If there were any games that I would personally say defined the PS2 era for me, I would say Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Both games were developed by Team ICO, who are known for developing games that feature only handfuls of characters and a minimalist style of storytelling. The same team, who are now known as genDESIGN due to some events which are outlined here, are also the team behind The Last Guardian. However, the main difference between their previous two games and The Last Guardian is the incredibly long development cycle. The game has been in development since 2007, but we have only been aware of it since 2009, which is still a damn long time. It was long believed to have been cast to the inescapable depths of development hell until it was resurrected at E3 2015. Regardless, I’ve been keeping a very keen eye on this title and when the time finally came for it to release, I could not believe it (in fact I still can’t). The wait was over and it was time to engorge on Fumito Ueda’s (the director) and everyone at genDESIGN’s beautiful creation.
The Last Guardian is a PlayStation 4 exclusive puzzle-platformer developed by genDESIGN (formerly Team ICO) and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. The game recounts the tale of a boy and a giant birddog creature named Trico. You assume control of the boy who wakes up at the bottom of a chasm with a myriad of strange markings on his body. Next to the boy is Trico, chained up and injured. At this point, through narration by the grown up boy, the game establishes that Trico’s species are actually man-eating beasts that humans have feared for a long time. After freeing Trico you earn his slight favour, and this is where the true tale begins. The game is all about using Trico and your head to solve puzzles and come closer to leaving an area known as ‘The Nest’. It doesn’t take long for you to learn that there’s something not right with this area. Inanimate suits of armour regularly spring to life and attack Trico and yourself. Some areas feel almost alive, as mechanical creations continue to work even though structures and buildings are often dilapidated and in varying states of ruin and disrepair. Runes and mechanical workings are near comparable to that of the Foreunners from the older Halo games, however not so futuristic.
Back to the story, the game centres around companionship and growth. The bond between the boy and Trico becomes so strong that not even Trico’s mildly annoying instinctual behaviours can drive a wedge between the pair. As you progress, you yourself learn to care for Trico and the boy. Trico behaves a lot like a dog in most aspects, but climbs everything like a cat. His movements seem natural, but they also bring cause for the first issue. The game’s camera just plain and simple doesn’t always work with the way the game works. Allowing full camera control is a great idea in some instances, yet terrible in others. When riding on Trico and crawling through tight spaces the camera doesn’t know how to properly cope without giving you weird angles that often leave you either staring at a black screen or some part of Trico’s feathery, gargantuan body. Regardless of the whacky camera, the game is still a great experience that can last around 10 hours if played blind (however there is a trophy for beating it in under 5 hours).
Throughout the game you often need to feed Trico by acquiring glowing barrels (there’s a secret behind these but I’m not going to say anything about that). While I can almost guarantee people will see this as a drawback, genDESIGN have approached it in the correct way. They have cleverly used a very classic style of level design to hide some of these barrels, meaning you will actually have to use your head to solve puzzles and acquire the barrels to feed your companion. This neat little mechanic also aids in capturing the bond between man (or boy in this case) and beast. You can even throw the barrels at Trico and he’ll catch them. Another mechanic which revolves around Trico is one that applies to the minimalist combat the game features. Obviously there are people – well… animated suits of armour – who wish to hamper your progress through The Nest and there are two ways you can dispatch these enemies. You can choose to leave all the work to Trico, who is more than happy to slap around and crush these suits of armour, or you can wait for them to be pushed over by Trico and then remove their heads. But this isn’t the mechanic I had in mind. After each combat sequence, you’ll often find that Trico is restless and needs you to calm him down by petting him. Once again, a lot of people will see this as a tedium but when you put into perspective the tone of the game, where the focus is the bond between the boy and Trico, it makes sense to have something like this in it. With all of this in mind, The Last Guardian is truly an emotional experience and the tale actually moved me, which is not something that I can say about most games. In fact, when I finished the game I couldn’t help but go and pick up my cat, mind you he wasn’t very fond of this.
The game features absolutely gorgeous visuals, which are at their best when light shines onto the beautifully detailed textures (like Trico’s feathers or the gently swaying grass). It also makes use of an art style which is comparable to that of the upcoming Zelda game, ‘Breath of the Wild’. It is definitely one of the more visually unique PlayStation exclusives out there and is a breath of fresh air in a time where photorealism is more of the norm rather than creative and unique spins on something you have to look at during your entire time playing. Skyboxes and backgrounds are incredibly detailed which add to the rich environment that is already set. When you traverse through perilous puzzles, you’ll often notice that the vegetation tends to rustle as the wind constantly blows by when you’re not faced with cavernous terrain. This gives the environment a sublime feeling of isolation and loneliness, as there really is only the boy and Trico in this great big wide world (with the occasional suits of armour).
While the visuals are great, this is where another issue with the game springs up. On the regular PS4, the game suffers from what I call “FromSoftitus” (pronounced “from-soft-eye-tus”), where a game features either great visuals or an ambitious draw distance (or sometimes both) at the expense of framerate. This issue is commonly seen in games made by FromSoftware like Dark Souls. While the game is visually ambitious and is a marvel to look at, it also suffers from a lot of framerate issues. At its best, the game runs at 30fps, but usually runs below that and drops below 20 at some points. I am aware that the game runs beautifully on the Pro, but that really is unacceptable. Games should be made with the lowest system requirements in mind, otherwise you leave people who cannot afford to upgrade behind. I really do hope that this is not a trend that we see become a normality.
Now to move on to the soundtrack and sound design. The Last Guardian features an expertly written, original soundtrack. Takeshi Furukawa has done an impeccable job by crafting a score which adds to the atmosphere in a masterful way. Music builds and creates epic moments when milestones are met throughout the story, and will shift to a mellow, sombre tone when emotions are running high. While the soundtrack is very good, the sound design is the real talking point. Wind whistles while you scale cliff faces, Trico whimpers when in pain and roars when agitated. At no point did any of the sounds seem inorganic or out of place. The grass rustles when walking through it, splashes are made when wading through bodies of water, rocks clap and crumble. Everything about the attention to detail with the sound design immerses the player in the incredible world that genDESIGN have created.
The Last Guardian is an impeccable tale of the adventures between two characters who start out as foes and become the closest of friends by the end. It is easily one of PlayStation’s most unique exclusives. Its long development time has made its impact as it is designed with an older style of game in mind. This isn’t a bad thing, however. It’s not often that a game genuinely moves me, but The Last Guardian has managed to achieve the nigh impossible. With its spectacular level design, breathtaking visuals, superb sound design, atmospheric music and great growth in character between the boy and Trico, the game seeks to evokes the spirit of a thrilling adventure between two friends and accomplishes it with flying colours. Even with its camera issues and poor optimisation on the regular PS4, I would still highly recommend this stellar title to anyone who owns a PS4.
Reviewed on PS4