Turns Out I Needed The Last Guardian Very Much

Two-and-a-half years ago, after years of frustrating silence about development, I wondered if I still needed The Last Guardian in my life. Now that I’ve finished the long-awaited PlayStation game, I have the answer: It was worth the wait.

Advertisement

Released last week, The Last Guardian puts players in charge of a young boy who slowly befriends a magical hybrid creature named Trico after they wake up in captivity together. The loading montage of woodcut drawings of real and fantastical beasts signals that The Last Guardian wants to be a digital fable, like the other games created by designer Fumito Ueda, who se previous titles—Ico and Shadow of the Colossus—focused on relationships, interactively simulating what it’s like to depend on another being throughout life’s journeys.

The trappings go a long way to making the game feel fantastical. The boy and Trico gambol and panic through a sprawling, crumbling fortress compound embedded in a beautifully lit pastoral worldscape. Trico’s feathers look both avian and furry and he seems like a mash-up of goat, cat, dog, moose, bird, platypus and dragon. His whimpers and coos never failed to elicit pangs of emotion from me. I kept saying “who’s my good Big Little Boy?” to him as I played through the game.

Advertisement

At first, The Last Guardian feels like the stuff fairy tales are made of—a boy lost in a strange land, far away from home, who bonds with a wondrous animal—but it feels more like a myth to me than a fable. Ancient myths were stories that people used to explain things they didn’t have the means to understand. Lightning became spears thrown from mountaintops. Spiderwebs’ beauty as the work of a cursed weaver. Most of the playtime in Last Guardian has you spending time with and contemplating a thing you can’t understand but must rely on to survive.

It’s one thing to know that Trico is an assemblage of artificial intelligence code, visual art, and sound design. It’s entirely another thing to ponder how all those disciplines come together make the griffin feel like a gigantic pet. Trico genuinely seems like an actual animal, in that it seems to operate on its own hierarchy of needs and wants. Insights into how Trico might feel only get but so far: it doesn’t move when it needs food and won’t go too close to objects that scare it. The game asks players to direct Trico along the environment of the lost valley they’re trying to escape, with commands for it to run, jump and squeeze himself onto ledges, precipices, and tight niches. The commands are indistinct and Trico doesn’t always listen. It can seem distracted.

Mechanically speaking, The Last Guardian can feel clunky. The framerate stutters and some of the collision detection is occasionally incapable of keeping weird glitches at bay. Those flaws create a sense of murkiness as to whether Trico’s occasional dunderheadedness is a goal of the game’s design.

Advertisement

The environmental puzzle design can feel repetitive, too, but I’m choosing to interpret that and some other frustration-centric aspects of the game as intentional, because Ueda seems to want players to journey into the fantastic so that they can learn to make sense of a thing that defies belief. Other parts of the game’s narrative bring up the question of nature vs. nurture and how the behaviors trained into a living thing differ from those that arise from following more primal needs of survival. Overall, the main challenge in The Last Guardian is learning to read the wordless language of cues and behavior tics. Trico is unfocused and seemingly petulant at times but it will subtly position itself that hints at where to go next.

Sometimes I’d only figure out where to go next by looking at an area that held Trico’s attention, thinking, “is that why he was bellowing?” The PS4 release comes across as a game about decoding how the symbols of an opaque phenomenon interoperate. I had to figure out when Trico wants to be fed, coaxed or petted. When Trico listened and went where I wanted, I felt triumphant. When it smashed the stone soldiers trying to abduct the boy, I felt relieved and protected.

Advertisement

Video games that orbit around fantasy concepts are a dime a dozen but so many of those games rarely feel fantastical. The enchanted armor, eldritch swords, and spell-casting characters so common to D&D/Tolkien-descended video games feel rote. They’re just things to get, upgrade or conquer. The near-ubiquity leaves an entire genre practically bereft of the wonder that fantasy genre work is supposed to incite. The Last Guardian goes a long way to capturing that feeling by stripping things bare. It’s a game about listening, communicating and observing.

The problem The Last Guardian faces is one of timeliness and timelessness. Can a game that’s been in development for so long manage to feel of the moment? Can it simultaneously feel untethered to any particular era or technological considerations, a creation with a universal message that can get passed down to future generations? I think The Last Guardian answers both of those questions affirmatively. It comes out in a world that feels increasingly divided in many ways and reminds the player of the simple joy of making a new friend.

Advertisement

Video games. Comic books. Blackness.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

GuardianOfChaos
GuardianOfChaos

I’m going to try and keep this as spoiler free as possible. I feel like the frustration that I, and others, felt playing through this game is very much a “your mileage may vary” situation. I’ve been looking forward to this game for ages, hell my dog is named Ico. The game just feels rushed though. It’s buggy and I don’t think it’s part of the design. I had a minimum of five separate puzzles where I had to restart the game because the invisible condition flag that needed to trigger just didn’t and so the game wouldn’t proceed. The very first puzzle in the game was missing the last of the barrels and wouldn’t let me progress until I restarted to make it spawn resulting in me wasting an hour completely lost. The worst part about the bugs is that you JUST CAN’T TELL! You can’t tell when a bug has occurred, when Trico just isn’t listening to you, and when you haven’t done the right thing. There are many times where I command Trico to do “Task A” for five minutes (not exaggeration) over and over. He doesn’t seem to respond. I try something else. No luck. I look up a walkthrough because I have to due to bugs. The Walkthrough says “We experienced a bug here” or to do the exact thing I was just doing for five minutes. I try it again and it works after a few more tries. There was one spot in particular where physics prevents the puzzle from working correctly for most people and you have to just keep trying until physics works in your favor.

Puzzle solutions are often incredibly obtuse because you’re suddenly given new abilities that you didn’t have before as the solution. Or Trico can now do something that he couldn’t do before, but first you needed to trigger an invisible flag that was unrelated like pulling a lever.

The controls are abysmal. Sometimes I just want to climb or detach from something and I can’t get my character to let go without flinging themselves off into the abyss. Or I try to jump for a ledge in clear reach only to fall into the abyss. I’ve died more in this game than in every single Souls game combined.

I needed to play this game. I needed to finish this game. There are some great moments in this that are butchered by bad framerate. This game feels like it wasn’t play tested and somehow was rushed through development.