A Stunning Achievement in Interactive Media
To say The Last Guardian has been long awaited would be to show it a disservice. The game was first revealed at 2009's E3, having begun development in 2007, and is the follow-up to 2005's brilliant Shadow of the Colossus. This means that fans have been eagerly awaiting the title for up to 11 years. Games with long development cycles from Duke Nukem Forever, to Daikatana and most recently Devil's Third have often flopped. Soon fans weren't only waiting to play The Last Guardian but also to see if it could buck the trend.
The Last Guardian is a third person action-adventure game which focuses on the relationship between a boy and as the Japanese title would put it, a man-eating, giant eagle named Trico. Similar to its predecessor, Ico, you travel through a fantasy setting solving puzzles to move forward, watching the bond between man and beast grow, and trying to figure out just what is going on. As with Team Ico's other games, the emotional blows the game deals are its true strength.
The world feels real. The atmosphere perfectly set. When the stakes feel tangible you become easily invested in the story. As trivial as it sounds, I've never felt the same sense of height and space in a game as I did while playing The Last Guardian. Asides from the scenery, Trico's design is simply astounding. She looks, moves and acts just like a real animal might. All of this helps create immersion and strengthens the emotional story beats.
As we've come to expect from Team Ico, the story is The Last Guardian's strong suit. There is often a disconnect when games literally tell gamers how to feel. The Last Guardian is not completely innocent of this, but dialogue is generally limited and more to supplement what you see on screen. The narrator takes a sideline and showing is prioritized over telling.
The concept is not new, but it's rarely explored in video games; the lion and the mouse. The lion (Trico) is large and powerful. She can cross large barriers and distance and dispatch enemies with ease but has no intelligence or reasoning. The mouse (boy) is capable of fitting through small spaces, of finding a safe passage and operating machines, but is completely defenseless. The unlikely pair completely compliment each other.
This setup plays on our most human instincts. The love most of us have for animals in our lives and the desire to protect those more vulnerable. This may seem a cheap strategy but The Last Guardian works hard to earn our emotion. Every time you help each other, every sacrifice they make, every obstacle they overcome, you feel it with them so acutely.
The world looks so real you wonder how it was ever conceived for PS3. The visuals are simply breathtaking, and a few dodgy textures aside, the overall look is light bright and cohesive. The music, like the narration, is scarce, though well done and used at the right moments. The adds perfectly to the tension and drama.
There is one technical aspect which has reviewers divided, and that is the controls. The controls in The Last Guardian are based on realism rather than video game logic. Instead of running smoothly around the world, the boy trips, stumbles and lurches his way around. Moving from playing superhumans like Nathan Drake to The Last Guardian can be jarring, but it was jarring in a good way for me. Even if jump is set to the triangle button.
While you control the boy directly through half the game, the other half you attempt to guide Trico through the maze. But Trico is an animal, and she behaves as animals do. You can call, command and point Trico in the right direction, but just like real animals, it doesn't mean she'll pay attention.
Having your inputs not translated directly on-screen can be frustrating for some, but it rarely felt that way for me. It plays out just long enough. There's no doubt this is a slow paced game, but that it's so different from most AAA titles is what makes it so good. The Last Guardian benefits hugely from the interactive medium in this regard. You are the boy. You feel his frustrations, difficulties and ultimately his joy alongside him.
The Last Guardian did have its problems, as forgiving as I am with it. Twice I had to reset a puzzle because a key item got stuck. There are places where things can get a bit buggy and the framerate can drop suddenly. While this is far from ideal, it didn't detract too much from the game as a whole.
The main meat of the gameplay is, of course, the puzzles. While the world looks like a giant sandbox it is actually a strictly linear path. Sometimes the way is obvious, sometimes you have to try a range of ideas before you come across the solution. The puzzles are generally changed up nicely, though towards the end it can feel like going through the motions. There is only one puzzle that I felt "unfair". I played through with my boyfriend so two minds were at work, but the difficulty felt just right.
Overall, The Last Guardian is a real standout title. The gameplay is innovative and complex. The story is deep and touching. The characters and relationships are perfectly developed. The visual breathtaking and the sound design on point. It's not perfect, as certain aspects still needed some ironing out. It's also not for those looking for fast-paced thrills. However, it is a beautiful story that is brilliantly told through the medium of games.
The Last Guardian was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a copy purchased by the reviewer.
- Spectacular Visual Storytelling
- Innovative Gameplay Ideas
- Emotional Story Beats
- Some Bugs
- Frustrating Controls At TImes