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The Last Guardian review: can heart make up for technical problems?

Design and technical issues mar an otherwise powerful experience

The Last Guardian

For the last 30 minutes, I’ve been trying to get a giant German Shepherd with wings and glowing blue horns to dive into a pool. The creature has other ideas. I can get it in the water, leaping from a rocky outcropping into the pool, but it won’t do it with me holding on so I can reach a tunnel at the very bottom. Given that there’s only one way forward through this watery ruin, and that I can’t get where I need to on my own, I’m starting to get fed up with my companion.

Finally, after a half hour of trying, the beast starts to dive in a slightly different way, sticking its tail straight back as it leaps into the water. I’m able to grab onto it as the animal dives down, and a few moments later we’re through the tunnel to another part of the ruin. I climb up its back and scratch it behind the left ear. It shakes with pleasure. The frustrating ordeal is forgotten and we move on, together.

The Last Guardian is a game about a young boy and a magical creature named Trico who are forced to work together to explore and escape dark, crumbling ruins. The entire experience hinges on this relationship; it drives the story, the puzzles, and the world itself. And when it works it’s incredible. Trico is the most convincing video game creature I’ve ever interacted with — at times funny and adorable like a puppy, other times ferocious and powerful like a wild beast. It’s a creature with a mind of its own, one that I came to know and love over the course of the adventure.

But like the crumbling ruins you explore in The Last Guardian, the game itself often feels brittle and broken. Often it doesn’t work as it should, and you’ll need to push through some terribly frustrating moments to experience everything The Last Guardian has to offer.

The Last Guardian

The game opens with the boy and Trico waking up in a cave. The beast is beaten and bloodied, chained to the ground. A spear is sticking out of its leg. An old man narrates the game, the voice of the boy years later, and he describes Trico as a “man-eating beast.” This is something you’re meant to be afraid of — but the two are trapped with no real choice other than to work together to escape. You’re slowly able to earn Trico’s trust — at first it won’t even eat in front of you — and the relationship continues grow naturally over the course of the game.

There’s not much explicit storytelling in The Last Guardian. Aside from the sparse narration — which occasionally serves as a way to give you hints on what to do next — there are just a few cutscenes, mostly toward the end of the game. Most of the details of the world and its history are left unexplained. Instead, the story is told primarily through the game itself.

The Last Guardian is essentially a combination of a puzzle game and a platformer, where you move from one area to the next, figuring out how to get both the boy and Trico through the world. It’s about traversing tricky environments, and each character has abilities the other doesn’t. The boy can slip through small cracks to reach new areas, and flip switches and pick up objects. Trico, meanwhile, can leap to high areas and bat away anything that tries to attack the boy. You can guide Trico around, asking it to follow you to a spot, or jump up somewhere, but often it will act on its own. Sometimes you just need to climb up on its back and let it take you where you need to go. The game doesn’t explicitly tell you where to go or what to do. Instead, you need to carefully observe the world around you to figure out the path ahead, which more often than not means moving higher and higher.

When it works, the formula is great. Figuring out how to open a door or ascend a dilapidated tower without being told how is very satisfying. And the platforming moments are always tense; it feels like you’re constantly teetering on the perilous edge of a ruined staircase or rickety scaffolding hundreds of feet in the air. The world is crumbling all around you, and often it’s up to Trico to save you at the last minute (usually in slow motion).

But things often don’t work so well. The Last Guardian is a rigid, linear game, one that usually only offers one very specific path forward, but doesn’t provide you with the right information to find it. The world is inconsistent, letting you interact with some objects and not others, which can lead to a lot of wasted time. And while the hazy visuals instill a sense of mystery, they can also make everything look the same, so that it’s easy to miss important visual cues. At times the game tries to provide hints, through narration or Trico’s actions, but these suggestions only show you the obvious, which isn’t much help when you’re truly stuck.

Meanwhile, the in-game camera is absolutely terrible. It feels like it has a mind of its own, twisting and rotating in ways that make little sense and occasionally made me nauseous. Often when I’d carefully position the camera to make a tricky jump, it would slowly drift away for reasons I never understood, ultimately causing the boy to plummet to his death. It’s made even worse by plentiful technical issues. Often you’ll see objects clip through each other — Trico’s tail swishing right through a stone column, or the boy’s arms swinging through a wall — and numerous times I found the boy stuck in an animation, unable to move until something interrupted him.

The game’s linear structure makes these moments all the more frustrating. When you’re stuck, there’s nothing else to do but keep trying. You can’t go somewhere else and do something different. Sometimes the problems are with Trico. At one point I needed to reach a location a level below where I was, and didn’t realize the only way down was climbing Trico’s tail. The reason I didn’t realize this is because the beast refused to sit down when I asked it to. These moments can kill the game’s momentum, and particularly during the middle of the game things start to drag on. But the powerful scenes are worth experiencing.

The Last Guardian

Whereas the game’s world and structure are rigid and sometimes confusing, Trico feels like a real, dynamic, living creature. There are so many seemingly small things that add up to make Trico believable. The way its ears perk up when you call it, or how it scratches its ears just like a dog (sometimes even when you’re stuck onto its back, holding on for dear life). At times it’s playful; when the boy climbs a chain to get higher up, Trico might bat it around like a kitten with some string. It tries to squeeze into areas far too small for it, as if it was an awkward puppy unaware of how big it is. Other times it’s sorrowful; Trico’s sad bleating when it’s forced to separate from the boy is heartbreaking. The creature’s eyes convey a large array of emotions, convincingly shifting from sad to ferocious to joyful. It can look like a lost puppy or a terrifying monster. It’s almost enough to make you forgive when it doesn’t listen to you.

One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced in a game

Watching the relationship between Trico and the boy evolve over the course of the game is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced in a video game. For all of its frustrating moments — and there are a lot of them — The Last Guardian excels at creating an emotional connection. When Trico gets hurt or scared, you feel it, too. When it jumps around excitedly, you can’t help but smile. Often I would climb its back and pet it for no reason other than I wanted to. It served no gameplay purpose, but it made me happy. When we were apart, I felt lonely and vulnerable.

The Last Guardian’s plentiful design and technical issues hold the game back in a lot of ways. But while they detract from the experience, they don’t completely ruin it. An hour’s worth of tedious platforming can be all but forgotten when you look in those big, sad eyes. When it’s all over, the camera issues and unclear puzzles aren’t what will stick with you. Instead, you’ll remember Trico’s bravery in keeping the boy alive, time after time, or the way its eyes light up when it sees a snack. And without getting into spoilers, you definitely won’t forget how it ends.

The Last Guardian is a game with a lot of problems, ones that can often break the experience. But it’s also a beautiful game that will break your heart.

The Last Guardian is available December 6th on PS4