Game Review: The Last Guardian (PS4)

We found ourselves in a mysterious blue circular room. It was just mere seconds later that the doors surrounding the room opened up and nearly a dozen enemies came forth. They were the same armor-clad entities we had been battling throughout our journey, ones that would stop at nothing to recapture me. Several of them ran at me and I fell back to the rear of the room with my shield raised high. My animal companion, Trico, a creature sharing similarities of a bird, dog, and cat, started swatting at the creatures throwing spears and striking at her with their swords. Her tail, which seemed to be an often effective source of power, was firing electrical bursts at wherever I concentrated the gaze of my shield. In mere moments we took out half of the enemy force in our view.

Several enemies were obliterated in front of me and before I could run to help Trico, I was grabbed by one of them. My vision was then filled with symbols as they attempted to disorientate me. I managed to shake free from their grasp and ran. Only a few enemies remained as Trico was laying down some swift justice of her own and my efforts with the shield had been fairly effective. The final enemy fell as the room then became quiet. I looked at Trico, she was in pain. Several spears were upon her back and lower leg. I grabbed one of them firmly and pulled it free. Trico howled in pain. I removed the final spear and we continued on our way to the top of this mystical tower.

Back in 2001, we were introduced to ICO, an original adventure game for the PlayStation 2 by designer Fumito Ueda. This Sony published title saw a small horned boy save a mysterious princess from within an equally mysterious castle. You would issue simple instructions to Yorda, the princess, in an effort to guide both of you out of the castle and to your freedom. During your escape, black shadow creatures would attempt to re-capture the princess and put a stop to that escape. ICO is easily one of my favorite games of all time and the fact that The Last Guardian plays so similar is definitely a plus, it is just a shame that the game has several technical problems that unfortunately hold it back.

ICO was a modest hit for the studio, and its follow-up, Shadow of the Colossus was an even bigger one. While I didn’t find it nearly as enjoyable as ICO, it achieved much wider appeal and put the developer on a mission to create a bigger and better title in the future. This title was announced in 2007 as The Last Guardian. Yes, it was announced nearly 10 years ago. The soon to be PlayStation 3 title was then publicly shown at E3 in 2009 and became the title to watch for. Months went by with little-to-no discussion of the title, and those months turned into years, devoid of much information regarding the game or its release. Eventually, people started to wonder if the title had been canceled, however; Sony made sure to eventually comment that the title was still in development. Several delays and rumors later, Sony then announced that The Last Guardian would be releasing for the PlayStation 4, its now current system, and not for that of the PlayStation 3.

The Last Guardian opens with a young boy waking up in a strange place. Opposite him is a giant creature known as Trico (or in Japan, トリコ Toriko). This creature appears to be some sort of combination of cat, dog, and bird. The name translates to “prisoner” or “baby bird”, as the name itself is a combination of “bird” ( tori) and “cat” ( neko). There is a large chain around the creatures neck and a partially broken mask upon her face. Its gaze is upon you as you run around the open space trying to find a way out. Another mystery is the weird writing that is all over your body, how did it get there? what does it mean? Eventually, you’ll stumble across glowing barrels of unknown origin, but barrels that you’ll use to feed Trico. A combination of those barrels and removing the spears from the creatures’ backside, forms the start of a bond between the two of you. Eventually, you’ll attempt to escape the area that you both are trapped in, finding a small circular shield, that when focused, fires off an electrical blast from Trico’s tail.

The remainder of the game sees this bond grow as you and Trico will attempt to leave the castle behind and get the boy back to wherever his home is. You’ll discover how you both ended up in that starting area as well as where the boy came from and his connection to the strange creature Trico. You’ll give commands to Trico as the both of you will solve puzzles and figure out where to go next. The Last Guardian, much like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, is a climbing platformer with puzzle elements, bursting with exploration and adventure. The game is fully linear, so exploring to find another path isn’t an option here but it does add to the sense of scale and wonder in each of the environments. You have a variety of commands to give Trico, but none of them are known to you, so figuring out what commands do what is part of the journey. You can ride atop Trico, or hang from her tail to access area’s that are blocked to you naturally. Her tail actually has some stellar moments designed around it and is one of the biggest highlights of the experience for sure.

The command function is unfortunately very hit and miss. Sure, I’ve had moments of it working completely as intended, but most of the time Trico would just act on her own and backtrack to the start of the area. There were several moments in the game where I knew exactly where to go and Trico wouldn’t even care for long periods of time, often just sitting or eventually lying down. I beat the game at around the 10-hour mark, but could have easily had it within 8 had Trico responded to my commands. Now, sure, this could be a statement about language barriers or that animals, for the most part, will act on their own, and if that is the case, it comes across as more of an annoyance than anything that clever. You can wave down Trico and hope that she listens or notices you, often she would stare at me with those sad eyes, making me wonder if she was on her way or not. At first, this was amusing and charming, even capable of being an “awwww” type moment, but after a while, it really started to feel like it was padding the game’s length and lead to much frustration.

Despite the delays in commands given to Trico, she really is the star of the show here. I say ‘she’ as more reports mention the developer saying “her” or “she” in their comments, even if it really isn’t mentioned in-game, so take that as you will. Trico’s movements are amazing, with stunning animations that really show the subtlety in her mannerisms or in basic things like walking and climbing. Trico moves like a cat, has the same curiosity of one, but with the sadness of a puppy and the feathers of a bird, not to mention wings that more or less don’t work. Trico will get curious about things, or startled when there is something she is surprised by. There are moments in the game where she will get overcome by anger, and as the boy, you will need to calm her down by petting her, even if she doesn’t want it. These moments are touching and further the bond between not only the boy and Trico but that of you and the both of them. Trico will get to you, that much is for certain. The emotional connection you share with Trico is something the teams at JapanStudio and GENdesign are hoping for as it makes the story and its journey that much more impactful. While that could come off a type of spoiler, be rest assured, its ending is earned and is incredibly touching, just make sure to wait through the credits for the complete ending. 

I wish that the delay in the commands given to Trico were my only source of frustration, but they were not. The game had several frame-rate issues that show how little the game was optimized during its long development cycle. While some of these issues may be solved with the PS4 PRO, I sadly lack that system to test that theory out. There are a lot of moments where the controls just fail to impress, and while they worked for ICO and Shadow of the Colossus some 10+ years ago, they don’t quite live up to other games in the genre today.

Another issue I had with the game that was constant from start to finish is the camera. I had to move the camera on nearly every jump or away from Trico should she get too close for me to aim the shield. Most of the difficult jumps were set with camera angles that just didn’t work as intended and lead to many deaths. Jumping and lowering from platforms or even from Trico for that matter are unnecessarily difficult and not as fluid as you would want to expect. The game, despite the incredibly long development cycle, brings with it all the flaws of that era, which is sadly unfortunate and dates the game drastically. This doesn’t feel like a new game, it feels like some sort of PlayStation 3 remaster.

While I’ve read a mixed response on the visuals, I rather enjoyed them. The game doesn’t drop any jaws, but the visual style here is unique to this developer and the level design is superb. Outdoor areas are bright and colorful and offer a grand sense of scale. One of the things I loved about ICO was that even at the top the castle you could see much of the starting area by simply looking down. That sense of scale is here in The Last Guardian and comes across as even more impressive due to a change in hardware. There are only a few characters in the game that you see long enough to really appreciate. The boy, visually, is ok, but mostly just impressive due to his animations. Trico, however; is a graphical miracle. The creature is gorgeous and beautifully animated. Each feather flows in the wind, her tail is incredibly realistic and even the small motions her body makes while walking or cowering is wonderful. When you have food to feed her and lay it at her feet, she’ll be curious about it, unsure if she should do anything with it.

I’ve mentioned my dislikes with the game, and frankly, I could have written another thousand words on all the issues I had from moment to moment, but the game just doesn’t deserve it. There is so much to like about this game with its characters and its level design. If you were a fan of ICO or Shadow of the Colossus, then you’ll feel right at home here. The final few moments in the game had me nervous, scared, sad and yet excited and giddy. It was during these moments that I forgot about any issue I had with the game and when the final scene after the credits ended, I was sad to see the experience end. The Last Guardian is far from a perfect game, but one that was well worth the wait.


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