Despite an infamously long wait for The Last Guardian to claw its way out of development hell, it wasn’t long after pushing past the opening cutscene that I began to think it was perhaps released too soon.
While ‘rushed’ might seem like an odd word to describe the game’s torrid journey from PS3 dev kit to living room PS4, there’s certainly a lot of areas that seem to have a ‘that’ll do let’s just release this thing’ vibe. Or maybe that’s unfair. Perhaps it was more of a school exam-style ‘time’s up, pencils down’ type of thing as the game was pried from genDESIGN’s (formerly Team Ico) hands by the powers tired of indulging a studio’s desire to make the perfect game.
So what we’re left with is a game that’s been remarkably hard to pin down. On the one hand its mechanics are at times borderline broken and the graphical textures and some animations linger awkwardly between console generations. But on the other, the journey we finally get to take often feels like everything we’d hoped for, with an enchanting and evocative world to explore, beautiful scenery and a bond towards an AI partner that is one of the best in gaming.
Just in-case you haven’t been devouring every last new bit of info on the game since the reveal in 2009, I’ll bring you up to speed. The Last Guardian begins with a young boy (that’s you) waking up in a cave, unsure of how he got there. He’s not alone though, as he stands he beholds a huge creature sleeping next to him. A strange feathered, cat/dog-like creature with a bit of griffin thrown in for good measure.
The creature, Trico, is wounded and you’ll need to cautiously pull spears from his side and help unshackle him, as it soon becomes clear you won’t be going anywhere without help. Over the course of the game, Trico and the boy must learn to trust each other as they attempt to escape the abandoned city that feels very reminiscent of the castle in Ico.
The partnership between the two is where the soul of the game resides. For the most part in the early stages the only way to interact with Trico is to shout for him or possibly entice him over with barrels of food. You can then climb up him and use him as a ladder or platform to reach higher areas. Later in the game you’ll learn a set of very vague commands that see the boy try to send Trico in a certain direction, stand up to reach higher areas, jump and so on.
It’s here that the game has its first stumble and, in many ways, struggles to recover a decent flow for the duration. Trico does not want to behave, he is after all a wild animal and doesn’t owe you squat. Apart from you saved him and feed him all the time and even stroke his back/face (yes, there’s a button for that!). So he’s basically a cat.
You have to repeat the commands on an almost endless cycle as Trico wanders off, or refuses to hop onto a ledge. For a while this can be explained by the fact the game is trying to show how this is a realistic animal and just because you ask it to do something, doesn’t mean it’ll obey.
That would be fine, up to a point, but it’s extremely random, and often just flat out broke. I spent 15 minutes stranded on a platform trying to get him to jump to the next area. Eventually I gave up for the night. Turned the PS4 back on the day after, spent about five minutes getting back to the same place, only to find he got past it first time of asking. The same can happen when trying to reach collectibles, you’ll even doubt you’re doing the right thing until a quick trip to YouTube shows you’re just going to have to wait for Trico to get his act together or reboot the PS4. Explain it as ‘lifelike’ all you like, to me it’s an indication of leftover development issues that caused the game to be so ridiculously late in the first place.
Explain Trico’s awful responses/controls on animal realism all you want, but there’s nowhere to hide when trying to fathom the horrendous controls on foot when exploring without him. Running up narrow windy staircases sees you hover away from the walls towards the abyss as you fight against invisible collision detection demons. The platforming is haunted by the violent predilections of the camera. Climbing on Trico himself is ridiculously awkward. Things get considerably worse whenever you have to interact with an object. Mere tasks like moving crates come with all the grace of trying to push a three-wheeled shopping cart around with your chin.
The prize for “kill me now” though surely goes to an area involving picking up barrels and throwing them across gaps onto sloped surfaces and jumping across too, then picking them up before they roll off again. With each throw producing increasingly wild directional results, it could be something that you breeze through, or you’ll have to power down for the night to avoid ripping the disc from your PS4 and winging it out of the window.
Despite Trico being the star of the show, the default camera view rarely seems to agree. Early on when Trico follows the boy by leaping onto narrow columns, the camera ignores these huge jumps. This is one of the first chances we get to see him move like this (and show off the animators’ work) and the camera would rather face the wall you’re slowly shimmying along. Attempts to turn the camera round repeatedly see it yanked away. It’s exasperating that you must become the director and cameraman in order to get the most enjoyment out of the digital wonder that is Trico. At the very least, a lock-on button would have been nice.
Things do get better though and you’re in line for some of the most memorable scenes on PS4. Personally thinking, I think I got more out of The Last Guardian as a former dog owner and current cat servant. The animations and characteristics in the game are startlingly familiar. Everything from him scratching behind his ear, crying/whining noises when you leave him alone or the way he’ll just come up to you and nuzzle you with his giant head. Thankfully he doesn’t rock back and lick his stinker every five minutes -but do be careful which side of his tail you climb up.
The action scenes, usually involving disintegrating bridges, are terrific fun too, especially moments that see Trico catching you as you hurtle towards the abyss. Or not. On a second playthrough, I played the scene where he catches you in his mouth after a leap of faith (the E3 demo), which we pulled off first time originally. Second time around: same run-up, same timing, and not a single fuck given as the two-faced feathery shit watched me plummet to my doom eight times in a row. It’s that inconsistency, in such vital moments, which robs The Last Guardian of achieving classic status. That and it makes me grateful we’re not all at the whim and mercy of our cats as we’d be screwed.
Other gameplay areas see you removing hazards such as the glass eye shields that Trico fears. Or you’ll need to avoid groups of haunted armour guards when on your own and then watch on proudly as Trico smashes them to pieces when he crashes in to save the day. They’ll often throw a few spears at him, but you can pull them out and if you rub his wounds the blood fades away, which doesn’t seem to have any gameplay impact, but it’s a nice touch to bond with Trico more in the hope he’ll become a bit more obedient – don’t hold your breath.
The developers have absolutely nailed getting the player to form a bond with Trico though. If you’ve ever had a pet, you’re bound to get pangs of nostalgia throughout. Be it the way he sprints up to you after you appear from a brief absence, begging with his paw when he sees you approach with food, or maybe just the way his eyes glow in the shadows off the merest hint of light. It’s mainly the flat out disobedience though.
Much like owning a real pet, you’ll grow to love Trico, but your patience will be tested on an all too regular basis. Too many areas of this massively anticipated game feel under baked and given the long development, I’m assuming it’s beyond patching any time soon. Trico himself can be an absolute pleasure though and comes through as one of the most impressive character creations in any game which makes The Last Guardian worthy of a place in your home.
Review and image captures by Brendan Griffiths