We live in a time when delays in game releases have become common place. Some games get pushed a few weeks and others a couple of months, but there are a select few who took close to decade to develop and lived to tell the tale as a finished product. As we all know, The Last Guardian is one such game.
Many have wondered how such a delay would affect the end product. Due to its long and troubled development cycle, those who had been anticipating its release for years, were left bracing for the worst. Worrying that the game would turn out to be an utter disappointment, many gamers saw their enthusiasm dwindle has multiple delays piled up.
Thankfully, the game is not a development hell disaster like Duke Nukem Forever or Aliens Colonial Marines, nor is it a source of disappointment like Spore or Too Human. The Last Guardian is more in line with long development games like Alan Wake, L.A. Noire and Shenmue. A near-masterpiece with a concept that has niche appeal, that does somethings to perfection but has minor flaws that would prevent some from enjoying it.
Let’s get somethings clear; The Last Guardian does not break new technical grounds in graphical fidelity, it doesn’t feature any unique, out of the box, concept and doesnt add any revolutionary new game mechanic.
It is not easy to see the appeal of a game that is essentially about doing environmental puzzles in a desolate environment. However, The Last Guardian has that intangible factor, that charisma which permeates its every facet and gels together its presentation, gameplay and narrative into one cohesive experience.
Keeping in tune with its predecessors, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is an adventure platformer with environmental puzzles as its core gameplay element. With more emphasis on platforming and less on action, the game is essentially the gameplay of ICO combined with the epic scale of Shadow of the Colossus.
The game gives players the reign of a young boy trying to escape his predicament, by jumping to platforms, climbing ledges, partaking in occasional lever pulling and of course, helping and getting help from his gigantic beast companion called Trico.
The game creates a very interesting symbiotic relationship between Trico and the boy. The boy is small and nibble, which allows him to navigate small spaces, while Trico’s large and powerful stature allows him to clear paths and carry the boy to unreachable places. This dichotomy allows each to complement one another as they try to get from point A to point B.
As easy and as simple as that sounds, the game does a great job of delivering diverse environmental puzzles by adding new wrinkles to the equation, keeping the puzzles intuitive and never letting them get too obtuse as to impede the player to the point of frustration.
The Last Guardian takes these puzzle elements and creates gameplay scenarios that not only are engaging during play, but also seamlessly build and forward story beats as the player progresses.
The strings of The Last Guardian’s narrative are woven from the same threads as those of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. By using his ‘design by subtraction’ philosophy, the game’s director Fumito Ueda has again delivered a poetic tale that is at once personal and majestic; a story that connects with the players and evokes strong emotions without heavy reliance on exposition.
The sparing use of fictional language provides enough narration to give context to amazing world design and add to the character animations that expertly convey frailty of the protagonist and allow players to feel the plight of the boy and his creature, and then feel the amazing sensation of accomplishing the unthinkable and overcoming insurmountable odds.
However, above all else, the story of The Last Guardian is an earnest tale about the boy’s discovery of self, his journey to understanding the strange creature and the bond that develops between them.
The relationship the boy has with the beast, Trico, is not of control or subservience; it is far more nuanced and complex. The connection between both is similar to that of the boy and the tiger in the Life of Pi.
The game does not treat Trico is as a simple NPC slave with simple pathing to follow the player around. Through a mix of an interesting A.I. and brilliant animation, Trico is made out to be a living, breathing animal with not only its unique strengths and weaknesses, but also its own interests, mannerisms and eccentricities that are gradually revealed to the players as they progress.
Trying to understand the mannerisms and motivations of the beast companion is crucial to progression in The Last Guardian. While it is a fascinating mechanic, it can also get quite tricky and lead to ambiguous situations, especially in the early stages, when the players are not familiar with Trico’s mannerisms, it is difficult for them to gauge whether the beast is just taking its time, ignoring the player or the strategy being employed does not work and is wrong for that puzzle.
However, as the players spend some time adventuring with the creature they find that Trico is quite expressive, a trait that is not only conveyed through its fluidly animated actions but also the sounds it makes in different situations, ranging from yelp of a sad puppy when in distress, to the roar of an angry lion when berserk.
Aside from the creature’s expressions, both Trico and the boy are animated in a manner that is unique to the games directed by Fumito Ueda. Whether they are just walking along a path, jumping to a platform or climbing a ledge, every action they make features a little bit of grace and a hint of clumsiness, which gives their movements a quality that makes these digital characters come off as actual living beings.
This amazing attention to detail not only limited to character movements but is also evident in the way the developers have managed to undertake world building. They have managed to create such immersive and atmospheric environments that even desolate old ruins become host to breathtaking beauty.
Bathed in over saturated lighting and the generous use of bloom, that is staple of all Ueda directed games, the environments of The Last Guardian have an ethereal vibe to them, that is imbued in every facet of its presentation; from the earthy tones of the Celtic inspired architecture to the unnatural glow of objects and imagery littered throughout the game.
While The Last Guardian might retain the same art design from its days in development as a PS3 game, make no mistake, the game routinely showcases its visual prowess and makes full use of PS4’s graphical capabilities.
From the way each and every single feather on Trico ruffles, to how the lush greenery sways in the wind; from wooden panels creaking and bending under pressure, to water rippling and displacing into waves; the game is packed full of amazing details that really gives weight to each character and object, and its relationship with the surrounding environment.
Despite its amazing art design and spectacular visual presentation, The Last Guardian does suffer from a couple of issues that affect its graphical performance.
While the game does occasionally suffer from unwieldy camera when the character ventures through very tight spaces, that only last for a few seconds and happens in instances that are few and far between. What is more prevalent, is the imperfect technical fidelity of the game with respect to framerates.
The Last Guardian does feature places where the framerate dips, however it is a minor annoyance and doesn’t affect the gameplay too much, as the gameplay is not focused on twitch action at breakneck speeds but is a very deliberate and steady flow of stopping, exploring environment and then platforming to progress.
This deliberate pace is also complemented by the game’s brilliant sound design, which relies on ambient sounds to highlight the presence of air and wind in the environment, to the noise of each footstep, clang of each object and the nuance behind each verbal inflection.
That is not to say that there aren’t tense moments in the game. Peppered in between the exploration of serene landscapes are set pieces that not only provide a burst of adrenaline but also keeps the flow of the game fresh. These set pieces and events are where the game’s soundtrack kicks in and combines with visuals to give a memorable impact on the senses.
With the presence of such strong mix of audial, visual, gameplay and narrative elements, The Last Guardian is truly a uniquely amazing, one of a kind, experience; however, what prevents it from being a complete all-round masterpiece is its framerate issues.
These issues are similar to the problems players faced in Ueda’s previous games; ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, and while that didn’t stand in the way of those games considered masterpieces in the PS2 era, these issues are less palatable with the contemporary standards set by modern AAA games.
Despite the legacy of framerate problems and long development cycle the game is not stuck in the past. The Last Guardian uses the strengths of its pedigree to provide an exceptional gameplay experience, that provides unparalleled depth to characterization of a mute animal and builds a bond that grows organically through gameplay.
As good as the game is, it is certainly not for everyone. If you only like to play action games that operate at breakneck speed or are exclusively into huge sandbox games with tons of side-quests, then the world of The Last Guardian might not appeal to you.
The Last Guardian is not a huge open world sandbox with loads of options and gameplay variety. The game does a few things and it does them exceptionally well. It is a masterfully executed linear adventure with amazing audio/visual presentation and a narrative that naturally unfolds through gameplay progression. The game makes a connection with the player that is not easily forgotten and is sure to be remembered as a classic in the annals of gaming history.