Video games as an art form has often been debated since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System. The conversations always go back and forth, with no real resolution ever being reached. As we get deeper into life and gaming as a medium continues to grow and evolve, even those that claim it isn’t an art form have to see the lines getting blurred. More recently, games like Journey and Abzu have done a fantastic job at showing us why games are so important. But there has always been one developer that has been striving for emotional storytelling and artful styles since the PlayStation 2 generation. I’m talking about Fumito Ueda and Team ICO/genDESIGN. Having released both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus to a fan base that was hungry for more, The Last Guardian has been almost ten years in the making. You’ve read all the early reviews that were put out when the game launched. You’ve heard the praise and criticism the game has received. Now that it’s been about two months, and I’ve removed myself from the early impressions and thoughts on the game, I can honestly tell you that The Last Guardian is a beautiful adventure worthy of the investment, even if it has a few glaring problems. Read on for our full review.
Title: The Last Guardian
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: genDESIGN / SIE Japan Studio
Available On: PlayStation 4
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 Pro
Release Date: December 6, 2016
Copy Purchased for the sake of this review
The Last Guardian is by far a product of the era in which it was conceived. It has remnants baked in that are seemingly pulled straight from the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 years of development. With all that still being true and being one of the main complaints directed toward Sony and genDESIGN, it’s still an experience that fans should want to see through to the end. Storytelling, character development, exploration, game design… all points where The Last Guardian shines through, and shines through well.
The controls are seemingly what holds the game back from being a perfect ten in my opinion. Controlling the main character isn’t overly difficult (even if the control scheme is insanely weird, like having Triangle be the jump button), but there will be times when you find yourself hanging your head in frustration because you’re just trying to climb up a ledge or jump onto a chain, but the boy keeps missing thanks to the controls. It didn’t take me long to get used to moving around the environment and working with Trico in order to accomplish goals.
I went in expecting it to be a lot more annoying giving commands to your giant friend as many critics complained about it during the initial review period. However, it really wasn’t a chore at all except for one particular spot in the story (DIVE TRICO! DIVE!) where I struggled to progress because he just wasn’t doing what the game needed him to do for us to move on. But, once you learn about the ability to direct and guide Trico from one point to another, and to tell him to jump, I rarely had any issues with him listening to me.
The story that unfolds from the start of the game until after the credits roll is emotionally riveting and beautiful beyond words. The connection that you’ll make as the main character to Trico is heartwarming, to say the least. Watching him stick his head through openings in the wall as the boy squeezed through a gate, and then looking on sad as he wonders if you’re leaving him for good, Ueda definitely knows how to tug on the heartstrings. The teamwork that begins to unfold in the later portions of the story, and how the duo is able to overcome obstacles like the falling bridge was great game design. I just wish there had been more set piece moments like that entire scenario.
To my surprise, there were a few cutscenes that occurred in the middle of the story and at the end which helped to fully understand what was going on, and why exactly you were there. The Last Guardian certainly doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to guiding you through the narrative, though. A majority of the story and plot development is played through rather than told to you, and a good chunk of it is left entirely up to interpretation and your own personal judgement and beliefs. The biggest developments that occur though are certainly shown to players via the in-game cutscenes mentioned above.
The music and score that accompanies certain enemy battles and the bigger portions of the game are extremely well done, and I wish the musical pieces could have lasted longer. The song that plays during the end scenes in particular is superb. Other than that, you’ll be hearing a lot of nature sounds and the chatter between boy and beast as you search for a way out of the area you have found yourself in.
Playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro (with Boost mode on for the latter half thanks to the Firmware 4.50 Beta) the graphics definitely didn’t appear as bad as people initially made them out to be. The way the grass, trees, and vines blow in the wind was a sight to see, and I often had to stop and take the sights in as the game was putting out a graphical fidelity that I was not expecting. It is not the prettiest game on the market for current generation hardware, but it certainly is not the worst. Not by a long shot.
The character model for Trico is also another one of the high points of the game. Having three dogs and two cats of my own, I found myself falling in love with the gentle giant throughout the entirety of the story. You can read so much into how he is feeling or what he is thinking solely off of facial expressions alone. His feathers also have a lot of detail to them, blowing in the wind and getting messed up when he’s attacked by the statue enemies and hit with spears. The boy can smooth out Trico’s feathers and heal his wounds quicker by simply petting him in the wounded areas, which was a nice touch.
The Last Guardian, when it comes to actual gameplay, is more or less all about exploration, figuring out where to go next and how to do it, and completing puzzle after puzzle in order to do so. If you get stuck long enough in a certain area, the narration will attempt to point you in the right direction by giving subtle hints and clues as to what you should be doing. It all works really well, and I never found myself stuck on a puzzle or in one particular area for too long before I figured things out.
With all sincerity, I hope that Fumito Ueda and genDESIGN are given another opportunity to make a game within the boundaries of Sony Worldwide Studios, and that is doesn’t enter development hell for the better part of a decade. The team has clearly shown that they are still talented and have what it takes to produce emotionally enthralling games and experiences worth playing through. The Last Guardian is not perfect. It doesn’t have to be perfect to leave a lasting impression on the player like it does. But it is close.