Friday, 27 January 2017

The Last Guardian - Review

Developer: Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment 
Platforms: PS4 

The Last Guardian begins with a complete inversion of Shadow of the Colossus. Controlling the young protagonist, you’re gently instructed to pull the giant spears out of the injured Trico’s body. It’s a striking moment to begin a game with, and perfectly sums up the relationship that defines The Last Guardian throughout its runtime.

It’s been a whole decade since we last explored Fumito Ueda’s unique brand of game design. As with Final Fantasy XV, it’s something of a miracle that we’re getting to experience The Last Guardian at all. Games that spend this long in development hell usually don’t turn out so well, (Final Fantasy and Duke Nukem can attest to that), so the fact that it’s out and that it’s incredibly good is something to celebrate.

The Last Guardian is unique in the sense that it’s the end of a trilogy, not necessarily in a story sense but in terms of its gameplay. Ueda and his team treat the game as a mirror to the previous instalments, and playing through it is like playing both an amalgamation and reflection of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of The Last Guardian however, is less to do with the series it belongs to, and more to the fact that it simply avoids the tiresome trends of modern big-budget game design. There’s no tacked-on multiplayer (thank goodness), no bland level-up screen to pretend you’re playing an RPG, and no hollow open-world either. This is a game with a beginning, middle and an end.

A lot has been said in the gaming media about how The Last Guardian suffers from being born out of ten year old design elements that haven’t age well. The argument generally being that it looks like a PS4 game, but plays like a PS2 game. What that argument fails to acknowledge however, is that sometimes not being beholden to modern trends can be something of an advantage.

There’s a humble, no-frills, joy to simply exploring the game's world. After escaping from the opening make-shift prison with your cat-bird buddy in tow, there’s a charming simplicity to the game that makes clambering over ruins and rooting around caves therapeutic and oddly relaxing. There’s just enough challenge to keep you hooked, but never too much to break the immersion.

Of course, all of this gameplay is underscored by the primary relationship between boy and cat-beast. Trico is a wonderful creature to behold, one that feels, quite believably for the most part, like an actual creature, rather than just an awkward bit of AI that you have to tow/escort around the environment.

Make no mistake, Trico is awkward. Sometimes he’ll not listen to your commands, all of which are vague, general instructions rather than direct orders. Sometimes he’ll stubbornly sit there and do nothing whilst you flail your arms trying to get the damn thing to simply stand up against a wall to climb up him. You’ll curse, call him names, and decry the game as a mess at times. The Last Guardian’s long development time can perhaps best be felt, not in its game design, but in Trico, he’s a fascinating creation, but one that only seems to function properly about 75% of the time.

And yet, that stubbornness and refusal to directly obey the player’s commands is sometimes what makes Trico appear so real. Like any animal he’s not inclined to directly obey commands the instant you say them, and that says something about the relationship that the boy and Trico have throughout the game. This is a game of two equals, rather than some dumb beast that you’re forced to cajole. Whether all of the AI foibles are deliberate or not, in some bizarre counter-intuitive way, they end up serving the story that’s being told.

Whilst the core focus is on puzzles that involve both the boy and Trico, there’s a variety of scenarios that crop up throughout the game to break up any sense of monotony. The “protect the girl” central mechanic of Ico, where the player had to worry less about themselves and more about stopping the shadow creatures from stealing away the girl, is flipped on its head here. Now, you’re the target that can be hauled away through mysterious doors by stone soldiers, and it’s up to Trico to protect you.

This combat system is slowly played with as the game progresses. Early on, it’s just about getting Trico into a particular room to protect you, but later, enemies will come wielding stain-glass shields, which, you’ll learn early on, Trico really doesn’t like. And so now the onus is on you to push these enemies over and give Trico long enough to clean up. It’s a simple gameplay system, but one that’s gently weaved together with new elements to keep it fresh and more importantly continue to expand the growing relationship between the two main characters.

The most striking moment occurs after an encounter, however. Trico will continue to snap and snarl until the player clambers onto his back and gently pets him. It’s little more than climbing on Trico and holding down the circle button but says more about The Last Guardian’s design philosophy than any other. It has a dedicated comfort button.

It should also be stressed that Ueda’s team haven’t lost any of their knack for creating stunning environments. Their particularly unique style of fantasy is stunning to look at, and even since Ico’s release in 2002 you can see its influence on many other games. Just go play Demon’s Souls' Shrine of Storms area and see what I mean.

Whilst the platforming remains simple, it does so while still being engaging. Clambering atop a nest of wind chimes is a particular highlight. As bizarre as it sounds, there’s a genuine sense of vertigo to The Last Guardian’s platforming that sets it apart from other games (Shadow of the Colossus was similar), and the boy lacks the sticky-handed safety of Nathan Drake, making these sequences both a little more difficult, as well as carry a greater impact.

Like any important work of art, The Last Guardian is at times frustrating and maybe even a little obtuse. Like its titular beast, it’s a game that will no doubt test your patience at times, but rarely does that ever take away from its overall impact. Its long development time certainly hasn’t done it any technical favours between the wonky camera controls and occasional performance issues, but neither do these problems fundamentally take away from what the game is trying to do.

Like with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, its finale is heartfelt and gently melancholy without ever falling over into maudlin, or tugging at the heartstrings merely for the sake of it. The Last Guardian is one of the most thoughtful and engaging releases of 2016; not even a decade in development hell can take away from its central emotional spark.


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