Beauty, the Beast, and Boredom
Many people claim that you can’t tame a cat, but that’s not true. As a certified crazy cat lady, I’ve been able to train several cats to perform simple actions like sitting and staying or getting off a surface on command. They obey… usually. As much as I’m proud of my adorable furry friends, however, I wouldn’t want to count on their obedience if I were stuck in an ancient ruin with them and they were about twenty times my size. That is the wrong kind of cat-herding, but it’s exactly what you’re charged with in The Last Guardian.
You’re a little boy who wakes up in a cave-like prison. A huge, man-eating beast is chained next to you and you discover that you’ve got weird runes etched all over your skin. Your mission is to tame the beast, solve platforming puzzles in order to get out of your prison, and discover what in the world is going on. It’s not easy when you’re small, clumsy, and probably tasty-looking, but what are you going to do?
The beast, Trico, is definitely the star of the show. It’s a bizarre amalgamation of various animals that is rendered in stunningly beautiful detail. Its feathers fluff and ripple with its movements, and its eyes tell you all you need to know about its current mood. You earn its trust – a bit too quickly – by feeding it with barrels of magical blue goo that both sustain it and help it grow. As the two of you look for a way out of your ruined castle/prison, your relationship builds and you’re able to convince Trico to do more and more things for you, though the beast will never fully be under your control and can even be dangerous to you at times. It’s a wonderful concept that is definitely the highlight of the game.
As we’ve come to expect from Team Ico, the atmosphere in The Last Guardian is stark but lovely. It can be breathtaking during the segments that take place in nature, but I found the interior spaces to be too sparse and uninspiring much of the time. The ruins feel a bit like a Dark Souls castle without the constant threat of death – all brown and gray and a bit monotonous.
Equally sparse is the sound design. The game is largely music-free, so sound effects are your only companion, establishing mood and providing hints about Trico’s mood and whether you’re on the right track to your next objective (via an out-of-place beep that feels like it might have been a last-minute addition).
It’s in getting to that next objective where the gap between The Last Guardian’s concept and its execution starts to open. You’re playing a small boy, and the idea is that you move like one, too. The boy doesn’t climb so much as clamber, and doesn’t jump so much as fling himself in a general direction. The controls in general are meant to replicate that feeling of being a mostly-helpless small human with coordination issues, so they’re sluggish and imprecise. There’s almost no HUD, with contextual cues popping up very sparingly as you traverse the ruins, leaving you to stumble about looking for the single way out of your current area and onto the next one.
It doesn’t help that the camera has issues with the game’s setup. You’re often trapped in close quarters with a huge beast, causing the camera to stick nothing but brickwork or a mass of feathers on the screen. Where are you in all this? It has swung about so wildly that you won’t know.
It’s the combination of the control scheme, the frequently-misbehaving camera, and the game’s setup that make it all very difficult to enjoy. With no map and no good way to tell where to go next in the nonsensical pile of architecture in which you’re trapped, you’re reliant on your companion and your own ability to pixel hunt in order to make it through the game. Sometimes Trico is quite helpful, while at other times the creature acts as a red herring, lingering in a spot that is completely useless to you. With the wonky controls, it can be very difficult to tell if your execution is off or if you’re just in the wrong place.
These moments are frustrating, but not in the way of puzzle games in which the frustration is worth it when you have a breakthrough and feel clever. I hesitate to call most of the obstacles in the games puzzles at all. They’re just areas with light platforming challenges and hidden corridors, so gameplay wavers between feeling like an absolute breeze and becoming stuck until you convince the beast to help you find the path or manage to spot the teensy hole that you can crawl through to get to an all-important lever. There’s not a lot of satisfaction, just a vague sense of relief upon becoming un-stuck.
My patience started wearing thin when The Last Guardian committed one of the cardinal sins of gaming: the exact same puzzle twice in a row, only with more enemies the second time around. It wasn’t even particularly far into the game, but weariness began setting in, and wasn’t alleviated by further segments full of guesswork and the growing sense that my controller and I were in the midst of a particularly painful breakup. It’s especially bad when the boy is grabbed by a foe, because you’re prompted to mash all the buttons and triggers at once to simulate him kicking his arms and legs wildly in order to escape. While once again I get the concept, it’s not an entertaining activity, and it’s rather disrespectful to both one’s hands and the future health of the controller.
It’s all enough to make me ponder some existential video game questions. Certainly all games are art, but should all art be a game? The Last Guardian feels like it could have worked better as a series of short videos telling the story of the boy and beast’s growing relationship as they work to escape and solve the game’s central mystery. Certainly, the developers had an experiential portion of this story planned out, with the floppy controls and the push-and-pull relationship with Trico that they created. However, the weak execution of these elements led me to wish I could have simply watched the cool parts of the game (the relationship and mystery) instead.
I found it interesting that after this title’s Odyssean development cycle, the biggest problems I had were with its essential gameplay design, something that I imagine has been present for quite some time. Some players will doubtlessly get lost in its atmosphere and meditative pace, finding the subtle differences in the boy’s unfolding relationship with Trico to be the important part of the journey. For me, that simply wasn’t enough. There is artistry behind The Last Guardian ‘s concept, but in stumbles in execution, creating a journey that is far less fascinating than the relationship that lies at its story’s core.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Trico is a true work of art, as are the trees and water, but interiors are frequently dull and uninspiring. 2.0 Control
The controls may be purposefully slow and imprecise, but that makes them no less irritating – to say nothing of the terrible camera. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The whooshing of the wind and the roaring of the beast are some of the few sounds you’ll hear. 2.5 Play Value
Playing through the first time is enough of a chore; I can see no reason to go back to it once you’ve watched the story unfold. 3.0 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best