The Last Guardian came to the gaming world under the weight of extraordinary expectation, perhaps unlike any release in recent memory. Year upon year, the title was briefly teased and then snatched away, to the point that it resembled something of a hazy recurring dream. Just as it left our consciousness, another image of Trico would appear to remind us that, yes, it was still A Thing That Might Happen. It is to Sony’s credit that they didn’t abandon the project, and allowed Fumito Ueda’s vision to finally hit our consoles. That belief came at a cost though, in the form of one of the most frustrating gaming experiences I can recall in recent memory.
You awake in a cave as a strangely tattooed boy next to a huge winged creature with a cat’s features and bird wings. You’ll aid and befriend this injured animal - the boy names him Trico - and the two of you will navigate a series of sprawling ruins, rusting gates, mechanical devices, and relentless enemies over the next eight to fifteen hours (more on this later). I should be clear about my history with Ueda’s titles: I loved Shadow of the Colossus, but didn’t get on with ICO at all. My main gripe with the latter stemmed from the repetition of puzzles, and the unnecessarily laborious back-and-forth in order to solve them. Here, at least, The Last Guardian does away with the padding in favour of a much more linear structure. Rarely will you struggle to find the next path. The harder part is getting there.
The tasks you’ll face are numerous. For most of the first half of the game, you’ll need to keep Trico fed with glowing barrels that are scattered around the rubble-filled halls. The game is narrated by an older version of the boy right from the start, which acts as a prompt for any new roadblock you come across. The various actions you need to perform are also signposted throughout, a necessary oddity thanks to an unwieldy control system.
This brings me onto the three main issues I have with The Last Guardian: the controls, the camera, and the gameplay. None of them are individually enough to irredeemably wreck the title, but they certainly try their damnedest. The controls are a bizarre series of mappings that correlate directly with the era in which the game was first envisioned a decade ago. Seriously, who assigns the jump button to Triangle these days? (No, DmC, this is not validation of your terrible design decision.)
The boy is also reminiscent of times past, a small, jelly-armed sprite with clumsy movements but the upper body strength of a pro-wrestler. Away from Trico he has four actions: pick up items, throw or place items, jump, and roll/crouch, none of which should be difficult to perform given the quality of platform games we’ve seen over the past few years. Yet here, every action is a struggle. I lost track of the amount of times I needed to throw a barrel to a specific place, only for it to tumble down two storeys because my alignment of the boy was slightly off.
Then we come to Trico. Arguably the best and worst thing about the game, the creature is a magnificently realised behemoth that will have you convinced at times that it’s a real cat. It paws at gates, rolls in water, rubs against walls, and scratches with its hind leg. Trico encapsulates cat behaviour to a great extent - too much, in fact. You see, controlling Trico is one of the most fundamentally irritating tasks you’ll have to handle in the game, and more often than not you need to have saintlike patience to do so. By climbing on it and moving to the front or back, then holding a bumper in conjunction with a face button, you can tell Trico to move, jump, turn and so on. But, like a cat, it might not want to do what you ask at the first attempt, or even the fifth. No, instead you might have to spam the command, then - when that fails - get off the beast and call it over in order to turn it around, then climb up it and try again.
There is no discernible logic to this process. Trico might decide it wants to look around a corner in the opposite direction to which you’re headed. When it’s in the water and you need to dive with it, Trico may decide to wait for five minutes for no good reason. When you need to leap to a higher location, you can look at that point with the camera and tell it to move, but you may as well toss a coin as to whether Trico will take the hint and jump or not. My favourite was when it refused to move from a bridge because it could see - off in the distance, indistinguishable to the naked eye - enemies which needed to be defeated first. This is not endearing. This is excruciating, unforgivable gameplay.
It doesn’t help that the camera works against you at every possible opportunity. Climbing up Trico is a tortuous affair, especially in combat when you’re flung around like a rag doll whilst suckered to the beast’s back. As the camera shifts, the direction you’re pushing the boy in may suddenly flip. Trying to account for these constant reversals as you’re riding the equivalent of a bucking bronco - whilst the camera alternates between zooming in and panning out - is near impossible. The best you can hope for is to aim in a direction and hope you get there within a couple of minutes. At various points you will also need to use a mirror shield to act as a laser pointer to direct Trico’s electricity-spewing tail to blow stuff up. This, again, is hampered by the camera, and you’ll often find yourself looking at the inside of Trico’s sprite rather than the wall you’re aiming at.
Almost every aspect of the game in which you play an active role is flawed. The foes you face are faceless animated suits of armour who will attempt to grab you. If they succeed, symbols appear on screen and you need to spam every button and trigger as quickly as possible to remove the symbols and break free. If you fail, it’s game over...but more symbols appear for you to clear before you can go back to the last checkpoint. The reason for this is never clearly explained, but the frequency at which it happens - especially with the boy’s unwieldy movements - soon pushes it into the realm of irritation. If Trico is in the same area, it will pounce on the guards and smash them all to pieces, but it will be another wait before that happens.
If you fall too far, you’ll die. If you fall far enough to survive, you’ll suffer a limp for about fifteen seconds and will be unable to do anything but move at a glacial pace before miraculously healing. There’s no energy bar, so there is no other punishment other than an unnecessarily long period where you cannot play the game. When you’re wishing death upon your character because it makes the game quicker to play then there is something fundamentally wrong with the gameplay.
Another example: in the second half, I found myself in a cage which I needed to roll to a location, but was unable to do so. I spent ten minutes trying to balance out the tilt and shift of the cage but simply couldn’t get it to where I needed. I left the room with the game running and came back five minutes later to see Trico nudge the cage to my desired location with its nose. There was no indication that the creature was needed to solve the puzzle - and that it took so long to do so was simply staggering. The length of time you need to set aside to finish the game is therefore completely dependent on how long the game decides to let you complete each task. When the first cutscene kicked in, I was hit with a wave of relief because I thought it was over. It wasn’t.
I can’t fully grasp why it felt like such an ordeal to play. For all of the faults, there are a couple of redeeming points buried within, desperately trying to claw their way to the surface. At times the art direction is stunning. Wide-angle shots of huge, otherworldly ruins lit by sunlight are complemented by incredible scenes of Trico outrunning collapsing bridges. The two main cutscenes, which cover both the backstory and epilogue, point to a fundamentally disturbing narrative underpinning the buddy action. Like Resident Evil 6, it’s a game that would likely work better as a film, albeit for very different reasons.
But the occasional wow factor cannot mask the fact that at its very core, The Last Guardian is just an uninteresting, identikit series of environment traversal puzzles. Nor can it overcome my biggest problem with the game: it is simply not fun to play. I can fully appreciate what Sony and Ueda set out to do, but ultimately the end product is by far the weakest of their combined offerings to date - a clunky, sparse and infuriating mish-mash of ideas from two console generations ago. It may have got a pass in the PS2 days, but we’re heading towards the end of the second decade of the millennium, and no amount of catnip can make this game seem more attractive.