You can see the guts, the gears as they turn and strain to make individual parts move with each other. That makes The Last Guardian an interesting game to play, if not educational, but whether it’s enjoyable is an entirely different question. It achieves quite a bit in exploring one last turn of director Fumito Ueda’s oeuvre of thematic and gameplay permutations, including a relationship that is at once one of the best and worst things you’ll ever encounter, a dichotomy emblematic of the whole game.
This binary existence is a consequence of the game’s undying adherence to a set of core principles. When someone decided that you would be controlling an awkward, flailing little boy, you got a character that is both lovingly goofy to handle and rage-inducing to throw around precision platforming segments. When someone thought it would be good to create a realistic bird-cat-dog companion, we ended up with something that is the most believably independent and curious and intriguing creature while being the single greatest hindrance to actually playing the damn thing.
Yes, that dynamic should sound familiar. If nothing else, The Last Guardian brings Ueda’s directorship full circle, exploring purpose in relationships and isolation in duty. Set in a world that seems to fully stand apart from any known realm of reality or fantasy yet fully steeped in both, you play as an unnamed boy that wakes up in a strange castle/oversized dungeon. He’s been trapped here and needs to escape, but he soon encounters Trico, the aforementioned dog-cat-bird, pretty much in the throes of death. But lucky for the adorable abomination, our hero wants to help.
Much of the game, in fact, is built around helping Trico make his way through narrow and harrowing passages, feeding him to make sure he’s well, and destroying odd stained glass eyeballs that terrify the poor critter. And through that, we engage in a series of moments and challenges that build up this relationship to incredible heights. Think on the bond between Ico and Yorda or Wander and Agro. It reaches that level of impact but in vastly different ways.
Trico, by acting exactly like how you think a cat-bird-dog would act, becomes a realistic, nigh breathing thing. You could just sit and watch him for hours as he playfully bats at passing butterflies or does that cute little stretch that dogs do when they feel restless. You never have direct control over him, instead swaying his attention by climbing on him and indicating your intent so he can try to help you help him. (Or at least, that is usually the case.)
It’s an incredibly tactile experience in that way. Rather than having a button you press to get him to interact with whatever you’ve pointed the camera at or something, you physically have to coerce him to play along. You are communicating with him, not with a game that will then translate it into commands for a 3D actor to complete. Sometimes he’ll ignore your actions, sometimes he won’t understand you, and other times he’ll just get in the way, but at all times, he’s there for you.
At the same time, though, this creates the greatest frustration in playing the game. When you’ve solved a puzzle and the final step to getting to the end is putting Trico in place, the last thing you want to see is him just sitting there or moving in the complete opposite direction, especially as you try for the tenth time. You can’t figure out if it’s your potentially erroneous solution or Trico just being a creature of agency until it magically works the eleventh time and you realize he and it were just being shitty for the past 15 minutes.
It’s an uneasy establishment of what you are given and what the game demands. The puzzles, while not hard, are exacting in their requirements, but your tools are operate in the realm of implicit, not explicit. The same goes for the platforming segments where jumps require a nearly punitive level of precision while you control the floppy, meandering body of a Not Nathan Drake. It’s not that you can’t make the jumps but that the circumstances of the jump are constantly changing due to the character’s unreliability.
This results in some hedging that almost miraculously also results in some of the most adrenaline-pumping moments of any game in recent memory. I won’t list any of them explicitly so as to not ruin these set pieces, but if you’ve seen the trailers, you know there are some parts where Trico saves the boy from falling to a long, scream-filled death. Know that that isn’t even where the blood pumping begins. It gets pretty dang good.
The hedging, however, is still there and everywhere, showing the history of the game’s troubled development. There are nonstop tooltips, as if it were unsure if what you were able to do any given moment was clear. There are subtitles to the nonsense speak, as if there was zero confidence the directing and acting and design would be able to convey intent and emotion without stating it all outright. There are just too many moments where this game is not as self-assured as it should be.
In that protracted time spent incubating, though, the game has developed an extraordinary sense of place. The world is gorgeous, expanding and filling in the endless and vast expanse of made-up lands while promising evermore just beyond the horizon. The architecture is swings from whimsical to stoic to menacing, and you can both see and think through how it all fits together. It’s an impressive bit of design and engineering, though it does cause some serious frame rate issues at heavy times.
That doesn’t fully excuse it, however, from being 12 hours of uncomfortable shifting between a tremendous experience and a broken one. It definitely gets more right than wrong, but it seems to only exist on the extremes of that spectrum. When it’s good, it’s so damn good, but when it’s frustrating, it’s the last thing you’d ever want to put hands on again. The one thing it does nail, though, is Trico: he is one hell of a bird-dog-cat.
+ Stunning art direction
+ Trico is a stupendously believable and lovable animal companion
+ Thrilling set pieces and interesting gameplay mechanics
– Puzzles and platforming requires precision that the game actively suppresses
– The camera is straight out of the PlayStation 1 era when 3D spaces were still unexplored territory
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Game Review: The Last Guardian
Release: December 6, 2016
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4