Every conversation I have with someone about The Last Guardian goes like this:
“Wow, Evan, you already finished it? How terrible was it? I heard it runs like dogshit.”
“Honestly, the framerate isn’t great but not as bad as everyone said, aside for a few frustrating moments. Besides every other piece of the game makes up for what it lakes in the technical performance–”
“That’s no excuse! They took TEN YEARS to make it!”
Let me clear the air first: I believe Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece of a game, and that Fumito Ueda is one of the greatest artists in game development. I do not believe The Last Guardian is as good of a game, but as an experience, I highly recommend it to anyone that had played either of the two previously made games by Team Ico, now known as GenDESIGN.
It’s been a long journey for Fumito Ueda and Sony Computer Entertainment to put this game out. A project thought to be, and probably was, dead reappeared at E3 2014 with the support of fans and producers who still quietly but anxiously were waiting to see more of the works by the visionary crew that brought Shadow of the Colossus to life in 2005. The long development time isn’t the same as the hellish complications of Duke Nukem Forever, it’s not like James Cameron’s 15 year waiting period on bringing Avatar to life. Ueda had a vision for introducing The Last Guardian to the world, and the complications came with the hardware limitations of the PlayStation 3 for his vision, as it did for a lot of developers that generation. In the technical sense, it’s even too much for a standard PlayStation 4 to handle, hence the gaming community and PC elitists teasing about the game’s framerate performance. However, in a game industry where countless blockbuster titles like Mafia III, Assassin’s Creed, and Call of Duty show performance issues in their launch week prior to patching the game weeks, even months, later, less criticism comes their way because they appeal to a baseline audience for action video games. These titles show nowhere close to the artistry, ambition, and inspiration that you see in a game by Ueda. His games aren’t like that. Team Ico is often the team looked to by the games industry in the argument that video games are more than action, punching, and shooting, but are actually a platform for creating art. If you don’t believe that artistic integrity has any place on a PlayStation 4 console, I direct you to the long-debated article by the late Roger Ebert. Spoiler alert, Shadow of the Colossus was the game that made him concede the argument. The one game he regarded “close” to a masterpiece.
Ueda’s absence between 2011 and 2014 due to expired contracts caused the game’s production to stagnate. He follows a design philosophy that feels akin to independent development by way of minimalism, or as he puts it, “design by subtraction.” The game does feel like an isolated piece of a bygone era, not felt since the early days of the PlayStation 3. No Heads Up Display, no spells, no health, no lives or upgrades. The screen is filled with the cinematic structure of the world, the boy, and the bird-dog-cat-griffon beast known as Trico, with only a few PlayStation Trophies to interrupt the experience. The two companions build an admittedly trope filled relationship like you’d expect from a Boy and His Dog story, and slowly scale up a series of towers against all opposition while the mystery of this hidden castle known as The Nest, reveals itself.
Despite being a product of its time of announcement, The Last Guardian, in 2016, is a natural leap in design, art direction, and scale from the studio’s works before. A rich, dream-like world with castles built high, and ruins overgrown. They feel familiar, but new all at once, and Ueda’s team put painstaking amounts of detail into every corner of the Nest they could and supported by a luminous lighting engine that makes every structure bleed more atmosphere into the game. By way of Ueda’s less-is-more design style, the game creates puzzles out of its environment with stray objects, clever building and ruins structure, and Trico’s behavior. Very little guidance apart from a booming voice of a narrator when the player becomes lost, and where a lot of players may find themselves frustrated with the game’s physics engine and the control scheme of The Boy (which is the same as in Ico and Colossus), it is important to realize that The Last Guardian asks for the player’s patience. The game’s numerous escape room puzzles are simple to solve if you understand exactly what you need The Boy and Trico to do, but many will find themselves frustrated and overthinking how to achieve their goal, I certainly know I did for the first half of the game. This is all by design, however, as Ueda seeks to have the player feel as helpless and at the mercy of the world around them, as The Boy actually is in the game. By way of exaggeration, the meager strength of the child feels more realistic, and this adds tedium to the game, but also a narrative by way of character action.
Beyond the seamlessly interconnected structure of The Nest, which, by the way, presents only a handful of loading screens if the player makes it through without dying, it contains a flawless audio mixing and sound design, a moving score by Takeshi Furukawa, and has an astounding feat in an Artificial Intelligence in a companion character that puts any other in video games into question on their believability.
Trico’s appearance and interactive AI is easily the most impressive part of the game and will feel familiar to any player that has trained an untamed dog, or animal of any kind. He just also wings and feathers that can be individually counted on his back as each individually react to wind patterns in The Nest. If the player opens themselves to the ideas of the game’s structure and playstyle, Trico quickly feels like a real animal in its behavior based on your commands, assistance, and its environment. The creature does not feel as though its actions are scripted throughout the game save for a handful of moments, and that is a result of seamlessly blending it’s AI with cinematic sequences through the game.
Narratively, there aren’t any surprises. The story is actually quite predictable aside from the fate of Trico and The Boy at the end, but through atmosphere, it pulls players in and, if the framerate dips can be looked past, creates a very emotionally positive connection to the two characters growing together. Aside from a few obviously manipulative heartstring tugs, the combat and chase sequences prove to be thrilling in presentation but also with interactivity, not unlike those seen throughout Uncharted 4 A Thief’s End.
On that note, Uncharted 4 shares a lot of similarities with The Last Guardian than most other games in 2016 by feeling like a cinematic experience that invites the player into the thrilling action sequences and emotive story beats in a seamless way. Each has a very different story to tell but do so with enough technical accomplishment that I would argue that either are a more enjoyable experience than most blockbuster and animated movies in 2016.
If you have a standard PlayStation 4, and can’t get past the idea of occasional frame rate dips, I don’t blame you, but I will also say that if that is truly the part that bothers you, The Last Guardian isn’t your game in the first place. The Last Guardian is for the Team Ico and Ueda faithful, the more patient video game players, and the people that want to see more genuine emotion and artistry in their AAA video games. Or, you can just wait for them to patch it next month.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Format: PlayStation 4
Released: December 6th, 2016
Copy Purchased By Reviewer