I currently sit here thinking of how best to convey to you, the reader, my best judgment of the 11-hour experience that was The Last Guardian. It is difficult, because so much will be in the eye of the beholder, so I will begin by stating that, like all reviews, the following is subjective. That being said, I have the utmost confidence in the words that I commit to this page.
Emphasis should be placed on the word experience, because like its spiritual forebears, The Last Guardian beautifully reaches out to the player and tugs at heart strings in a way that this medium rarely does. Sure, as technology has progressed, developers have gained the ability to tell more intricate tales and create more complex characters. However, Team Ico has always been one of the few to use the uniqueness of games-interactivity-to play with human emotion. As a game, Fumito Ueda’s latest has some familiar flaws. The experience was so immersive that many of that those flaws fell to the wayside as I powered through an eight-hour play session to see what would happen to a boy and his bird dog.
Game Name: The Last Guardian
Platform(s): PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Pro
Publisher(s): Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer(s): Team Ico, GenDesign, Japan Studio
Release Date: 12.07.16
It’s worth mention that I insisted on playing The Last Guardian in (almost) one sitting, as that’s how I’ve played every Team Ico game. Remembering my parents giving me Ico as a gift, assuming it was some sort of Mario clone, and me being mesmerized by its use of emptiness and silence. Recalling the anticipation I had for Shadow of the Colossus, and the weekend I spent alone (both virtually and physically) exploring its vast plains. Both games immersed the player via solitude, and so their stories relied heavily on the few characters present. The (fake) language barrier made it even more impressive that they connected so powerfully with players. Team Ico’s latest is no different.
It also shares some issues many had with those PlayStation 2 classics. Ueda designs his control schemes to give characters weight and inertia, making them feel almost clumsy compared to the cookie-cutter protagonists of the Grand Theft Auto wannabes that Ubisoft shits out on a yearly basis. The argument as to whether this is poor design or artistic choice, or both, is one to be had at a different time. I tend to fall on the latter side, but it must be said that regardless the controls can make some platforming in latter sections of the game frustrating if they are not your cup of tea. The camera can also fight you from time to time, mostly in tight spaces where your large companion takes up most of the screen. But never did these issues drive me to rage, as I was too busy appreciating the delight that is Trico.
Your faithful bird dog companion and the true hero of The Last Guardian, Trico is both a technical and artistic marvel. His animation and implementation make him perhaps the most realistic living thing ever depicted in gaming, despite his fantastical design. His hesitation to enter the water, the way he sniffs around corners before making a turn, when he backs away from danger -all the details that caused me to laugh aloud while growing more attached to the character as the tale progressed. The young boy the player controls is not the heart of this story, it is Trico, as you watch him grow from a feral beast to a loyal friend who overcomes all fears and obstacles to ensure your safety. When you really think about it, there is not much you do besides dodge guards and open the way for Trico to proceed.
Some have reported issues with the AI, but not once did any issues arise when commands were issued to my bird dog. He sometimes did take a moment to discern which direction or ledge you are pointing to, but that only adds to the immersion. The boy becomes an extension of the player, and as you slowly scale the environment to find a way out of the valley, avoiding mysterious guard statues as your bird dog swats them away, you feel a very real sense of progress and that you and Trico have accomplished something together.
The valley itself is truly beautiful to behold. It’s no wonder why this title was delayed onto the PlayStation 4, as even the latest hardware has a difficult time keeping pace. When walking outdoors, there are sometimes framerate drops. I did not play the game on a PlayStation 4 Pro, which reportingly fairs a bit better. However, at the same time, I did not experience the single-digit drops that some have reported. Additionally, I found the game’s back half did not have any real technical issues of this manner, oddly enough. It should also be mentioned that load times are non-existent, which is a wonder in and of itself as the environment is massive and it is all on display as you climb great towers and cliffs. My one complaint would be that there could have been a touch more variety, but on the other hand what is there fits so organically with the story that it does not disappoint.
Finally, I could not render a complete verdict on this game without talking about the audio. The entire presentation is clean and impressive. The soundtrack alone is perhaps one of the greatest I have ever heard. The sound design of Trico is on point, using a combination of familiar sounds from different species of animals to create something that is unique yet can convey emotion intuitively to the player. The sparing use of the orchestrated music is also a great move, only ever coming into play in dramatic fights or tense cutscenes. Otherwise, the faint whistling of the wind helps emphasize that it is just you and Trico against the world on this adventure.
A Bird Dog to Remember
The Last Guardian is not a perfect game. None is. But I can't think of many titles that deliver such powerful experiences utilizing the tools that only gaming can provide. I couldn't, in all honesty, sit here and nitpick the controls or the occasional graphical hiccup because I had too much damn fun and made a great friend along the way.