The Last Guardian Review (PS4) – A Timeless Masterpiece
Nothing quite like The Last Guardian exists today. It feels like something from the past – an idealistic representation of the word “Game”, and yet it is also incredibly refreshing because of how unique it feels. Born of a singular concept – “a journey of the bond between man and creature”, the entire game explores this in full. You are a little kid of unknown origins, awakening to the sight of a mythical beast chained and in pain. You free it from its shackles, and thus begins an epic discovery of the creature, its quirks, what makes it tick, what it dislikes, what it eats, and how it moves. It is entirely necessary for you to learn about the beast, for it is only with Trico’s help (the name of the creature – a cross between a rat, bird and cat/dog) that you can navigate the brutally desolate yet utterly beautiful ruins that lies before you.
For a game that took 10 years to make, and was plagued with delays, personnel departure, and more, it doesn’t feel like a game that is any worse for it. The creature is born of love, and heart and it shows. Trico is a fully realized being, and if it took 10 years for the game to make, it must be because the levels and environments took one year, and the beast was developed over nine. It feels incredibly real, inhabiting the game world like an actual, living breathing creature, from the way it ruffles its feathers/fur, to its lithe movement, and even down to the little things like when it decides to twitch it ears or cry out with a deep guttural sound. It will also inhabit a place in your heart, if you decide to let it in.
But as with any real animal, forming a real bond with it takes time – and the game is as much about the kid and Trico’s escape, as it is about understanding the creature better. You spend a good five to six hours of the game in some form of “tutorial” – the game never spells out that it is a “tutorial”, nor ever allude to such a thing (the game has zero hand-holding, nothing is told to you, there is no waypoint or direction pointer), but you feel like the early platforming and environmental puzzles requires a sort of working out of how to get the animal to look in the direction you want, calling out its name, mixed with stroking its large body and feeding it, just to get it to do what you need it to do.
Just like a real animal, its temperament is more at play so it’s not always that it follows your instructions, instead preferring to sniff at the grass, or turn its back on you and be distracted by something else. There’s a rhythm to understanding exactly when is the right time that you can call on Trico to do your bidding, and when you have to leave it to do its thing before it returns to your attention. The game has designed a true form of co-dependence. You need Trico to get through the game, but Trico needs you to care for it, to not leave it behind, and to help soothe the storm that brews within it.
There is a deep, dark narrative to the entire game – but true to Japanese form, the story is never spelt out for the audience. It is seen in the brutalist architecture of the grand, sprawling empty halls and structures you run and climb through, in the mysterious tattoos all over the kid’s entire body, and in the soulless automatons that roam the space waiting to capture you for an undetermined reason. And it is also weaved into the mystery of Trico itself. Where did it come from? Is it the only one of its kind? What is the true purpose of its existence and its fate tied to yours? Why does its horns grow and fall off and grow again? Why does its eyes glow different colors when its hungry, angry, scared? Why does it get agitated at the soulless automatons that try to kidnap you or scared at the stain-glass eyes?
There is a small amount of narration peppered throughout the game, of the boy speaking as an older man, and as you play through the game, the narration would complement your actions as if recounting the past. So there’s a clue to be gleaned from that.
Oh and the game’s sense of scale. Play this game on as big a TV as you can. The way you transition from tight cramped corridors to vast open spaces, and back and forth gives the game a powerful visual rhythm that ensures your eyes are never exhausted by the proceedings. What’s more, there’s an indelible tension to the way Trico inhabits spaces. You know at the back of your mind that every single level and space was designed to be able to hold Trico’s entire mass, but it still feels like Trico’s a huge bull in a china shop in the best of ways. When you ride Trico’s back and it leaps great distances or heights, it soars, and when it lands, even on the tiniest of platforms, or rickety of bridges it does so with a deep satisfying crash.
The kid also inhabits the world incredibly well, in the way his body pushes up against the rocks, or his bare feet places so assuredly on each step of a winding staircase, or when he stumbles and falls, or when he strains under the weight of a heavy object to pick up. Both the kid and Trico showcase the best of space and character intertwined.
As for the game’s platforming bits, where the kid has to find his way through the world, solve puzzles, pull levers, and push obstacles out of the way to proceed, it all feels very Uncharted and nu-Tomb Raider-esque. Even for the impatient gamer, I’d say the environmental puzzles are not overly complicated, and can at worst, be fumbled through to completion. The puzzles are born of singular designs, built around small concepts like “move the barrel by throwing it in a specific way” so the reward comes from figuring out the solution in exactly the way the game wants you to solve it rather than any sense of experimentation. Which isn’t bad in its own right – it’s just that it can be frustrating at times especially when you’re tired and you just want to get on with it.
This extends to how you use Trico to help you solve puzzles. You try to coax it into doing something in the way you think would work, but it doesn’t, so instead you have to find out what part of Trico’s behavioral pattern fits the puzzle. Like getting it to look up at a specific thing so he’ll know to jump up to it, or putting his paw down on one end of a push-cart so that it’ll send you flying up to an out of reach place. As mentioned before, it takes a lot of coaxing to get Trico to do what you need it do, but the best rewards or moments of the game are when you discover some new behavioral quirk of Trico’s, when it does something unexpected, that is surprising, delightful, and just such joy. Like owning a real pet.
Despite inhabiting the world really well, the kid can be quite frustrating to control. You push the analog stick in one direction, but there’s a slight lag before the kid responds. You get this strange sensation as if you’re operating on a dream, the kid acts kind of floaty. The worst times are when you are being chased by the automatons, the game’s only moments of “violence”, and trying to get out from their grasp or escaping from them is made that much harder when the kid feels not entirely in your control. But I believe this is intentional design, the kid is not your avatar, but a being of his own. And this interactive tension informs the way in which you are meant to treat Trico. It isn’t you nor is it yours to control.
This design philosophy can, and most probably will, frustrate many gamers, but I appreciate that there is such a mastery of creation here, as if despite all that the development team was going through, despite the uncertainty of whether or not the artistry of what they were creating was going to succeed, the team stayed through to the vision.
The camera is the other thing that can be frustrating. Sometimes it would cut away from the angle you had kept it on, to something else, without rhyme or reason. Like when you’re trying to solve a particularly tricky environmental puzzle and need Trico to look in a certain direction, but the camera keeps cutting away from it as you move. I think this is just a design flaw that was never resolved. How do you get the camera to capture the entire beast, especially in tight spaces, and what is the right perspective or angle for the gamer’s gaze at any one time?
But sometimes the camera does get it right – like when you watch from the kid’s perspective in marvel up at a vast cavernous hall, and the way Trico slowly tramples through your view, in its own majestic way. Or the camera positioned from a high angle, looking down at the beast as it lowers its head to muzzle up against the kid’s warm embrace in the glowing sun.
The game starts rather slowly and quietly. Just you, the beast and this foreign world. But after a considerable number of hours in, just when you think you’ve played it all, the game opens up, the music gets more cinematic and epic setpieces start kicking in. Other larger stakes are introduced, things get Uncharted-level explosive (yes, this game can do Uncharted-level cool shit), and the pace definitely picks up. But you have to go through the journey of quiet discovery first. This is my word of advice for gamers to stick with the experience.
But then again, the game is not really about why the kid or Trico is there. The game is not about the foreign made-up language that you hear from the narrator. Or the ruined civilization, and its hallways filled with soulless automatons that you have to puzzle and climb your way out of. It’s not about the development hell that the studio went through to make this game happen. It’s not about the world we live in today, nor the kind of other games that exist now. It’s not about holding gamers by the hand and telling them “this is what you are supposed to do” or “this is where you’re supposed to go”.
It’s about a kid and this magical beast that lives and breathes, and forms a bond with all who care to step into this special, timeless space.