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First Click: The Last Guardian proves that the technical side of video games still matters

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December 8th, 2016

When was the last time you thought the most impressive thing about a film were its special effects? It’s probably been a while. You couldn’t write a review of Jurassic Park in 1993 without mentioning how lifelike the dinosaurs were, but by the time Jurassic World came out in 2015 these things were taken for granted. Of course the dinosaurs look real. It’s a Hollywood movie. Isn’t the lack of coherent story more important?

And it’s been tempting, in recent years, to assume the same about blockbuster video games. We live in an age of staggeringly powerful GPUs and 4K-capable (ish) consoles; technical merit is now table stakes, not a selling point. It’s more noticeable when a game has serious performance issues than when it doesn’t.

That brings me to The Last Guardian, a game so beautiful that its glaring technical flaws are all the more heartbreaking. Despite its origins as a PlayStation 3 game — and in glaring contrast to Final Fantasy XV, another new title that dates back to the mid-2000s — the PlayStation 4 release that landed this week after nearly a decade in development simply doesn’t feel fit for purpose. It’s incredibly unstable, often running at around 20 frames a second even in what seem like simple environments. The camera system is like the last generation of 3D game design never happened. And the controls are as mercurial and unpredictable as the beast at the center of the game’s plot, with basic actions like gripping onto an object often failing for seemingly no reason.

The Last Guardian’s predecessor, 2005’s sublime Shadow of the Colossus, had many of the same flaws. But not only were they more permissible at the time, they were technically more justifiable; Shadow of the Colossus was a game so visually incredible that it felt like it was tearing the PlayStation 2 apart from the inside. No wonder the frame rate occasionally dropped. It almost made the game seem more impressive, like when an old arcade machine buckled under the weight of a bullet-hell shooter’s most spectacular moments.

The Last Guardian’s development was famously protracted, and switching console generations in the middle of production isn’t easy for anyone. But it’s interesting to compare the final product to another Japanese game that, coincidentally enough, came out just days earlier after an even longer time following its announcement: Final Fantasy XV.

Originally named Final Fantasy Versus XIII and positioned as a more action-focused counterweight to Final Fantasy XIII, the 15th numbered game in the Final Fantasy series takes the exact opposite approach to its own resurrection and is all the better for it. The Last Guardian feels like a PS3 game that never really came together until the brute force of new hardware allowed the team to ship, but Final Fantasy XV has been completely reworked for the modern era and the result is the most progressive and original Final Fantasy in recent memory. It’s an impressive achievement in design and technical performance.

You should still play The Last Guardian — there’s nothing else like it, and the emotional payoffs are worth the frequent, frustrating struggles. But whereas movies are at the point where re-releases that meddle with the original are seen as irritations at best, I’d already like nothing more than for a later version to fix The Last Guardian’s flaws. Video games are the most advanced entertainment medium we have, but we can’t ignore it when they fail to live up to technical expectations — and we shouldn’t take it for granted when they succeed.