for game of the year.