Almost a decade. That's how long people have been waiting to get their hands on The Last Guardian, and I left the game untouched sitting atop my PS4 for three days. I'm sure you want to know both why and how, but I have not satisfying answer for either question. Maybe I was worried it wouldn't live up to the hype, or maybe all the hype had died down over 9 years and two consoles of development, I'm not sure.
But, when I finally did pick it up, I was shown a whimsical world filled with awe-inspiring wonder that, unfortunately, was firmly locked behind clunky controls, poor visuals and over all frustrating gameplay design, all of which gave me an epiphany: The Last Guardian is a PS3 title that just so happens to be playable on the PS4.
You start the game as a small boy who has found himself trapped in a cave with a giant beast, named Trico. This creature is initially hostile to you, until you feed him, pull a spear out of his back and unchain him. Once you find your way out, you declare that it was nice to meet this creature and that you must go home now.
Strangely enough, it doesn't appear like getting home is an easy trek, since you're actually in a giant expanse of lost temples filled with suits of Samurai armor that want to carry you off to your doom. Lucky for you, Trico, who resembles a griffin and acts like a household pet, follows you around and proves quite useful to getting around.
Of course, it's not hard to see how a genuine friendship could evolve out of this happenstance, and you won't be surprised to find out that there's going to be some tear-jerking moments at least once or twice. The premise reminded me a lot of Brad Bird's wonderful and under-seen animated movie The Iron Giant: a young boy meets a 100-foot tall metal man and embarks on an adventure of happiness and joy – what could go wrong?
Billed as an action game, The Last Guardian plays much more like a puzzle platformer, where most of your tasks will either have you fetch a barrel for Trico or find a way to open a door, remove an obstacle or otherwise clear Trico's path so he can move on to the next area and help you get home.
First starting the game, the excitement took hold of me, and I had trouble looking past it. But, in hindsight, there were assuredly warning signs. Like when you climb up on Trico, dramatically grasping at his feathers while your arm twists about five times around, or when you go out into open space for the first time only to have your framerate be cut in half.
The opening level has you in a cave with some light illuminating a patch of grass, and the more patches of grass you see the more static you notice around them. Each blade is outlined by jaggies, so much so that it can start to take over the whole patch if you stare at it long enough.
None of this would be a true detriment in and of itself – nitpicks at worst, but they're the opening acts of a flawed play: they don't tell the whole story, but they foreshadow it.
I'll admit to peering at others' reviews to see if their takes lined up with mine, and I feel I'm in the minority, but only in conclusion. While many people will talk about the fundamental flaws of The Last Guardian, they won't let that hinder their experience in the end, and I just don't know how. It's like people know what's wrong with the game, they just pretend otherwise.
It will hit you pretty quickly. You'll try to move up to the head of Trico, only to find yourself careening toward its navel. You'll try to jump and grab a ledge only to find your hands clip right through it. You'll try to pick up a barrel and see your character glitch out a few times for your troubles. You'll try to look up at Trico, or pan the camera to see other areas to which you might be able to climb, and your camera will flash in and out as the game tries to determine if you're trying to look at the scenery or at Trico's undercoat.
While Trico is largely autonomous, you do gain the ability to tell him what to do, or at least beseech him. He'll often ignore you when you do call for him, and I've also found this whole mechanic to be largely useless. If the game actually requires Trico to do something, he'll usually do it on his own. More than a few times, I was stumped on what to do, and couldn't get Trico to play along, so I just hopped on his back and put the controller down. Voila, Trico leaped to where we needed to go.
At one point in particular, a building around which Trico was climbing had climbable vines around it. I thought "aha! I need to climb these vines to clear the path for him." Unfortunately, I found myself on a dead-end path of climbable vines, having to backtrack, only to jump on Trico and have him take care of the rest. So these vines were just … there?
And here's the most frustrating part of The Last Guardian: Underneath all the clunky controls, the graphical glitches and questionable mechanics, the game is really good. The level design, save for a a few stinkers here and there, is incredibly imaginative, and watching Trico leap and bound across expansive temples and vistas never ceases to be breathtaking. Even the repeated slow-motion, cinematic-esque sequences of dramatic falling only to be rescued at the last minute by Trico's tail or outstretched beak don't get old.
There's no other word for it, The Last Guardian feels downright magical. It's like watching Harry Potter for the first time as pre-teen – you're introduced to this whole new world within which a story like you've never heard is told.
Without definitively spoiling anything, I brought up The Iron Giant earlier, and that wasn't a coincidence. The Last Guardian will hit you in a lot of the same ways, and it will be like speeding locomotive each time, even if you see it coming.
The Last Guardian is a frustrating experience, and I'm not talking about its difficulty. While the game is hard, that is more than welcome in a puzzle platformer, a genre no stranger to the easy, cinematic throwaway set pieces.
It shouldn't be that actually playing the game is the most difficult part, yet that's the very aspect that locks away the core of The Last Guardian. The unresponsive controls, sub-par optimization and frustrating, extraneous gameplay elements shackle The Last Guardian to the past, while the emotional story and awe-inspiring imagery beg to be unleashed. It succeeds on the strength of its imagination alone, with no help from any other aspect.