A review of The Last Guardian feels utterly superfluous.
Since its unveiling at E3 nearly seven years ago, Sony’s tale of a boy and his Gryphon has slipped on and off the radar so many times that at one point, the general consensus among critics and players was that it had become vaporware. When it reappeared at Sony’s E3 keynote a year ago, the crowd in attendance went berserk, and when Sony announced its release date this year, the Sony faithful went apoplectic.
So it follows that any player interested in The Last Guardian isn’t about to let a review sway them either way. Those uninterested in it, well… it’s unlikely they’ll care. This is fitting since The Last Guardian is likely to delight as many players as it frustrates. It’s also not beyond the realm of possibility it’ll continue to be a divisive talking point among videogame fans long after its release.
There’s only one thing one can say with any certainty about Fumito Ueda’s latest creation: The Last Guardian is the stand out game of 2016.
The Last Guardian Review: Blast from the past
That isn’t to say it’s the best or most enjoyable game of this year, mind you. It’s to say that whether one rejects or enjoys The Last Guardian, it’s impossible to think of any other gaming experience quite like it.
To be honest, The Last Guardian feels like a game that was parachuted in to 2017 from two console generations ago. While its sumptuous visuals mark it out as a title that was at least intended for the PS3, its mechanics and in-game experience feel like a PS2 release; for the most part they’re familiar but they contain eccentricities that can become very frustrating very quickly.
The Last Guardian Review: Old School mechanics
Aside from the odd picture highlighting thumbsticks and buttons on the control pad, The Last Guardian has neither a tutorial nor does it offer the player any hints; they simply take control of the game’s young protagonist and begin their journey with a wounded Gryphon with the vaguest of goals presented to them – try and find a way home.
Controls feel unresponsive at times; players will lose count of the instances in which they leap towards a ledge or try to clamber up the boy’s feathered companion, only to see him plummet earthward.
The protagonist’s animation feels clunky at times; while the Gryphon slinks along passages, vaults over gates and mounts crumbling pillars looking every bit the picture of grace, his diminutive carer wildly lurches and flails in different directions, which makes timing jumps something of a craps shoot for the player.
The fact that the jump function is mapped to the triangle button while the X button – you know, the input for jumping in every platform game in existence these days – causes the young lad to drop down from any ledge he’s standing, on only adds to the frustration. And while its hard not to develop some rather tender feelings for the boy’s Gryphon, its reliability as a roaming platform leaves a lot to be desired.
The Last Guardian Review: A boy and his Gryphon
The developers have gone to great lengths to make the Gryphon feel like a living. breathing animal and they’ve succeeded brilliantly. In fact, they’ve probably succeeded too well.
It’s said that in the acting profession, three of the hardest types of cast members work with – prima donnas and eccentrics notwithstanding – are babies, toddlers and animals. The first two are completely unpredictable as acting partners and the third, well, no matter how well trained they are, there’s always the chance they can derail every other take with erratic behaviour.
The Gryphon in The Last Guardian falls foul of this last aspect on numerous occasions in that it doesn’t always behave in a way that is helpful to the player. Rather than aid in scouting out the way forward or offer a hint about progression by, say, looking in a certain direction, the game’s Gryphon is likely to be more content with sitting on its haunches and scratching its ear.
Even when the game notifies the player through a voiceover that the young boy can point the Gryphon in direction they want by using the right shoulder button and the left thumbstick, the creature is slow to respond. This is aggravating enough when the path the two have to take is pretty straightforward. When the puzzles become more complex and failing one requires the player to start again, things become downright enraging. Oh, and players can’t save their progress with a puzzle mid-way; checkpoints are unforgiving in this game.
The Last Guardian Review: A beautiful world
So it’s safe to say that The Last Guardian requires a great deal of patience to play. This is a trait players will also need if they care about being able to see what’s going on half the time as this game boasts possibly the worst in-game camera this side of Ninja Gaiden II.
There’s a lot that could conceivably put players who aren’t willing to deal with The Last Guardian’s eccentricities right off the game entirely. But those who can persist with these peccadilloes – or indeed feel a warm sense of nostalgia as they experience them – won’t just enjoy this game, they’ll likely fall in love with it.
Anyone who has ever played a Team Ico game will know that it has very few equals in the world-building and storytelling departments.
It doesn’t take long for The Last Guardian’s beautiful world to suck players in. As the game’s two unlikely companions wander through torch-lit caverns, windswept cliffs and sun-dappled meadows, the visuals weave a seductive spell, obliterating any trace of the outside world. The world feels both young and ancient at the same time – like its two protagonists; the mythical creature and the young’s boy’s toga attire speak of an age of magic long since past, but the ruined temples the pair traverse are evidence of a grand civilisation from centuries ago.
As the two pick their way across the mountainous terrain, facing myriad challenges and enemies, the bond between them grows, becoming more palpable with each danger they face.
Voiceover work is sparse and the game’s narrative is never spoon-fed to the player; rather, much like the Dark Souls games, The Last Guardian allows the spell-binding world it inhabits to play as much a part in unfolding its story as the two characters at the centre of it.
Players who claim their throat doesn’t ball up at any point are either lying or have hearts made of stone. For a lot of players, the tale The Last Guardian tells is magical enough to allow them to overlook the drawbacks in how it plays as a game.
The Last Guardian: Verdict
Each individual players will have to decide if they fall into this camp. For every person the game seduces, there’ll be another it deflects. There’s a lot to overcome here – especially for players who never owned a PS2 or for whom The Last Guardian is their introduction to Team Ico. It certainly isn’t entertainment for twitch-shooter fans or those used to straightforward fare.
That having been said, The Last Guardian feels comfortingly old school. It’s a game that harkens back to a time when artistic vision and a desire to push the boundaries of the the medium were as much a part of the development process as making money.
Unlike so many games released this year, The Last Guardian doesn’t feel like a franchise entry – and due to its unique nature, it never could be. This a story for a single player to experience and once it’s over, it’s over – just as games used to be.
- The Last Guardian was reviewed on a PS4. A retail copy was provided by the publisher.