When I was a kid, I had a dog that wasn’t particularly smart.
He was a good dog, but got confused easily, and that made people frustrated with him. When we said “sit,” he’d immediately run off and chase a squirrel. When we scolded him for doing something wrong, he would just get more confused, which, in turn made us more frustrated. He probably needed training, but he never really got any.
The Last Guardian very accurately simulates the experience of having a dog without much training. The entire game is predicated on the relationship between an unnamed boy, whom the player controls, and Trico, an AI-controlled giant mythological bird-lion-dog creature. Trico is very nice to hang out with, but he can get confused sometimes and that makes spending time with him very frustrating.
The only thing that’s more irritating than trying to get an animal to listen to you when they don’t understand what you’re saying, is trying to get an animal to listen to you while you’re trying to solve puzzles. The Last Guardian is a long, expansive series of puzzles, most of which offer little in the way of guidance as to how they should be approached or solved. The process of solving them often comes down to trial and error — giving your big animal friend commands and hoping they’re the right ones. Trying every possible answer, a.k.a. “brute-forcing,” is not a particularly enjoyable way to solve a puzzle under the best of circumstances. Brute-forcing your way through a puzzle with a slow-to-respond animal who isn’t much help — well, it’ll get your blood pressure up.
Trico is probably among the best-realized computer simulations of an animal ever created, and in The Last Guardian’s game world, he’s a lab rat caught in a maze. Unfortunately for players, we’re caught in there with him.
A beautiful but frustrating design
The team behind The Last Guardian makes a very specific kind of game. Like its previous efforts, Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, it is a minimalistic narrative set in vast, ruined locations, filled with strange creatures and nefarious, nebulous forces. And though both those games have an action bent, analyzed closely, they’re really environmental puzzle titles — games in which figuring out how to get out of a room or to traverse a space is the point. The Last Guardian, though it’s a game about hanging out with a cool giant creature and includes a few action set pieces, only ever asks you to find the right way out of various rooms and spaces.
After waking up in a strange cave with Trico and slowly befriending him, the boy’s goal, and The Last Guardian’s only real plot, is that the boy wants to “escape” the ruins of a giant city. Every step of the game is one of figuring out how to get to the next place, whether that requires the boy to climb walls, slipping through small spaces to unlock gates and doorways, or reach high places by riding Trico as he leaps to towering perches.
Occasionally, the boy and his bird-dog are impeded by groups of living suits of armor that are hunting for the boy and want to carry him off to, uh, somewhere. During these encounters, it’s almost always the player’s job to find a way to let Trico into the room so he can smash the bad guys with his enormous bulk.
The Last Guardian’s puzzle solutions feel like guesses as often as they’re earned.
It’s obvious that GenDesign, the studio formed by The Last Guardian creator Fumito Ueda and made up of members of Sony’s Team Ico, put major emphasis on animation in their newest title, and the results are often beautiful. The boy naturally scrambles around the ruined city, slipping and falling in his haste, or just barely catching ledges to save his life. Trico’s animal instincts are eerily believable: He paws at doorways he can’t open or hops around in delight after being fed. The goal here was to make lifelike creations, and on that front, GenDesign has succeeded.
Can you climb that? Who knows!
Upon applying that animation to The Last Guardian’s actual gameplay, it’s clear the game’s controls were not given the same amount of attention. The Last Guardian has been in development for almost nine years, thanks to a transition between the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 and some obvious fallout between Sony and Team Ico, leading to the creation of GenDesign. After all that development time, The Last Guardian feels outdated, rather than extremely polished.
The game suffers from design issues that feel like they should have been solved by now, if for no other reason than because other modern games have solved them already. The ruined city, for example, is covered with wall textures that look like they should be climbable but aren’t. Climbing a chain and then leaping off to a nearby ledge is almost always a fraught experience because controls don’t feel as precise as they should be. There is always a chance you may unintentionally fling yourself into space and die. Those beautiful scrambling animations make movement imprecise, sometimes sending the boy slipping off a ledge — or he’ll get too close to an edge, triggering an animation where he loses, but regains his balance. These animations look graceful, but kill momentum and waste your time, especially when they repeat over and over and over again in tricky spots.
Trico, too, suffers from a glut of gorgeous, but slow animation. Your animal companion serves as another puzzle-solving tool — sometimes he has to bash stuff, sometimes you have to ride him as he jumps to distant locations, sometimes you need him to give you a boost. He’s always slow and deliberate on the uptake, taking his sweet time to make any motion. Sure, Trico looks great as he settles back on his haunches, stretches his wings a bit, readies his legs like a cat and then leaps a huge gap, with you struggling to hold onto him — but after seeing him do that hundred times, even the prettiest animations mostly feel like a waste of time.
The game’s camera also feels like a holdover from another era. The frame consistently zoomed in too close to get a sense of our surroundings, and would often get caught in tight locations — of which there are a huge number. It’s hard to understand why a game that’s ostensibly about leading a two-story-tall dog through a city would be so full of tight corridors, specifically when trying to backtrack past Trico (or ride him) wreaks so much havoc on your ability to see where you’re going and what you’re trying to accomplish.
The struggle of mind-reading
Struggling with the The Last Guardian’s controls and cameras can certainly feel aggravating, but the game’s biggest problem stems from the puzzles themselves. Many of the game rooms do not provide adequate clues or guidance, leaving you to read the creators’ minds, or just try every option until you can move forward.
One puzzle put us in a flooded cave with a deep pool. With Trico standing on a small island, we swam around for a good 10 minutes, trying to figure out what the puzzle wanted of us. Were we supposed to ride Trico as he swam underwater through a deep opening in the cave wall? No, seemingly, because it wasn’t working. Were we meant to go into a smaller cave to one side and open a path? Once we finally convinced Trico to swim over and boost us up, we discovered this was a dead end, only housing one of those little food barrels Trico liked to eat (which seemingly don’t matter except at certain points, when Trico refuses to move until the area is combed for Scooby snacks). How about the ledge above us, that looked exactly like the kind of position we routinely needed to make Trico leap up to in order to reach another spot? Apparently not, since we climbed on Trico’s back and did the “jump” command about 40 times, to no avail.
Eventually, we discovered the answer was to swim down into a hole, come up to a spot behind a grate, and then make Trico leap into the water to create a wave that would lift us up to a ledge, where we could flip a switch to open another underwater pathway that Trico could swim through. It wasn’t a bad or uninteresting challenge, but the experience of solving it was marred constantly by confusing design and alternate paths that didn’t help us learn the rules of this particular room.
It’s a problem that comes up throughout The Last Guardian’s puzzles. The rules and learned information you’re building rarely transfer from one puzzle to the next. There are a few reusable mechanics, like making Trico “stomp” or “shove” things with specific commands, but they they seem haphazardly piled together and are never used to great effect. Instead, the answers often revolve around just weird ideas that might work, like having Trico jump into the water to raise it briefly. Sometimes you need to pull on a rail cart to move it, even though it looks like it’s unmovable because it seems to be attached to another, ummovable rail cart. Sometimes Trico can jump to a ledge you can’t quite see because the camera isn’t showing it to you. Too many of the game’s puzzles devolve into guessing.Our Take
The Last Guardian feels like a game out of time. It’s gameplay feels as if it were built around the design limitations of past Team Ico games, which launched on the PlayStation 2.
All of its little issues — a stubborn camera, unclear design cues, etc. — detract from what might have otherwise been another interesting, beautiful and minimalistic adventure. The point of the experience is to bond with Trico as you face challenges together, but convincing Trico to help you while guessing wildly doesn’t foster a bond, it creates resentment. Just like with my own dog, I wanted to love Trico for his flaws, but things would have been much better if he had been just a bit more cooperative.
What’s the alternative?
Games featuring environmental puzzles, like the Assassin’s Creed games, have figured out how to deal with a lot of what makes The Last Guardian so frustrating, like camera issues and unintentional leaps into space. But really, the best alternative might be to return to The Last Guardian’s most successful predecessor — Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus, which was re-released with Ico on PlayStation 3. At least scaling tough-to-climb creatures is the point in that one.
How long will it last?
The Last Guardian lasted around eight to 10 hours. Once you’ve solved all the puzzles, there’s no compelling reason to go return to it.
Should you buy it?
No. Though Team Ico’s fans have been waiting a long time for The Last Guardian, the game just does not live up to their enthusiasm. There are some gamers — people who have kept up with the long story of The Last Guardian’s development — who may get a kick out of the very act of turning it on, but those players would probably get that same kick from the game, regardless of whether its good or bad.