The Last Guardian Review

The Last Guardian is – and I can’t put too fine a point on this – the most beautiful game I’ve ever played.

I’m not just speaking visually; sure, it is certainly a stunning game at times, but emotionally, thematically and in its storytelling, it’s simply beautiful. With minimal dialogue, The Last Guardian conveys its story in such a magnificent way through gestures, behaviour, gameplay, and cutscenes. It’s certainly not without its flaws – it has quite a few –  however, it’s a testament to Fumito Ueda and his team that it managed to overcome them to become not only one of my favorite experiences of the year, but possibly of all-time.

Waking in a cave, a boy finds himself trapped with an injured beast named Trico. At first Trico isn’t overly friendly, but the boy is undeterred as he pulls arrows from Trico’s body and finds food for the large beast. Here begins a moving adventure as the boy and Trico make their way out of the valley to the Blue Tower. Along the way, the bond grows between the two, creating the most endearing pair of protagonists I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know. Eventually the two will do anything they can to protect each other; the relationship feels real and organic, and deeply moving. There was not a single false moment in The Last Guardian; during the climax I had a very real, visceral reaction to what I was seeing and felt a real sense of urgency to make sure everything was alright. I will not spoil what happens in this story as it remains surprising throughout, but I will say that I have never, in my three decades plus of gaming been as motivated to save another video game character as I was during the last act of The Last Guardian.

This brings me to my larger point: Trico is a revelation in terms of design, character and AI. Trico feels like a living, breathing creature. From his initial trepidation towards the Boy, to eventually becoming a reliable companion and protector, there is never a moment where Trico didn’t absolutely leave me in awe. Words can’t even properly articulate how real Trico feels and how much empathy I felt towards him.

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The boy is less impressive but that’s the nature of design: all of his actions are in the hands of the player. Uedo and his team have designed him well, with fine animations and quality voice acting. Through the boy you’re allowed to express your affection towards Trico by means of petting him. While it does have a mechanical reason – to calm him down when agitated – I felt compelled to pet Trico just for the heck of it: I would want to pet Trico in real life so this is the closest I’m going to get.

The core of the gameplay involves the boy and Trico navigating a seamless world via puzzles and platforming. Each new area presents a problem to be solved through one of these two tenets, sometimes simultaneously. With no real HUD, The Last Guardian requires brief exploration of the environment to figure out a solution before you can move forward. In this regard, The Last Guardian shines. Solutions are usually organic and believable in the world’s context, and are actually very smart in design. At key points in the game, the boy will have a mirror that can be aimed at obstructions or giant stained glass eyes and have Trico shoot lightning from his tail (don’t ask), blowing up the obstructions and allowing the pair to proceed. I won’t spoil how this ability evolves, but it’s simultaneously ridiculous and awesome. Getting stuck on a puzzle isn’t a problem because the narrator will give a hint regarding what the boy should be doing or what you should be looking for. There’s a trophy for hearing all of the hints and I didn’t get it, so I’m guessing I did alright with the puzzle solving.

However, this is also where The Last Guardian’s biggest and most prevalent issues reside. While I appreciate the methodical nature of how the boy controls, giving him a real sense of weight and physics, the camera doesn’t allow for smooth transitions or movement. Often getting caught up on the geometry, the camera can be unwieldy at times, making important positioning troublesome. It also robs the game of some really cool action moments by positioning itself so awkwardly. Eventually, you’re able to command Trico, and most of the time he does what you want him to. Other times, because of the camera, you can’t quite get into the proper position to direct him or take advantage of Trico’s behaviours. For example, there is an early section that requires you to walk through a hole in a wall to entice Trico up to a platform so you can turn around, run through the hole in the wall and grab his tail to climb up. Because the camera refused to work with me, I would misjudge the position of Trico’s tail and by the time I righted it, Trico would turn around to keep his eyes on me, moving his tail out of my reach. While it’s really cute that Trico doesn’t want to let me out of his sight for too long, it doesn’t make for good gaming. This didn’t happen often, but when it did it was very frustrating and kept pulling me out of the experience.

Physics are also an issue at times. On a few occasions, the boy would spin away in the air, flipping head over foot across long distances. One time this helped me get past some enemies and open a door for Trico before being attacked, and in another instance it shot me away from Trico way past a ledge, leading me to fall to my death. It only happened three times but, again, it broke the immersion and took me out of the game. I should also mention that The Last Guardian has highly intrusive controller tips that take up a huge amount of real estate on the screen which can’t be shut off.

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While the camera and physics feel like meta-enemies, the real enemies in the game take the form of Stone Guardians: animated armour sets who either try to fend off Trico with spears or shields, or try to grab the boy and take him through a portal that if successful, end the game, setting you back to the most recent checkpoint. Often times, Trico isn’t present while the Stone Guardians attack you so your only real defence is pressing all of the buttons at once until you break free. The boy can defend by dodging and attack by shoving or pulling the helmets off of Stone Guardians who have been knocked down, which will kill them. Other times, Trico will hop around the room and simply swat or stomp the Stone Guardians until their armour separates, also effectively killing them. After all of the enemies in an area are felled, the boy needs to climb on Trico to pet him and calm him down and then remove spears protruding from his bloodied body.

Playing through The Last Guardian, I was constantly glad that the game missed the PS3 entirely – which it was originally supposed to release on – and made its debut on PS4. The extra power makes The Last Guardian a visual delight. Lighting is impeccable; textures look sharp and detailed which give each environment a tactile atmosphere and look. Particle effects help to show a world in decay through time as Trico moves through tight spaces, knocking rocks and architecture loose, causing it to crumble around him. The animations are always smooth, even in the aforementioned odd circumstances, making both Trico and the Boy feel much more grounded and belie their virtual nature.

While the visuals are fantastic, the sound design is probably the best I’ve heard all year. Open areas have wind and nature as their soundtracks, while cavernous areas echo and reverberate nearly every sound. The beautiful score is kept to a minimum and is only present during key moments and work well to evoke the appropriate emotion. The boy’s voice and language are always convincing and never got on my nerves. He will only talk when you are commanding Trico so it never became intrusive. Once again, the star of the show is Trico. Sounding like no animal I’ve ever heard but also sounding real, his expressive vocals work well in informing exactly what he’s feeling at any given moment. Be it that he’s hungry (prompting me to go find the situationally present barrels full of a mystery substance he eats), angry, in pain or simply missing me, Trico always communicates what he is feeling.

The Last Guardian is not a game for everyone. As someone who almost unanimously prefers gameplay to story, I can easily see the camera issues coupled with the slower controls being a real source of contention and turn off some people. Admittedly, I came close once or twice myself. However, when the gameplay works as intended, it works really well – and the beauty of the story together with the bond and affection I came to feel for Trico overtook any frustration I had. When “The End” appeared on my screen I wiped the mist from eyes, stood up and said to myself, “I loved that”. Unlike anything I have ever played before, if you own a PS4 and have a soft spot for animals, give The Last Guardian a try. You might come away as pleased as I was that this game exists and that you were able to experience it.

The Last Guardian is available on PlayStation 4.