Was The Last Guardian worth the wait?
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To say that fans have been waiting a while for The Last Guardian is a bit of an understatement. First announced in 2009, after entering development in 2007, The Last Guardian is the third game by Fumito Ueda, the creator of PlayStation 2 classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Along the way the game has appeared at multiple E3 events, looked to have been cancelled a few times, and suffered countless delays before eventually arriving on the PlayStation 4. So, now that The Last Guardian is finally out, was it worth the wait?
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The Last Guardian Review | Pricing and Platforms
While it was initially announced for the PlayStation 3, The Last Guardian skipped that console generation entirely and has instead come out as a PlayStation 4 exclusive. The game finally reached UK stores on 9 December 2016, but there are a few different versions of The Last Guardian available, with different bonuses tied to different retailers.
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If you’re happy with a standard digital edition, you can buy it from the PlayStation store for £49.99, which comes with an exclusive PS4 dynamic theme. If you’re willing to wait a couple of days for a physical edition you can get a better price, however. The best deal we’ve found so far is from Amazon, which has the standard boxed version of the game for £42.94 right now. You can also get an exclusive steelbook version from Game for £44.99, while ShopTo is offering its own exclusive version for £49.85, which has an exclusive cover and a mini soundtrack.
Finally, there’s a Collector’s Edition of the game, which contains the steelbook, an art book, and a statuette of the boy and Trico. Game has that for £104.99 at the time of writing – though these will no doubt sell out fast.
The Last Guardian Review | Storyline
The Last Guardian starts out cryptically. You control a young boy who awakens in a strange cave next to a giant “man-eating beast,” who you later name Trico. As you begin to explore the space, your actions are narrated by the boy’s older self, recounting his memories as an adult – a system the game cleverly uses to provide occasional hints as to what you should do next.
When you first awaken, Trico is badly wounded and panicked – and as dangerous as any wild beast would be in that situation, not least a giant, magical, half-bird half-cat thing that can shoot lightning from its tail. As a result, your first task is to calm it down by finding barrels of food to feed it and carefully removing the spears lodged in its side. It’s a striking introduction, cleverly introducing a few key gameplay mechanics while also establishing Trico as both dangerous and vulnerable – a potential threat as much as an ally and companion – a dynamic the game continues to play with throughout.
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Across the campaign (which took us about 12 hours to complete) you’ll learn to work with Trico to escape the derelict, ruined castle in which you find yourselves, solving puzzles, navigating platforming sections, and fighting enemies. There’s little in the way of explicit story (and even less in the way of dialogue) but the game carefully drops details of its world along the way – though never so much as to lose its sense of mystery.
That’s partly because the real story here isn’t about the castle or even your escape from it: it’s about the relationship you build with Trico as you work together and save each other countless times. Trico is one of gaming’s most complex and lifelike AI characters yet, and The Last Guardian does an absolutely astonishing job of slowly building trust between the two of you. Every development in the central relationship feels both organic and earned, leading to some heartstopping moments along the way and a finale that packs an almost unbearable emotional punch. Indie developers have been exploring emotional spaces in games in various ways over the last few years, but not since The Last of Us has a AAA game hit this hard. The relationship with Trico is the beating heart of The Last Guardian, and without a doubt its finest accomplishment.
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The Last Guardian Review | Gameplay
So, what do you and Trico actually do when you’re navigating this mysterious world? The game is split into three rough types of gameplay: platforming, puzzle solving, and combat, and each is used in unique ways to reinforce the bond between player and beast.
Let’s take the platforming first, which is a curious mix of climbing around the world and climbing around Trico. That’s because at any time you can grip onto his feathered back, clambering up and around it to reach new heights – or just give it a nice stroke. This is especially important because as the game goes on and your bond grows stronger, Trico will allow you to ride on its shoulders as it leaps to perilous perches you could never hope to reach on your own, or will lift you up to platforms and doors with no obvious climbing route. Sometimes you can gently guide Trico forward, suggesting where it should head next, but at other moments he’s in full control, leaving you only to cling on for dear life and enjoy the game’s spectacular views.
When controlling the boy himself, The Last Guardian does a fantastic job of using both animation and the control scheme to reinforce his youth. He stumbles when he runs, limbs flailing with childish abandon, and skitters nervously when he gets too close to an edge he might fall off – it’s a sharp contrast to Trico’s feline grace. Still, he’s a pretty capable explorer, and the game owes a debt to Tomb Raider and Uncharted games, setting you to leap, crawl, and climb around ruins that might come toppling down at any moment. Inevitably, at times they do, leading to some impressive sequences as either you or Trico accidentally a destructive chain reaction, forcing you to scramble your way to safety.
At times the path forwards isn’t always clear however, and that’s where the game’s puzzle elements come into play. The disparity between the boy and Trico’s sizes means that the challenge is often to find a way for you to both progress for the next area, as you scout ahead to find a way to open a gate or unblock a passageway. Other puzzles are more closely tied to Trico, as you have to work to convince it to jump down into a pool of water (the poor thing doesn’t like swimming very much) or have to find a way to destroy one of the ‘evil eye’ symbols dotted around, which leave the beast frozen with fear.
The puzzles are mostly well designed, making good use of your skillset and requiring solutions that encourage careful observation of the environment around you. Unfortunately, they can at times be one of the game’s most frustrating elements, thanks to an unexpected problem: Trico is too well designed. To be more specific, Trico is meant to be a giant, wild animal. And, well, it acts like one. You can shout instructions or guide it towards specific objectives or directions, but there’s never any guarantee that it will do what you want it to. Remember that old expression about herding cats? At its worst, that’s The Last Guardian in a nutshell, and the frustration of guiding Trico will no doubt prove too much for some players to bear. In another sense it’s a fascinating wrinkle on the game, turning Trico itself into the puzzle as you have to figure out what it wants and how to convince it do what you want – but it’s not always easy to see it that way as you’re stuck tearing your hair out, knowing exactly what you need Trico to do but with no idea how to persuade it to do it.
Thankfully, none of those frustrations are to be found in the combat, which is a smart inversion of the typical gaming power fantasy. Anyone who’s played Ico will immediately spot the evolution from that game to this, though the system has been flipped on its head. There, you fought off shadowy figures who couldn’t really harm you but would try and seize your companion, who you were tasked with defending. In The Last Guardian, the magical automata who attack are too small to really threaten Trico, but will do everything in their power to kidnap you, leaving you almost entirely dependent on the beast for protection.
You can contribute, but your options are limited: you can shove guards to briefly knock them over, and on occasion you can pull the helmets off ones that Trico has already knocked to the floor, taking them out of the fight for good. Later in the game you play a bigger role in combat, as you encounter guards carrying miniature versions of the ‘evil eye’ symbol that Trico is so afraid of, leaving it up to you to disarm them and help Trico get back in the fight. Even early on though, the combat is surprisingly compelling, given that you don’t really get to do much fighting at all. Games rarely make us feel truly vulnerable, and even less often leave us reliant on someone, or something, else to protect us. That The Last Guardian not only tries this, but makes it both intense and satisfying to play, is an impressive accomplishment.
The Last Guardian Review | Performance and Graphics
The Last Guardian’s lengthy, troubled development raised a lot of question marks around its ultimate performance, and there’s both good news and bad. The good: the game looks absolutely gorgeous. The bad: the original model PS4 suffers some occasional (but pretty serious) framerate stumbles in order to make it happen.
First, the good. As mentioned before, the game’s animation is top-notch, and Trico in particular looks uncannily lifelike (considering it’s a made up mish-mash of different animals) as it leaps, flaps, and paws its way about the world. Its feathers ruffle in the wind, its back hunches as it readies to jump, and its eyes widen expressively as it looks your way for guidance. Anyone who’s had a pet (especially a cat) will recognise in Trico some strikingly familiar body language, and the design is as much an achievement in real-world observation as it is in technical accomplishment.
Fortunately, the world around Trico is beautiful enough to keep up. The castle design is for the most part consistent – don’t expect hugely varied environments as you progress, barring a few exceptions – but it’s been assembled with an impeccable eye for detail. Your journey is not an entirely linear one, and the game has a remarkable way of surprising you by dropping you back into an area you’ve explored before, but from a new perspective. The result is that this world of crumbling towers and spacious ruins feels as real as it does beautiful – and boy is it beautiful. The game’s vistas in particular are breathtaking, and we often found ourselves pausing just to take in the view, spotting the buildings we’d explored before, looking ahead for the towers we were yet to climb, and generally soaking in the spectacle.
Unfortunately, all of that comes at a price, and despite being built specifically for the PS4, The Last Guardian’s performance is still occasionally lacklustre. In most sequences the console happily keeps up, but a handful of sections saw frame rates plummet on our PS4 Slim. Luckily it didn’t happen often, and it was mostly during the game’s more cinematic sequences, which don’t require split-second timing. Still, it’s a frustrating blemish for a game that was so long in development, and a potentially worrying sign for PlayStation 4 owners reluctant to make the jump to the PS4 Pro – we can only hope there won’t be too many more titles down the line that require the Pro to run smoothly.
We also encountered a few bugs and glitches through our playthrough, which occasionally forced us to reload the last checkpoint (thankfully these are very frequent) in order to move ahead. There’s also at least one puzzle in the game that seems frankly broken: it requires the player to stand in such a specific (and arbitrary) position to trigger Trico to act that there’s surely no way it can be working as intended. The camera is also an occasional frustration, especially when following Trico through narrower spaces, which is really the only element of the game that feels like a hangover from its PS3-era origins.