Stepping out onto a cliff-side overlooking the vast and mysterious splendor of the valley, my feathery companion leans down to nuzzle me. Stroking behind its lifelike ears, I shared a moment of true connection with the beast. Then, just like that, the camera got stuck in a wall, my character lost his balance, and the beast inadvertently flung me over the cliff to my death. That’s The Last Guardian in a frustratingly beautiful nutshell.
From the Holy Trinity of genDESIGN on development, Japan Studio on production and the ever ambiguous mind of Fumito Ueda that had created the brilliant Shadow of the Colossus and Ico; comes The Last Guardian. With it being mercilessly drip fed to us for close to ten years, it’s finally here. You play as a boy lost in an ancient ruined valley who encounters a curious monster, Trico, an enormous cocktail of dog, cat and bird. Together, the two form an inseparable bond and must find a way to escape the ruins.
There are glimmers here of ingenious ideas itching to break through
Coming off the heels of two masterpieces, and being hyped for seven years meant that it was always going to be an uphill struggle for The Last Guardian. The driving force of this hype was Trico itself, which is no surprise considering the staggering lengths the development team has clearly gone to make it a believably wild animal. It is through Trico that the game truly shines. Never before has a creature been so fully brought to life through the medium of video games. Its design is adorable, and manipulatively so, but it is the player interaction with Trico that makes you form a bond central to the game. Be it watching Trico bound playfully through a meadow, comforting it when it is frightened, removing spears from its side when it is injured, or the tenacious lengths Trico goes to in order to protect the boy; everyone will experience moments of genuine awe and connection with Trico.
It’s a relief too, considering that in your time leaping endlessly through the valley, Trico and the boy are (for the most part) the only characters featured. Your isolation gives you the chance to drink in the fantastical world design by the bucket load, and there’s a great sense of progression as later in the game you explore gigantic towers which at the start seemed like simple window dressing, far in the distance. The upward journey to the highest tower is surprisingly rather light on narrative, with a great deal of the story being told through how you interact with Trico, and details only vaguely alluded to. The conclusion is spectacular and, considering most people will have already bulk bought tissues in preparation, suitably emotional. If you were expecting firm answers to your questions by the end though, you won’t be getting any, mostly you’ll just be left confused and weeping.
There is however, another emotion lying at the heart of the experience, and that emotion is frustration. This is where we get to the infuriating duality of The Last Guardian, it is a breath-taking story told through mediocre game-play. For every moment of splendor it offers through its world and characters, there is a camera glitch or baffling control mechanism to drag it down. The camera is one of the game’s most glaring issues, it controls like a blind hummingbird, desperately flitting around you as you move. It serves as a constant distraction, and mars your attempts to control the boy, which is already an arduous task at best, and near impossible at worst. I don’t feel that I’m exaggerating when I say that Shadow of the Colossus controlled better than this ten years ago. With so many puzzles based on movement and precision, controlling a character with the hand-eye coordination of a ham sandwich just isn’t acceptable.
These problems in control unfortunately affect the lovable Trico too. Although commanding the beast should feel like an empowering experience, it too often results in ten minutes or more of pointing forlornly at it to move somewhere, as it ignores you to sniff some flowers. I understand that the developers wanted it to feel like a wild animal, in which they succeeded, but only to the detriment of actual game-play. This imbalance between narrative vision and engaging interaction crops up again in combat, as although the boy is supposed to be weaker than the animated suits of armor he and Trico face, this results in there being little of interest to do in battles. The boy can really only run away as Trico destroys them, occasionally pulling off one of their heads when the chance arises.
Held aloft by a stellar narrative and chained down by clunky game-play
These problems are most prevalent in the first half, especially when paired with the fact that there is little to no story in this section. Thankfully, the game does pick up in the latter sections, with more interesting puzzles and exciting set pieces to keep you engaged. Controlling Trico becomes (slightly) more manageable, and the boy acquires a couple of new abilities which make combat more engaging, one of which is immensely satisfying, though I won’t spoil the surprise. Despite these minor improvements, the game-play never becomes anything more than average. This is because so much of the game is based on concepts which simply don’t work, with mobility and commanding Trico being the worst offenders. It’s such a shame too, because there are glimmers here of ingenious ideas itching to break through, smothered by inherently flawed mechanics.
Those looking to play for story alone with no interest in game-play will in theory be fine, if not for when the two begin to merge. It’s when these two facets collide that greater issues are unveiled. Try as I might to engage with the story, I was pulled out repeatedly by glitches, a quiet moment of bonding with Trico ruined by the boy becoming stuck on its back for a full two minutes. I missed crucial story details because the camera was busy focusing on the boy’s armpit, and had my immersion hampered by Trico’s frequent inability to progress.
At its best, you feel an undeniable bond with a virtual creature, which on its own is worthy of praise. At its worst, you find yourself endlessly trying to get a giant feathery moron to eat a barrel, wondering what has become of your life. For the spellbinding creation that is Trico, the resonant story and those fleeting moments where everything works, it’s something genuinely special, but they’re just too few and far between. Held aloft by a stellar narrative and chained down by clunky game-play, try as it might, The Last Guardian never truly finds its wings, and remains chained to the ground.