The Last Guardian, Spoiler-Free Review

I just finished the game and I know that it’ll be a few weeks before I can get a video done on it. I still have the Fallout 4 video to complete, and I want to play Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian again before I start the script. The game is still being discussed a lot so I thought I could chime in with some early thoughts. If people like this, I might make it a regular thing—a quick write up on a game immediately after I finish it. Sometimes I change my mind a lot after I play a game a second time so it might be interesting to see how these thoughts compare to the final video. Some of this might not change though and may end up being in the video. So if you prefer to wait for that and not “spoil” it by reading this… there’s your warning.

I enjoyed very little outside of the visuals in The Last Guardian, and even those were marred by some heavy performance issues. I hate to come across as so fussy to start this post talking about technical problems, but the frequent framerate dips weren’t just annoying—they significantly hampered my ability to play the game in several sections. The game rarely maintains a stable framerate. There were a few times it felt like it hit single digits and that’s simply not acceptable for a console game. My worry is that the existence of the PS4 Pro has made it easy to justify releasing games unoptimized for the older version of the system. Some weird line of thought like “gamers who care about this sort of thing will WANT the better system anyway, so who cares about performance on the standard PS4.”

I don’t know whose fault this would be. I don’t know if it’s even true. So I don’t have much else to say about it other than I am really annoyed that the system I bought less than a year ago is already obsolete. I hope I’ll have some examples for this to show in the video and speak more about it when I have visuals to dig into.

Those framerate issues are made even worse because the game’s visuals are a big draw to play the game. You could make a strong argument that it’s the primary reason to play the game. I’m not comfortable labeling it as “cinematic” because I don’t even know what that truly means for a video game. A lot of people have different definitions for it—as I said in my big Uncharted video, I’ve seen people earnestly argue that a lower framerate is better for a cinematic experience. Others look at it as the tone of a game. Some would go with an unobtrusive User Interface or just immersion in general. I’m certain some would go by maturity as well because they think cinematic is equal to artistic merit or worth.

I say all that because I firmly believe The Last Guardian would have been better as a 2 hour feature film and not the 6 or 7 hour game that I played, but I don’t want to call it “cinematic”. The reason I think it would have been better as a movie is that there are very few meaningful interactive moments in the game, and the most powerful, poignant scenes (of which there are some and they are very successful) play out with no player control whatsoever.

The Last Guardian hinges around the relationship between you, a young boy, and a strange animal. This creature is a giant griffin-monster that resembles a dog more than anything else. It also has some feline characteristics. Obviously it has feathers as well. Its tail is also mouse-like. I wonder if it’s intentionally a mix of a lot of commonly adopted human pets to increase the chances of it appealing to the player.

The game centers around you learning to work together with the griffin—who is named Trico—and overcoming a series of challenges in the mysterious ruins that you’ve woken up in. How you arrived there isn’t told to you at the start. The story is vague but actually does give you answers by the end. They’re not exactly satisfying answers, and lead to further questions, but the game’s “story” is definitely a step up from the deliberately nebulous stuff in INSIDE.

These challenges take the form of a series of rooms that are disguised well enough that I felt like I was moving through an actual place instead of puzzle chambers like in Portal. The game still is fundamentally a puzzler however, and more often than not the puzzle you’re trying to solve is “how do I find the way out”. Which is fine. This concept isn’t flawed on its own and these areas look wonderful enough to be appealing to go through. The problems I have with The Last Guardian start with their execution.

This game is insultingly simple. Or insultingly frustrating. There was rarely any in between for me while I played, except for one or two moments near the end. As I went through it, I was struck with the same conclusion that I got while playing Uncharted: The Last Guardian wasn’t made for me. This is meant to be an entry level game for people who don’t play many games. There’s no challenge. Little complexity. There’s no UI. No real combat. No deep mechanics. Moving around the game world—running, jumping, climbing, etc—can be immediately understood. And the game continually bombards you with tutorial boxes, hints, and a narrator that tells you what to do.

This narrator is an older version of the protagonist, who is telling the story sometime in the future.

If this was one of the first video games someone ever played then I think it could be a magical experience—or, it would be, except for some issues with the controls. The game is awkward to play even for me—and many other seasoned gamers if twitter is anything to go by—so I have to wonder how successful it would be for someone new to gaming. The issue isn’t about controlling the boy in general, but specific failings when you’re trying to jump or climb on something. Or climb OFF of something in the case of the griffin, since the auto-cling, magnetic grab the boy sometimes uses can activate at random, giving you the impression you’re fighting with the kid on what you want him to do.

Unfortunately this is linked to one of the biggest failings The Last Guardian has: communication. This goes both ways. Multiple hours into the game, I was still getting pop-up notifications telling me what buttons did what. I don’t need to be told that. I’ve used triangle to jump hundreds of times by now. I get it. Countering that, the game failed completely in providing a reliable method of informing the player on what ledges can be grabbed or climbed on. A notable sequence near the end, which I won’t spoil, has you using a… creative… method of using something as a platform so you can jump over a wide gap. Above this method is a ledge that the boy should easily be capable of grabbing onto, but the game won’t allow it because it has this scripted solution instead. The game has many things like this—ledges and paths that you should be able to get to and can even reach, but the game won’t let the boy grab onto them because it’s not somewhere you’re meant to go.

Related to this there are a few moments in the game where the solution to a problem is to just wait and do nothing. The screen fades for no reason and then time passes, or a movie plays. Really strange.

The biggest issue with communication is with the game’s controls. You never directly move the griffin. You shout out commands instead through the boy. Very often the griffin is the only way you can move through an area. And while I understand that learning how to overcome the communication barrier with Trico is arguably the point of the entire game, that doesn’t mean it’s good. Developer intentions matter a lot. But something that is intentionally bad is still bad.

Think of the layers getting in between you and puzzle solutions here: first you have to identify what it is the game wants you to be doing. Then you have to control the boy and hope those controls result in what you actually want to happen—hopefully he doesn’t grab onto something you didn’t want him to, or actually lets go of the griffin’s feathers. Then you have to issue orders to Trico and hope that he listens, hope he understands, then you have to hope that you gave him the right command. Often you have to get him to jump over gaps and even after finishing the game, I can’t tell you what the right command is to make that happen. Sometimes it would be pointing in the direction of the gap. But sometimes that would fail and I would have to show him the boy jumping in place before he got it—look griffin, I’m jumping, so please jump too. But sometimes that would fail and make him jump in place instead, so I would have to point. Other times the griffin would just do it without any command at all.

This comes back to the paths and ledges you should be able to get to as well. Because there’s a lot ascending in this game. Both with Trico’s high jumps, but also having him stand on his hind legs while you’re on his head so you can jump to a higher platform. Sometimes I would see things far up in the room that I would want to get to, and I would spend many minutes trying to get Trico to stand up—pointing, gesturing, calling out, doing the jump—only to conclude by the end that it wasn’t a place I was meant to get to so the griffin couldn’t obey my commands, because there was no scripted place on the wall for him to lean against when he could stand up. It was just decoration above us instead.

So I can’t even experiment or explore reliably, because there’s no way to know for certain if the inputs I’m giving the game are valid or not.

Aside from this, the gameplay with Trico is wonderful—in the most purest definition of the word. This a masterfully crafted animal that acts like it has a mind of its own. I can see children loving this thing. I can see people new to games awestruck that this medium can create something like this. But as someone who has played so many games and is interested in more mechanically deep interactions—which very well could have been possible with this version of Trico, with expanded options and more challenging areas—I can’t help but wish I had been able to watch this relationship instead of waste so much of my time doing so many simple, repetitive tasks.

This isn’t the only way The Last Guardians fails at being a game for me though. Too much of the experience plays out while you’re in the backseat, so to speak. Enemies in the game are primarily handled by Trico. You can help a little—charging into spear throwers before they hit the griffin, or ripping off helmets when Trico knocks the enemies down so you kill one of them. But these are really minor and so ineffective when compared to Trico’s attacks that it’s not engaging. The most you do is janitorial duty afterward when you yank the spears out of the griffin’s feathers, which was already dull the third time I did it early on in the game. And is still dull the thirteenth time later at the end.

Large sections of the ruins are traversed on Trico’s back. The griffin does a chain of impressive looking jumps while you put the controller down and watch. Same for when you have to sit around and wait for him to figure something out, or to rescue you, or several other repeated scenarios that are functionally movies. Just because you have limited control of a blur of color on the griffin’s back while he does everything doesn’t change that it’s a movie in my mind.

There’s a part at the end that is the best example of this, especially when compared to Shadow of the Colossus. But in the interest of avoiding spoilers I won’t include it here. I’ll go into detail on it in the video, just like spoilers on the story and its conclusion.

Ultimately I think that the idea behind this game is an interesting one. I can see the premise trimmed down: You are trapped in a strange place with an unlikely ally, who you must learn to trust and communicate with in order to save each other. It fully committed to this idea of what it really might be like to have to cooperate with this big creature, and that’s unique enough that I admire the work that went into this game. But it fails to be anything more than visually and theoretically compelling for me. If it’s for newcomers to games then I also can’t ignore the issues in the controls that might frustrate someone so much that they give up. It’s a conflicting experience on all sides that, even after writing all this, I still can’t decide what I think it’s trying to be.

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3 thoughts on “The Last Guardian, Spoiler-Free Review

  1. Good critique as always Joseph, really enjoy your videos and written content it’s fantastic.

    I’d say that this is still perhaps a better game than it is a film. It’s a weird one because as you explain, the most interesting stuff does happen in cutscenes or scripted events, but I don’t think that takes much away.

    I think it’s that physical tedioum that the core gameplay loop locks you too – in the sense that you have to constantly care for, feed and teach Trico – that builds that bond that I don’t think other medium can replicate. Taylor in 2002 called this “intra-diagetic immersion”, where you become linked to a game as an experiential space. All fruity language aside, we care more because we do more – or so the theory implies.

    There’s a wider debate of Narrative vs Simulation in there somewhere, but I’d I don’t want to bore you with the details because it’s really isn’t an interesting read (trust)

    And as you said, it doesn’t make the game any better or any more fun, I also hated playing the last guardian, but the narrative and world was enough of a hook to keep me invested.

    Anyways, just my two cence (or pence in my case), keep up the fantastic work!

    Like

  2. This may not be the right place to do this, but I’m trying to read this script right now, and I can’t because an advertisement jerks my screen to itself periodically, making me completely lose my place. I’m even having difficulty typing this message. I don’t know if there’s anything you can do about it, or if it’s a problem on my end, but it makes for an extremely frustrating experience.

    Like

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