This is a game with much to admire as well much to criticize. I, like many people, have been looking forward to it for years. Now that I’ve played and completed it, I am conflicted. I’ve decided to tell all the good first, then tell all the bad. This game is worth much critical dissection, and in the end, tough to describe as either good or bad. It is certainly a combination of both.
The single best thing about the game is Trico. Trico is the nickname of the beast the player character forms a bond with. It is a fantasy creation amalgamating various aspects of other creatures. It has feathers, wings, bird talons, the bodily personality of a cat, the facial and emotional personality of a loyal dog, a long tail, mouse ears, and horns. Visually it is a striking specimen. You spend a lot of time looking at it, and its design doesn’t get old. But what most impressed me about the beast is its design regarding gameplay. The way it interacts with the environment was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever experienced in a game. I can see where much development time was spent perfecting how this creature moved, thought, and reacted in a way that was dynamic enough to fit seamlessly in with player decisions.
The environment of this game is a kind of ancient ruins (modeled closely after Ico and Shadow of the Colossus) in which all the architecture is meant for human scale. There are things like stairs, levers, doorways, and thin bridges that tell you only humans were meant to navigate these passages. But throughout most of the gameplay, we have Trico close by, who is huge in comparison, and it must navigate these tight, human-scale environments in order to keep up. This is the gameplay dynamic that encompasses most of the game, and I think it turned out beautifully because of the way Trico was developed to work with this adversity. When the player is in a human-scale environment and Trico is following, there’s always a sense that the creature seems aware of its size and of the fact that it’s in a place that wasn’t built for it. Trico makes ‘decisions’ that tell of its ability to understand its size problem and form a solution. Whereas games in the past would a large creature reacting normally in tight environments, running and jumping as if they were in an open field even though they were really in a small corridor, The Last Guardian makes a very believable, practical use out of the creature’s difference in size. It had to, with that scenario being such a critical part of the gameplay. But this was always meant to be the backbone of its gameplay design. In this way, The Last Guardian serves as a kind of tech demo showing what’s possible with scripting and development. And there’s plenty more to talk about concerning Trico’s scripting…
Trico seems to have a mind of its own. You can expect it to walk and look around and react to things by its own accord. Eventually, commands for the creature are introduced. But still, these only give the player the ability to influence the creature. It’s not like you can suddenly make it do all these things… When you give it a command, it may take a little while for it to react, understand what you want, and figure out how to accomplish it for you. It may take some coercion. And it ends up feeling you are really trying to get a message across to a creature who doesn’t speak your language, which is exactly the right thing for the game. For example, if the player gives a signal for Trico to “jump”, it doesn’t just immediately jump. It looks up, scans around for some reason to jump that might benefit the situation, finds one (if there is one), then positions itself, then performs the action when ready. It ends up feeling super organic and natural to interact with the creature this way.
The game eventually uses this dynamic as a method of puzzle solving. Figuring out where to go, you often need to be on the back of Trico to get there. Which brings up another interesting aspect of the gameplay that I don’t think any game has featured before… From any other game, we become used to looking at our environment from the perspective of the scale of our player character. Like, if we see a ledge way up high that we wish to get to, we instantly know that’s not possible. But in The Last Guardian, the game trains you to think beyond human scale, because the player has access to Trico who can do super-human things. So sometimes we get stuck in the game, we have to remember to consider Trico-scale, at which point we see an opening that’s very high up and think, “I can reach that, with the help of Trico”. That aspect combined with everything else just makes this gameplay so refreshing and unique.
As I mentioned, the stoic and grand ruins are the setting of this game, and the developers built many of the structures specifically to work well with Trico’s abilities. It ends up, at some instances (mainly the outdoor moments), feeling like the ruins are just a big cat tree for Trico to climb around. I love the way they brought out that goofy cat-quality in Trico when its jumping around. You know that moment when a cat is looking up at something with ambition, gets its feet all prepped, then launches up to some tiny ledge five times as high as the cat, somehow fitting all four feet in two square inches of space, and just sits perched up there like its a normal thing… All that is captured in Trico, and it’s really adorable.
While at first, its kind of unnerving to ride Trico while he performs death-defying acts, you eventually begin to feel like Trico is a master of its environment, and your trust is safe in the creature. I admire how this gameplay dynamic was utilized to promote the idea of trust, and it’s possibly the most commendable and memorable thing the game brought to medium of video games. At first, you are very wary of placing yourself at any disadvantage around the creature. But as you both experience traumas and fight to stay alive, you are constantly accumulating memories of how Trico has not let you down when times called for it. I will always remember the first part in the game where it faces you with the decision to place all of your trust in the creature. It’s actually a bit of a puzzle moment where the player is tasked with finding a way to progress. The only way to progress, you soon figure out, is to take a leap of faith believing that Trico will catch you. The game gives you no hint that this is what you are supposed to do, so to arrive at that decision must come from the player’s own mind, which is a brilliant way to engage the trust aspect of the relationship. Later in the game, you become so comfortable with Trico, that you jump out over certain-death drops without much forethought knowing that Trico will be there. There are moments where the only way to escape death is to rely on Trico’s confidence and let it do what it knows is right. There are also moments where Trico is in trouble and is relying on the player to help it. It always comes full circle.
The game also enforces the connection of touch with a ‘pet Trico’ button. A piece of gameplay is introduced that forces you to pet the creature to quell its periodic fits. But, you’ll soon find yourself petting the creature even when it doesn’t need it. Petting Trico often results from a feeling that either of you would benefit emotionally from it — even though nothing is specifically calling for it — just because that is the way human beings naturally interact with living things. Trico will sometimes even touch you back, nuzzling his face into the player character. Touch is the best, most sensible way to connect with something that doesn’t speak your language. Connecting with Trico in this way encourages the thought of it as a living creature with feelings, and that is crucial for constructing a sense of mutual trust. I think the trust aspect may subtly have been what this game was about from the beginning of its conception. It’s not about the combat or the story or the art direction or the puzzles as much as it is an experiment to show what feelings are possible to achieve with video games.
Now, finally moving on to the good beyond Trico. The Last Guardian, like Ueda’s other game, Shadow of the Colossus, is a spiritual sequel to his previous two games. It in no way relates or continues events of those games, but it takes place in the same universe and borrows a lot of the art direction. The entire ruins area you explore looks exactly like a scene from Colossus or Ico, which made me feel nostalgic. There’s even lizards roaming around on rocks — the same ones you could shoot with arrows in Colossus. I admired being back in this world for a new story, as the previous two games made such an impact on me.
But this universe has never been so gorgeous. The lighting effects are dazzling in The Last Guardian. The edge lighting on Trico’s feathers in the sunshine… it is heavenly. The world overall is very nice to look at — especially the outdoor scenes where the mist of the valley gives way to humongous structures in the distance. Its beautiful. But, sometimes I had a hard time trying to physically look at it, which brings me to the first of my criticisms…
The camera sucks. For those of you that have played Shadow of the Colossus, it’s basically that same camera system. It’s constantly got this obligatory self-positioning, so while it’s essentially still a dual-stick player-camera movement system, the camera will be stubborn to do as you tell it. There’s still the button that allows you to focus on Trico, like there was the button that centered on the face of a Colossus… But it’s not just Trico I want to look at all the time. For as much work as they did creating such a beautiful environment, I felt too much hardship in actually seeing it. It’s not like the Uncarted series, where you can point the camera in any direction while doing any sort of task, such as scaling the side of a building. I always liked to do that and find nice, cinematic angles. But The Last Guardian has predetermined angles it wants you to use for given scenes, and it will continue to gravitate towards them even when you are trying to spin it away to look at what’s around you. Also, the camera, in some cases, has this settle aspect to it, where if you pan it around your character and let go of the stick, it will continue to move as if winding down from a high speed. I have played some games where this idea worked in its favor, but in The Last Guardian, it just felt very touchy and unnatural. At first it was very frustrating, and I was kind of fed up with it. I eventually got used to the weird way the camera acted, as any player would. It ended up not being as much of a detriment as I initially thought, but it never allowed me to experience the levels exactly how I wanted to.
There’s an aspect to the progression of the game that I never really got on board with. That is, why am I going here? Every level of the game, never did I have a sense of why Trico and I were headed in the direction we were headed. There was never any planning involved. We simply just went were we could go because that was our only option. But that’s not realistic; that sounds exactly like video game logic. If I am playing this character, I want to get inside his head and understand what he wants and how he expects to achieve it. I never got that sense from this character, even all the way to the end of the game. I never figured out what the logic was behind any destination. It ended up just feeling like we are hitting up a bunch of various locations around these ruins in order to inspire ‘more adventures with Trico’! It’s like they the developers had a bunch of ideas for scenarios, puzzles, and opportunities for bonding and wanted to make sure to use as many of them as possible before the pair reached their conclusion. They didn’t really put much thought into how it makes sense for them to keep going new places. You could argue its like the progression of a Star Wars movie, how every scene just leads to the next scene and every crisis is a result of a previous success leading to a new crisis until every crisis is resolved eventually equating to an adventure overall… But it really seemed like the characters in The Last Guardian were heading in directions because it was there only option. I know for certain that it’s the only reason I as a player moved them in those directions. I had no other reasons that made sense to me. At one point, I found a beautiful clearing, and I thought, why don’t we just stay here? What reason is there to keep going? I don’t understand my character’s crisis. I understand that he wants to go home, but how is going into that cave over there going to solve that?? I eventually concluded that if I just stayed in one place, then I wouldn’t experience the rest of the game (lol), so I continued. But I didn’t have any reason other than that. That is a player-reason; not a character-reason. It wasn’t til I was standing over the final area that I thought, “this must have been where I was trying to get this whole time”.
I remember years ago when this game was being talked about, that people were saying the big lovable creature is clearly going to die, because that’s how Ueda’s games are. I thought that was funny and probably true. But it’s almost like Ueda was aware of this premonition from his fan base, and exploited it throughout the game… a little too much. There are so many teases of either the creature or the player character dying. There are so many close calls or moments where they could be dead already. While its true, these moment help reinforce the bond between the two, I feel the tactic was a little overused. I eventually got tired of the teases.
Its especially frustrating to see Trico in peril during a puzzle moment. There would be moments where Trico is in dire need of help, and yet the player has to figure out what the heck to do to help him. It’s a little emotionally exhausting feeling like you are killing Trico every second it takes you to solve the puzzle. I’d rather try to solve a puzzle on my own time rather than with Trico’s blood on my hands. And vice-versa, I’d rather experience Trico’s peril when it’s merely a race to compete a straight-forward task… I know I’m getting really minute with my criticisms, but these are all things that added up to the total impression for me.
The worst instance of puzzle-solving on top of the threat of Trico’s death is the end scene. The entire end level of the game, I hated. It’s soooo confusing; the puzzle answers were not clear at all to me. But what makes this a super bad thing is that I could tell the pace of the scene had quicker resolutions in mind. I felt like I was throwing off the whole momentum of the epic finale scene by dying in stupid ways and running around not knowing what to do. It was really frustrating to know that not only do I have no idea what to do, I’m ruining the experience for myself. That part of the game left me with a pretty sour taste in my mouth. I had to calm down and remember the game’s gorgeous middle to get over it.
After the game was over, I had my concerns about its replay value and what else there might be to this game. As it turns out, there’s nothing. There’s nothing at all on this disc that I haven’t already experienced. No secrets (which is surprising considering Colossus’s various secrets and tricks), no extra content like concept art or featurettes, no unlockables, no alternative ways to play the story, no infusion of online gimmicks (as if I would have cared about that anyway), no nothing other than this single story that I have just played. I was surprised. Normally that would be enough for me, because that’s all I usually do with games anyway. But in this case, I ended up feeling like this game is not worth the $60 release day price. I will definitely keep this game a part of my collection. I will certainly play it again some point. But not until the freshness of my first play has worn off and I feel like playing the exact same thing a second time will be rewarding in some way.
After all is said and done, playing this game was a terrific exercise for critical thinking — not within the game, but about the game. It did so much right and so much wrong, that figuring out your own personal standing about its balance was the most compelling part of the experience. I won’t ever forget it, that’s certain.