Originally published on Trevor Trove on January 3, 2017
TL; DR(eview) – The Last Guardian is a lovely 5-hour experience that is knowingly and needlessly stretched out due to unreliable controls, physics, and AI.
NOTE: I’ve never played Ico. According to my trophies, I got about three-quarters of the way through Shadow of the Colossus (I defeated the 12th Colossus but it obviously didn’t grab me enough to finish the game out). I say that, as I often do with these kinds of caveats, to reflect that this game might not cater to my particular tastes. From most accounts I’ve seen, if you like those two games, you’ll probably like The Last Guardian. But here is my account.
The Last Guardian has you controlling an unnamed boy who awakens near Trico, a mythical feathered creature that resembles a mix between a bird, a dog, and a cat. The boy is unclear where he is or how he got there but he decides to help the wounded creature by removing it’s shackles and pulling broken spears from its body. The boy then begins exploring his surroundings in hopes of finding a way home to his village. Trico follows and the two help one another as they traverse the mysterious ruins around them.
I was ready to delete this game two or three times during my playthrough. After seeing very clearly my objective and knowing exactly what needed to be done, I would struggle for ten minutes trying to get Trico to respond appropriately. Those ten minutes were not fun. They did not invoke for me some sense of bonding between me and this creature as one might otherwise find with a pet over time. Because I was acutely aware that this was not a pet like my old dog Elphie, but simply a set of ones and zeroes. And those ones and zeroes were not coded to create an incredibly realistic artificial intelligence for Trico. They were coded to select from a specific set of animations based on a location and scenario.
This was my recurring issue throughout my time with The Last Guardian. I was continually reminded I was just playing a video game – and a particularly finicky one at that – anytime Trico triggered and animation or movement other than the one I wanted it to, or every time the boy flopped around like a ragdoll (either when I was controlling him or when he clung atop Trico as the creature ferociously shook its body). I’ll admit this though: the boy would be an incredible bull-rider.
Even as I progressed through the game’s platforming puzzles, I found myself thinking, “wow for a castle that seems pretty much bereft of life, these ladders, ledges, planks, rails, chains, etc. are all very conveniently placed. And sure, I’ll think that occasionally in something like an Uncharted game. But typically, if the gameplay and movement through these sections is fluid enough, I’m distracted just enough to keep from lingering on it. But because the boy winds up being such a chore to handle, I was that much more aware of how this world, as beautiful as it is, is crafted exclusively with him and Trico in mind.
That said, the world is indeed very pretty. Deceptively so at first, as you are confined to some nondescript ruins for the beginning parts of the game. But as the story progresses, the perspective grows and grows and you can see just how intricately mapped out the world is and how the structures that you traverse are all interconnected. But I will admit to looking back on the game and thinking, with the exception of the climactic final building, it all felt a bit same-y. Which feels like a bit of a let down when I think back on what I do remember about Shadow of the Colossus from some four and a half years ago and recall that the journey to- and habitat of each Colossus felt fresh. So a bit more variety among the structures, or at least some hint of what their purpose within the world was could have gone a long way to elevating the world design to another level.
There are trophies dedicated to completing the game in under 30 hours, under 15 hours, and under 5 hours. Based on my time, I landed somewhere in the under 15 hours mark (though because it felt longer, I was certain I’d missed that milestone). I only bring that up to highlight that the game can be completed in under five hours. And I think that would have been an ideal length for the game. Perhaps a bit longer than is needed for the story but the game has enough in the way of smart platforming puzzles to warrant it.
Instead, most people will wind up spending much more time with the game because of its frustratingly archaic-feeling controls. And, as outlined above, in my case, that extra time was not spent admiring a strong story or a sense of wonder. Instead, it was spent in frustration as I found myself fighting the game and wishing maybe I had chosen to watch How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel, which kind of tell a lot of the same story beats and aren’t as frustrating to get through. Plus, Dreamworks was able to get both of them out in the time since The Last Guardian was originally announced in 2009.