The Last Guardian is perhaps one of the most famous examples of a game languishing in ‘development hell’, to the point that I’m frankly amazed that the completed game exists at all. Its spiritual predecessors, Ico (2001) and Shadow of the Colossus (2005), were two of the most artistically celebrated games on the PlayStation 2, so small wonder that The Last Guardian attracted some major hype when it was first announced that it was in development.
That hype’s had almost ten full years to die down. Of course, this also means that the developers have had almost ten full years to create the best game they possibly could. Have they succeeded? Well…
Look, I’ll just quickly say this, as a sort of pre-emptive TL;DR: The Last Guardian has problems, that’s for sure, but it is absolutely worth playing. Particularly if you’ve played the previous Team ICO games, but even if you haven’t, TLG is an experience that creates more genuine emotional impact than pretty much any other game I can think of.
I don’t intend to go into depth on the game’s troubled development history, because there’s already enough on that subject to fill more than a few bookshelves, other than to note that The Last Guardian was originally slated for release on the PlayStation 3 (which was still a very new console back in ’07), but shifted to PS4 a few years in. This’ll come up again in a bit.
I think my main impression is that I’m just happy that the game does indeed exist. For my money, it’s on a par with its predecessors, which is saying something. Both of those games were extremely well-received, and continue to be discussed and held up as examples of games as art, but Ico in particular was far from a commercial success (at least in the West). I have played both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and I really do think that both are fantastic games; SotC is the one that really sticks out to me as being one of my favourite games of all time, and perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed The Last Guardian so much was because it recaptures the feeling that Colossus gave me, a feeling I don’t think any other game’s managed to replicate or even aim at. I don’t even know what that feeling is, really. I think it has to do with the sense that I’m playing as a real, non-superpowered person in a world full of things much bigger and scarier than me, which is a bit unusual in gaming. Even games which are broadly realistic tend to give the player character the ability to jump at least their own height, absorb bullets and generally destroy the opposition; the Team Ico unofficial trilogy makes its protagonists (while admittedly unusually resilient to being smacked by giant minotaurs – or, indeed, falling off said minotaurs) control almost as if they might fall over at any moment. Wander in Colossus, while agile and proficient in climbing and equestrianism, can’t hold on forever, nor can he jump six feet in the air; the Boy (capitalised so I don’t have to keep referring to him as ‘the player character’) in Guardian climbs slowly, stumbles over rocks, and even limps if he takes fall damage (though he walks it off pretty fast). It’s a feature that might be frustrating – and for that matter does occasionally get frustrating, but I’m willing to put up with it for the immersion it generates, as well as the attachment to the character. It’s hard not to get invested in Guardian‘s protagonist as he trots around and struggles to pull himself up ledges, simple animations that give him a personality outside of the actions I cause him to undertake.
Speaking of personality, the USP and crowning achievement of The Last Guardian is surely Trico, an enormous cat/ bird/ rat/ lightning wizard. I’ve never come across a creature that felt so real; Trico occasionally reminds me of the lumbering Colossi, which often moved in subtle ways that really showed that they were living, feeling beings, but he’s a step beyond that for sure. It’s bizarre how this chimera, which straddles the line between freakish and adorable, manages to create an identity all of its own simply through little details. Trico will react to his environment in smart, subtle ways, often glancing towards the solution to the puzzle, standing up and pawing playfully at a dangling chain, or simply having a lie down. He can also poop, so there’s that. Explaining it doesn’t do justice to the sense of attachment that the player almost inevitably develops to this giant… weird… thing. Trico spends a lot of time connecting with the Boy, and by proxy the player themselves: looking back at me as I climb up and pet him, or watching me as I squeeze past a gate he can’t fit through, letting me know that he’s both keeping a protective eye on me and hoping I’ll come back soon because he misses me. Yet somehow it’s the things that he does just by himself that really make me feel as if I understand this creature and care for it. Much as the player character’s clumsiness can be frustrating at times, I can certainly understand the criticism that Trico’s individualistic behaviour can become an irritating obstacle; more often than not, you’ll need Trico to do some specific action in order to progress, and he’ll tend to take his time doing what you want him to do. The player is able to give Trico limited ‘orders’: calling him to their location, directing him somewhere specific or asking him to jump, and he will usually follow your lead, but almost never immediately. I found that Trico tended to listen to me (or the Boy, perhaps more accurately) more as we got further into the game, which might have been a coincidence but certainly made me feel that he was coming to trust me more and more. If anything, though, I only loved him more when he took his time doing what I wanted him to do because he was too busy wandering around of his own accord. Again, it’s this unusual step of giving the player less control than they’re used to as a way of demonstrating that the characters have their own volitions, and I really do think it works fantastically because of how rare it is not to have something happen almost instantaneously after a button-press.
Speaking of the Trico ‘controls’, I can’t help but suspect that there were originally supposed to be more than there ended up being. See, the Boy can move using the left stick and jump with Triangle, drop down with X, charge with Square or grip with Circle. A tap of R1 calls Trico over; holding R1 and moving the left stick points him to where you want him to go, and holding R1 and pressing Triangle instructs him to jump. When the Boy gives Trico a command, he issues a verbal signal and some sort of action, like pointing in a direction or demonstrating jumping upwards. It feels to me as if R1 was supposed to be a sort of ‘Trico button’ which changed each control from causing the protagonist to directly do something to ordering Trico to do the same thing. In fact, I found that holding R1 and pressing Circle, Square or X did actually cause the Boy to make a noise like one of the other commands and perform a sort of mime which looked to me as if he were trying to show Trico what he wanted him to do. I wonder whether there would originally have been more intricate puzzles involving large objects which you would have to order Trico to pull, or barriers you could ask him to smash. If so, it seems a bit of a missed opportunity, but I sort of like the limited scope of the player’s ability to control Trico, if it can be called ‘control’. In fact, I actually felt pretty proud of my feathered friend when I was able to simply suggest that we should jump over that way and he’d just go ahead and take me through the rest, often leaping through some very nice architecture. On occasion, some of it would even break under his weight, leading to some great set pieces that went a long way to convincing me that this game wouldn’t have been possible to create on anything less powerful than the PS4.
The Last Guardian is, in many ways, a characteristically PS4 type of experience. Just look at Trico’s feathers or any of his little animated tics and you’ll realise that he would never have been able to exist in the carefully sculpted form he does on less powerful hardware. That said, it’s impossible to forget that it’s also very much a child of the PS2 era, being the close sibling of the other Team ICO games and having begun the earliest stages of its development when the PS2 was still the most popular console out there. Thinking about it, The Last Guardian might well be the last remnant of an entire generation of games: the very last game to be released that begun its conception before shooters, sequels and annual sports games filled the market, and auteurism was still just as prominent as big-studio developers (it’s far rarer now to find a game that claims to have a single person as the driving creative force, though this used to be prominent in Japan in particular with big names like Suda51 and Hideo Kojima; the closest example I can think of these days is Tetsuya Nomura, who seems to be primarily responsible for most of the Kingdom Hearts creative decisions). It’s a relic of a bygone time, almost a time capsule. While that probably contributes to the unique feeling that makes it such a success, it also carries over some problems. The camera, for example, is at best temperamental and at worst utterly unbearable, and in these days of the Internet of Things I’d be hopeful that it’d get patched if it didn’t seem as if too much time’s already passed since release (a patch would of course have been impossible, even unheard of, back in the PS2 days).
So, that central question. Was the wait worth it?
I think it depends how you define ‘worth it’. Let’s say that a normal development cycle takes a year and The Last Guardian‘s took ten. I don’t think I can claim that the wait was worth it in the sense that it’s led to a product that’s ten times better than a game developed in a ‘reasonable’ amount of time, but then I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect it to be so mathematically straightforward. Besides, I imagine an awful lot changed during that long period, including having to transfer the entire project to a completely different console, so the finished product as it now is probably only started being worked on four or five years ago.
Let’s define ‘worth it’ a bit more generously, though, and just ask whether we can be happy that, after such a long wait, we now have something decent to show for it. The answer has to be a resounding yes.