Review: The Last Guardian
When it comes to Fumito Ueda, to realize a game is too ambitious for its initial console is almost a trademark. If you go back in time, ICO was pushed to the PlayStation 2 after two years of development, while Shadow of the Colossus was delivered on PS2 but only became truly a fluid experience when re-released on PS3. Promised initially on the third PlayStation console with its complex architecture, The Last Guardian was finally rebuilt and prepped to be released on PlayStation 4.
Everything begins in the shade of a damp cave, where young teenager wearing a long tunic and mysterious tattoos finds an immense beast, wounded by two fresh lance hits. This beast which is some sort of feline and rapacious chimera named Trico is alongside the young boy the protagonist of the game, which will both need each other to be able leave the enormous ruins, almost stuck in time, guarded by mystical forces.
A setting that immediately evokes Fumito Ueda other game ICO and the mutual dependence of its duo of protagonists, with the difference that Yorda now leaves room for a creature much more imposing, expressive and almost autonomous. It is enough to observe it for a few minutes to discover a palette of movements and poses of insolent realism, which will never cease to expand as the two companions become tame and face adversity. Stay too long without moving and Trico will show signs of impatience, in his gestures as in his screech and sounds. He will not hesitate to explore the surroundings by following sources of light or smaller animals, to exercise and stretch its muscles as soon as you reach a more open space, to point out to the paths too narrow for his build but which you can use as the young boy. Give him an order that he does not yet understand and he will blow his wings with discontent. Leave his field of sight and he will call you, moaning away and trying to reach you, to the point of stuck his head in passages clearly too narrow for him. An imaginary and yet credible living being whose mere presence is a true miracle in itself.
Like any animal, get ready to witness Trico getting distracted or guided – if not even paralyzed – by its instincts. The slightest barrel of fluorescent food in sight will change the color of his eyes until he can relax and gobble it, while the fumes that escape from some pots will make him even more obsessive. Other objects which are simply color coded will be mechanics and patterns capable of placing the beast in a hypnotic trance. To give a concrete illustration of that without too much to spoiling the story, it is the case of these strange “Armored Knights” which are trying hard to hunt Trico and catch the kid to lock him behind strange doors. If it reminds you a bit of the shadows in ICO, these are far less agile enemies which you can escape quickly by pushing the boy to struggle the grasp. And as long as your feathered companion is in the vicinity, he will make it his duty to fight the aggressors with teeth, claws or frenzied trampling attacks.
Unlike the previous two previous games from Ueda’s team (ICO and Shadow of the Collosus), the main character remains the weakest of them all and favors running away during the absence of its teammate. Even the strange shield gained at the very beginning of the game can’t help against the assailants without Trico’s tail nearby. This does not mean that epic battles are nowhere to be found in The Last Guardian: it just won’t be you that delivers the greatest hits. On the other hand, expect to some major cliffhangers and other emotionally charged scenes where one is regularly an actor rather than just a spectator. They are based on simple but still efficient mechanics, sometimes placed at moments which are the least expected. Even the most hardened players run the risk of no longer controlling their tears, as there so much emotions built up with the relationship between the boy and the beast.
The gameplay, in spite of being the paying efforts to hide its mechanic constraints and offer a strong thematic anchor, is not however crazy in term of originality or finishing. Very close to ICO in its progression, the game also uses the typical – with a more skillful use – mechanics of pushing boxes, carrying objects to places, climbing chains, levers to be activated, etc… Simple movements that take time and may lack precision because of the very detailed animations, that will annoy a bit players used to characters with twitch reflex response. The other big change is the more pronounced use of the physics engine in the interactions and puzzle resolutions. I will be careful not to multiply examples, for fear of suggesting solutions to a game in which exploration and observation are all up to the player.
If camera problems, weird collisions bugs and the random issues of Shadow of the Colossus still haunt you, then don’t expect anything less from the The Last Guardian. Finding yourself falling into an abyss all of sudden when you just wanted to get up on Trico, jump sideways because of an unexpected change in camera angle, etc… The kind of annoying old generation bugs that are on top of a form of latency and heaviness in the animations of the boy. The absence of a health bar, the generous timing given to urgent situation as well as the temporary disability of the boy as soon as he falls a little too high, make it clear that the central pivot of the challenge is not dexterity but observation, logic, and a mutual aid between human and beast. Despite the vocal components embedded in the narrative and the many “tutorial” or hints – with no possibility of disabling them – that sometimes can be annoying, The Last Guardian remains light years away from any other AAA game when it comes to tutorials and spreading clues. Sure there’s some small hints not to lose too many people en route, but it stays true to the fact that the game is all about research and reflection into solving the puzzle.
To address concerns about the technical side of a decade old project, we must address the issue of the machine used to play The Last Guardian. On PlayStation 4 Pro, the slowdowns and small graphics worries are mostly gone, except for a handful of cutscenes and playable sequences which seems too greedy to the game engine. On the other hand, the standard PlayStation 4 draws seems to have a painful time with this game, and fires up its fan like a jet engine turbine at the slightest opportunity, which is accompanied by falls of framerate and an image quality difficult to conceal. Even if no sequence require quick reflex linked to a steady framerate, the comfort of playing in these technical flaws takes a little while to get used to, even if it’s set at thirty frames per second. A constraint far from being invisible but that can be forgotten as we enjoy the masterful artistic direction of Ueda’s work, born of the perfect osmosis between the beautiful animations, a divine lighting effects , a coherent architecture of this fantastic world and the orchestral masterpiece of Takeshi Furukawa, which is as powerful than those of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus.
Petrified of good intentions, The Last Guardian could have brought a breath of fresh air among this end of year’s releases. Carrying the player into a dreamlike, mysterious and fascinating universe, Ueda’s latest title is a minimalist gameplay, but ample enough to support its purpose, thanks to its intoxicating mood and a fabulous soundtrack. But all is not perfect, and technical issues arise especially on the normal PlayStation 4 (in comparison to the PRO), with a game engine that seems to lack optimization for the only console it supports. After ten year, I expected a gust of poetry, but we ended up getting just a breeze of lightness and originality.
The Last Guardian was reviewed using a PlayStation 4 press kit of the game provided by PlayStation Middle East. The game was tested on both the normal PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation 4 Pro after the latest 1.03 Patch Update. We don’t discuss review scores with publishers or developers prior to the review being published.
• Trico is an almost a believeable real-life creature
• A patiently constructed relationship between the boy and the beast
• The setting of the story
• An emotional ride
• A real game of exploration full of trial and error
• Beautiful work on animation and lighting effects
• That soundtrack is just divine
• Clean user interface and experience
• A camera system that needs some fixing
• Worries with weird collisions
• Some puzzles can be spoiled by game engine
• The standard PlayStation 4 suffers playing this game