All the way back in 2009, Team Ico introduced the world to their newest visionary creation: The Last Guardian. As perhaps one of the biggest and most well-documented video game development sagas of all time, The Last Guardian has finally overcome what seemed like near insurmountable obstacles and is currently sitting on our shelves after seemingly endless years of disappointment, hype and expectations. It is for this reason that I can easily say that The Last Guardian is the most difficult review I’ve ever personally undertaken. I have waded through my personal feelings of expectation, excitement and nostalgia versus reality and disappointment, and come to the following conclusion.
The story of The Last Guardian is somewhat simplistic on the surface, but don’t let that fool you. A young boy awakens in a mysterious cave, covered in tattoos that he didn’t have before and imprisoned fairly closely to a griffinesque creature named Trico. After freeing the beast, the boy and Trico set out to traverse the sprawling landscape of the castle and find a way to get back home. I’m a huge fan of the minimalistic approach to the storytelling aspect of The Last Guardian, and it’s something that Team Ico are famed for doing well in their previous efforts Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. By using cut-scenes and voice acting sparingly to tell the essentials of the story, it allows for an open interpretation of the overarching message and moral of the story. If I’m completely honest, the ending to The Last Guardian caught me right in the feels and almost brought on the waterworks. I think it’s a glowing testament to the writing team that they managed to do so much within the confines of a twelve-hour game.
Perhaps it’s a little odd, but I can’t help but draw a comparison between The Last Guardian and the animated TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender. In particular, the mystic/tribal setting with Eastern influences, complete with a tattooed young boy accompanied by a giant creature. The degree of this comparison that really struck me, however, is the relationship that develops between the boy and Trico being reminiscent of the friendship between Aang (the Avatar) and Appa, his loyal flying bison. There are very few instances where I feel that any type of media develops a heartfelt relationship between man and animal without being overly saccharine, but The Last Guardian manages to perfectly balance the concept of companionship – in that the boy needs Trico to escape the castle ruins just as much as Trico needs him. The Last Guardian is also complete with captivating voice work and an expertly crafted soundtrack that’s near cinematic in scope, providing thematically appropriate music for every scenario to underline the tone of the narrative and gameplay flow. I also love that the narrative is told as a retrospective recount of the journey shared between Trico and the boy, as it immediately adds a touch of heart to a story you aren’t already familiar with.
Another aspect of the game which also aids the feeling of going on an epic journey is how well designed the game environment is from a functional perspective. More times than I can remember, the environment manages to feed back into itself, meaning you re-visit parts of the castle/ruins at a different altitude or position to progress further along. What makes this even more of an achievement is how the design team were also able to work puzzles into the environment which serve as the main focus of the gameplay in The Last Guardian, and do it to a degree where each puzzle feels like a natural part of the environment as opposed to a shoe-horned in feature. This is a master stroke by the design crew at Team Ico, in my opinion, and something that feels so fresh and unique in a market which while varied is somewhat samey at the triple-A level. As perhaps the biggest strength of the game overall, I think The Last Guardian stands out as a design example for how you can be both creative and functional without having to sacrifice one or the other. Too often these days, game developers promise us the world with fresh new features and systems but rarely are they fully realised and actualised. In that sense, The Last Guardian has delivered 100%.
While you might be thinking at this point that The Last Guardian is a faultless masterpiece – sadly, this is not the case. Far from it, in fact. Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy to attest to the virtues of this game, but I also need to talk about where The Last Guardian falls short – and boy, are there some mighty shortcomings! Hands down, from a gameplay perspective, this was the WORST game I played in 2016. To the point where, in some ways, it ruined what could have been another instant classic from Team Ico. From a control perspective, the game is incredibly clunky and unwieldy to play – doing simple things such as running or climbing Trico are slow and sometimes near unfunctional. Sure, there are plenty of games which use these sorts of control mechanics on purpose (see Dark Souls or Hotline Miami), but this is not one of those instances, and in a current field where games are pushing the boundaries with already incredibly smooth controls, it’s a little hard to forgive a game which has such glaringly obvious issues.
Full disclosure, I put my controller down in frustration multiple times during my playthrough due to being unable to operate commands to progress through the environment. With an understanding towards the reported design concept that Team Ico were reportedly aiming for by having Trico act more like an “animal” by ignoring commands, it just feels like the system more often hindered than enhanced the gameplay despite any creative/narrative attachments that are on offer. My issues with the gameplay also aren’t helped by a sub-par third-person camera. While a patch was released that somewhat improves the controls, it still isn’t enough and does little to add control or finesse to a mechanical fundamental that is widely considered to have been “perfected” in the current age of video games. As an example, my camera would sometimes clip into Trico’s body and leave me with a black screen that took 15-20 seconds minimum to navigate out of, and that is just one of the many hiccups ever-present while playing. It seems almost bizarre for a game of this calibre to make mistakes which are so mundane as a concept in the current gaming landscape, but I guess that’s a problem which can occur as a result of a long and troubled development.
If you’re a fan of Team Ico games and haven’t played The Last Guardian yet, or are genuinely curious about the game, then I highly recommend checking it out to satisfy your curiosity about what the final product has become. However, regardless of which side of the argument you fall on about The Last Guardian, I feel after the infamous development history that it has had, the game requires attention for both its triumphs and disappointments in equal measure. Only with time do I think that it will either join its predecessors in the pantheon of classics, or be remembered as one of the biggest modern day development disappointments of all time.