Technically, The Last Guardian is a flawed game.
On first picking it up, you’ll immediately notice how strange the controls feel. The unnamed boy doesn’t move precisely when you push the analogue stick forward. Instead, he tends to clumsily scramble through the environment rather than move swiftly like we’re used to in modern games. It’s almost like he’s in a perpetual state of falling rather than running. It can be a bit jarring, but nothing you can’t get used to.
The camera is also awkward. It feels like a relic of an older generation, showing The Last Guardian’s age after its nine year development process. Its movement is sluggish and at times you’ll find yourself wrestling with it to face what you actually want to see. If you just happen to be on top of a gigantic dog/cat/bird in a tight corridor and want to see more than a close-up of its butthole, then good luck with that.
The graphics also have some noticeable hitches. It’s definitely a gorgeous game and the environments are breathtaking, but the frame rate isn’t. For a title that started development on the PS3 now running on the pure unbridled power of the PS4, it’s strange to see the frame rate sit consistently below 30fps. It briefly drops even lower in some sections. There are also some noticeably muddy textures at times, which can be disappointing to see up close, considering how beautifully designed the architecture is.
No doubt the challenges of building a game to take full advantage of the PS3’s “Cell Processor”, only to then rebuild it to work with the PS4 hardware has been a struggle for the developers.
All the technical issues are unfortunate. In combination they can be enough to mark any game down as a poor experience that should probably be avoided. Yet this isn’t just any other game. This is a Fumito Ueda title and in nearly every aspect it is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played.
I’ve heard before that great art direction trumps great graphics, and The Last Guardian is an excellent example of this. The low frame rate and some muddy textures were definitely noticeable — I do have eyeballs after all — but to be honest it was nothing that actually interrupted the experience for me. Essentially, The Last Guardian is still so damn beautiful that I just didn’t care.
The environments crafted by Ueda are absolutely gorgeous and definitely carry his signature. The architecture, colours and lighting are all reminiscent of places we’ve been before in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, but still feel unique enough to stand on their own as something different. Sprawling ruins, lush green landscapes and towering structures all sound like environments from practically any other videogame, but Ueda’s unmistakable charm lives and breathes through his worlds.
The score, as with Ueda’s previous work, is perfectly suited to the tone of the game. It’s minimal, almost ambient, but swells at key points to be amazingly orchestral and powerful. It doesn’t bear itself down on the player through the gameplay, but the subtlety and restraint in the game’s music help to strengthen its emotion.
At the heart of it all is Trico. One of the most amazing video game companions ever created. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a creature so REAL in a game before. He prowls around naturally, chirps and howls for attention when bored, scratches, frolics, sniffs, and stares inquisitively when you’re busy trying to figure out the next puzzle.
At times he acts just like a dog, other times like a cat, but his reactions are always realistic and convincing. His facial expressions and body language are also brilliantly executed. For a character that doesn’t speak, you’ll never be in doubt of what he’s feeling. In turn, his emotions inform the player’s.
Despite some graphical complaints, technically Trico is a triumph. At no point did I notice him hover over the geometry or clip through the environment. His movement is always natural, smooth and believable, even when confined in small spaces. Tiny details help to bring Trico to life, like his feathers ruffling dynamically, or his ears flicking back individually as he ducked under obstacles.
Considering his behaviour is a mix of scripted and dynamic reactions, at no point did he have any dumb AI moments that broke the immersion. As far as I was concerned while playing, Trico was a real living cat/dog/bird/thing.
I absolutely believe that Trico is the heart of the game. So much effort has been put into building and nurturing the relationship between you and Trico that you will fall in love with him by the time you’re done. Nearly every puzzle centres on the partnership between Trico and the boy and how they need to rely on each other get past each obstacle.
You’ll progress from location to location with each area varying the challenges you’ll face. Standing in the pair’s way are gates, mechanisms and packs of enemies, but the main goal is always simple; keep moving forward.
The two have to work together to progress by utilizing Trico’s size and agility, but communication isn’t clear between the two. At first trust has to be earned, and eventually you find yourself able to issue simple commands to Trico to help solve puzzles and traverse the environments. The command system isn’t perfect, as it consists of pointing at something and yelling, but when Trico doesn’t always do exactly what you want him to do you tend forgive him easily.
Amazingly it doesn’t feel like the AI being stupid, it feels more like a dog or cat being stubborn when you’re trying to teach it something. Funnily enough, this only adds to Trico’s character.
You can tell that Ueda was trying to create something much more than just an interesting gameplay mechanic by designing The Last Guardian solely around the boy and Trico. His intention is to foster a real connection between the player and the beast is exemplified after being attacked by enemies.
Trico is always visibly agitated and won’t respond to any commands. It’s up to the player to get close, remove the spears from his back, and then comfort the creature until he has calmed down and is able to continue. I can’t think of a way that real empathy has been used in a game like this before, and it’s part of what makes The Last Guardian so special.
The Last Guardian has a soul that few other games can claim to have. It’s truly something special and many times during my playthrough its art direction and themes reminded me of the kind of magic you’d expect from a Miyazaki film. It helps you to realise that a game can be about much more than its frame-rate or texture resolution.
It proves that an AAA game in 2016 can be engaging and fun while still being about things like trust, empathy, and love. After nine years, The Last Guardian manages to be a fantastic game in its own right, but it’s how it manages to be as touching and beautiful as it is that will make you fall in love with it.
The Last Guardian was reviewed using a promotional disc on PS4, provided to PowerUp! by Sony.
Game Title: The Last Guardian