Final verdict: B-
Final playtime: Around 10 hours
Sheppy D once again with the fashionable lateness! See, I feel like this lateness benefits me because I’m missing the window of hype. The most ridiculous of the fanboys who are likely to shit on me for disagreeing with them have long forgotten about whatever I’m reviewing and moved on to the Next Thing. So it’s all on purpose! It’s deliberate that I’m months late with all my reviews! I’m doing it to keep our comment section nice and clean and civilized. I do it for you guys. You’re welcome.
The Last Guardian is a game I was looking forward to with a large helping of caution and not much optimism, then it got delayed for approximately half of my adult life, and what little cautious optimism I still had after that faded quickly. I just assumed for years that it wasn’t going to happen so I stopped caring and forgot about it. But now that it finally came out it was kinda like a little bonus. I believe my exact thought when I heard it finally released was something like… “Neat.” Eventually I picked it up and played it.
If you’re familiar with Ico/Shadow of the Colossus, you already know what this game looks like, and how it’ll feel from a narrative perspective. The style is effectively identical, and overall it feels very similar. It looks real nice, but it’s clumsy in how it plays, just like how Ico and Shadow were, except… more so. I’ll get right into my biggest criticism of Last Guardian off the bat to clear the air: It controls like dog shit. Like seriously awful, rotting dog shit. And in more ways than one. The depths of the garbage game-feel just never end.
You’re familiar with the Resident Evil philosophy on controls, right? The idea that Resident Evil had its infamous tank controls on purpose, to make the player feel like they were clumsy and slow and couldn’t react to things in time. I use that example because it’s the one everybody seems to be most familiar with – we’ve all heard that little bit of info. Ico and Shadow basically subscribe to that school of philosophy as well. In Ico, you’re a little boy trapped in a giant castle trying to escort a girl with no combat abilities away from pitfalls and creepy shadow monsters that want to abduct her. It makes sense that a young boy in a strange place, with no combat experience and who isn’t an acrobat, would feel clumsy and awkward when trying to fight monsters and navigate perilous cliff edges and strange contraptions, so his animations portray that clumsy helplessness and you’re limited in terms of what you can really do. In Shadow, you’re a more competent but still inexperienced young man who’s faced with the task of scaling and killing enormous creatures, which move and try to shake you off, so again it makes sense that your actions will sometimes feel impotent, and you’ll have to desperately cling on for dear life as your enormous and intimidating quarry shakes and resists you.
But Last Guardian takes the philosophy waaaaay too fuckin’ far. Once again you’re a little boy, but now you’re a little boy who falls over constantly for no reason and stumbles awkwardly any time there’s a tiny bump in the terrain. There are times when your jumps just don’t feel like they were as long as they should have been and you fall to your death. It’s clumsy for the sake of being clumsy, and it just doesn’t feel like a good experience. In fact, it feels like a deliberate affront to the player. Rather than being in control of a vulnerable child in a harsh world, it just feels like you, as a player, are pressing buttons but the resulting in-game actions are either wrong, delayed, or at times non-existent. Never before has a game made me think “That’s not what I fucking told you to do!” as frequently as this did. It feels like an artificial layer of clumsiness is being deliberately imposed between player and game. The result is not an immersive experience, but actually the complete antithesis of immersion. The issue is exacerbated by a substantial input lag, too. If you press jump, there’s a whole metric shitton of frames before the boy actually jumps. I didn’t do the math or anything, but it’s clear enough that there’s a delay and it’s there on purpose, rather than being a technical limitation.
I get what they were going for – they pulled it off alright with the past two games for the most part. Sure, they had their share of frustrating moments, but almost never did I feel like the game itself was being deliberately shitty. They just went way too far with it in Last Guardian and it makes it a very frustrating experience. Dying in Ico or Shadow was like “Ugh, okay, that’s annoying, but now I know what to do.” Dying in Last Guardian is like “WHY THE FUCK DID TRICO JUMP THAT WAY? I DIDN’T FUCKING TELL HIM TO DO THAT. GOD DAMMIT NOW I HAVE TO DO ALL THAT SHIT AGAIN!”
It goes further than just being about the way the boy controls, though. In Last Guardian you have to rely on Trico, your giant dog-cat-bird-horse-gryphon friend. And I’ll say that in many ways Trico’s design is a fucking triumph, not just visually but in terms of his personality and the way you interact with him. The goal was to make a believable creature that you genuinely care for and rely on, and they absolutely succeeded. Trico is fucking adorable, and you quickly come to love and care about him like you would a real pet. When he’s in trouble you want to help immediately and in any way you can. But… the saying “Never work with children or animals” exists for good reason. Part of why Trico is so believable is because he’s just as fucking dumb as a real dog would be. When you need him for something, it can take several minutes of calling, guiding, corralling, and just fucking waiting for him to do the thing you need him to. So for a lot of the same reasons that Trico is a huge success as a believable creature, he’s also an enormous part of why this game is so damn frustrating to play.
I’ll give an example of one particular puzzle: I entered a large coliseum-like room with Trico. We jump down into a circular pit, but there isn’t anything in particular that stands out. I can see a few small alcoves in one wall, but there isn’t much going on with them and they’re blocked by metal grates that I can’t get through. I look around, but there are no obvious switches, no places to crawl, nowhere I can reach by jumping, or even places I could reach by climbing Trico. Eventually, Trico starts pawing at the wall above the metal grates and the grates rise slightly and then fall back down. Nowhere near enough to get inside, but the fact that they move is a big hint that the grates are where I need to go next, so I need to open them. Okay, great – so the thing Trico is pawing at is the switch that opens these grates. How can I activate that switch myself so it opens the grates all the way? I struggle to climb on Trico for a while, but I just can’t get near the switch. He keeps pawing at it over and over, but never enough to do anything. I try calling him, pointing at the switch, jumping up and down… He just bats at it over and over to no avail. Eventually I give up and figure I must be missing something. Then all of a sudden Trico just opens the grates himself by pawing at the switch. Okay…? So I just had to wait for Trico to figure it out? What caused him to paw at it differently that time? It is not clear.
I’ll say that I think Trico is fucking great overall. I love him/her/it. I felt like the bond between Trico and the boy that you forge through playing was very genuine and touching. I just thought that as a gaming experience, it is god damned annoying to have almost no control over such a critical and ever-present part of the game. A thought that I couldn’t shake while playing was simply “Why?” – not “why would they make this so frustrating?” or “why isn’t he doing what I want?” – the answer to those questions is obvious: Because they wanted Trico to be a believable animal. Again, great success there, they knocked that out of the park. What I kept asking myself was “Why was the concept of relying on a believable animal even considered for a video game?” The very idea of that just does not seem like one that translates into a fun game. If you have a dog or cat, I want you to take it outside right this second and try to instruct it to climb a tree. How do you go about that? Point at the tree, touch the tree, jump around and make sounds? The dog will stare at you, confused. You will eventually give up and go home, and the dog will most likely have peed on the tree at most. Was that fun for you? It isn’t fun in Last Guardian, either.
The controls and the resulting immersion barrier are my biggest complaints about the game. But, yeah, that’s a big complaint. For a lot of people that’s enough to be a deal-breaker. I’ll be honest, the only reason I sat through this entire game was the emotional investment. I felt like the big cute dog thing was holding me ransom and I had to see it through to make sure there was a satisfactory ending. Beyond the controls though, I did have one other substantial complaint, and that’s the performance. The framerate was bordering on unplayable very frequently. The majority of the game was spent in the low 20fps region on a regular PS4. It made me uncomfortable and frustrated throughout. There were times I almost looked away from the screen because of how janky and slow the framerate was. It was physically uncomfortable to my eyes.
Well hey, now I’ve got the demons out and I can talk about the good stuff for the rest of this review! If you enjoy the emotional roller coasters that Ico and Shadow provide, you’re gonna enjoy this in exactly the same way. In terms of the narrative, Last Guardian is easily in the same league. The locations, and Trico, are majestic, imposing, beautiful, and striking. There are many breathtaking moments resulting from simply being in an incredible place faced with death-defying jumps between cliffs and ledges, or watching a hundred foot tall creature make a leap of faith and save you from certain death at the hands of mysterious animated suits of armor.
As far as the story goes, things are paced pretty well. For instance, I enjoyed how your relationship with Trico grows and changes. Early in the game it’s awkward and uncertain, because you’ve basically just met (under weird circumstances) and know nothing about each other. The trust isn’t there yet. But you begin to realize that Trico is relying on you, too, and s/he cares about you just like you care about him/her. There were several moments when I got a case of The Feels when Trico put himself in harm’s way to save me, and it’s always at moments when you feel like you’ve run out of options. Just when you need Trico the most, he pulls through for you, making some emotional leap of his own and overcoming something that was holding him back earlier in the game. I’m glad that there’s a dedicated “Pet Trico” button, because there were countless times when my only desire was to be like “Who’s a good boy?! Who gets all the pets?! TRICO DOES!”
Advancing through the game wasn’t particularly difficult. Having said that, there were certainly a few moments that proved more challenging than others, but there weren’t too many “What the hell am I supposed to do?!” situations. At worst, you’ll sometimes run into a scenario where you just start throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks and the game will patronize you a little by having the narrator give hints. Apparently a lot of people had problems with the narrator’s hints and found it overly patronizing, but it didn’t happen enough to really bother me. In fact, the few times it did I appreciated it because I was stuck barking up the wrong tree and it pointed me in the right direction.
Generally speaking, Last guardian does suffer from some of the same problems that all heavily physics-based games do – sometimes the puzzles can be very abstract and don’t always make sense right away. Like I mentioned just now, sometimes you’ll end up trying a whole bunch of shit because you’re grasping at straws and you have no idea how to get from A to B. Sometimes you won’t even know where B is, or if there even is a B or if this is just one of the many times when you simply have to wait for Trico to do something before you can progress. Other times, things were immediately apparent to me. I’m sure each puzzle is different for everybody and it all depends entirely on how the individual thinks and how they go about solving things, but I can say with confidence that everybody is bound to run into a few metaphorical walls.
There isn’t really any combat to speak of – you run from threats and allow Trico to deal with them. That’s part of the dynamic and another reason you come to rely on him. On occasion you have to help him out, too. Some enemies carry shields which can render Trico useless and you have to knock the enemy over to force it to drop the shield in order to allow Trico to move again. If he gets hit by thrown spears, you need to pull them out of him so that he can heal and regain his full range of movement. That’s basically the gist of it. You can also get the ability to have him shoot lightning out of his tail, but it doesn’t come into play for combat until much later.
This is yet another game that I can’t decide which side of the fence I’m really on. I can’t declare myself a hater because I genuinely enjoyed the narrative and the setting, and the relationship with Trico, and the way it evolves and the two of you adapt and learn from each other. There were also plenty of quirky, humorous moments that will feel very familiar to anybody who’s played Ico or Shadow. I just really had a hard time getting past the clunky, slow, awkward controls. The controller is how you as a player interact with a game. Immersion is immediately shattered the moment that something causes a disconnect between your button presses and results on-screen. To me, this is a very big failure of design. If the reason for introducing input lag and clumsy characters is to increase your concern for Trico and the boy’s well-being, mission thoroughly failed. I’m far too busy trying to run in a straight line. The less a player is focused on how to adjust the stick in precisely the right way the more they can focus on what the game is trying to express. I believe that it should always be possible to adequately evoke an emotion in the player through audio-visual means, or through situations and scenarios. It should never be necessary to impinge upon the player’s ability to control the game in order to make them feel something (excluding very brief moments where control is removed or impaired for temporary reasons, for example the final boss in Super Metroid where you’re helpless for a period of time during the fight because your metroid friend steps in with the sacrifice play.)
I almost want to judge the concept and the execution separately. The story, characters, setting, and so on, are handled really well and were easily up there with Shadow of the Colossus in terms of the way the relationships are developed and portrayed to the player without language. Rating those elements of it, I’d give this an A for sure. But in terms of the actual gameplay and the more physical feel of the game, it just isn’t up to par. I could average it out to a boring old C+ but then I’d feel guilty about it every time I think of Trico’s sad puppy face. So… B- I guess. Let that serve as an example of just how fucking powerful a sad faced animal can be. This game felt like being in the middle of an orphanage fire but the cute dumb animal guilt tripped me into giving it an actually good score.
Final play time: Around 10 hours
Final verdict: B-