THE LAST GUARDIAN Review
If you’ve ever felt bad about procrastinating on a project, take solace in the fact that you’ve never been as long overdue on something as Fumito Ueda. THE LAST GUARDIAN began development a decade ago and was due to release in 2011 for the PS3. Well, five years and a console generation later, we finally get the spiritual successor to Ueda and Team Ico’s SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS and ICO. However, unlike the infernal waiting game that was DUKE NUKEM FOREVER, THE LAST GUARDIAN delivers, providing a beautiful experience that also happens to push the boundaries of how cute something can be before players get tired of it just generally disobeying them.
More swearing at a video game than a CoD lobby
THE LAST GUARDIAN puts you in the, uh, bare feet of a child who awakens in a ruin to find himself covered in tattoos and sharing a room with a giant winged dog-bird known only as Trico. The adventure centers on the boy and Trico banding together to escape the ruins and return home. The boy doesn’t have any real special skills aside from general aptitude for spelunking. Exploration abilities such as running, jumping, crouching, and the like are all accounted for, but all of these are supplemented by Trico’s sheer size and ability to leap enormous distances. At one point you also get a mirror that you can shine on various objects to direct lightning from Trico’s tail at them.
As one does
If you’ve played at least one other Ueda game, you’ll instantly recognize his distinct style in GUARDIAN. The environment and characters are beautifully designed, and every frame looks like a painting. In an intriguing choice, everything is rendered in a realistic style, except for the player character, who appears cel-shaded and a little brighter in order to stand out from the world around him. Another similar stylistic decision, and yet another common theme shared across Ueda’s body of work, is the fictional dialect that all the characters speak, further adding to GUARDIAN’s mystique. The musical score is also delightfully atmospheric, swelling to massive crescendos at vista points and disappearing entirely during tense situations and puzzle segments.
And sometimes you just end up intensely puzzled
The majority of GUARDIAN’s puzzles are physics-based, but nothing like the PORTAL variety of “Speedy thing goes in, Speedy thing comes out,” and similarly unlike THE WITNESS’s level of cerebral brain teasers. They generally involve more exploration and emphasize using one’s own natural abilities to get to the next area. It gives the gameplay a real flowing sense to it, and makes you feel like you’re organically exploring an ancient ruin, despite the distinctly linear path that the game hustles you along on. GUARDIAN is one of those games that strives to be more of an experience than a challenge, similar to COLOSSUS and ICO, and achieves this through a near-seamless series of transitions and cutscenes.
While THE LAST GUARDIAN’s beauty and comfortable flow make for an entrancing journey, its Achilles’ heel lays in the controls. There are some things that you never really think about until you lose them, and that applies to the player character’s ability to walk. On a relatively flat surface, The Boy can only ever sneak on his tiptoes, or sprint every which way at breakneck speeds. There is no middle ground, no in-between walking function, which bugged the hell out of me. The nature of the game regularly puts the player in treacherous landscapes, where it’s very easy to under- or overestimate distances and plunge to a horrible craggy death. It’s interesting how much a game can change when such a basic and unimportant-seeming function is no longer available. It almost shatters the seamlessness that the rest of the game strives so hard to create, and can really destroy any kind of immersion at times. The control layout is also entirely unintuitive for a platformer. Bafflingly enough, that opinion also seems to be held by Team Ico as well, because the tutorials reminding the player of the controls never actually cease appearing onscreen.
You’d think nine hours in that the player would’ve just kind of figured it out, but…
The game has similar issues with camera control as well. Ueda wants the camera to flow from one focal point to the next as smoothly as the rest of the game, but in such a way that it’s difficult to tell what is and isn’t a cutscene. The camera also seems to try to do this as a way to lead the player along and divert attention to what they should be focusing on to advance. It’s a neat idea and occasionally succeeds, but oftentimes leads to really awkward angles that force the camera through walls or inside of a cliff face.
At a certain point in the game, you’re also able to issue orders to Trico and almost control him/her/them manually. While this seems like a serious step forward in human/AI interaction, it brings with it its own set of issues and complications. Sometimes the damn bird dog doesn’t want to do what you tell it, or can’t, and the game doesn’t really see a reason to tell you whether or why it can’t or won’t do what you say. I understand that this situation ties into the game’s experience; that as you continue to play and learn what Trico can and will do in a given situation, you’re able to more effectively give them commands and continue your journey through the game. But like trying to command a real animal, I found it, along with the game’s general clunky control scheme, very unwieldy and at times downright frustrating. When it works, however, the results can only be described as magical.
Man, I can’t stay mad at that face
THE LAST GUARDIAN is not without its flaws, though for a game that spent so long in development hell one would think that Team Ico would be able to iron out most of them before it hit shelves. Movement and camera controls can occasionally be infuriating, ruining the atmosphere that most of the development budget was clearly spent on. But when the game isn’t getting in its own way, THE LAST GUARDIAN is a gorgeously-crafted world that leads the player on a bona fide adventure, unearthing the variety of mysteries it has in store. Most importantly, THE LAST GUARDIAN follows in the steps of its predecessors in that it can only be accurately experienced, not described, and it is in this sense that Ueda’s latest work lives up to his pedigree.
Reviewed on PS4.