“The Last Guardian” is real. For millions of gamers, that alone is a stunning development.
It took famed director Fumito Ueda and a revolving team of programmers eight long, tumultuous years to build this mythical beast of a video game, and from its first public showing in 2009, we’ve been spiritually building it with him. You can’t blame us for wishing it to succeed. Ueda is responsible for the PlayStation 2 greats “Ico” and “Shadow of the Colossus,” two of the most beloved games ever made.
When a developer of that stature announces an artsy game featuring a dragon-ferret with feathers, wings and puppy-dog eyes, nerds like me freak out. Hell, everyone with a Sony console and a pulse freaks out.
And then we kept freaking out, because “The Last Guardian” vanished. Sony refused to discuss it. The PS3 was replaced by the PS4. Word on the street was that it was cancelled (thanks, IGN!) or delayed indefinitely or just lost to the march of time and technology. Prior to a phoenix-like re-appearance atSony’s epic E3 2015 press conference, most of us figured “The Last Guardian” would never see the light of day.
Now that it’s finally here — seriously, it’s available in stores and everything — the question becomes: was it worth the wait? The answer is a resounding “yes” with about a thousand asterisks.
“The Last Guardian” is, unequivocally, the most polarizing video game I have ever played. I’m not referring to the wide range of critical ratings; I mean I was polarized while playing it. One moment, I was staring at a groundbreaking, startlingly beautiful work of art, a masterful musing on companionship by one of the medium’s few true visionaries.
Fifteen minutes later, I was angrily chucking my controller into orbit while stringing together a series of curses so foul they’d make George Carlin blush. It delivers the most impressive artificial creature I have ever met, but makes the simple act of jumping on its stupid back a mechanical nightmare.
Amazing and infuriating. This is “The Last Guardian.”
Like Ueda’s previous work, the setup is intentionally vague. You play a nameless boy who inexplicably awakens in a dank cave next to Trico, a giant feathered beast chained to the floor. Over the next 12 hours or so, the two of you will attempt to escape a baffling, crumbling fortress by solving puzzles, scurrying up ledges and, most importantly, forging a deep emotional bond.
Though you control the boy, Trico is the real star here, and what a star he is. A billion animations convey real-life nuances that breathe life into the beast: absently pawing at the ground, sniffing the air, shoulders hunched, ears perking up, head jerking to the side as he intently watches a flock of birds soar overhead. He whines when you leave his side and cowers in fear at frightful imagery. In the middle of a puzzle he might stop to scratch behind his ear like a feathery Clifford. Experience a traumatic moment and he bends his head low, nudging you affectionately. He is solid, weighty and so incredibly well-realized I completely forgot he was just a bunch of ones and zeroes.
Over time, Trico evolves from a fearsome, distrustful beast into an invaluable ally. Your relationship is symbiotic: you will crawl through cracks to open gates, he will pounce on mysterious guards that attempt to kidnap you. When Trico takes a spear to his side, you painstakingly pull it out. Combined with minimalist storytelling — a handful of brilliantly directed cutscenes fill in the backstory and a voiceover offers context (and, occasionally, some hints) — the reciprocal back scratching helps establish the same sort of mutual love and dependence pet owners feel for their companions. It’s powerful, personal stuff.
And just like a pet, you can eventually give Trico basic commands that mirror your own abilities: jump, interact and move in a particular direction. You can also call him to your side, as most of the puzzley dirty work needs to be done on your own while he waits behind a locked gate. Trico pulls double-duty as a movable ladder, too, standing on his hind legs so you can reach inaccessible ledges and even leaping across huge gaps to carry you ever onward. You spend a great deal of time climbing all over him; coupled with the focus on companionship and puzzle solving, this makes “The Last Guardian” feel very much like a cross between “Ico” and “Shadow.” In other words, it’s exactly what most of us were hoping for.
Out of control
Unfortunately, no one was hoping for these controls.
Your character has a contentious relationship with the game’s camera, turning simple directions – climb towards Trico’s head, for instance – into a battle of wills. You press ‘up,’ but since the boy is, say, clinging upside down to Trico’s belly, you instead climb ‘down’ towards his tail. You correct it, and slowly make your way to his neck, but then Trico gives a shake and you’re no longer facing the right way. Which way is up? “The Last Guardian” can’t settle on an answer, constantly turning what should be a straightforward act – getting to a certain spot on Trico’s large frame – into an unnecessary slog.
The controls are so imprecise, simply navigating the world is an exercise in frustration. The ‘drop’ button doesn’t always work correctly as the boy will inexplicably grab on to Trico’s feathers when you’re just trying to dismount. You can attempt to jump off, but often you’ll just jump in place. For a game all about navigating a precarious environment, the wildly loose control and disconnect between your inputs and what the boy/Trico actually does is a gap even a huge dragon-ferret can’t cross.
It gets even worse when you’re in one of the game’s many small interior spaces. The camera can’t handle Trico’s large frame in a confined space, so you often wind up with a frame full of feathers. You spend a great deal of time navigating corridors, and in turn, a great deal of time fruitlessly swinging the camera around.
That all pales next to the game’s biggest sore spot: training Trico. Issuing commands feels like a total crapshoot. You see clearly that he needs to lift you up to a ledge so you can unlock a gate, but no matter how many times you hammer on ‘jump’ and/or ‘move forward’, the big galoot just sort of sits there sniffing at thin air, or worse, turns around to wander back down the hallway you just passed through.
This delayed response isn’t just annoying, it transforms routine puzzles into controller-flinging mysteries. There’s the part where you’re stuck in a pool of water with a box; the part where you’re stuck in a tree; the part where you’re stuck in an arena. There are lots of “parts where you are stuck” in “The Last Guardian,” and most of them are solved when Trico finally decides to do whatever the hell it was you were begging him to do with a million button presses.
Is Ueda making a statement about man’s futile attempt to control nature? Is Trico just being a stubborn virtual animal? Is the programming kinda crappy? Whatever the case, asking Trico to do something and watching him ignore you may be realistic, I guess, but it’s also enraging when you know exactly what to do but have to wait for Trico to randomly agree to help out. The game struggles to catch up to your puzzle-solving skills. I can’t imagine this is by design.
Best friends forever
Here’s the thing: “The Last Guardian” is still worth it.
It’s hard to quantify exactly why this game, despite its disastrous mechanical flaws, soars so high. The astounding visuals help — the boy’s fluid animation reminds me of Ralph Bakshi’s pioneering rotoscoping work — but in a year overflowing with blazing fast shooters and colorful adventures, “The Last Guardian’s” formidable technical prowess isn’t its selling point.
It’s all about heart, I suppose; specifically, the way Trico burrows into yours. Its mysterious world, artful narrative and moving character work is the reason we play games. It’s depressing that its singular vision is hampered by the most basic video game building block — the ability to control your experience — but beneath its finicky handling and aggravating programming lies the same magical hoodoo you find in great Pixar films. It’s fitting, really, that a game this difficult to birth would be equally difficult to enjoy. But if you take the time to love it, it will love you right back.
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