The Last Guardian is developed by the same team behind ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, two critically acclaimed games with cult followings, both of which I have always wanted to try out but just never got around to. Their newest title follows a similar theme, pairing an unnamed boy and a mythical beast named Trico (who I will refer to as him in this review although a gender is not implicitly implied) on an adventure to find answers. With a 10 year development cycle that sees The Last Guardian placed amongst the greatest of video game delay legends, is it possible for this game to live up to the hype? Our full spoiler free review is below.
The story of The Last Guardian plays out slowly over the course of the game as you traverse your surroundings. A voice that is heavily hinted to be your future self narrates certain moments, mostly describing the current events or how he and the beast felt at any particular moment. Beautifully composed cutscenes jolt the story forward and fill in some blanks, particularly in the strong final act, but they are rare within the 10 or so hour long adventure. While events are shown to you they are often lightly detailed, leaving a lot of the story open to your own interpretation, an ideal that goes hand in hand with all the mystery this game shrouds you in. Where are we? What is Trico? How did the boy get his markings? These are all questions I had to stop myself from spoiling before I beat the game and I am glad I waited as almost all of my burning questions were eventually answered to some degree.
The deepening bond between the boy and Trico serves as a narrative in itself and it’s one I became invested in despite not really caring for the boy in this story. The boy doesn’t really get any development in the story but I feel the reasoning for this is the developers wanting you to project yourself onto the boy so that you are the one building a relationship with Trico, hence not giving the boy a name. Rest assured that overall the story is unsettling, intriguing and emotional throughout, with enough big story moments along the way to shock you and lay down a memorable and heartfelt tale with a satisfying ending.
The Last Guardian is not an action game despite many retail listings, I would place it in the puzzle/platforming genre personally. The closest comparison I can make is that the entirety of the game is like one massive dungeon from a 3D Legend of Zelda game with a large focus on puzzles and some platforming. You enter a new area, take in your surroundings and figure out how to advance, whether that be pulling levers, finding barrels to feed Trico, or dragging a box to the right location to use as a ledge. That all sounds rather par for the course for a game like this and honestly a lot of it is, but The Last Guardian seldom reuses any puzzles or solutions and remains mentally stimulating enough to not become boring. Not to mention you have the lovable Trico at your side who puts a unique twist into the games challenges with his ability to reach new places and take out the suits of armour that the boy can not combat on his own for the most part.
The game never gets too difficult, finding a very nice balance between simplistic and challenging even though I did get stumped a couple of times. Honestly this felt like it was mostly due to some poor design choices as I would seem to have the solution worked out but the game wouldn’t let me perform said solution. A perfect example of this is when I came to this half destroyed bridge. In a couple of similar situations before Trico would easily clear that with a jump, however because the game is strictly linear and wants you to do it a certain way, Trico will just sit there and not jump. Trico not listening to you is both a part of his charm as a real beast and frustrating, more so frustrating when it’s several minutes before he finally carries out the command you have been screaming at him to perform. I love Trico but the weakest puzzle solutions in The Last Guardian involve you simply waiting for Trico to activate a large switch or jump to the next area as it makes the game extremely passive.
The voice of the future boy provides tips on how to advance if you ever get stuck for too long (or that I later found out if you meditate using the L3 button, this game does have an issue with not telling you some of these helpful commands), which was an appreciated feature in my play through as sometimes your next goal can be unclear, particularly at the beginning on the game. The hints aren’t too on the nose either, still allowing you to figure out a part of the puzzle for yourself. Unfortunately they become near useless towards the end of your adventure as when I used it later on I was just given an old irrelevant hint on an area I had long passed or a story explanation instead. Luckily Trico steps up here as your bond strengthens, often leading you to your next goal if you observe him long enough.
Now let’s dedicate an entire paragraph to how amazing Trico is. This beast is the most realistic and advanced (in terms of being believable not purely intelligence) partner AI I have seen in a game to date. The dog/cat inspirations are obvious here as Trico whimpers, growls, scratches at doors and even rolls over in puddles of waters just like a family pet. Trico has so much personality and interacts with the world incredibly naturally, even behaving well in tight environments. I couldn’t help but smile as he sat down to scratch his ears or sat at the edge of a cliff looking at the boy while he swam in the water below, only coming down when there was a barrel of food as a reward. Trico is the best part of this game hands down. His design, his actions, his story, his evolution throughout the game both physically and in his bond with the boy and his implementation into most of the gameplay puzzles is near perfect. If you don’t get attached to Trico then you might need to see a doctor to check if you have a heart.
What you might not love as much are the controls which are a bit of a mess here. Movement doesn’t feel precise as it should be and climbing or trying to jump off Trico or a rope in a particular direction can be a real task sometimes. The Last Guardian seldom requires precise movement but when it does you may find the controls lacking. Luckily the game is very forgiving with it’s checkpoint system meaning you shouldn’t have to replay anymore than 30 seconds of game time if you do die, an occurrence that was very rare for me outside of high falls caused by the controls or when an impromptu cutscene would take away control of the main character only to give it back at a really awkward time. The unchangeable obscure button layout doesn’t aid the situation and the fact that the controls constantly have to pop up in the corner of the screen to remind you of what buttons to press to perform an action is a testament to that. Having the circle button perform multiple tasks can be a pain at times, with the biggest example of this being if you’re trying to pat Trico and there are a bunch of items on the ground the boy can pick up.
The camera doesn’t help the control issue and sad to say it’s a bit of a mess as well. At times the camera does a great job capturing the perfect angle to show off the massive size of this games world, but put the camera in a small windowsill between two rooms or up against your back when Trico is nearby and you’re going to have problems. One time my screen went completely black and nothing I did got me out of it for a while leading to a small panic. The game also handles the ‘camera reset’ in a very jarring way, with a quick fade to black before it happens instead of just cutting straight to the new shot. This leads to multiple occasions where the screen repeatedly fades to black as the camera tries to adjust itself. These issues will pop up but you can get past them easily with a bit of patience.
I know I’ve probably made the controls seem absolutely awful here but I stress that they are manageable and after an hour or so you will get used to them. The game does enough right to make putting up with these technical issues worth it. The majority of the puzzles are fun and while the platforming is rather basic for most of the game, figuring the correct way to scale a tower or make it across a gap is just as satisfying as solving a puzzle, especially when Trico helps out. Gameplay isn’t The Last Guardian‘s strongest card by any means but it’s decent enough that it won’t hinder your enjoyment of everything else it brings to the table.
The Last Guardian is beautiful. Once again Trico is the star of the show here, with the amount of visual fidelity in it’s fur, whiskers and feathers being nothing short of amazing. The way Trico fits in with the environment is technically impressive, only once did I ever notice Trico ever glitch out graphically or even clip any other objects and that was in a rather poorly designed water section. The environments are well designed and detailed outside of a couple of low quality textures, keeping a mostly monochrome colour palette that makes areas with lots of flora feel refreshing. The light cel shader applied to the game gives it a whimsical feel which suits the gameplay, story and environments perfectly. At times the light saturation effect might be applied too strong but this seems to be a distinct visual choice by the developers. The lighting is generally a high point but there are some odd times where it completely shifts tone unrealistically when entering a new area.
Those graphics obviously take a toll on performance here though, with a frame rate that fairly frequently dips below it’s 30 FPS cap, sometimes to a crawl, mostly moments where Trico is on the move or during cinematics. It’s not a game breaking issue by any stretch, but it does occur frequently enough to take a little wonder out of the games impressive visuals and can really take you out of the moment when it happens during a big story scene which sucks. This was played on a basic PS4 but if you have a PS4 Pro available to you I recommend using that as I have heard most Pro users are getting a consistent 30 FPS using the 1080p mode.
The orchestral soundtrack consists of a low number of tracks and is used sparingly in The Last Guardian, but considering the games length and theme that all works wonders here, really adding emphasis to each moment where music is applied. Whether you’re getting chased by one of those animated guards or clinging to life on the edge of a cliff the soundtrack adds a new dimension to the tension or emotion felt by the player. Discovering a wide open area for the first time with a track that compliments that new found feeling of freedom and wonder was a great memorable moment.
Outside of the music all the sound effects, the fictional language and any sound associated with Trico from his roars to his whimpers round out the games atmosphere perfectly in crystal clear quality. Top marks for the soundtrack and audio design in The Last Guardian.
I can’t say The Last Guardian was worth a 10 year wait but this is still a strong, unique experience that will appeal to gamers who have patience and can appreciate games as an art form and story telling method rather than just as entertainment. The beautiful, intriguing story paired with the gorgeous graphics, masterful audio and all the love that is put into every ounce of Trico’s being is something I hope a lot of gamers will try and then appreciate. The meat of the platforming and puzzle based game play may be rather generic outside of Trico’s involvement but it remains challenging enough to dispel boredom for the games duration. Controls, performance and minor camera issues aside, The Last Guardian is an unforgettable experience.