Much can be said about The Last Guardian’s trouble development history. Without behind the scenes information, it will be impossible to know how much the delays and lack of clarity ultimately affected the game. It is more prudent to focus on the product at hand and after having spent the past few days with the game and experiencing the entire journey between the young boy and his animal companion, I can confidently say the relationship and story tells a beautiful tale. It is absolutely worth it for any player to see how two living beings can form a bond over not so welcoming circumstances. The environments are breathtaking and the scope of the game and the set pieces are a sight to behold. Unfortunately, the game is bogged down by incredibly frustrating controls and AI, but it has a sticking appeal that has left me thinking about it a lot after seeing the incredible conclusion.
The Last Guardian is very intent on conveying a sense of helplessness throughout the journey for the young boy. The questionable control decisions were made in an attempt to help hammer this point home. Every action is difficult for our protagonist. When he pulls down on levers to raise gates for Trico, he does so with the weight of his entire body. When he picks up barrels meant to feed his companion, it takes all of his strength to do so. The awkward movement controls for the boy are intended to play into this dynamic. The game wants the player to understand that the boy is completely reliant on the animal for protection and movement across the terrain. Despite understanding the developer’s intentions, it doesn’t make the game any less frustrating to play. The jump control which you will using a lot, is mapped to the triangle button and t feels awkward mapping one of the most used controls to one of more oddly situated buttons on the controller. Furthermore, the boy’s movements simply feel sluggish. He feels slow and inept in moving around. This is most noticeable when you roll forward. It doesn’t feel smooth in any regard. Climbing onto Trico is also victim to many of these same complaints. The boy has a magnetic like grip when being on Trico. This is meant to help the player because there are many sections where perilous controls would mean almost certain death. However it also works against you because getting off your companion can be a task unto itself. Often times, I wanted to disembark and fall to the ground and it would take several attempts to do so because the game insists on you being attached as much as possible.
The entire game consists of puzzles, essentially trying to figure out how to advance to the next area continuously. This always makes use of the environment in one way or another. Often times you will be tasked with climbing atop Trico and be slave to his decisions or lack thereof. Trico’s AI is the sticking point behind the game’s frustration. You are completely helpless to move forward of your own volition the majority of the time, which only increases in the game’s later sections. You gain control later in the story to give Trico commands. They do help alleviate the stress somewhat, but they also prove inadequate. Many times I needed Trico to move in a certain direction or jump to a specific area. It proved to be too much to ask of my companion and I was forced to sit and wait, sometimes up to ten minutes, before he would finally perform the action I had been asking of him all along. During these moments I had to toy with the idea that perhaps a game doesn’t have to respond to a player when the player is ready to move on. Some would argue the lack of this defeats the purpose of the game, but The Last Guardian does buck many of the trends you would normally find in many other games. For example, there is a distinct lack of combat for the young boy throughout this journey. He doesn’t have a sword or any weapon at all. There are mysterious suits of armor that come alive at various points in the game and just as you are reliant on Trico for transportation; you are likewise reliant when it comes to defending yourself. Trico will usually make quick work of these enemies and you can aid him minimally by slighting shoving them or jumping onto their backs. However, these actions do very little. It is during these tense encounters that you will experience the game’s button mashing mechanic. When you are grabbed by one of these suits of armor, strange symbols will begin to float across the screen. You must eliminate them all before reaching a blue door the suit of armor is attempting to carry you though to your death. You eliminate these symbols by hitting essentially any button on the controller. A button input will remove one symbol, and the amount increases over the course of the game. Near the game’s end, I found myself button mashing for close to thirty seconds in order to wrestle free. These symbols also appear after you have died and want to restart at the most recent checkpoint. You must eliminate them before the game will load once more. This is a frustrating design choice and is very unnecessary. Again, it does play into the sense of helplessness as you are simply hitting as many buttons as possible in a short amount of time, which mimics flailing around in real life in many ways. With that said, there are different approaches that could have been taken such as picking one or two specific buttons to press repeatedly.
Much of the story in The Last Guardian is experienced rather than told. The game’s story revolves around the budding relationship between the two characters and a lot of that interaction is developed through the player as you spend several hours trying to escape with Trico. I felt genuine emotions for Trico by the game’s end, and you are told by different indicators such as audio cues that your animal companion also cares about you deeply. The game begins with the boy waking up and having no idea as to how he ended up in his current predicament, which is being trapped with a large animal he doesn’t recognize. You are able to free your soon to be companion, and together you disembark on a very meaningful journey together to not only escape but uncover some answers as well. I have always believed in the ending. I have always believed the journey was less important than a satisfying conclusion. The Last Guardian has an incredible ending, but this is one of these few games that make me question this belief. The journey was incredibly memorable. There were several different moments that I felt something without any words having to be spoken, and that is an indication of a very well told story. The relationship and the set pieces the characters experience together are the true shining gems of the entire game.
ICO and Shadow of the Colossus have very distinct environments that are beautiful yet difficult to explain without seeing the aesthetic with your own eyes. The Last Guardian makes use of the same aesthetic to create a truly marvelous game world and one that feels large in scope. The game does an incredible job with designing the game around light and dark, and the use of light in certain areas and the lack of it in others highlights the sense of exploration throughout the locations. The entire game is set within a single place, but this single place is well divided into separate areas that connect to each other. It makes the environments feel alive. Rarely do games make me feel as if I am actually alive inside the game world, and The Last Guardian manages the feat. There were several times where I was lost and confused as to where to go next, and I love that feeling. It is lacking too much nowadays as games attempt to hand hold more than ever before. I was helpless and I looked around with Trico beside me. That feeling of helplessness when it comes to exploration is particularly poignant.
The most unsung aspect of The Last Guardian is the game’s soundtrack. What is special about this soundtrack is that is makes very good use of its music. Music isn’t always playing. It picks and chooses specific moments to make use of its music and it is much more memorable as a result. ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, Team ICO’s other games, also have incredible scores that choose when to use their music, but for some reason that remains difficult to pinpoint, it sticks out the most in The Last Guardian. You will sometimes get separated from Trico, and when you are finally reunited, some music will play and it enhances that moment and that bond and it makes it feel much more special. I will never forget being grabbed by an armored enemy and finally making my way to my companion after having been grabbed. As I sat atop Trico and watched it decimate my foes, the victory music started to play, and it etched itself into my mind.
The Last Guardian has a lot of flaws. It has terrible controls. They were implemented for a reason, but they are awkward and clumsy regardless. Furthermore, the AI can be incredibly frustrating at important moments in the adventure. It is easy to focus on these negatives and I wouldn’t blame anyone for being unable to beat the game because of these flaws. However, behind the controls and AI, there is an incredibly moving story that every gamer should experience. There won’t be many more experiences like The Last Guardian going forward because it truly stands out. The environments are gorgeous and the music will highlight a tightening bond between a young boy and his animal friend. I was very frustrated when playing the game but having beaten the game and looking back at it, I can’t stop thinking about it. It has stuck with me, and I can’t say that about too many games the past few years. It is worth experiencing despite its setbacks and makes me hopeful about the direction gaming is headed in the years to come.