A flawed, feathery tale
As a society, we long to root for the underdog. We like standing against the coming tide and fight for that which seems to be at a loss.
The Last Guardian is by far one of Playstation’s biggest underdogs, coming from a small Japanese team that have been working on it for over nine years and releasing during one of the busiest times of the year.
Yet no one stands by it.
And after spending many days and nights exploring the ruins with Trico, it’s clear to see why it’s so hard to root for this underdog. Perhaps it just wasn’t ready for the big leagues.
The Last Guardian (TLG) is the third outing from Team Ico, a subsection of SIE Japan Studio. The team are known for their previous games Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and are heralded for their ability to create worlds of simplistic beauty and wonder that allow players to get lost in them. All without a single word of legible dialogue is spoken.
TLG sets to capture this same magic in its ruined and idyllic landscape. Telling the story of a young boy who awakens to find himself covered in strange tattoos and lying next to a chained beast. After recovering from his confusion he attempts to release the creature, but is pushed away by its giant claws. Once the boy gathers some food for the chained wildling, the two begin to forge a friendship that will allow them to explore the strange world they find themselves in. But only after the boy names his new pet, and he calls him Trico.
Once this small introduction is finished, the game leaves you to your own devices. From here you must venture across the crumbling architecture, and figure out just what exactly has been going on in the strange ruins of a city time long forgot.
It quickly becomes apparent that the game isn’t going to be holding your hand through any of your adventure, and it’ll be up to you to figure out what to do and where to go. The few on screen hints do a small part in introducing the controls, but as for answers to puzzles, you’re on your own.
This works both for and against the game. It’s nice to be able to sit back and figure out a puzzle on your own, and since the game has no real urgency a lot of the time, you’re able to tackle everything at your own pace.
However, this also means that the rules and restrictions of the game are never properly explained. This leads to a lot of tired attempts at a puzzle that you believe to have figured out the answer to, however the game struggles to comprehend what you are trying to do and fails to acknowledge you’ve completed the puzzle. A huge part of this comes down to the games random aspect, in the form of Trico.
Trico isn’t like any other normal side character, he’s an actual character with his own AI and learning algorithm. This means that he acts like a realistic animal, sniffing about and exploring his surroundings at his own pace. However, this also gives him some negative attributes of a real animal, namely that he doesn’t always come when called and will sometimes actively refuse to help you out in a puzzle.
This is where the games maddening frustration comes in to play. There will be times where the answer for a puzzle is seemingly obvious and all that is needed is for Trico to stand or jump on a ledge, however sometimes he doesn’t feel like it and will refuse to cooperate. There was one puzzle that we spent 20 minutes begging Trico to work with us, but he simply sat and stared at our character, if almost mocking us for having to work with such a nonsensical AI.
The game sells a lot of its character in the fact that Trico’s AI is realistic and never been done before. But there’s a solid reason that it’s never been done, because it’s not fun. And those words are ones that seem to echo through the entire journey of TLG, it’s not fun.
Everything you do in TLG lacks the impact or instant gratification gamers have come to expect in recent console generations. Every action should be met with a reaction. However, TLG shows its age with its lack of this and leaves an ache of longingness rather than a sense of satisfaction. There’s never a feeling of actual fun in the game, but rather one of content.
A great deal of this lack of fun stems from the games controls and camera. The game attempts to portray the struggle and hardship the boy is going through by making the controls as sluggish and counter-intuitive as possible. The boy will constantly flop about, making even the simple task of walking in a straight line a difficult feat. It doesn’t help that the camera is constantly trying to tear itself away from the player, preferring to wander off to look at bits of scenery, or to remind you that Trico still exists.
But sometimes the camera does work in your favour. While climbing about and taking in all the sights, the game does a great job in naturally guiding you toward beautiful looking vistas. Sweeping shots of monolithic structures and barren landscapes do well to help build a sense of massive scope and realism to the world.
But sadly, for every eye pleasing shot of crumbing ruins, there’s a great deal of nothing really going in the games interiors, looking more like quick cut and paste hallways from Ico at times.
Thankfully, there is some good to be found in the form of Trico. For all the infuriating moments you share with the beast, there are just as many great ones. Feeding and looking after Trico helps forge a real bond with him, it somehow manages to tap into people’s love for pets and makes the relationship between man and beast more visual than any other game in recent years.
Watching Trico grow from a scared and stubborn pup into a brave and protective loyal friend was by far one of the most rewarding parts of the game, and being there to watch the entirety of this relationship unfold is something many other games fail to capture the importance of.
It’s like having your own giant bird dog!
The Last Guardian is probably not what a lot of people were expecting. It’s riddled with issues and mechanical problems that make it feel dated on arrival. But if you can push past it, there are some grains of goodness in there. It may not be perfect, but there are morsels of enjoyment to be found in this beautifully sculpted world. Just go in with an open mind, and a heart ready to forgive.
Thanks to Sony who supplied us with a review code