Why you might not want to play The Last Guardian
In the mid-2000s, I loved playing through Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, video games that Fumito Ueda's Team Ico and Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan Studio developed for the PlayStation 2. Ico had a beautiful, subdued visual style and unique gameplay that combined action and puzzle-solving, and SotC mixed exploration of diverse environments with incredibly-epic boss battles.
As a result, I was excited to hear that Team Ico had started creating their third game, The Last Guardian, in 2007. It was originally being developed as a PlayStation 3 game, but nine years later in 2016, it was finally released for the PlayStation 4. With high expectations, I bought the game... and then failed to get into it after playing for an hour or so. It just didn't grab me in the same way as the team's earlier games. But completionist that I am, I picked up the game again a few years later and finally played all the way through it.
In The Last Guardian, the player controls an unnamed boy who is accompanied by a giant cat/dog/bird/gryphon-like creature named Trico. The game has some nice moments (mostly during elaborate scripted cutscenes) and consistent art direction, and the developers clearly put a lot of work into it, but it frustrated me more than any other game I can remember playing recently. I'm writing this as a (spoiler-free) warning to other prospective players, and also to vent.
The Last Guardian's gameplay is essentially a mix of Team Ico's earlier games: as in Ico, the player runs around solving environmental puzzles to progress to different areas, and as in SotC, they spend a good chunk of time hanging from a giant beast. I frequently found The Last Guardian's puzzles to be infuriating, though. They sometime involved capricious, one-off physics mechanics that didn't come into play anywhere else in the game. At other times, inconsistencies in the physics system misdirected me away from the solution.
Many of the puzzles require convincing Trico to move into a particular position or jump to a platform. The player can issue simple commands to Trico, like "walk in this direction", "jump", or "dive", but I found that Trico would often fail to respond or do something else entirely. When this would happen, it was unclear whether the issue was that I was trying the wrong thing (maybe that's not really a platform?) or that Trico was confused or stubborn. In these situations, I'd have no choice but to repeatedly issue the same command to Trico, sometimes for several minutes. Disturbingly often, my original idea would eventually end up being correct. Negotiating with Trico's AI was frequently more challenging than the puzzles themselves.
In many places, progress is made by hanging onto Trico as it jumps from platform to platform. Inexplicably, Trico would sometimes instead backtrack to an earlier area, only to immediately return and then advance to the next area.
There were also lengthy stretches of the game without any real puzzles at all, where the same pattern was instead repeated over and over:
- Walk up to a gate with Trico.
- Dismount and either climb through a hole in the gate or walk around it.
- Pull a switch to open the gate so Trico can walk through.
This was especially prominent near the end of the game. It felt like the designers ran out of ideas, particularly when comparing The Last Guardian against other games that I've played recently (e.g. Playdead's excellent Limbo and Inside) that managed to provide a consistent level of puzzling throughout.
Trico's animations are excellent, but the boy's frequently infuriated me, often actively impeding gameplay. After falling a long distance, the boy limps slowly and is unable to jump for ten or fifteen seconds before returning to normal. As far as I could tell, this never served any purpose besides preventing me from doing anything useful until it ended. The boy thankfully usually refuses to run off of cliffs, but every time he nears one, an exaggerated stumbling animation is triggered. Whenever the player happens to run into a wall, the boy falls down, which is particularly frustrating while being chased.
The game's camera is problematic compared to other third-person games that I've played in the last decade or so. When riding Trico through narrow passageways, the viewpoint would sometimes get stuck in a wall, resulting in the screen turning completely black and remaining that way for several seconds. At other times, I'd use the right analog stick to line up the camera for a jump, only to have it swing to the side at the last minute and send me in the wrong direction. When trying to focus on a particular point, the camera would frequently shift so my view was completely blocked by Trico or by the boy himself.
Much of the game involves hanging onto and maneuvering around Trico, but I found this to be very frustrating. I'd frequently get stuck while climbing up one of Trico's legs, with the animation looping but the boy not making any upward progress. Trying to get off of Trico was equally difficult — when jumping or dropping off of Trico, the boy would often immediately grab on again. The bad camerawork contributed to the problem, with the viewpoint sometimes moving to the wrong side of Trico, resulting in the boy climbing in the opposite direction from what I'd intended.
Basic platforming is also challenging. As mentioned above, the game seems to prevent the player from walking off of cliffs, but it doesn't grant the same favor when jumping — due to the constantly-moving camera, I found it extremely hard to predict where the boy would end up going. Some puzzles require throwing objects, which would often follow too low of a trajectory to clear an obstacle and instead bounce back at me. Barring more-precise controls, I would've preferred that the game provide more assistance when jumping or throwing.
Despite being published by Sony, The Last Guardian has what seems like the worst rendering performance of any PS4 game that I've played. The framerate was very variable with an apparent 30 frames-per-second cap, and at times it appeared to drop well below 20 FPS. The rendering of Trico is great, with individually-animated feathers and pretty backlighting, and it looks like there's significant post-processing on each frame, but such a low framerate felt unexpected when there were at typically at most two animated characters onscreen (not counting a few butterflies flitting around). At two points near the end of the game, it froze abruptly for ten seconds or so, perhaps while paging in new content. Per Digital Foundry's video analysis (summarized by this Destructoid article), the only way to get a solid 30 FPS is with a PlayStation 4 Pro that's been forced to use 1080p (rather than 4K) resolution.
When a game like Grand Theft Auto V (also originally for the PS3) is able to stay near 30 FPS while simulating a full living city with hundreds (thousands?) of moving objects onscreen at once, it seems inexcusable for Sony to not have addressed The Last Guardian's poor performance for base PS4 owners via a patch in the four years since it was released.