The Last Guardian is the second game released in 2016 that seems to have been in development forever. Announced clear back in 2009, I had at least one friend who bought a PlayStation 3 specifically for The Last Guardian. Eventually, multiple delays, conspicuous absences from expos and shows, and rumors of cancellation put this game in the same category as Prey 2 and Star Craft Ghost: games that were never expected to come out. But then a miracle happened and this year at E3 we finally got a release date, and yet, even as I held the game in my hands I had a hard time believing it existed. But it is out, and like many Team Ico games, it is more or less what I expected. A short, atmospheric puzzle title with some interesting mechanics that is sure to delight those who enjoyed their previous entries, and frustrate the many, many people who bought this due to the hype that has built around this game over the past seven years.
I feel that there is something of a nostalgia factor that affects how people feel about Team Ico games. They are wonderful experiences, but they can also be incredibly frustrating. People tend to remember the rewarding aspects of it, and somewhat forget the more frustrating parts. You remember climbing the Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus and conflicting feelings of satisfaction and dread as they fell to sad music and the suspicious black ooze brought you back to spawn. But most have conveniently forgotten how the controls were stiff, how the main character would just as often jump up as he would jump off to his death. You forget the frustration of trying to find where your next target is. In Ico you remember the bitter sweet feelings as you watched its ending, as well as the adrenaline rush of trying to keep the mysterious shadows away from the girl as you progressed. You forget the hours of trying to just navigate the level saddled with an obnoxious partner who cant figure out how to jump. The Last Guardian feels like it follows this trend, as it is a game that has amazing highs and some very frustrating lows.
The game starts with a boy waking up in what seems to be a hole covered in strange tattoos. Next to him is Trico, a sort of dog/bird/cat hybrid that is one story tall. The creature appears to be badly hurt, and so the boy nurses it back to health, and both Trico and the boy set off to try to find a way out of their prison. At first, the boy and Trico are reluctant allies, but as the game progresses, their bond grows and a lot of the game is about witnessing the growth of that bond. In a more practical way, this unlocks different abilities and commands to help you overcome the game’s puzzles. And make no mistake, like most of Team Ico’s games this is a puzzle game at heart, even when many of the puzzles are disguised as something else going on.
Your objective is to leave this prison, so most of the puzzles are navigation based, but there are also the occasional enemies in the form of suits of armor that attempt to carry the boy somewhere. Trico makes short work of them. So in order to raise the stakes they are usually included in areas where the game separates the boy from Trico. In general, I like how The Last Guardian handles puzzles. Mechanics are constantly introduced, and they are usually demonstrated in a simple way before introducing the more complex problems. They are also rotated quite efficiently, and incorporated very well into new mechanics. The same elements rarely repeat themselves the same way as before. Rather, they are added to the new mechanics in ways that are interesting and form new challenges. A lot of times they also include more active navigation within the puzzles in the form collapsing bridges, or other similar mechanics, and when you and Trico escape by the skin of your teeth as the architecture collapses around you it can be a great rush. When the puzzle mechanics, the relationship with Trico and your control over him and the boy come together, this game can have some sublime moments.
Built into The Last Guardian, however, there is a lot of frustration, and this is because of Trico. I have to believe that of the 7 years this game took to make, five were spent looking at animals and how they behave, becasue Trico is the most convincing videogame animal I have ever seen. It moves and behaves realistically from the way its plumage deteriorates, to the way it goes in for a pet, it cannot be understated how impressive it is that they have managed to make Trico feel so believable, and that most of his behavior is apparently unscripted for the most part. It is really easy to get attached to him. The game kind of forces it on you as you are very weak without him, but he is cute in his own right. Unfortunately this adherence to realism also brings in the single biggest problem that plagues this game.
Last year, I had some down time and I’d picked up the PS3 remaster of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. They have always been games that are hard to control and at times un-intuitive. I can say with all certainty, that The Last Guardian handles better than either of those games. Or at least the boy, whom you control directly, does. The problem that comes from Trico behaving like a real animal is that he behaves like a real animal. This means that he often does not seem to understand what you want, or what you are trying to get him to do. It can take several times repeating a command for Trico to do whatever it is that you want from him. He will willfully ignore you at times, and I even had some instances in which he accidentally killed me due to his sheer size. It is a very realistic way for an animal to act, and after finishing the game I believe it was intentional, but that knowledge does little to lessen the frustration this causes during play.
Trico serves to accentuate other frustrations the game has. A lot of the time between puzzles is really spent on top of Trico as he jumps around the level, and he doesn’t always do it automatically. To exacerbate things, it is not always clear where it is that you are supposed to go. During my play through no puzzle significantly stumped me to the point of considering quitting. The one time I got frustrated enough to shut off the game was when I was waiting for Trico to continue on his way to the next point on the map, and I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go. When I gave the command to jump and Trico decided to go back to where we had just come from I lost my patience with the game, and played something else before going back and finishing it. The answer, it turns out, was indeed to tell Trico to jump, he just didn’t “get” my command.
I cannot blame anyone who decides to drop The Last Guardian due to sheer frustration. And like most Team Ico games, this is a game where amazing and memorable moments are islands floating in a sea of long stretches of silent traversal. Anyone that is playing the game expecting something more active, akin to Portal, or other recent action platform games will hate this game. It doesn’t help that this title, which was supposed to be a PS3 entry, can barely be contained by the PlayStation 4. Frame drops are frequent. They don’t affect the game much, because this is not a twitch game. But this is also a short, contained game with beautiful but not particularly demanding backgrounds. I imagine a lot of this slowdown comes down to running whatever routines make Trico tick.
The Last Guardian will be another of those games that, in a few months, will probably be remembered solely for its great moments. But even when the game is at its best it’s hard to ignore how the overall package is tarnished by some performance issues, frustration that stems from the level design, and even by its core design philosophy. The degree to which Trico feels like a real animal, and how monumental that accomplishment is cannot be easily overstated. And that accomplishment is both its greatest asset and the weakness that will drive a lot of players away from the game cursing its name. It is a game that is definitely not for everyone. If you are looking for a puzzle game that has more action, or are more used to a more dynamic kind of game, then this is not for you. If you are looking for a great puzzle game with a heartfelt story and feeling particularly patient, you should definitely check out The Last Guardian.