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The Last Guardian

Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: SCEE (EU), SCEA (US)
Developer: Team ICO
Release Date: Dec. 6, 2016


PS4 Review - 'The Last Guardian'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 12, 2016 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

The Last Guardian is an action adventure game set in a strange and mystical land where a young boy discovers a mysterious creature with which he forms a deep, unbreakable bond.

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The Last Guardian is perhaps one of the most famous vaporware stories ever. Announced about a decade ago near the start of the PS3's life cycle, it was supposed to be the spiritual successor to Fumito Ueda's classics, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It spent years vanishing, reappearing, vanishing again and facing rumored cancellations, so it's a pleasant surprise that, after a truly long wait, The Last Guardian is a real game. It's difficult for a game to live up to that level of waiting and hype, but The Last Guardian almost does. It's a solid finale for Ueda's trilogy of games, and it's absolutely unlike anything else on the market.

You play as a young boy who awakens among crumbling ruins. His body is marked with tattoos of unknown origin, and he's locked up with a man-eating, half-cat, half-bird called a Trico. The boy's only chance of escape and returning home relies in befriending Trico and pooling their talents to escape. Nothing is quite as simple as it seems, and the unlikely duo needs more than good luck to escape. What begins as a simple quest home quickly grows more complex as the mysteries of Trico and the ruins are revealed in an adventure that pushes both boy and beast to their limits.

When the game began, I was worried. The framing device is narration from an older version of the protagonist who's thinking back on his adventures. I feared this would mean the game would be over-narrated, which Ico and Shadow of the Colossus managed to avoid. Fortunately, the explanations are largely front-loaded. Once you get into the game, the narration trails off and the game speaks for itself. Like Ueda's other games, The Last Guardian succeeds at telling a simple story through the environment and atmosphere. There are few games more atmospheric and tantalizing, and the tale is unfettered but emotional.

The young boy has very limited skills but must make do with his ability to climb, pull boxes, and use items found in the environment, such as a shield that projects a beam of light that causes Trico to shoot electricity from its tail. You're not very strong, very fast, or very durable. The biggest flaw is that the controls are unusual. Jump is tied to the Triangle button, which makes sense since Triangle is up and X is down. There are a lot of tiny control decisions that make it clear this title began in the PS2 era. It's not quite archaic, but it isn't standardized, either.

Your biggest ally, literally, is Trico. For the most of the game, Trico follows the boy around and helps out. It's almost a direct inversion of the Ico formula, where the brave hero protected the princess from danger. Here, you're the helpless one who must depend on Trico's talents: incredible strength, immense agility, and the power to shoot lighting from his tail. There are a handful of puzzles that don't require Trico's powers, and those generally involve getting the beast to s spot he couldn't reach before.

Trico isn't perfect, though. It gets scared easily, is trained to fear oddly colored depictions of eyes, and flies into a panic after combat. It isn't a ruthless beast that smites enemies; it's a big fluffy friend who seems to abhor any situation more complex than being petted and getting treats. This means you have to find ways to destroy things that scare him or coax him into dangerous situations. He has a host of issues, and making you work around them is the key to a lot of the puzzles.

When monsters show up, you have to rely on getting Trico to smash or shock them before you become a victim. The combat is the weakest part of the game. It's not overly complex and shows up a little too frequently while tanking the frame rate. Solving puzzles with Trico is fun. Being protected by him feels exciting at first but quickly loses its luster. It's a case of atmosphere trumping enjoyment.

The major thing to understand about Trico is that it is perhaps the most realistic depiction of a cat to appear in a video game. It is oddly timid at points, incredibly brave at others, loves to get distracted by shiny things, will find high ledges to perch on, knock things over because it is bored, and is such a cat that several puzzles were solved only through knowledge I had as a cat owner of how a feline would behave. As any cat owner knows, this involves moments of adorable kindness and moments of being a jerk for no particular reason. He might help you out when you're in trouble, but he's just as likely to start swatting a chain with his "paw" when you're in the middle of climbing it.

This is The Last Guardian's strength and also its biggest flaw. Trico is a phenomenal depiction of a wild animal in everything from behavior to body language. That also means Trico has to be coaxed to do what you want and may frequently ignore you or do exactly what you don't want. Imagine trying to get your cat to stand on a switch. Now image that cat is the size of a small house and shoots lighting from its tail, and that is what you're getting here. The biggest make-or-break element of the game is going to be how charming or annoying you find Trico to be.

The title lives up to its promise of having a wild animal as your only ally. Once you train Trico through positive reinforcement (and plenty of glowing barrels, his favorite treat), he's more likely to listen, but that takes some time, and even then, you'll struggle. Some of the most aggravating moments come from having a puzzle solution but having to wait for Trico to make the correct moves to execute them.

It's tough to tell if you'll like The Last Guardian for the aforementioned reason. It's remarkably easy to imagine people getting upset and turning off the game because they know a puzzle's solution but Trico has decided to not do it without a lot of coaxing and waiting. It can feel unsatisfying to solve a puzzle by accident when it turns out you needed Trico to jump on a high ledge and he took 10 minutes to work up the courage to do so, despite you constantly calling him. It's completely frustrating, but somehow, the strongest moments also come from those simple interactions. I felt proud when my not-so-little catbird realized that it could leap over a wall while I was trying to find a way to let it in, and I found myself quietly encouraging or praising the creature when it did well.

It's an interesting problem in that it isn't really a flaw. The game is functioning entirely as intended. There are bugs in the game, including some that require a restart from a previous checkpoint, but none ruin the game. If you "fixed" Trico by making him reliable, then the atmosphere and tone would suffer for it. So the real question is whether you can enjoy intentional frustration long enough to reach the payoff. I absolutely had fun with The Last Guardian. The strengths represent some of the best moments in gaming this year, but they're also sandwiched between moments of sheer frustration or tedium. A lot of people will like The Last Guardian, but it's equally understandable if they don't.

Unfortunately, one area where The Last Guardian really suffers is in its visuals. The graphics are quite nice and very reminiscent of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus for obvious reasons. The quality isn't the highest, but it is bolstered by strong art design. Likewise, the animations are excellent. Trico in particular is a masterwork of body language that helps it feel like a living creature. The real problem is with the frame rate. Our review was done on a PS4 classic instead of a Pro, but the frame rate frequently chugged to almost nauseating levels. It isn't merely a poor frame rate but an inconsistent one, and the end result looks really bad. If you're not sensitive to major frame rate changes, it might not bother you much. The audio is stronger, with a lot of solid atmospheric sound work that really helps to sell the game. In particular, Trico's sounds are at once adorable and intimidating.

The Last Guardian was 10 years in the making, and it feels like it, for all the good and bad that implies. It's a masterpiece in terms of creating a living, breathing AI partner who is a wild and dangerous beast. The atmosphere, the environments and the puzzles are a delight. It's impossible to get around the fact that the game is built with frustration as a feature, and your enjoyment of it will depend on whether you're enough of a cat person to mind spending 10 minutes solving a three-second puzzle. It's a remarkable game that is all the more remarkable for almost living up to 10 years of hype. If you have the patience, The Last Guardian is a must-play for PS4 owners.

Score: 8.0/10

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