The Last Guardian: Not Shadow of the Colossus, But Well Worth the Wait

The Last Guardian.

If you’ve owned a Sony product in the last nine years, you’ve no doubt heard of this particular game. What was intended to be the spiritual successor to one of the most critically acclaimed video games of all time, Shadow of the Colossus, this game by the same makers has been delayed, put off, and even rumored to be cancelled more times than can be counted. Originally announced at E3 in 2009 as a PS3 exclusive, December 2016 finally saw the PS4 release of this long-awaited, long-hyped, potential masterpiece.

Was it perfect? No. Not at all.

But was it worth the wait?

Yes. Yes, it was.

Before I start the critical part of this review, however, there is something I want to address quickly:

The Last Guardian is not Shadow of the Colossus, and doesn’t try to be. They are entirely different games, similar in art style and control scheme only. This game has received somewhat mixed reviews, and I think I know why, but I’ll go into detail about that later. A lot of people went into this game expecting a sequel or HD rehash of SotC, but that’s not what it is.

The Last Guardian focuses on puzzles, getting from one point to another, with the aid of a gigantic animal companion, all while building a strong emotional bond with it. In that sense, The Last Guardian is much more like ICO than SotC. If you’re going into expecting it to be Shadow of the Colossus 2, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. If you haven’t played it, try to appreciate The Last Guardian as it’s own entity and appreciate it for what it wants to do, because it is a completely different story with a drastically different tone.

As anyone who is familiar with Team ICO would come to expect, like the games that came before it, The Last Guardian excels with it’s minimalist story, that leaves most of the deeper themes completely open to the player’s personal interpretation. You play as a boy that remains unnamed through the entire game. He wakes up in a temple somewhere, mere feet from a gigantic cat-dog-bat-bird…thing named Trico.

With no memories of how he ended up in this situation, the kid trudges through the temple, slowly building a bond with Trico as the two of them attempt to escape together. That’s really all the story the game gives you – it is revealed through flashbacks how the two of you ended up in this isolated series of temples and ruins in the first place, but without the use of dialogue, leaving the player to make their own interpretations of why the events play out.

And the ending is a ride and a half, but I’m not going to spoil that – much like Shadow of the Colossus, spoiling the ending to this game is a crime.

So yeah, there’s all the story the game gives you, and that’s honestly where Team ICO in general excels. They are masters at creating games that focus much more on showing, and not telling – on letting the player discover what to do by interacting with the beautful environments, and only giving obscure hints if the player is truly struggling. The Last Guardian probably does this better than either of the games that came before it.

Trico will regularly rub its head up against you like a dog , solely to be pet. Does this accomplish anything? No. But god, is it cute.

Now, this is not a fast-paced game by any stretch of the imagination, to the point where a lot of people don’t like it for that exact reason. Trico seems to be a polarizing element to this game – some people are endeared by it, sucked right into it’s dog-like mannerisms and actions.

Some people will fall in love with the beast as the story progresses and genuinely care about the bond it has with the child. Those are the people who will ultimately get more out of the beautiful story The Last Guardian has to offer – the ones who can look past the more tedious elements and occasional hiccups in Trico’s AI, in exchange for the emotional impact that Team ICO was clearly going for.

However, if you don’t like Trico, you’re in for a fairly unpleasant experience. As just stated, there can be elements to Trico that can be called tedious, to say the very least. There’s no quick way to progress through this game. You are never given control over Trico,

One of many casual resting animations this ball of feathers will endear you with.

and that makes the game all the more special. Being successful in The Last Guardian requires you, the player, to learn to understand this gigantic beast. And as you progress, you will. Trico has numerous body signals that tells you when it’s prepared to interact with objects, ledges, gaps, etc, and you have to learn to read those signs to advance in the game. It’s not something the game can be blamed for, because it boils down to whether or not the player is immersed enough to be able to learn to do this.

Just as the boy learns more about Trico in order to understand it more, the player is going through the same experiences. And it works flawlessly to this game’s advantage. Yes, the AI can be touchy at times. Trico can sometimes just completely fail to catch you while you’re doing leaps of faith where the game demands that it catches you. However, it’s not supposed to obey your every little command. Trico is an animal. It’s not on the same level of thinking that the kid is. You can guide it, but can never control it, and the game never changes that dynamic. You have to learn to trust the beast and work together with it to progress, AI hiccups or not. Kinda like having a real pet, eh?

When I had to jump over a bottomless pit, watch Trico attempt to to catch me in it’s mouth, only to just miss by a hair, then tuck it’s tail under the bridge to catch me as I fell, I knew this game was something special.

It was cool at E3, it was amazing when it experienced myself.

Now, mechanically speaking, it can be clunky. Many people have experienced framerate issues and, yeah, sometimes climbing Trico can be touchy. Oftentimes, you’ll get caught on a body part and the child won’t be able to just smoothly transition from one body part to the other – an issue that was very much present in SotC as well. Also, when you put something as big as Trico in tight hallways of temple ruins, camera issues also come forward. These elements can be annoying, but don’t really detract from the enjoyment of the game as a whole. The Last Guardian cares very much more about the story and the relationship between Trico and the kid then it does basic gameplay mechanics, but, hey, that’s something that has always been par for the course with Team ICO.

As far as being a puzzle platformer goes, The Last Guardian has it pretty much down to a science. You can interact with almost every ledge, path, stone outcrops, vines, tunnel, etc in the game, sometimes to lead you to a dead end, and other times to find hidden items and collectibles. It is very rare that the solution to a climbing puzzles is obvious – oftentimes, you will actually need look around your surrounds to find hints about what to do next. Your goal won’t be glowing brightly. And those goals tend to be pretty obscure. I remember one puzzle in particular that involved climbing through a window to unlock it from the other side, finding a pot hanging on a chain near the ceiling, safely delivering that pot to another chain near Trico so it could pull on it, which then opened a door the kid could barely fit through, where he then had to time wedging a pillar under said door with Trico yanking on the chain to prop it open for the beast.

There is a near-constant transparent reminder of the basic control scheme for climbing in the top right-hand corner of the screen as well, for those who may be unfamiliar with the somewhat unorthodox configuration Team ICO has been known to use in their games. It’s not entirely necessary for those who have played ICO and SotC, but it’s a nice touch for newcomers.

Also, this game is just gorgeous. One look at how complex the tunnels are, how ambient the lighting is, how detailed every single environment is, the mannerisms and astonishing amount of effort that went into every single animistic animation Trico makes, and I knew why this game was put off as long as it was. The PS3 would have never would have been able to handle the scope of what The Last Guardian wanted to do – hell, the PS4 barely pulled it off.

Just look at some of these lighting effects, animations and environments.

Especially note how the wetness effect works.

Hell, the game even makes crawling though dark temples look beautiful.

The astounding visuals also enhance the scope of just how huge the boy’s animal companion is – he’s about the same height as Trico’s front foot, and often while playing, I found myself stopping to just look up in awe at how beautful and intimating this gargantuan puppy really is. Anyone who has played Shadow of the Colossus knows exactly what I’m referring to. It’s something that needs to be experienced to full get a grasp of.

The sound design is near-flawless as well. From the sounds that Trico makes, to the music that plays in the more scenic and dramatic parts, to the noise of temples and bridges crashing down around you, all the way to the the slight padding noise that the boy’s feet makes as he walks across different kinds of terrain, the ambiance has just as much attention to detail as everything else in The Last Guardian.

Final rubric:

Story: 10/10 – The Last Guardian boasts a beautifully minimalist story that focuses on building a bond with the characters, all through the use of interactions together and almost no dialogue and direction besides what you experience while trudging along with Trico.

Gameplay: 7/10 – This is where the game suffers the most. The Last Guardian is occasionally plagued by framerate and camera issues and awkward controls while scaling Trico. The obscurity of some of the puzzles and hiccups in the beast’s AI can makes this game tedious at the best of times and downright frustrating at its worst (I’m looking at one segment I had to replay seven times because Trico continually failed to catch me over and over again), but the smoothness of the platforming and the fact that almost everything in the environment can be interacted with more than makes up for Trico behaving like a dumb animal at times.

Visuals and Sound: 10/10 – I’d give it 11/10 if I could. The Last Guardian is breathtakingly beautful, scenic and grand in the outdoor segments with lighting effects, sound design and scenery that is nothing short of artistic, while the indoor parts of the game are atmospheric and dark and intricately detailed.

Average Score: 9/10 – The Last Guardian is a beautiful, emotional, engrossing, immersive labor of love, twelve years in the making, and to me personally, it was well worth the wait. I rarely find games that endear me the way the boy and Trico have. Maybe it’s just the animal lover deep in my soul, but I just couldn’t bring myself to feel anything but love for Trico and it’s story with the young boy.

Obviously, this game is not for everyone. If gameplay is more important to you than a deeply beautful, emotionally charged story, you won’t get the most out of it. If you go into The Last Guardian expecting the guilt ridden angst-fest that was Shadow of the Colossus, you won’t get the most out of it. If you spend the entire game comparing The Last Guardian to it’s critically acclaimed predecessor, you won’t get the most out of it.

The Last Guardian is absolutely another masterpiece by Team ICO, and easily fits on the list of my favorite games of all time. No, it’s not Shadow of the Colossus, but it’s a damn good game, and well worth the wait and hype that it has generated over the last decade or so.