The Last Guardian – Review
2016 was the year of the shooter. Guns fired, guts spilled and were occasionally ripped out by force, and a whole whack of the year’s finest titles got slapped with MA15 and R18 stickers.
How very adorable that arguably the most violent game of the year got away with a bright yellow PG one.
Very few games justify the biggest, most-expensive home cinema a person can possibly squeeze into a living room like The Last Guardian does. Even with its frame-rate troubles (which can be overcome, but only if you have a Pro and lock your output to 1080p), Team Ico’s long-overdue PlayStation 4 debut is an aesthetic marvel of rare quality. Its world is at once fantastical, ancient and utterly believable in spite of the constructional impossibility. It’s littered with small visual winks to the team’s previous two games. It will make you want to stop and admire its beauty with clockwork regularity.
And then there’s the audio design, an area where it does, almost unbelievable, stand out technically as much as artistically. Arguably, it’s better than even Dice’s work, although a few more tweaking options would help sell the argument. It’s also here, when a roar can make an ancient structure quake, that suggesting that The Last Guardian is perhaps brilliantly violent begins to make sense.
Much of this is of service to the world, but perhaps even more is in service to Trico, the giant cat-bird creature that serves not as the character you play as, but certainly the one you will remember most. The box art alone establishes that Trico is huge, a true beast when placed next to man; but until you’ve played the game, you won’t appreciate this. Not really. The work that has been put into Trico is staggering and while it’s possible to at least glean how impressively animated she* is through watching trailers, the sound work is another thing entirely. A discrete subwoofer is almost a must. Trico’s presence is frequently felt, and the stomach-deep sensations will only grow after you get more comfortable about riding her.
The Last Guardian is profoundly physical in a way that video games – so frequently aspiring to be tight and responsive and swiftly-paced – simply aren’t. Once you’ve spent some time jumping from ledges or escaping a crumbling foothold with Trico, the graphic violence in other games like Gears or Doom begins to feel like flat eyewash that can merely portray only the idea of visceral action.
Maybe this is helped along by the fact that you play as a young boy, and maybe it isn’t. In any case, The Last Guardian begins with players taking control of said boy, waking up to find himself covered in strange tattoos and sharing a cave-like structure with the gigantic, wounded body of Trico. Her breathing alone seems to hit like a sack of potatoes. The player’s very first task is to have the boy pull spears free from and de-tether the creature’s body, an act of service for which he gets tossed with bone-crushing force.
The strength-weakness parallel runs through The Last Guardian. Trico is a ferocious beast, you are a small boy, and while there will be ways in which the boy is able to contribute to the occasional combat scenarios as the game progresses, the boy’s job is found in calming the beast after battle, calling and trying to guide her, and finding the way forward by slipping through narrow paths, sometimes to find strange glowing barrels that help to nourish and rejuvenate Trico, oftentimes to finds a switch to a much larger gate.
While of little use in a fight, let it not be said that the kid isn’t tough. By simple necessity of game design and functionality, he is tougher than he ought to be. Once he has a grip on Trico, he never lets go, no matter how ferocious the action that he is dealing with. Likewise, while his movements are skittish and give priority to animation (something that will rub up anyone who demands responsive controls the wrong way, but also something that makes him feel much more like a person than a video game avatar), he has a staggering ability to hang from ledges for extended periods of time, and can survive a fall from almost any height with only a short period of limping needed for recovery. It’s almost cruel humour that his animation when teetering over the edge of a steep fall so effectively instills fear.
The Last Guardian leaves its players to discover this for themselves, however. As much of how to effectively communicate with Trico and contribute to the combat with the terracotta-like soldiers is also organically delegated to player experimentation. Other small discoveries also exist, although none of them are absolutely essential to progress as Team Ico has made the uncharacteristic decision to provide command prompts for essential actions on the screen, not just during the opening sections of the game, but right up until the very end.
These instructions feel minimal compared to many other games, but positively like hand-holding considering The Last Guardian’s heritage. Adding further to this, the game is narrated by the boy, now much older; should no progress be made in the puzzles, at least in some instances, there are verbal hints at what happens next in the story.
Trico, easily the most stunningly believable creature ever to grace a video game, is essential to your progress, and this means having to develop a relationship with, as well as learn the character traits of (and occasionally straight-up have patience for) a capricious AI. Trico looks, animates and sounds wholly real, but perhaps the real party trick is that she behaves in a way that is, put very simply, lifelike, and in doing so highlights how mounts in other games are really just glorified motorcycles in different skins.
Teamwork is essential – the linear level design conspires to ensure as much –, and among the first things players will need to learn is just how far Trico’s abilities stretch; she’s huge, but also both cat and bird-like, and so she can leap surprising distances, and her innate curiosity may sometimes hold the key to solving a puzzle. Understanding that she isn’t as dumb as you might think sometimes comes a neat second. As stubborn as Trico can be, the result is an earned sense of companionship.
Trico’s occasional stubborn turns, much like the skittish character control, are actually boons that work in the game’s favour, design choices that give body and texture to the world. Less welcome is the camera, which, unlike Trico, is stubborn by creative limitation rather than choice. It’s frustrating enough that it’s actually worth mentioning now, in early 2017, a time when reviews don’t really mention the camera in games anymore because, on the whole, they’ve gotten pretty good at behaving.
As sour points go, this one stings. But much as with the frame rate, it doesn’t hugely hurt playability of the game simply because of the unique type of game The Last Guardian is, and it’s likely that its developers recognised this and focused their attentions elsewhere.
And that elsewhere is spectacular. It really is. The Last Guardian is a deep and intimate game of few words, but it also provided some of the most thrilling moments in a game that I’ve experienced in years. It manages this regularly, more regularly than you might think, and while it occasionally reuses the same tricks, the excitement never runs dry.
This balance of thrill and intimacy continues right through to an end game where, sure enough, performance could be better, but it’s an absolute master-class in spectacle clashing with emotional investment and of using much of what has been learned getting there in one final, powerful gesture.
Yes, there are technical issues. But the accomplishments easily outweigh them, and even if The Last Guardian really does feel familiarly like a Team Ico game, it’s only the third in existence, the first in over ten years – for many people, it will be their first –, and it succeeds in being the most ambitious.
The Last Guardian won’t make you feel like a bad arse, but it will make you feel courageous.
It won’t provide a huge open sandbox to explore, but it will provide a real sense of adventure.
It won’t put the world in danger, but what is in danger will matter even more.
Even pre-release, The Last Guardian received some flack for feeling like a holdover from a console cycle left in the past. Does it feel like a thing from the previous generation? When it’s this special, there isn’t a single good reason to even care.
* Personal choice. No clear gender seems to be stated.
An Australian expatriate (that’s rich-country speak for immigrant) living in Japan, Tim graduated from University with an art degree with a large focus on animation, and immediately took to writing instead of drawing. He has written for numerous magazines and websites, and some have even continued to give him work! He has dislocated his knee fewer times than Matt.