The Last Guardian shows flashes of brilliance, but frequent technical issues underscore the game’s troubled development cycle.
To say The Last Guardian is long overdue is quite the understatement. After nearly a decade of delays before falling off the radar entirely, it seemed legendary developer Fumito Ueda’s successor to Team Ico’s timeless PlayStation 2 classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus was destined to languish in development purgatory until the end of time. Now, 9 years and one console generation after it was first announced, the game is finally upon us. And while The Last Guardian is certainly a journey worth taking, the game’s bumpy road to retail is evident throughout its 12-hour story.
For those who haven’t been paying attention to the game since it was first announced in 2007, The Last Guardian puts players in control of a nameless boy who’s found himself imprisoned in a cavern with Trico, a mysterious bird-cat creature. The game explores the relationship between these two wildly different companions as they work to escape their desperate situation. There’s no sweeping narrative to speak of. Instead, the story is told through the moment-to-moment events that unfold as the pair embark on their difficult journey ahead. It’s a story that, while simple on the surface, manages to be both incredibly poignant and mesmerizing thanks to the powerful bond between these two characters and the way the haunting and mysterious world they inhabit captures imagination.
Without question, Trico proves to be The Last Guardian’s biggest success. Serving as the protagonist’s loyal pet and protector, he becomes the centerpiece to most of the game’s puzzles. You’ll often need to command Trico to stretch out so that you can scale him and reach hard to reach areas, or even ride him as he uses his incredible agility to scale massive towers that would be otherwise inaccessible. Occasionally you’ll come across spectral suits of armor that patrol the dungeon and attempt to capture your character, and the only way to dispatch these ghostly sentries is to lure them to Trico so that he can bat them away like iron-clad balls of yarn.
Sadly, despite the game’s lofty ambitions, the puzzles in The Last Guardian never really get any more cerebral than this. The game is often formulaic to a fault as you’ll spend most of your time in the game’s world simply looking for the next switch to hit to open the door to the next area, which is usually found by climbing some series of ledges or by using Trico to jump from platform to platform. Simply put, this is a real shame, as at least Shadow of the Colossus had some unforgettable boss fights to pin the experience together. With none of that to be found in The Last Guardian, we’re simply left with the spectacle of Trico himself to keep the player engaged. And as adorable as this feathered friend is, even he starts to lose his luster after a while.
As I said at the beginning of this review, The Last Guardian’s many years spent in development limbo are plain to see. This is evident from the game’s evident lack of optimization, which frequently has the game dipping below 30 FPS on a standard PlayStation 4. Given the game’s empty world and fairly modest visuals — with the exception of the incredibly detailed Trico — it’s really disappointing to see the game chug so consistently. These frequent dips in performance can make avoiding enemies a real chore, and even make navigating the world itself feel frequently janky and disorienting. As annoying as The Last Guardian’s inconsistent performance is, the controls are even more bothersome. Simply trying to climb or dismount Trico results in almost Goat Simulator-esque feats of physics-defying folly. I’ve found myself grabbing on to Trico’s feathers only to begin spinning like a fleshy pinwheel for no apparent reason. Other times I’ve found myself lodged to his head, unable to dismount the beast despite my best efforts, only to have my hapless hero dive into a bottomless abyss, seemingly by his own volition. Simply put, you’ll likely find yourself dying more times due to the game’s finicky controls than at the hands of anything that lurks in the labyrinth. And that’s a real shame, as you’d think these are the kinds of issues that’d be ironed out over the course of nearly a decade of development. That said, you have to wonder what exactly Team Ico was doing during that time, because it certainly wasn’t spent honing the game’s most basic mechanics.
Trico, as lovable as he is, also proves to be a bit of a hassle at times. There were numerous occasions where I knew exactly what needed to be done, but Trico simply ignored my commands. While I can appreciate the way this makes him seel like his own living, breathing character, it’s frustrating in the way it can make you second guess the solution to a puzzle that you thought you had wrong because of Trico’s refusal to do what you ask him to. It’s hard to say whether this was intentional or not on Team Ico’s part, but it certainly doesn’t make for a compelling gameplay mechanic, and is bound to test the patience of even the most sagely of players.
Despite the myriad issues that crop up to mar the experience, when everything is going off without a hitch The Last Guardian is a breathtaking adventure that deserves to be played. It’s just a shame the many beautiful moments found within this package are buried under some antiquated and ill-conceived mechanics that make much of this 12-hour journey feel more like work than play. Still, if you’re willing to weather the storm in order to witness one of the more touching tales to ever grace the medium, The Last Guardian is worth adding to your collection.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed); Publisher: Sony Interacive Entertainment ; Developer: Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan Studio ; Players: 1; Released: December 6, 2016 ; MSRP: $59.99
Full Disclosure: This review was based on a PS4 copy of The Last Guardian purchased by HeyPoorPlayer.