The story behind The Last Guardian is almost as epic as the game itself. After nine years of announcements, brief glimpses, delays, disappearances, re-appearances, and a platform jump, it’s finally complete, printed onto blu-ray discs, and available for download on the Playstation Store. Starting up the game is almost surreal, like meeting an old friend after having accepted their death.
Lead designer Fumito Ueda, who was also behind Playstation 2 classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, had a lot to live up to with The Last Guardian, and in a broad sense, he did. When The Last Guardian is working the way it is designed to, it’s a peerless example of interactive, emotional storytelling. Unfortunately, it’s crippled by major bugs and performance issues that absolutely should have been resolved during the game’s nine years of development.
But first, the good: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a creature or character in a video game that is quite as convincingly realized as Trico, the titular “Last Guardian.” The beast’s design is wonderfully innovative; he’s got the head of a cat, the behavioral pattern of a dog, and is covered in feathers. But despite being an animal that doesn’t exist in the real world, his animations feel completely realistic and suited to his design. I have never seen better animation in a video game, and it goes a long way in assisting the player’s bond with him.
The way that the game’s design plays into the narrative is brilliant, too. As the story progresses and you and Trico become more trusting of one another, new gameplay elements unlock to further emphasize your bond. The game is aware of its genre and the tropes that come along with it, using your familiarity and expectations to take you out of your comfort zone at times, and pull at your heartstrings in others. Few games made me as worried about the fate of an AI companion as The Last Guardian did.
The game also takes a lot of risks with Trico’s AI. In most games with friendly AI, non-player characters either act independently or react to orders from the player. Trico, however, is a mix of both styles. You can call him over, or issue commands, but Trico isn’t a tamed animal. He’ll get distracted, sniff at his environment, run around, swim, etc. Usually he’ll do what you tell him to (unless you’re meant to feed him before moving on), but he’s intentionally stubborn. This stubbornness helps make Trico more realistic and endearing; he’s a companion who quickly grows to love you, but never ceases to have a mind of his own.
Unfortunately, Trico’s stubbornness only exacerbates The Last Guardian’s biggest problem: it’s full of bugs. I ran into my first one in the game’s very first environment. You’re tasked with feeding Trico. The game gives you no details whatsoever as to WHAT Trico eats, so in my playthrough, I assumed that the glowing barrels in the room, which are the only movable objects, would be a good place to start.
So I threw a barrel over to Trico (at this point, he’s still too scared and hurt to let you go near him), and nothing happened. I assumed I must be wrong, and spent another 30 minutes wandering this small environment, checking every nook and cranny for SOMETHING I could feed Trico. Finally, after some yelling and creative swearing, I put down the controller and grabbed my phone to look up what I was supposed to do. While I was still opening up a web browser, Trico reached his head out and ate the barrel I had placed in front of him 30 minutes ago.
This is a huge problem, as the start of almost any modern game is meant to establish the game’s rules. Most of the time this is done by either explicitly telling you what to do, or using immediate reinforcement to establish whether an action is effective or not. If the game meant for the player to feel like they were discovering the mechanics, it still needed to indicate whether a particular technique was effective or not when it occurred. Misleading the player into thinking they’ve done the wrong thing in the first few minutes of play is terrible game design.
A similar issue occurred later. I had figured out that I needed to have Trico dive into an underwater passage with me on his back. However, no matter how many times I tried, he wouldn’t go through the passage with me. I’d either have him dive while I was on his back, leading to him going under and resurfacing, or I would order him to dive by himself, and he would leave without me. After (again) half an hour of trying to get this right, I finally consulted the internet and found out that this was a known bug, and I simply had to “Restart from Checkpoint” and try again. Sure enough, this worked.
This example is a problem for multiple reasons. For one, obviously, this type of bug should have been squashed during testing. For another, though, it points out just how finicky and unresponsive the game often is on a regular basis. In a more dependable game, I would have been able to recognize that I was encountering a bug fairly quickly. But in The Last Guardian, intentionally or not, the AI system disguises these game-breaking bugs and makes the experience all the more frustrating.
In fact, the entire 3rd quarter of the game feels awkward, as if Trico has become less intelligent. This may be due to the addition of more commands, or it could just be because the developers didn’t playtest it as thoroughly as the game’s first half (this is common in game design, since it’s assumed that most people won’t actually finish the game). But in any case, it sours what is an otherwise excellent experience.
All of this makes The Last Guardian tricky to recommend. There were times throughout the experience when I was more frustrated than with any other game this year. But if you can slog through the worst parts (most notably anything that involves water), The Last Guardian is a truly one-of-a-kind experience. It’s ironic that a game known for being delayed far too long might have needed more development time, but I wish I could have experienced a version of The Last Guardian with an extra year of tweaks and bug fixes.