2016 has been a divisive year. Brexit, Donald Trump and now it seems that The Last Guardian looks to close the year in the same way. Except this game (a title that has been a ghost for a good part of nine years, with cancellation rumours marking the theme of its development) doesn’t only divide the people it wishes to entertain, first and foremost it divides itself.
On one hand you have this unbelievably gripping experience that cuts straight to the core with nothing more than a few well-placed songs, out-of-this-world level design and a lovable cat bird. On the other you have a game so weighed down by awkward controls and camera angles that it would be hard to describe even the simplest task as anything less than a chore.
It’s in this divide that The Last Guardian becomes one of the most complicated works of art the industry has ever seen.
In The Last Guardian you follow a nameless young boy as he awakens in a strange land next to an imaginary creature called Trico. Badly injured, Trico receives care from the boy who feeds the large animal and tends to its wounds. The pair start out at odds with each other but a bond quickly develops as they risk life and limb for each other in the name of escaping. In order to do so it takes the boy’s smarts and Trico’s strength, as puzzle solving and platforming are the name of the game in TLG.
This is where the first and arguably most bothersome issue arises.
In order to progress, you must often times examine the environment, understand the problem and develop a solution, usually using your lumbering friend. Players issue commands to Trico while holding R1 and pressing one of four buttons. Whether or not the pesky cat bird will listen is completely up to chance, though. Director Fumito Ueda said one of the game’s goals was to make Trico as realistic as possible and, unfortunately for anybody looking to move along at a steady pace, he succeeded. While it is novel to see a programmed creature with such a free spirit, it gets old in a hurry when you’re stuck giving commands that are only met with Chewbacca-like howls of complaint and adorable looks of confusion.
But if you can look past the devil-may-care nature of Trico, you quickly become enamoured by your feathered friend. Even though solving puzzles can be more difficult with the mythical bird-mammal, his cooperation is at least rewarding when it does actually work. But problem solving is far from Trico’s strong point. In the 10 to 15 hours you spend with TLG, Trico is always finding new ways to shock you and steal every ounce of attention you can give with endless animations that range from ludic frolicking to savage aggression. The most impressive thing here is not that developers genDesign can make the cat bird do so much, but that they can translate all of that into a very distinct, very genuine personality – one as real as real can be in a video game. This makes Trico an experience separate from the game altogether and is just one of the incredibly unique aspects of TLG. One of the others, of course, is an attention to detail when it comes to level design.
For me, Shadow of the Colossus had some of the best environments in gaming to date. The Last Guardian continues this with that quality in its broken-down ruins that come to life with fluttering neon blue butterflies, torch-lit stone and airy patches of grass bursting through cracked rock. Unlike SotC, The Last Guardian is a linear quest, which is a shame considering how striking every area is. As easy as it is to spend time just watching Trico, it’s just as tempting to spend hours admiring the intricacies of each level – a trait that will have me coming back for years to come.
But with every success in TLG, there’s a failure not far behind – failures that detract from the unadulterated wonder of the world and the story within it.
Which, as mentioned earlier, cannot be fully explored until puzzles are solved. If Trico’s lax demeanour didn’t make it hard enough to take on each challenge, poor camera angles and loose controls are sure to knock the difficulty up more than a few notches. This is TLG’s biggest downfall. Not only does it make everything unnecessarily difficult, but it takes the spotlight off the unparalleled storytelling. For example, Trico saves the child in heroic fashion and is attacked, eventually requiring rescue. The lead-up to this is touching and full of all the feels we’re looking for from a Team Ico game, but when you need to jump over Trico and his assailant to mount an attack, every technical problem in the book from button presses doing nothing to heavy frame drops is thrown your way. In a matter of two minutes, TLG melts our hearts with beautifully executed plot devices but then turns us into the hardened, ranting game cynics that only come out to curse sloppy design.
An example of how bad controls are worsened by poor camera angles can be seen just about any time the player needs to jump from a rope. In order to do so, the player must first get the boy to turn around (a very specific gesture where he looks backwards and reaches out his arm). This requires the player to press the control stick away from the rope. But the catch is that positioning the control stick away from the rope changes depending on the camera’s orientation. Almost every time I moved my thumb in a position I thought was away from the rope, the camera would automatically move. If I did manage to make the boy assume the correct animation (a hard feat on its own) he would revert back to a neutral position and I would have to start the process over again. That’s how two big problems combined can cause a hell of a lot more. That’s how people become frustrated.
Ultimately, that’s how you steal much-deserved attention away from, quite honestly, one of the most masterfully told stories set in one of the most imagination-rich, exquisitely rendered worlds that I’ve ever had the fortune to explore. The Last Guardian even scores the trifecta with a soundtrack that encapsulates the feelings of each shimmering vista and emotion-filled moment – a part of the experience that fortunately can’t be hampered by the shoddy controls and camera angles plaguing the otherwise masterful work.
So, what then of the score you ask? In some aspects it deserves a five. In others it could easily score a ten. Most times you just take each individual facet of a game and give it a score based on all of those numbers averaged out – a pretty simple process. Perhaps too simple for a game torn between the greatness of its storytelling and the inferiority of its controls.
If The Last Guardian is anything, it’s far more than the sum of its parts. And for that assertion alone, I refuse to score it.
It’s an incredibly moving novel told with the worst grammar imaginable. It’s the coolest jacket you’ve ever worn that doesn’t keep you warm. It’s a pair of elegant glasses that don’t improve your eyesight.
It’s a master of form but a student of function.
For those of you who loved Ico, you’ll love this game. If you loved Shadow of the Colossus, it’s still worth a play. If you’re a fan of Team Ico, you’re already playing. Everyone else needs to either buy it for the storytelling and accept it at its faults or stay far away.
And, Fumito, if you’re reading this, 10 years is too long to wait for a game. If there’s a next time (and there better be a next time) can you do us all a favour and make sure it doesn’t skip an ENTIRE console generation?