Had The Last Guardian been released at the end of the PS2’s lifespan, or early in the PS3’s with graphics performance scaled for that hardware, I suspect it would have been heralded as an unambiguous masterpiece. A timeless classic without parallel we would have remembered for years.
Releasing in 2016, The Last Guardian is a game of extremes. It’s a beautifully presented adventure that is equal measures poignant and moving, but it was impossible for me to ignore how the game’s excruciatingly long development cycle harmed it.
In far too many ways, The Last Guardian feels like a game struggling to shake off design and development choices from the PS2 era. Too many aspects feel like they were rigidly set shortly after Shadow of the Colossus wrapped up. It feels like Team Ico failed to learn from a decade of advancements in the video game industry outside of increasing their visual quality.
I am a very big fan of the games Team Ico have released up until this point. They are masters of grand scale being employed to tell stories with minimal words needed. They told some beautiful stories in ways digestible with minimal language comprehension required. In an era before we had releases like Journey, Team Ico’s work stood alone as a fairly incomparable set of worlds to explore. I came into The Last Guardian with fairly high expectations purely based on the pedigree of the studio involved.
I was also concerned long before the title released that, if it ever did release, it would be a mess. That is also context for my opinion going in ,which might help you contextualise my points.
I was also concerned long before the title released that, if it ever did release, it would be a mess.
The Last Guardian, without doubt, manages to recapture the narrative elements which made Team Ico’s previous releases so critically well-received. It tells a story of a relationship between two terribly real-feeling characters by showing you how struggling together through the same adversity brings them closer together. It shows a tale of trust, protectiveness and shared fear with barely a word spoken, and the relationship shown feels both organic and very much like it will be memorable for a long time to come.
Their adventure is one of unlikely friends forced to realise how much they have to offer each other in spite of their instinctual feelings, and it’s an absolute joy to watch that relationship blossom.
When things do get tense, and my animal companion Trico was put at risk or in harm’s way, I genuinely cared about his safety. I knew logically that Trico wasn’t going to die by scrabbling to not fall off a ledge ten minutes into the game, but I still worried every time he was at risk of harm. That much is a testament to the narrative abilities of Team Ico still being very much intact.
When things do get tense, and my animal companion Trico was put at risk or in harm’s way, I genuinely cared about his safety.
The gameplay itself is usually slow paced puzzle platforming fare, with the occasional high stakes action scene used to push the story forward and give the player a sense of urgency to their adventure. The platforming puzzle gameplay is truly top notch in design, with solutions to puzzles always hinted at in intelligent ways that ensured it never felt as if a puzzle had unfairly kept me from the information needed to solve it. The reasoning given for sections where the young boy has to complete tasks alone (avoiding objects which scare Trico) makes sense, and every time I had to separate from Trico I felt a real pang of guilt and concern for my abandoned friend.
But, there are some glaring issues with The Last Guardian, one of which made these beautifully designed puzzles hellish to actually get through once a solution had been discovered. Trico’s AI needs a HUGE rewrite.
In many puzzles, you are required to call for Trico, get his attention, and get him to do something for you. Maybe he needs to stand in a certain spot, maybe he needs to eat something. Getting him to do these things is worse than inconsistent, at times it made puzzles seem impossibly infuriating.
Knowing exactly where Trico needs to go or what he needs to do, shouting for him, and having him either ignore you or run around in circles nowhere near where you need him to be is frustrating as hell.
I have heard reviewers suggest it’s a realistic depiction of a living creature, not always willing to cooperate or able to comprehend your commands. That explanation is fucking bullshit.
That might have held water if it was a rare occurrence, with unique animations tied to it, in a way that felt deliberate and knowing. That’s not the case. It’s common, the game does nothing to suggest it’s a deliberate refusal, and the puzzle gets stuck in an unsolvable limbo until Trico deems you worthy of his attention. It’s annoying. It’s not realism, it’s infuriating game design that left me as a player unable to complete puzzles through no fault of my own.
Also, in Team Ico’s quest for realism at the expense of playability, a huge number of visual elements in The Last Guardian are inconsistently presented. The environment has pathways which lead nowhere (and that’s fine, it can, when used sparingly, lead to a sense of exploring a complex environment) but there’s a lack of basic consistency in which types of area are able to be interacted with. I, at times, lept for ledges which were deemed not grabbable and fell to my death, then moments later had an identical ledge somewhere else work because that was the one designed for gameplay. Dying due to an inability to read interactable environments is another unforgivable sin.
At times the game just seemingly breaks, with animations going wonky and causing player deaths without reason. Any time you need to rely on a combination of the game’s physics engine AND an interaction with Trico, you can find yourself stuck for several minutes trying to do a single simple action. It’s even worse if you have to do so under pressure.
Honestly, most of my issues here feel like products of the game’s stupidly lengthy development time. The Last Guardian feels like a late PS2-era game that has had new coats of paint applied to it for almost a decade, as well as new game design concepts and physics techniques shoved into it, without at any point an attempt to scrap the project entirely and start over with a new game design document.
The refusal to throw the game away and start afresh has left this game feeling wonky, broken and buggy in ways that I doubt will ever get fixed. They feel like they came from having to fit modern design elements into a design document set firmly in stone in the mid 2000’s, and that trying to fix them into an existing system did more harm than good
Oh, and it runs notably worse on a standard PS4 than the PS4 Pro. The Pro can just about manage a stable 30FPS when played at 1080p. When played in 4K on Pro or 1080p on the standard model, the framerate fluctuated between 20 and 30FPS, with occasional dips as low as 10FPS on the standard system, requiring the system to be restarted to fix the issue. Those issues are not too common, but they are a real shame considering the game getting ported up sets of hardware multiple times.
For all the things I love about The Last Guardian narratively, I was consistently frustrated by trying to play it. I could see myself coming back to the narrative every few years like I do Shadow of the Colossus, but I highly suspect I’ll do so by watching a YouTube Let’s Play rather than playing it myself.
The Last Guardian is a beautiful experience that I have no desire to actually control again. If it released a decade ago I might have felt differently.
I hate that such a beautiful game is so unbelievably infuriating to actually play.
A review copy of this game was provided for review.
Developer/Publisher: Team Ico / Sony
Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PlayStation 4 Pro
Release date: Out Now
- Beautiful story of an organically evolving unlikely friendship
- Very well designed puzzles
- Feels like a beautiful PS2 game, and that’s an issue in many ways.
- Frustrating as all fucking hell to actually fucking play
- I can’t stand playing a game I find fucking beautiful.
One of the most beautifully touching unplayable messes ever. I wish I loved this game more than I do.