Developer: genDESIGN / SIE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Format: PlayStation 4
Release Date: December 6, 2016
Copy obtained via GameFly
Writing this review is one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I’ve been heavily anticipating The Last Guardian ever since early render footage was leaked in 2008. Now, after a decade of delays and development issues, The Last Guardian has finally released. Whether or not this game would ever see the light of day has become a joke over the years, so being able to finally play it through to completion and sit down to write my thoughts is a strange experience indeed. Thankfully, the long wait was worth it.
Upon waking in a strange and mysterious world full of decrepit ruins, towering fortresses, and magical suits of armor, a young boy is tasked with braving untold dangers in order to return home. Fortunately, he isn’t alone in this endeavor. Accompanying him on his journey is a large and majestic beast named Trico. Trico is a peculiar specimen, resembling both a bird and a dog, but she’s also an instantly lovable and believable creature. Everything from her mannerisms and personality, to the way she capers and cavorts through the environment is mesmerizing. In fact, I would even go as far as declaring Trico the most expertly animated creature to ever be featured in a video game.
At the core of this experience is the bond formed between the boy and Trico.
They must both rely on each other in order to traverse the environment and its obstacles, but their connection builds beyond just a mutual need of the other. Like all great stories of young children and their pets, this is also a tale about friendship. With the believability of Trico being as incredible as it is, you as a player start to bond with her too. There were several times I found myself talking to my television screen, or taking pause from progressing further just to play with Trico or simply pet her. I’ve never seen a video game that makes you care for an animal as immediately and powerfully as The Last Guardian. For some, this will bring up warm memories of raising your own pets. For others, it will give you a glimpse of a special type of bond you may not have been able to experience firsthand.
The vast majority of the game is centered around platforming and solving puzzles.
The boy can pull switches to manipulate the environment, push objects along tracks, and climb certain surfaces or squeeze through narrow passageways. Trico can be used to usher the boy across large gaps, over great barriers, and smash through otherwise impenetrable defenses throughout the world. You’ll have to use both characters together in order to navigate this mysterious land, which (for the most part) is an incredibly rewarding experience.
Since Trico is a wild animal, she doesn’t exactly speak the same language as the boy. You’ll spend the early hours of the game trying to discover how to communicate with Trico so that she can aid you in your quest. Calling her by name is simple enough, resulting in her coming to your position, but learning how to teach her to jump, climb, and interact with the world around her can be quite challenging. For some, this is going to be a huge frustration. Trico’s AI is designed to feel like a real animal, meaning she won’t always listen to you right away. Sometimes she’ll want to do her own thing (like roll around in a large puddle) instead of what you tell her to. On one hand, it does feel like you’re interacting with a real animal with its own thoughts and motives, but from a gameplay perspective it can be quite annoying. However, the way you take care of Trico actually factors in to how often she listens to you.
Hidden in nooks and crannies throughout the game are glowing barrels, which can be fed to Trico as a nice little snack. These also count as collectibles, unlocking new costumes for the boy depending on how many you find. Feeding Trico will help make her more responsive to your requests, incentivizing you to search for every single one. There are also other mechanics present that correlate to her willingness to obey commands. Occasionally stopping to pet her, or pulling spears from her body during enemy encounters are important factors too. If you’re trying to just power through the game, ignoring barrels and not being attentive to her wounds, your interactions with Trico will suffer. She’ll take longer to respond, flat out ignore you at times, and may even get grumpy and roar at you.
As for the combat, it’s the weakest part of the game.
There are suits of armor that come to life and chase the boy, attempting to grab him and throw him into doors leading to another dimension. The boy is unable to defend himself, so you have to rely on Trico to attack your pursuers. She can pounce, swipe with her paws, and bite enemies to destroy them. For the most part, you just need to stand next to her in these situations. The enemies will run up close and get obliterated by Trico. However, some enemies hold glass shields emblazoned with an eye, which terrify Trico and freeze her in her tracks. If one of these guys appears, you need to somersault into them to make them drop the shield, allowing Trico to get back into the fight. What really frustrated me was when I would get caught by a suit of armor. If they catch you, prepare to feel like you’re controller is going to break. The only way to make them let go is by mashing every button on the controller as well as the triggers. This lasts for around 10 seconds, which is way too long to be hammering away at your controller like that.
Going back to taking care of Trico, some enemies will attack her from a distance with spears. Trico can’t be killed in combat, which is nice, but if you don’t climb on her to remove the spears fast enough then they will eventually break off while attached to her, leaving the spearhead embedded in her flesh. Failure to remove spears fast enough will make her less likely to obey commands, but sometimes you simply can’t help it. It’s almost impossible to climb her while she’s jumping around in a fight. The way she shakes and bounces around the area makes it hard to remain sturdy enough to remove the spears. Thankfully, there are some skills learned later on that make combat a little more bearable, but for the sake of keeping somethings a secret you’re going to have to play the game for yourself to discover them.
While the game stays entertaining for the most part, there are some serious technical issues that can derail the experience. There are noticeable dips in framerate at certain parts of the game, texture pop in is constant and annoying, and I had one occasion when Trico froze and wouldn’t move or react to anything, resulting in me having to restart my PS4. A new patch just came out that helps with the framerate issues, but players are still reporting issues with texture pop ins. Thankfully, I haven’t heard anyone else have issues with Trico freezing, so that’s good too.
When everything is working correctly, there’s nothing like The Last Guardian.
The tale of a young boy and a bird-dog bonding together is delightful, but it’s the way you as a player bond with Trico that’s really special. This might be one of the greatest AI ever designed, with Trico feeling like a living breathing entity rather than just a bunch of pixels on a screen. Learning to work with this great beast to overcome the obstacles in your journey is an amazing experience, but it’s brought down a few pegs by a couple of setbacks. If you aren’t consistent with being attentive and loving towards her, Trico might not obey your commands right away, making progress difficult. The combat also leaves a bit to be desired, with the boy serving very little purpose in these encounters. There’s also a few technical issues, but a patch has already covered one of them and they could easily fix these issues with another one. The Last Guardian is a historic title for PlayStation owners. Its decade long development hell is finally over, so it’s incredible to see this game finished and playable. Despite some of the issues it may have, The Last Guardian is a tremendous experience that should not be missed.
– Zack Burrows