REVIEW: ‘The Last Guardian’ is a Journey of Great Ambition & Frustration

At what point is it cheating to look up the walk-through of a game? I remember I did in one of the late stages of Portal (2007). I discovered upon looking online that I had the correct idea in place but I needed to lower my exit portal to heighten my momentum. Momentum in games is key to maintain the consistency of flavour. Too little time spent to solve and I don’t feel challenged as a gamer, too late and I’m taken out of it as my attitude towards the game is tarnished as I feel like the game is being unfair to me or that I am an idiot. I looked up the solution because I wanted to continue to enjoy the game and I felt that I was in danger of losing that. Afterwards I felt like I had cheated, though as I argued with a friend; the justification with games that even if you do know the answers you still have to play your way through it. Now because Portal is completely fair and perfectly balanced puzzle game and because I was so close to a solution after playing for hours I felt like I had lost something in looking up the answers that I will never get back and have learned to avoid that since. Now, 10 years after that masterpiece an ambitious team of developers that gave us Shadow of the Colossus (a game I loved) & Ico (a game I hated) try to do with the organic, what Portal so easily did with the mechanical. And in this game I also looked up the solution via text walk-through. Only this time it was after 20 minutes of scouring and it did not feel like cheating.

In this game, your environmental pathfinder isn’t a portal gun, but an animal. Referred to as Trico for its species this giant griffin brings with it a greater emotional bond than Portal did with its companion cube (har har) and with it comes a greater number of technical problems to go with its emotional highs and lows. It’s hard to tell how game development has matured in the relationship between these two games. What lessons have been learned? Am I less patient or just know when I’m beat? You can see in the clip below my frustration in beating a puzzle I may have been justified cheating on. I did not feel the loss I experienced in Portal. However ingenious the solution was to interacting with the environment the game had reasonably failed teach it to the player.

“When the boy calls Trico, we could have made Trico come immediately, like clockwork. But if we did that, Trico would not seem like an independent creature. It wouldn’t seem like it was alive and making its own decisions.” – Fumito Ueda, Creative Director

That quote speaks to the beginning of the game when the boy you play as awakens to find themselves surrounded by the somewhat passive beast. Together you work to escape a mysterious fortress encountering adversarial ancient figures along the way, in addition to a few surprises. Will the end reward here also be a lie? The Last Guardian successfully illustrates the problem with using a meaningful organic bond as a technical gameplay hook, as getting through the twelve-hour journey can prove a little messy and unfair to the player. Shaking off the ruffled feathers and figuring out how to communicate with the gigantic creature is an acceptable growing pain in the first two or three hours of the game, however by hour five it still doesn’t shake out. It becomes weary when you two have undergone such tribulation together and formed a bond (confirmed via narrative exposition) that the animal still does not respond to your input controls. This frustration is highlighted at points when the animal doesn’t respond or responds incidentally for the sake of being an animal. In the clip above the animals actions do not line up from a narrative perspective when you’ve already spent loads of time apart and it doesn’t feature gameplay wise because you are isolated in a water chamber anyway. The player rode Trico to get in and needs it to get out. This is the one major time in the game required to separate narrative and gameplay ideas in order to find a solution and you can tell the struggles of development in keeping these two elements married to each other. The Japan Studio comes close but it doesn’t always work.

*Trico is referred to by name as well as species.

The fact that through the fight TLG’s ambitions often come so close to fruition comes all the more frustrating on both sides; when it crumbles under the weight of its own suffering game mechanic and when it decides to fall back on old ones. The game repeats many of the same plot elements from its first game Ico, and it also brings to the table the climbing mechanic and graceful animations from Shadow of the Colossus. The reputation from those games offers a breadth of expectation to the developer it can no longer live up to. There are still brilliant moments beyond anything major western companies might think of which come at least thrice in The Last Guardian. One, beautifully outlined in GameMaker’s Toolkit successfully demonstrates what the bond between the two central characters should feel like in its wildest moments. Another late game reveal demands cinematic and gameplay storytelling patience that offers a shock most AAA games wouldn’t have time for. And a final grace note has you maintain gameplay from a tilted perspective shift that is so often effectively used in other storytelling I’m surprised it doesn’t come more often. Getting to these moments of pure beauty is rewarding but it can feel too much like work in the process, almost like sitting through a pretentious art film. In a world where video games aren’t supposed to be fun, one supposes that technique might work.

We all know video games can be art, as Portal is a fine example but this game misses the mark. The game has its fair share of beauty and one would be inclined to think if it shed some hours on the journey it would be more impactful, but the game doesn’t come together enough, at least not for me. I did not feel like I hurt the game finding a walk-through because I never felt like it let me in.

My gameplay experience.

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