Personally, I wasn’t expecting to like The Last Guardian much. There was a light fanaticism surrounding it’s release that foretold a chorus of praise despite any of the game’s shortcomings. I had never played Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, this game’s spiritual predecessors, so my experience was no way shaped by nostalgia. Even so, the adventure with which I presented was like no other. The Last Guardian is at its core the story of the blossoming bond between man and beast, and the trials they must face together to survive hostile lands. It’s a shame that the mechanics of the game itself can obstruct your enjoyment of this aspect. The bird/cat/dinosaur “Trico” is at times as infuriating as any pet can be, but his disobedience is never too unmanageable. The camera can go haywire from time to time, and the controls feel a little unrefined, but on the whole, you’re free to marvel at all The Last Guardian has to offer.
You begin your journey as a small boy (a nameless character who I will hereafter be referring to as Bob), in a location known as The Nest. Trapped deep in a subterranean cavern with the shackled Trico, you have no idea how you got there or why you’re covered head to toe in tattoos. As you help free Trico from his chains and feed him, the formation of the bond that grows throughout the game is immediate. The crowning glory of The Last Guardian is this bond. You aid Trico in battles, pull spears from him, and feed him with glowing blue barrels scattered throughout The Nest. In return, Trico will protect you, follow your commands (mostly), and care for you.
Trico will also fight for you, and he is a fearsome beast when he gets going. Throughout The Last Guardian, you will be bothered by some sort of autonomous robot army defending The Nest, and for most of the time you can let Trico get on with smashing these enemies to bits with a swipe of his powerful talons. He only really gets into trouble when these stone guardians begin wielding stained-glass shields, objects that Trico expresses an aversion to from the beginning. You can ram into these enemies and cause them to drop the shields, allowing Trico to continue his rampage. Near the end of the game, you also regain the mirror shield, which Bob lost nearly as soon as he found it early on. This allows you to reveal another of Trico’s functions: futuristic space cannon. Aiming the shield at enemies focuses Trico’s tail, allowing it to fire off several magenta colored projectiles, obliterating stone guardians by the score. Bob and Trico make a fearsome combination when working in harmony.
Of course, like any animal, Trico can also be a total pain. Sometimes it can take 10 minutes of gesturing at where you know you need to go before the beast will heed your command. The most infuriating moments are when you try to get him to navigate a set of jumps through the environment. Sometimes it’s difficult to know if Trico is required to facilitate progression, mainly because he simply takes too long to respond to instruction. When you finally manage to get Trico moving, he continues on, without being prompted, to a set point along the determined path. If you’re not careful though, Trico can sometimes reverse for no reason, and backtrack all the way to where you started, making you think that the path you were on was the wrong one, when in fact it was the right path but Trico saw a butterfly and got confused and he’s just a big dumb cat after all.
For me, these flaws are insignificant. He was my big dumb cat, just being a big dumb cat. He was my companion through The Nest. Whether you’re watching him paw at pieces of scenery, or cheekily luring him to pop his head through a spot too small for his whole body, you will feel that Trico is a living, breathing animal and companion. The instances where you’re cursing his name are vastly overshadowed by some intensely powerful moments. One scene that stands out for me is when Bob takes a bit of a beating, and Trico is attempting to wake him up. After a dunking in a puddle, Bob rouses, and Trico literally jumps for joy and gives us a loving nuzzle. I found this scene incredibly powerful, and to spark such emotion from a player is a triumph of game design. Gaming industry auteur Fumito Ueda of genDESIGN is a master of his craft when it comes to constructing a highly charged, emotive narrative.
On the whole, the story is rather simple, but can be quite gripping, and sometimes harrowing. Without spoiling anything, Trico gets into a spot of bother on multiple occasions when we learn that The Nest isn’t as vacant as we first thought, and these encounters are rather violent. We also learn about how the blue barrels we feed Trico are made, which was an interesting revelation to say the least. Though, the parts of the story I most enjoyed are in-between the cutscenes. The environments have a story of their own to tell, and give clues as to the purpose of The Nest and the specific locations within. There are unexplained broken statues and strange devices, and it very much reminded me of how Dark Souls tells its story: it leaves the player to interpret the clues and piece together a lore of their own.
It’s a shame that unrefined controls and a clunky camera can interrupt this narrative discovery. For the most part, these two mechanisms work in harmony. You press up to go up, down to go down, and the camera manages to follow your movements so you’re not left blind, but when the control scheme does fail, it fails badly. Probably the worst aspect is how fond Bob is of clinging on to Trico. You press X to let go of stuff, which hardly ever happens, especially when nestled within Trico’s feathers. You may drop a few inches, but most of the time you end up embedded in Trico’s armpit. This ties in to one of the overarching problems of The Last Guardian. Every action feels loose, as if pressing a button may not always give the desired effect. It does lend controlling Bob a certain organic quality, as you watch him stumble over rocks, and grasp out for ledges, but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the control scheme. My biggest gripe is that Bob only has two speeds: creeping slower than plants grow, or sprinting so fast he nearly falls off most ledges. It wouldn’t have been so hard to allow Bob to walk.
Again, my experience with the camera wasn’t that bad. There were definitely a few occasions, especially in confined spaces, where the screen would suddenly be filled with Trico’s rear end, but I found the gentle panning of the lens towards the next objective to be helpful at times. The opposite of helpful, ironically, were the control tips that displayed constantly throughout the game in the top right corner. It was as if I’d forgotten how to hang from ledges 10 hours in. You can’t even turn the things off. For a game that boasts a minimalist design, and often favors allowing you to figure puzzles out for yourself, it was an odd choice to continue displaying these tips throughout the game, a choice with annoying consequences.
The puzzles are another aspect of The Last Guardian that stand out, but not in the way you’d think. By themselves, the puzzles are relatively simple; you either pull a switch, pull a chain, or get Trico to take you somewhere, and the only difficulty is in working with Trico to help you accomplish your goals. While exploring the environment in search of potential solutions, you may come across dead ends or false leads, and while others may find this type of level design pointless and a waste of time, I absolutely loved it. I have grown tired with games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted, where the path across a landscape is neatly signposted, and thousand year-old ruins just happen to have a convenient little set of wooden planks nailed to the side to allow you an easy climb to the top. In The Last Guardian, every route is a risk. It makes The Nest feel like a real, neglected, dilapidated labyrinth of crumbling spires and unstable tunnels.
This aspect is enhanced by the fact that the vistas are stunning. The sense of scale is captured so well, especially given how you may be able to spot a construct you had previously visited in the distance. Some may not like the hazy aesthetic, and will feel the graphics belong in the PS3 era, but with some excellent lighting and purposeful design, The Last Guardian still manages to impress despite not looking as sharp as most modern Triple-A titles. You may be starting to sense a pattern emerging amongst all of the above. The scenery is stunning, but the camera may not let you see it. Trico is lovable, but can be dumb. The environment feels organic, but it’s a pain to control Bob in getting through it. The game is characterized by these polarizations, and it interrupts what should be a wonderful journey. I would love to give this game a higher score, but it’s impossible to entirely forgive the obvious flaws. With a better camera, better controls, and a gloss of fresh paint, The Last Guardian would have been so much better. If you’re willing to be patient, and forgive the game it’s problems, I can guarantee you will be left enchanted by a story you’ll never forget.