The Last Guardian review code was provided to us by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
The Last Guardian is the very definition of a flawed gem. Beneath the rough is a timeless diamond, an unforgettable journey as affecting and emotionally gripping as anything the medium has produced. Several things left me speechless. The sense of scale defies belief. Through adversity and triumph, the relationship between player and companion is carried on a roller coaster of emotions, both fleeting and lasting. A truly cinematic experience is sold by camera techniques and flourishes that transcend “video game.” Indeed, despite its clear identity as a puzzling adventure, I feel more confident calling The Last Guardian an experience rather than a game. As the latter, it’s sometimes confounding and not particularly great. As the former, it’s incredible.
The Last Guardian is also historic. Many among us believed the follow-up to Fumito Ueda’s Shadow of the Colossus would never emerge from a half-decade of apparent development hell. Between delays, amid deafening silence on the game’s progress, there has been time to dream, speculate, and scorn. The narrative spun out of control a long time ago. While faithful believers hoped The Last Guardian could be a kind of generation-defining game, just as many expected nothing more than a mess—a relic of PS2 ideas and PS3 graphics with gameplay threads that never coalesce.
The answer, as it often does, falls somewhere in-between. Reflecting on the journey, I believe The Last Guardian is unforgettable, near-essential, and profound. It also controls poorly, occasionally falls victim to repetition, and downright suffers from bad technical performance. But in the end, it’s OK that The Last Guardian frustrates, because it ultimately fulfills, delivering an epic adventure and a beautiful vision of relationship, where we can cross gulfs of communication to find comfort in each other and overcome tremendous odds.
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This parable is the story of a marked boy and Trico, his massive, dog-like companion. Despite the ambiguity we expect from Team ICO’s games, it’s clear these two come from different worlds. They regard each other with skepticism, even fear, and watch quizzically as they try to understand the other’s motivation. Room by room, they come to understand more about each other. The boy learns that Trico is hungry but often can’t reach the tight spaces or heights where glowing barrels—his favorite delicacy—are found. Dwarfed by the impossibly large pillars, archways, and grand halls of this truly epic prison, the boy needs Trico for traversal and protection. Hostile dangers and environmental obstacles beset both man and creature. Often, only the other is capable of aiding.
Before long, the boy and Trico find common purpose. Only together can they hope to escape the vast, labyrinthine castle that imprisons them.
As the player, controlling the boy (and Trico, through commands and gestures) had me coming to the same understandings in parallel. All three of us know little to nothing about where we are. As we explore, I too discover that there are few places I can go without Trico’s help—and there are few puzzles he can overcome without my guidance and intelligence. I learn things about the world and the characters as they do, and as I experiment to figure out what the boy can climb, or what heights Trico can reach on his hind legs, the connection runs deeper. Despite being of two species and altogether different worlds, Trico and I grow closer. I notice attempts at communication—‘It’s OK to jump,’ his caw seems to say—and when enemies grab me, Trico recognizes I’m in danger.
Perhaps The Last Guardian’s greatest triumph is this connection. It’s pragmatic at first—‘How can Trico help me escape this room?’—but over the journey’s 14-plus hours, the connection becomes an emotional bond. The emotional bond becomes friendship—during moments of separation, I sorely miss Trico’s company. Friendship manifests into something deeper, and suddenly, the floodgates open to a treasure of deep, genuine feelings.
Put simply, The Last Guardian is the most emotionally affecting game I’ve played. Honest care fueled moments when I felt joyful, distraught, or afraid. By journey’s end, I had sobbed, laughed, smiled; felt paralyzed, helpless, and triumphant.
The story frames this connection and is Team ICO’s finest work yet. The narrative is clear but leaves ample room for interpretation, stepping back from Ueda’s typically minimalist style to offer events and drama worth caring about. The best way to describe it, and the highest compliment I can pay it: every question that needs to be answered, is. The world is suitably mysterious and information is scarce, but the cleanest details surround Trico and the boy, emphasizing that this story is theirs and the mythology is less important than the theme.
In the game’s early hours, learning about the characters and world means coming to grips with gameplay. As a puzzling adventure at heart, The Last Guardian frequently tasks you with finding your way through vast spaces with complex architecture and appearances. Carved stone walls and pillars are punctuated by strange, almost-alien structures and devices. These spaces can be staggeringly vast, deceptively simple, or intricate to the point of labyrinthine, but reaching the exit is rarely straightforward. Like the game’s central relationship, my way forward gained clarity with time. The fortress’ cumulative design is impressive enough; climbing ever higher starts to reveal the vast interconnectedness of the familiar areas below. On a per-room basis, new ideas are introduced and layered atop previous discoveries for a puzzling experience that rarely feels repetitive despite a limited number of core mechanics.
In one outdoor environment, I encountered a large cauldron spewing a gaseous substance that fascinated Trico, grabbing his attention and rendering him unresponsive to my gestures. Figuring out how to close the cauldron required experimentation (‘I can push and pull it, but why is that important?’), observing how Trico reacted to the cauldron’s movement, a careful look at nearby surfaces, and remembering previous ideas, like what’s possible for the boy to climb. In another room (a seeming dead-end), remembering how useful Trico’s tail is for climbing and that it can be grabbed and carried when at rest revealed the way forward. I know that Trico loves barrels, that he’ll try to eat one if I bring it too close, and that a massive chain hanging in this room gets pulled slightly when I climb it. Maybe the answer—the only thing that can open the gate forward—lies behind some combination of these ideas.
Your ability to gesture at Trico or point him toward desired outcomes is the core mechanic driving your escape. It’s rudimentary by design; tapping R1 will call Trico’s name, and holding R1 while tilting the left stick will gesture in that direction. Through trial-and-error, I came to understand the game’s puzzle-solving language while growing even closer to Trico. I learned what he does and doesn’t comprehend about our surroundings, commands he can’t understand, and the chirps or body movements he uses to communicate.
There are frustrating inconsistencies with this forced simplicity. For example, the same command that failed to register just a moment ago will be followed when I’m standing in a slightly different spot. Likewise, for the longest time, I was positive that Trico wouldn’t listen to my command for a giant leap if I was hanging from his neck or standing on his head. After all, it failed numerous times under those circumstances. I thought this was the case, like a protective aspect of his personality, until the first time he made a leap while I stood atop his head. Even now, I’m not sure if Trico was feeling protective in certain moments, or got more comfortable with my head-riding later, or simply didn’t care to listen.
But this I know for sure: these frustrations, that ambiguity, strengthened our relationship in the end. I came to know Trico and care deeply for him, but I never fully understood him. The mystery kept me honest. As a slightly unpredictable companion, Trico never became a mere gameplay tool in my eyes. For every exasperated sigh as I struggled to communicate my intentions, a triumphant moment of understanding or the fire in Trico’s eyes as he swatted away my attackers renewed my faith in his companionship.
Some frustrations are natural—a clear sign Team ICO has crafted an unforgettable, realistic relationship. Others are design problems—indicative of an unquestionably flawed gem. To say the boy controls awkwardly is an understatement. The input lag for movement and camera control is severe, even on a TV’s Game Mode. Combined with imprecise movement and the jarring disconnect between one of two speeds (slowly sneaking forward or outright sprinting), the boy somehow manages to feel both sluggish and unwieldy. At 90-percent tilt on the analog stick, you’re practically crawling. Any further, at max tilt, he breaks into an arm-flailing run. The game in general feels jerky as you unintentionally shift between the two. I fell from high platforms several times simply because the boy’s unpredictable, all-or-nothing movement carried me off a ledge.
The finer points of control—leaping up to grab Trico’s feathers, or climbing and lowering from ledges—fare no better. Shadow of the Colossus’ propensity to send Wander flailing when the colossi move is amplified here. The boy has trouble holding onto Trico at anything more than a steady trot, so when Trico pivots or moves his legs unexpectedly, your climbing is interrupted for an exaggerated, frustrating animation. Dropping from Trico can be unintentionally hilarious—you’re supposed to press or hold X to drop from a grabbing state, but the boy is intent on auto-grabbing Trico’s feathers when all I want to do is drop to the ground. As a result, he tumbles over himself and collapses to the ground, or I leap from Trico’s back with Triangle to avoid the awkwardness altogether. Some ledges are actually shorter than the boy, but he’ll still make an exaggerated climbing motion as he hangs from the ledge and drags his legs on the ground. When dropping from above, he’ll occasionally refuse to lower himself, catching himself as if the game thinks I’m trying to fall to my death.
Sporadically throughout the game, these issues combine with severe framerate drops to be mind-numbing. There’s nothing more immersion-breaking than emerging from a rewarding moment with Trico to an outdoor space that falls to a flipbook framerate, stuttering as the game struggles to render a collection of trees and shadows popping in and out of existence just a couple dozen yards away. Even indoors, the game fails to feel comfortably smooth at times. Part of the game’s visual allure is the incredible sense of size and weight given to Trico, and I suspect some kind of frame limiter helps sell this convincing illusion. But when these control and technical problems happen simultaneously, The Last Guardian can feel like a regression even from its predecessor, which itself was somewhat awkward back in 2005. This is true for both PS4 and PS4 Pro (actually, my worst framerate moment happened on the latter), but the increased clarity from PS4 Pro’s higher resolution sets that version apart.
As quickly as these issues yanked me out of the experience, cinematic flourishes pulled me right back in. The game’s dynamic camera is happy to let you take control when you need to, but often swoops up to show Trico’s face and expression framed perfectly against a stunning backdrop. These moments never detract from important gameplay, only adding cinematic flair in the spaces in-between. The atmosphere is incredibly cinematic, and the graphics establish a somber, surreal mood in parallel. Outdoor lighting is dreamlike in the way it bleaches some surfaces, and a haze of sorts hangs over faraway structures. Staring up through the fog at incredible heights, I felt at once insignificant and inspired.
Trico is the most stunning creation of all. The shimmering in his hundreds of independent feathers is entrancing. The dull darkness in his eyes feels animalistic, leaving his highly expressive face and body to communicate what his eyes cannot. In motion, he’s a tremendous sight, flailing after a difficult leap, cawing innocently, or playfully scratching at his side. During epic set-pieces and intimate moments alike, Trico stands out as one of gaming’s most compelling creations, with more personality than a thousand voiced characters put together.
And what of the music? I’ll let you in on a secret. A few days after finishing the game, sitting in the crowd during the keynote showcase of PlayStation Experience 2016, I bore witness to the game’s final trailer. Upon hearing the familiar music that had come to define my journey, a flood of emotions rushed to the surface and a handful of tears I couldn’t suppress fell down my face. Do the best soundtracks stir and heighten emotion, summoning the same feelings later as a record of our experience? If you agree, then The Last Guardian’s score is sublime. During the journey, the music was sweeping, epic, thrilling, and intimate in equal measure. Days later, thanks to its timing and effective use throughout the game, the music called forth powerful memories and feelings, condensing the beauty of the journey into an overwhelming two minutes.
At the heart of The Last Guardian’s enigma—beneath colossal expectations, speculation about development hell, and undeniably frustrating technical issues—is a beautiful, affecting story about two creatures that find comfort in each other. Their relationship is realized in spectacular fashion, blossoming organically in a marriage of gameplay and story like few others. That marriage is far from perfect; it’s marred by a slow middle act, distracting framerate drops, and sloppy control. In spite of frustrations (and because of a few), The Last Guardian is one of gaming’s greatest adventures. The boy and Trico come together in a timeless parable that—improbably, against all odds—was worth the wait.