The Last Guardian was almost an urban legend in video games. For the last ten years, it has been the elephant in the room for Sony and PlayStation at gaming events. It was first announced back in 2007 and was to be developed by Fumito Ueda, famous for games ICO and Shadow of the Colossus and was originally supposed to be an exclusive for the PS3. But years of constant delays and developer issues left it in video game limbo, with fans doubting it would every be released at all, even after Sony reported in 2012 that it was going to be developed for the PlayStation 4 console instead. Now at the end of 2016, The Last Guardian has finally released and it would prove to be a very interesting experience.
Of all the games I have both played and reviewed in 2016, it is almost ironic that the last game I do both with this year happens to be the one game that my opinion kept changing about it right up to the very final seconds. I came into playing The Last Guardian after avoiding almost all gameplay videos and trailers in the months leading to its release as I wanted to experience it for the first time myself. I am glad I did because this is a game which requires the player to form a very special and personal bond with the main characters for the power of the story and gameplay to have its intended effect.
The game opens with the player taking direct control of a young boy, who awakens to find himself in a strange place with no memory of how he got there or why he is suddenly covered from head to toe in strange tattoo markings. Coming to his senses he soon realises that he is not alone, next to him is a large animal wearing damaged armour and wounded by spears which are still stuck in the creature. What happens next is something that took me completely by surprise by its delicate delivery but immediate impact on me. Within minutes I found myself talking to this giant creature named Trico, just as I would with any animal such as a dog or cat upon meeting it for the first time. I instinctively knew that I had to gain Trico’s trust if I wanted to help it and to that I had to get close to it. I could see the spears that were causing it pain and stopping Trico from standing and that whatever battle it had been in had taken a toll on it. In what would serve as a fun tutorial section, I searched the area and discovered barrels containing a glowing blue substance and carried them to Trico, guessing they were food for this creature. The animation and mannerisms of Trico felt like those of a young puppy, and soon after feeding it, removing the spears and helping to take off its battered armour, I stood there looking at a magnificent beast indeed, and Trico looked at me back and a bond had been made between us.
The bond with Trico forms the main foundation for the gameplay in The Last Guardian. Not only do you have to navigate a way for you as the boy to explore and progress the area but you also have to find a way for Trico to come along as well. To begin with, Trico will learn to follow you and by using R1 to call to Trico, it will try to find you. The early sections will mostly consist of trying to help Trico by finding more barrels for it to eat and in trying to bring Trico with you as you move through this mysterious building. From finding and activating switches, to exploring to finding paths large enough for Trico to move through, the early stages of the game help strengthen the bond between Trico and the boy with a true partnership that grows stronger as the game goes on.
Soon Trico begins to help the boy more to navigate the surroundings, the charm of riding on Trico’s back as it learns to leap to different ledges or to help the boy reach high platforms to get to switches or more barrels to feed Trico. The natural evolution of this side to the gameplay is truly organic and wondrous to see unfold with some memorable moments such as seeing Trico leaping to the moment when Trico comes to your aid and fights to protect you when you encounter strange armoured guards who target you yet seem to have a strange understand of what Trico is. After such an encounter Trico will be all riled up and excited so when you pet Trico and see it relax and calm it down just as you might your own pet, it just makes the connection that much more special. This relationship is really the driving force as the game has little in the way of hand holding guidance with short lines of dialogue coming from narration triggered by certain progress in the game or when a new skill can be used. The narration is from the boy, much older, telling the story of this journey as though he is remembering it or telling it to someone else. It is an elegant level to the story telling that is told through each experience of the journey together.
I also have to say that The Last Guardian is simply one of the most visually stunning games I have played in 2016. The water coloured pallet visuals are more than just striking, they create a world that is breathtaking at times in the level of detail in each structure, area and environment. The animation of Trico alone is something rather magical with the feathers moving in a breeze or when the boy is climbing on Trico to the animation of the boy climbing, falling and how the emotion of a sequence is captured in how each character moves and reacts be it a tender moment between Trico and the boy or a dangerous encounter with both fighting for each other. The visuals are complimented by a beautiful musical soundtrack that enhances the emotion in the game and story so succinctly throughout the game and especially in the later stages and ending. For a game that was lost in developer limbo for almost ten years, you can see why such it may have proven so difficult to bring so many amazing elements together to finally bring the story of The Last Guardian to life. But sadly, not everything benefited from a long development.
Sadly perhaps the greatest strength of The Last Guardian is also its biggest problem. To create the bond between the boy and Trico to drive the story and experience to the level it needs to get to, a great deal of effort has gone into giving Trico its personality traits and behaviour through its AI. In the beginning it is almost charming when Trico is stubborn or misbehaves. But the final third of the game requires Trico to be more willing to do as it’s told and to react to situations in set pieces in order for the game to continue. But that stubborn trait can become a really frustrating mechanic when you require Trico to do something and it just refuses to do it such as a moment when you become stuck on a tree after a fall with no way to free yourself and Trico will just sit there, staring at you. Clearly this is supposed to be a lovely little moment in the game where Trico rescues you but for me, no matter how much I mashed buttons and called to Trico to get its attention, for ten minutes Trico just walked about until it finally decided to lift me off the branch. This happened far too often for key sequences that followed the same formula and it proved to be an experience breaking problem whenever the essence that makes Trico so amazing a character also becomes a hindrance at moments it needs it to be a much smoother element.
Then you also have the glaring issues of the pain in the butt camera which also serves as a hindrance at times when the game calls for very fiddly and precise climbing or platforming as the boy or with Trico. The controls as well at times can feel very last gen, which considering The Last Guardian was originally a PS3 title, haunts the gameplay as each face button on the controller is a different action button which in 2016 is rather a unique way of doing a control scheme for a platformer and feels a little unnatural. There are puzzle sections that follow big set piece moments of the game that can at times break the pace and flow of the experience which felt unnecessary and adding an element of grinding the same gameplay that could have been cut out and would have lost nothing once the bond between the boy and Trico is set in stone.
My feelings about The Last Guardian would chop and change throughout my playthrough of it. One moment I would be in awe at the spectacle and wonder of this world and its characters to shouting at the TV and rage quitting when Trico or the gameplay would become a frustrating mess and shattered the experience. But following those moments of frustration would be truly outstanding memorable moments that would grab hold of me and bring me back into all the good things about this game. Persevering through the frustrating times to reach perhaps one of the most mesmerising game endings not just of 2016 but in recent years just made this an experience worth that long wait for. Now after the festive season is over, prices have dropped for this and there is no better time to pick it up.
The good far outweighs the bad in The Last Guardian, and as I write this the day after completing the story, I am still mulling over the experience enough to make me want to return and experience the story again.