At long last I have played Fumito Ueda’s follow-up to “Ico” and “Shadow of the Colossus”. After nearly a decade of delays and development changes, “The Last Guardian” finally tangibly exists. This artful journey continues in the footsteps of its predecessors, telling a simple but amazingly-effective story with a beautiful, unique aesthetic and a masterful grasp of the artistic storytelling medium of video games.
The games developed by Fumito Ueda and his team at Sony Japan (sometimes referred to as “Team Ico”), have always produced games that I consider to be perfectly-realized particular visions. These interactive pieces of art always stood out next to other games. Their stories were emotional, yet were told with simplicity and expressed through the interactivity of the gameplay itself. Their visual design is minimalist, yet engrossing and striking. They employ a method to audio, visuals and play called “subtracting design”, removing anything extraneous that doesn’t serve the core experience. As a result, you have a concentrated experience that retains its own creative imprint, but allows you to be better immersed in this other world.
“The Last Guardian” follows in this tradition, applying this same design philosophy to a journey that is sometimes reminiscent of “Ico” in its design and AI-assisted gameplay, but also carries a scale and grandeur like that of “Shadow of the Colossus”. While collecting these attributes from its predecessors however, it also establishes a fresh new world that gave me an experience unlike any other I’ve had. I was genuinely caught off guard by how invested I became in the story, and how the style and gameplay captured me emotionally. Despite certain minor technical flaws, I don’t hesitate to call “The Last Guardian” a masterpiece. A shining, artful, awe-inspiring masterclass in technical development, compelling design and personal vision that almost didn’t end up existing.
This review is spoiler-free, but I will touch on the vaguest of plot details. Basically, you play as a young boy who must work together with a giant mythical beast to escape a strange, secluded valley of caves and stone-carved strongholds that give way to cliffs and spires that reach up to the sky. The game environment has the Ueda signature design elements of being fantasy-based, feeling somewhat barren but also lived-in, and filled with character and mystique. You get the sense that this place has a peculiar history that, by the end of the game, you start to get a broad picture of what that history might have been. The world builds upward and more precarious as you go on, and it has an amazing sense of verticality as you progress with your beastly companion.
Speaking of which, I’d like to talk about Trico. There are heaps of reasons why I hold this game is such high esteem, but the AI-companion for the duration of the story might be at the top. Trico defines the experience, and the entire game is either made or broken upon its shoulders. If the fidelity, animation, AI systems or any other major component fails or isn’t properly integrated with the rest of the game, the entire package begins to unravel. It’s because of this that I’m so thankful that Trico is a triumph of game design; an amazing, living, empathetic and complex creation.
Trico is a wonder and makes the game so special not only because of the fluidity and personality that the developers have infused it with, but because of how carefully integrated he/she is with the game experience. Interacting with Trico is very different from controlling animals in many other games I’ve played. The creature isn’t a tool or accessory along your journey like Agro, Epona, or one of the many steeds from “Red Dead Redemption”. Not to diminish any of the quality or dimension those other digital animals have, but Trico has a deliberate wealth of independence and mindfulness. Whenever I looked at Trico, it felt like I was being looked back at and thought about by it. They created an intelligent, quirky digital being; a patchwork of art, animation and AI systems that were put together so well that I couldn’t see the seams.
Working together with Trico is intended as a learning process that requires a certain amount of patience. That’s not to say that effectively playing the game means whittling away hours doing menial tasks or learning intricate systems like something more RPG or simulation-based. Learning to work with Trico is a process that the game guides you through at its own pace. Between rushes of drama and action, the game will slow and I found my own personal rate of desired progression matching the pace of the game, as I was glad to enjoy the scenery, explore a bit, and freely interact with Trico.
This is one of the main reasons why that core game dynamic never became frustrating for me. I have heard complaints from other players online about working with Trico, and I believe much of that frustration can be boiled down to that pacing factor I mentioned. If someone plays against the game’s structure or style by intending to rush through, I could see one becoming frustrated. But progressing through in a mindful way, I found small quirks, I picked up on subtle clues from the game’s voice-over narration, and I believe my experience was fundamentally enriched this way. Not only from a mechanic perspective, but the process of working with Trico emotionally binds you in. The fact that I had gotten so invested through the game’s progression meant that I was genuinely affected by the game’s story in some deep and surprising ways.
This game takes a small divergence from Team Ico’s previous works in that the story is told partially through a sparse voice-over, told as a memory of the game’s protagonist looking back on this journey. I was slightly put-off by this at first, as I always admired how these games told a story through almost no dialogue, but mostly through action and details in the world. It seems at first like this was unnecessary, as the clues for how to proceed were present in the environment itself. But as the game goes on, the voice-over becomes a natural part of progression, and does actually become more imperative later in the game when additional hints are needed about how to interact with Trico and how to continue on through a difficult area.
On the topic of sound, I’ll also mention the fantastic score of the game, which matches its visuals perfectly. “Ico” had a simple, isolated, at times eerie and folk-like soundtrack. “Shadow of the Colossus” had music that was dynamic and grandiose. “The Last Guardian” has a score that reflects the soaring adventure, tense conflict and tender partnership of the game’s story. Another definitive dimension to the game’s brilliant odyssey.
Upon finishing, be sure to not shut the game off when you reach the credits! There is a brief denouement, an epilogue that, much like “Ico” makes the ending complete and perfect in my opinion.
As far negatives of the game go, this really only falls to some minor technical issues. The camera is my biggest negative of the game, as it will sometimes become stuck in an inconvenient position. You move the camera independently and at times when you’re in a smaller indoor environment, the camera can be a notable, if fleeting frustration. The problem could have been much worse if it weren’t for the dedicated camera lock-on button for looking at Trico, which is a saving grace of the camera situation.
Also the platforming controls can be occasionally wonky. This game has a control scheme that is clearly different from modern platformers, and can even seem antiquated to some. But it’s important to note that every game in this series always existed in their own worlds that ignored mainstream gaming trends. I have no issue with this game having its own unique control scheme, but apart from that there were minor, infrequent instances of unnecessary difficulty in traversal.
The only other negative in my experience was the framerate. Not a major issue, but one that would occasionally crop up when there’d be a lot going on at once in addition to Trico (who’s a quite intensive beast to power on its own). There was one sequence close to the end involving Trico, the boy and lot of the game’s antagonistic sentries that affected the framerate in a dramatic way. As of launch, the PS4 Pro could run this game at a solid 30 fps in 1080p while the standard PS4 renders in 1080p but at a framerate that varies. There have since been patches to improve performance though, which I expect will continue in the coming months.
There are technical issues present, but the weight of those issues are far less for me than the weight of the story, emotion, gameplay and atmosphere of the game. “The Last Guardian” is an aspirational work for new storytellers. As much as I adore series’ like Metal Gear and Uncharted with their deeper story and thoughtful exposition, I greatly appreciate this game’s minimalist design and openness that allows players’ perception to color their own experiences. It’s a true example of telling a story through the act of interactive gameplay, and thus is an experience that can only exist in a video game. The game’s natural pace and process invested my emotions, and I became immersed in the experience in a way that used to happen more often when I was younger, but doesn’t occur as much anymore. I cared deeply for the characters, I endeavored desperately to survive and help Trico as best I could, and my heart ached and soared for the trials and triumphs these characters went through. I didn’t think “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” would be topped but, in my book, “The Last Guardian” is 2016’s best game.
Fumito Ueda’s decade-long endeavor culminates in a stunning and emotionally-arresting tale that ties perfectly into its compelling and lived-in world, told through the intertwined fates of the player and an incredible feat of technical design called Trico. An artful vision that could’ve only been fulfilled in a video game.
+ A true example for visual design and interactive art
+ Core puzzle-platforming gameplay that is unique and investing
+ A captivating tale told carefully through gradual exposition
+ Intriguing and developed environment to traverse
+ Trico is far more than the sum-of-its-parts, a marvel of programming and animation
+ Memorable and beautiful score
– Camera & controls are minor issues at times
– Infrequent performance lags if playing on original PS4
Seth Zielinski is the resident PlayStation brand evangelist at The Geekiverse, still keeping his original PS1 on display by his PSVR headset. He’s also a sucker for linear emotional tales told exclusively on PlayStation systems. Follow his endeavors on Twitter @CapAmericanski.
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