The Last Guardian
Platforms: PS4 (tested) / PS4 Pro
Release Date: 9 December (UK)
Everything that is beautiful and frustrating about Fumito Ueda's The Last Guardian is evident in its feathery star Trico. This bizarre creature of myth and fantasy that joins players on their adventure, is an incredible creation, in spite of its glaring faults.
At the game's start, a young boy acting as a proxy for the player, awakens in a cave beside the huge beast, which is wounded and clad in chains. The Last Guardian is about the pair's relationship, and by extension the player's relationship with this animal. It's a partnership that starts out naturally tentative as the player pulls spears from Trico's body like thorns from a lion's paw, and strengthens as the two aid each other through the derelict, ruinous setting.
Learning how Trico interacts with you and the world is fundamental to the game. Players treat this creature as they might a real animal: feeding it, calming it, tending its wounds and catching its attention when it gets distracted by nearby birds or curiosities in the environment. And it works well because Trico is entirely convincing.
The way it moves through the tight spaces, approaches dangers and readies itself for tremendous leaps across caverns and perilous drops feels authentic. Every tilt of its head, every time it paws a dangling chain or nuzzles his tiny companion helps portray Trico as a living, breathing animal. It's a marvel of deft animation apparent in the boy as well, who flings himself across chasms, flails as he dangles from Trico's feathers and runs nervously on the spot when his companion takes on a handful of the creepy guards that lay in wait throughout the game.
Trico's presence in the world is captivating also. The scale of it, and of the world's towering structures, is wonderfully communicated to the player, simultaneously conveying the beast's potential strength and the boy's frailty despite his obvious courage.
The overall effect is exactly what's required of The Last Guardian, but there's an additional ingredient that truly sells it. A few hours into the adventure, players acquire the ability to issue simple, vague commands to Trico, but it will often ignore them in the same way a pet dog might refuse to get off the sofa. This element of the game is intended to realistically portray Trico as an animal of independent thought rather than a tool of the player, and it works, but it also works just a little too well at times. Regularly Trico's inability to follow simple commands becomes an annoyance, and not in the endearing way it can be early on.
Clearly a certain amount of this comes part and parcel with the idea itself, but often it outstays its welcome. It becomes particularly wearisome in several instances during which the path the player must take or the solution to a puzzle isn't at all clear, or seems counter to the conventions of the game. Finding these solutions or routes forward is part of the game of course, but what's especially irritating is when you know what needs to be done, but Trico remains stubbornly unresponsive, compounding any frustration with self-doubt.
It's an irksome aspect of the game, but far from its biggest flaw. The Last Guardian is a stunning work, with some astounding world and character design, but it's disappointingly let down by frame-rate issues that slow the game right down during its most action-packed moments. It's worth mentioning that we played the game on a standard PS4, and not the more powerful PS4 Pro.
The wide gulf between the game running at its smoothest and during these scenes slams the brakes on any immersion. Suddenly the threat isn't the challenge ahead of the characters, but of the player being unable to overcome them amid the stutter. Quite why this is happening is up for speculation. The likeliest answer is that the weight of tech behind Trico is to blame, and the primary reason for the game's lengthy succession of delays.
It's a crying shame for many reasons, not least because the scenes in which Trico is riled up and fighting are often very effective. The player is unable to take on the guards directly. If caught players must frantically mash buttons to make the boy struggle and loosen the guard's grip, and they're also able to knock guards over with a shove. Trico deals with them handily, but often the game puts players in situations in which they must evade guards and find the means to get their feathered friend into the fight. The tension of these encounters is very well orchestrated.
Like its forebears, the controls aren't exactly conventional - but they function well and players will quickly grow accustomed to them. The camera takes some getting used to as well, with the majority of control left to players, but at times when the boy and Trico occupy small spaces, the camera can contort to tight, galling angles. At various points the game just cuts suddenly to a new angle to rectify this, which is jarring.
Technical issues hamper it, but in terms of story, design and concept The Last Guardian is a worthy successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. There's more character here, more humanity, and that burgeoning relationship is at the root of it all. There's more cause for investment in the story and world than in Shadow of the Colossus and Trico is a more compelling and characterful companion than Ico's Yorda.
In The Last Guardian players form an incredible bond with Trico, tested in an adventure worthy of Fumito Ueda's vision. The challenge of not just the puzzle-platforming obstacles, but of understanding this otherworldly creature, creates a connection more genuine than any players are likely to have experienced in other games. Everything that would make the game a beautiful and unique classic to match or even surpass its predecessors is here, but like its captivating star the game doesn't always perform as you'd hope. We hope the developers are able to remedy the bitterly disappointing frame-rate problems, but until such a time they cannot be ignored.