To anyone reading this, The Last Guardian is a game that needs no introduction. You know this, and I know this, and if you don’t know about it by now, I invite you to Google yourself silly. I’m here to talk about the game. However, before I jump into the review, I want to share some personal backstory for context.
As anyone who loves Fumito Ueda’s games (Ico is a personal Top 3 GOAT, along with Rez and Panzer Dragoon Zwei), I was deeply looking forward to playing The Last Guardian in the few years or so following its announcement in 2007. It was a life-enhancing experience to meet Ueda-san in 2005 during a media visit to Tokyo, to discuss Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus for our cover story on 1UP.com. Even after reviewing Shadow Of The Colossus, I couldn't get enough. So, when it came to The Last Guardian; more of that Ueda stuff? Giant pet? Ico and Yorda-like bonding? Sign me up.
But then all the delays happened. Heck. I even managed to move to Tokyo, to Kyoto, have a couple of kids, move back to New York City, and ship a few games of my own in the process, all while waiting for The Last Guardian. Time in the game industry moves fast, but it has its perks, and it enabled me to keep tabs on the project, and thus I never lost hope that we’d see The Last Guardian eventually. Although I basically mitigated my anxiety about the game by ignoring message board chatter by Internet experts insisting that the game was “vaporware” or “cancelled,” it was still reassuring to get the occasional heads-up from those close to the project that the game was still moving forward. I’ll admit to being concerned when Ueda-san left Sony, but remained cautiously optimistic when I heard he’d formed his own company, genDESIGN, and would continue work on The Last Guardian.
In the years I lived in Tokyo, while working at Q Entertainment, I was fortunate to meet and have dinner with, and in one instance see a concert with Ueda-san. I pretty much always left the topic of The Last Guardian alone. I mean, it’s not like he needed yet another person bothering him about the game’s progress.
Still, another year, another slew of annual gaming events (GDC, E3, TGS) would come and go, and with each one I would ask my various sources a basic question, like “So...The Last Guardian?” For the most part, the answer I’d receive each time was “Nope, not yet,” etc. It was the most Blizzard-esque line for a non-Blizzard game ever; basically “It’ll be done when it’s done.” To be honest I’m not sure if anyone was ever 100% if or when the game would be finished and released into the wild. And so it went until E3 2015, when the game was reintroduced to the public, and although there would be a couple more release delays (the most recent one being the bump from its original October 2016 release to December 2016), the game was really coming. It was finally going to be a thing I could play with my own hands.
So here we are. On Friday December 2nd, 2016, I received a parcel in the mail from genDESIGN containing a nice letter from Ueda-san, thanking me for my support, and a copy of the Japanese edition of 人喰いの大鷲トリコ (Large Man-Eating Hawk Toriko), aka The Last Guardian, for PlayStation 4. These are my thoughts.
The Last Guardian
It’s long. It’s almost Resident Evil 4 long. Not so much in terms of sheer length (although it’s close), but in that it feels like a statement. With Resident Evil 4, I’m pretty sure Shinji Mikami had it in mind to prove anyone expecting a three-hour game wrong. Now, that’s cool and all, but Resident Evil 4 --as good as it is-- is too damn long. It has a lot of cut-and-paste sections that felt like excess padding. Entire castles were duplicated! The game would have been better if it had been a little more concise. The Last Guardian is long’ish, too. I wasn’t very worried that it would be Ico-short. Shadow Of The Colossus was a substantial enough game, after all. But while The Last Guardian never repeats itself too gratuitously, it does have moments that could have been trimmed from the overall experience. One late-game area, for example, finds the boy and Trico (your giant dogbirdcat) jumping into a large, water-filled cavern. As with basically every room, area, chamber, or grassy field in the game, you’re faced with a problem-solving situation of some sort. This water-filled cavern puts your relationship and understanding of ‘controlling’ Trico to the test. When you finally figure things out and advance to the next area, you feel a sense of deep satisfaction...until you swim into another room almost exactly like the previous one.
You generally don’t begrudge a game for offering substance, but in situations like this the added room doesn’t add anything to the experience, especially when Trico can be a finicky creature in the best of situations (full disclosure: I basically only got past the second room through trial and error). By the time I completed The Last Guardian I probably clocked out at around 17-18 hours. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it would be a better game if there was less of it. I played a few evenings around five hours each, with a ‘brief’ two-hour session inbetween. The game is, for the most part, well-paced. As you puzzle your way through each area, your understanding of the game’s mechanics and how to best coax Trico into action, you don’t find yourself stuck in one area for too long. And although you’ll encounter a few tough scenarios —some which pretty much require you to fail before you figure them out—the checkpoint system is generous enough that you’ll never need to retrace your steps too much.
That said, although the game is initially well-paced, your feelings may change when you reach the last third of the game. This is when you reach the first of a few false endings. Not deliberately false in that Kojima-esque way, but just when the game feels like it's reaching a natural conclusion, oops, here's another 2-hour section of towering spires to climb. There are only so many drawbridges you can drop, so many chains you can climb, so many death-defying leaps of faith you can take, and so many outcroppings you can fly to before it begins to feel things are starting to drag out.
Patience, You Must Have
Ueda-san himself has gone on record to say that Trico does always behave predictably. For people who expect their games to respond in a certain way, or gamers who don’t have a lot of patience, this is going to be a problem. I’m not a lot of the former, but I am a lot of the latter. A few hours in, after the game gives you insights as to how best to make the most of your giant companion, I thought I had it all figured out. So you could imagine the blue streak that came out of my mouth when Trico wouldn’t respond to any of my flailings or exhortations in one rare instance, which turned out to be a glitch. Trico wouldn’t enter a room in which I was being hounded by the game’s pesky sentinels until --running around for 20 minutes-- I eventually fell to my death. Upon reloading the checkpoint (reloads are quick and generous, by the way) Trico was all up in the room stomping the sentinels out of existence. He's normally very protective, but in this instance he was just missing-in-action.
Another thing that's vexing is the occasionally insane camera. The game's camera is ill-equipped to handle the demands of The Last Guardian's tight corridors, which seem to manifest every other room at points. It happens primarily when you’re riding on Trico’s back or head, and are being squeezed through a corridor that your companion can barely fit through. Making matters slightly worse is the fact that the camera auto-resets when it detects that things are going poorly in cameraland. This results in an incredible camera freakout when it resets in a tunnel, auto-detects that things are not as they should, and then resets again, every split-second. Admittedly the camera is mostly OK outside of these specific scenarios, but it’s not an issue you can ignore.
That said, I’ve gotten most of the caveats and downsides to The Last Guardian experience out of the way. Now on to the good stuff.
What A Wonderful World
YOU HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED ANYTHING LIKE THIS BEFORE. Trico, as a character, friend, companion, giant win button, is a magical thing; the Falkor the Luckdragon you always wanted but could never have (until now). The Last Guardian is an adventure game, a puzzle game, a platforming game, and an incredibly experimental companion game which can be a bit rough at times in terms of its physics, collision issues, and clinging mechanics (the boy looks like Spider-Man hanging on Trico half the time). I’d still personally take a single one of these rough, sprawling adventures over 10 more fully polished and totally ‘perfect’ Super Mario or Zelda games. I'm not trying to slam Mario or Zelda, but somewhere along the way the sheer, raw magic is lost for me in the endless iterations. I can’t emphasize enough how done I am jumping on turtles and mushrooms, no matter how good these games are. The Last Guardian falls into some familiar genres, but it all feels new. It’s exhilarating to grab onto the feathers on Trico’s back, and soar through the air, holding on as if for dear life. The combination of speed, screen-filling size, and haptic feedback from the DualShock 4 gives Trico heft, and it feels alive. It’s visceral, it’s thrilling, and it’s something you’ll only experience in this game.
The Last Guardian functions almost like the perfect evolution of Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus. The boy (who you control directly) has no weapons. All he can do (besides give Trico direction) is jump, climb, pick things up, and push and pull levers. In this way, he’s pretty close in play style to Ico. But where Ico needed to either guide Yorda by the hand or tell her to stay put, the boy points to let Trico know that he needs to reach a ledge, or to leap to the next area. When controlling the boy, despite the emphasis on tiny ledges and vertical spaces, the game is very forgiving. You're much less likely to accidentally fall or jump off a cliff, platform, or even a tightrope, as your footing is much 'stickier.' Also, when clinging to Trico, even though he is essentially something like a fast-charging colossi from Shadow Of The Colossus, the boy isn't hampered by a stamina meter. No matter how much like a bucking bronco Trico becomes (primarily when battling attacking sentinels), the boy won't fall off. Likewise, no matter what the height, if you fall from your perch and land on Trico, it's always results in a safe landing.
Still, there were times where I had no idea what to do, and while taking a break from the action I'd climb up on Trico and rub his head reassuringly. More often than not, this would result in Trico rearing back on his haunches, spreading his immature, undersized wings, and vaulting to the next area. I found myself saying “When in doubt, put your faith in Trico.” He rewards your patience almost every time.
Some people might take issue with such inconsistencies, especially when a game like Ico gave you a specific set of tools and actions, and an amazing world in which to use those tools. The Last Guardian frequently presents scenarios where a specific mechanic is introduced and then never used again, like one small interior platforming section that takes place in the dark, requiring Trico to illuminate the way with his eyes. I'm not sure if things like this were included just because they look cool, or to remind us all how handy it is to have a giant griffin around. While this scattered introduction of passing game mechanics can be frustrating at times, I appreciate the way it feels like a living world, when things don’t always happen the way you expect them to. Back in 2001, I remember some reviewers took issue with the simplistic combat of Ico. I thought it was brilliant, myself. A young boy with a stick, trying to fight off the smoky figures that threatened to take Yorda away? An absolutely dreadful experience to hear the musical tones signaling the arrival of these monsters. I imagine it's how a young boy would feel in real life, faced with such situations. He'd swing and lunge, heart racing, nearly out of breath with arms like rubber. So too is The Last Guardian more realistic for the challenges the boy and Trico face together, regardless of whether it's convenient to the player's sensibilities or not.
And who could complain about a friend as magical as Trico. After the early-game exercise of gaining his trust, he’s a sheer marvel to witness. He's the amazing end result of some genius-tier behavioral programming, and subtle, lifelike hand-animated motions in which no two movements feel the same. The years of effort in creating Trico were beyond worth it. Trico is one of the most ‘alive’ things I’ve ever experienced in a video game, which is saying something in an industry that evolves as quickly as this one does. It’s never quite clear which animal is best represented here (bird, cat, dog, or even horse), since he exhibits different characteristics simultaneously and individually. Sometimes he moves like a dog but expresses himself like a cat while craning his neck like a bird. Mostly I’d say Trico feels most like a very loyal dog. The way he sits at attention, the way his eyes suggest his mood, the way he frolics in a pool of water is painfully adorable—I found myself wanting a real-life Trico within a half-hour of starting the game. Practically speaking, Trico is a baby griffin (or gryphon), but since few of us have much experience interacting with mythological creatures, you’ll find his most relatable characteristics canine in nature.
You'll also care deeply about Trico. Throughout the game, your loyal companion bears the brunt of all the harm that would come your way. With the exception of the wounded limp the boy is limited to after a long but non-lethal fall, all of the game's hurt is absorbed by Trico. You'll find yourself literally pulling spears from his body and wincing at the semi-permanent patches of dried blood wherever he takes damage. The blood washes away if he encounters a rare puddle of water, but for the most part you are constantly reminded of his wounds, and wonder just how much your friend can endure in your service.
If you can somehow ignore the dazzling, vertical architecture (which are much more vertigo-inducing than the environments in Ico), along with the adventuring, the puzzles, and the problem-solving, what you’re basically left with is one of video gaming’s greatest relationship-building simulations, and this is the crux upon which The Last Guardian succeeds. Yes, the late-game repetition grates a little (or at least to those wanting to finish the game in a hurry to see what secrets await), but the experience of having an utterly unique companion to do all of the above with is a rare gift. If you ever wanted to be Elliot in E.T. with your own personal alien friend, it's a close substitute to have Trico at your side.
It’s important that this facet of the game succeeds, because it’s an otherwise austere experience. Although you are occasionally harassed by pesky motion-detecting sentinels who would abduct you as those smokey shadows once did to Yorda, your main adversary in The Last Guardian is the environment. Exploring and conquering each area with Trico is the game’s primary currency; everything else is there to keep you honest and provide tension as contrast to the game's otherwise languid pace.
As I mentioned earlier, the game does stumble a bit in its closing coda. There, as you ascend the game’s final tower, The Last Guardian transforms --after all this magic-- into something resembling a more conventional video game. It's like the game's clock struck midnight and it turns into a pumpkin. The game's ending sequence comes complete with waves of enemies, a somewhat obtuse ‘puzzle’ that feels like something plucked out of Rez, and then a violent and cinematic boss battle. I should also point out here that Trico is the most abused video game character in history. If this was designed to make me extra sympathetic to him, I'd like to remind everyone that I was already protective of him when I pulled the first spear out of his leg in the game's opening moments. This endgame ultraviolence felt almost out of place (and certainly traumatized my three year-old who was watching me play). It almost felt as if Ueda-san felt obligated to add traditional video game ingredients to The Last Guardian, in the same way a band is often asked by their record label to provide a hit single for an otherwise unconventional album.
The end result is something messier and less "pure" than the experience of Ico, but also more complete than the boss rush design of Shadow Of The Colossus. As I was lucky enough to receive my copy of The Last Guardian before the street date, I was able to share some vague impressions with friends. The most salient quote I could offer them without giving anything away was “I'm annoyed by The Last Guardian’s faults, but they don’t diminish any of its accomplishments, and its accomplishments are many.”
I’ve finished the game, in Japanese, one and a half times, and am replaying in order to perhaps better appreciate the game now that I know what to expect (but also partly to unlock the menu of bonuses that appears after you complete the game.
While it doesn’t do Trico (the character) enough justice to refer to him simply as a “pet,” anyone who’s ever felt a close bond with an animal friend will find Trico irresistible. His vast array of facial nuances and audible cues (he sounds like Chewbacca's distant cousin) will make most players marvel at this amazingly lifelike video game creature. The rest of you cold-hearted bastards will have to make due with this flawed, but thoroughly arresting adventure. I personally play video games to experience fantastic worlds I cannot enjoy in real life. As the final chapter in one of gaming's most unlikely trilogies, The Last Guardian fits this bill perfectly.
The time that has passed between The Last Guardian's release and its announcement in 2007 is of little consequence, since there are people discovering this game for the first time today who never heard of it before. It only impacts one's expectations, and the only thing that should be held accountable, in my opinion, is what's on the disc. Now that The Last Guardian is here, the last decade is an abstract concept for me. I was doing other things with my life, so I don't begrudge Ueda-san the time needed to finish this game. I absolutely loved the time I spent with Trico and his boy. The Last Guardian is everything I ever hoped it would be. In some ways, it's even more.