A Faithful Feathered Friend
HIGH Every slow-motion leap of faith.
LOW Hideous framerate drops when the action picks up.
WTF The first trophy is for watching Trico drop a deuce.
If The Last Guardian had somehow been released without us knowing anything about it – as opposed to the seven or eight years of buildup we actually had – we’d still have no trouble identifying that, oh yeah, this is totally by the same guy who made Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It speaks volumes of Fumito Ueda’s auteuristic skill that he’s developed such a distinctive vision with only two prior releases under his belt.
Although his three games have no direct connection, they could share the same universe, for all I know. Each is set in a thinly-populated world that seems to be gasping its last breath, with once-majestic architecture turned grey and crumbling. Each is full of dark magic and strange machinery, and Ueda takes clear delight in raising questions with no definitive answers. It’s that aura of mystery that makes his work so haunting — there’s something scary about what we don’t understand.
The most defining characteristic of Ueda’s work, however, is the theme of companionship in desperate, uncertain times. All three of his games force players to develop bonds that transcend spoken language – first with a princess, then with a horse, and now with a massive griffon-like creature named Trico.
The Last Guardian presents one of the most organic and believable AI companions I’ve ever seen, and the ensuing adventure plays not like an escort mission, but a struggle in which each character needs the other. Their relationship is strengthened through actions rather than words. It’s true interactive storytelling and peak Ueda. The Last Guardian also possesses some of the less desirable qualities of Ueda’s work – clumsy controls and unstable performance – but it’s worth soldiering through them to experience what may be the director’s most emotionally stirring narrative yet.
The player character is an unnamed boy that awakens in a dungeon next to an enormous feathered creature called Trico. Though the beast is initially hostile, the boy soon tames and unchains it, and the two work together to escape the fortress in which they’ve been imprisoned.
The setup is unmistakably similar to that of Ico, but there’s one key difference – role reversal. This time, it’s the player that the glowy-eyed monsters want to drag away, and it’s up to the companion to fend them off. Although the boy is occasionally forced to outmaneuver the fortress’s sentinels on his own, his primary job in combat is to hang back, pull the spears from Trico’s hide, and give him a calming pat after every battle won. While I have great fondness for Ico there’s little debate that combat was its weakest element, so for The Last Guardian to essentially remove it altogether is smart — rarely are players forced into situations that require sharp reflexes.
While it’s annoying that aiming controls can’t be inverted, that the analog sticks don’t seem to register any middle ground between tiptoeing and running full speed, or that the framerate tanks hard during hectic sequences, none of these issues break The Last Guardian the way they would other games. They’re annoyances, and big ones, but that’s all that they are. I was rarely frustrated in a true sense because I was approaching every obstacle at the slow, methodical pace afforded by a game inherently about exploration and discovery… and there is so much to discover.
The fortress itself is wondrously intricate in design, full of ancient contraptions and perilous heights — stuff Ico fans are well familiar with. As players scale the castle’s towers, they can look down and see the places they’ve previously been, and how this world fits together. It’s a sense of geography and scale that strongly mirrors Ueda’s first directorial work.
Then there’s Trico himself, a fascinating creature and an animation triumph. The adventure’s early moments are spent teaching players the various quirks of his personality that will become important later, like his appetite for a strange glowing substance or his fear of a certain eye-shaped symbol. Eventually, players are able to issue commands as the two work in tandem – the boy squeezing into smaller spaces and doing the brainwork while Trico, a skilled jumper, handles traversal.
I must confess to some bias here, because Trico is essentially a massive dog, and there are few things in the world that I love more than dogs. I’ve had six of them in my immediate family alone, and Trico’s basic behavior – his stubbornness, strange fascinations and unyielding loyalty – are pitch-perfect recreations of my real-world interactions with these animals. This is a beautifully conceived character, and for the most part, I loved working with him.
That said, as The Last Guardian presses on and Trico handles more and more of the legwork, his inability to reliably follow commands becomes a nuisance. I had more tolerance for this than many might – I just find Trico too damn endearing to get angry with him – but the unresponsive command system is an undeniable flaw. Combined with the imprecise movement controls, jerky camera and often horrendous framerate, later portions of The Last Guardian never quite hit the majesty they strive for, even as the game soars to great heights, quite literally.
Despite its roughness, The Last Guardian is absolutely worth experiencing for the beautiful relationship at its heart, and for the flawless manner in which the adventure closes. Ueda’s ability to develop smoothly-running games may remain in question, but his expertise in crafting ravaging narratives and developing deep bonds with minimal dialogue remains nearly unmatched. He’s one of gaming’s premier storytellers, and of the three experiences he’s created, this may be my favorite yet.
Disclosures: This game is developed by SIE Japan Studio and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It is currently available on PlayStation 4. This copy of the game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PlayStation 4. Approximately 13 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains Blood and Fantasy Violence. There are some scattered instances of Trico (the beast) being injured and his coat getting bloodied, but the bulk of the action involves sentient suits of armor being smashed up. There is no profanity, sex, or nudity.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled, but the game’s lack of a HUD means that important info is gleaned through in-game audiovisual cues. Not being able to hear sounds or shifts in music would likely make the game difficult to follow in spots.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.