Over the decades, the games industry has seen several games spend so long in development that they passed into the realm of myths. Such games rarely justify their mythical status if they finally arrive – as anyone who played Duke Nukem Forever or Prey will testify. But that’s not the case for The Last Guardian, which has just emerged from its own ten-year development hell to across-the-board critical delirium.
Small wonder, given that it was created by Fumito Ueda, a true games industry legend renowned for 2001’sIco and 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus. In The Last Guardian, Ueda returns to the same creative wellspring that spawned Ico: it’s minimal (eschewing any conventional narrative), emotional, clever and generally has a fairy-tale air. As an example to shove in the faces of those who maintain that video games are mindless, it’s one of the best you’ll find.
But there’s a problem. While in many respects, The Last Guardian is sublime, in others it goes beyond ridiculousness, plumbing depths that are positively annoying. It is, by some distance, the clunkiest game released in 2016. When playing through it, it regularly brought back uncomfortable memories of 1997’s Tomb Raider II. There are two reasons for that: incredibly imprecise controls which combine with puzzles requiring pixel-perfect positioning to create a perfect storm of frustration, and a totally broken camera, the like of which we haven’t seen since the late 1990s.
Even the star of the whole show is as apt to induce annoyance as wonderment. The Last Guardian starts with you at the controls of a young boy, waking up in a dungeon alongside a giant beast with feathers, vestigial wings, a long tail, some cat-like features and bird-like claws. Called Trico, he’s chained up, has spears embedded in him and is clearly distressed. You discover you can pull the spears out and feed him barrels filled with some shining substance to revive him. Once you’ve freed him from his shackles, the pair of you embark on a quest to break out of the underground dungeon and carry on upwards to safety.
The Last Guardian’s environment will be reassuringly familiar to anyone who played Ico: it’s mainly composed of crumbling, vertiginous stone structures, studded with metal gates that must be opened by solving mechanical puzzles, and other odd contraptions. You soon learn that Trico’s sheer bulk can be a major asset: you can climb on his back to reach otherwise inaccessible areas, and he is capable of spectacularly huge jumps.
But he has issues: a fear of water (even though he can swim spectacularly well, you later discover), a tendency to become enthralled by a blue gaseous substance you occasionally encounter and he is morbidly terrified of stained-glass shields, which begin to pop up regularly.
As you work your way out of the ruins, you begin to encounter hostile animated suits of armour, which Trico can easily deal with but which are often found in laces only the boy can get to – he can elude them or struggle when they pick him up to such an extent that they drop him. They are slow and easily led, and many puzzles involve leading them elsewhere so that the boy can open a gate to admit Trico. The Last Guardian contains many very fine puzzles (such as one in in which Trico must be induced to catapult the boy upwards, circus-style, by stamping on a see-saw) – that side of the game, at least, is impeccable.
But another aspect of the game which has been held up as outstanding proves to be anything but. As your journey proceeds, you build up a bond with Trico which allegedly gives you the ability to steer and control his movements. Reams of purple prose have been expended on the brilliance of the AI that controls him. But in reality, it isn’t very good.
The Last Guardian derives well over an hour in length (and it’s an average-length game) from the time you will spend trying to coax him to perform tasks (which could be as simple as standing in the right place) which you know he can do (probably because, in frustration, you’ve resorted to an online walkthrough) but which he stubbornly refuses to.
Whether the myriad Trico-bonding moments you otherwise experience will make up for that depends on how patient a gamer you are. Trico’s animation engine is fantastic and it swiftly becomes clear that, temperamentally, he’s pure dog. So you get plenty of quizzical head-cocking moments which ramp up the game’s emotional depth for a few brief moments. But I have two real-life dogs, and if either of them were as unresponsive as Trico, I’d feel obliged to get on the phone to a dog-trainer.
It’s true that The Last Guardian contains plenty of Ueda’s trademark heart-in-mouth moments – for example, when he’s (if he is a he) scrabbling to land a jump on a tricky ledge and you have to help him by creating more of a foothold, or the first time you make a leap-of-faith jump and he catches you in his mouth. And the nearer you get to the end, the more epic things get. Once again, Ueda has woven an incredibly affecting story out of the tiniest of components.
But for us, such virtues are fatally marred by the amount of time you have to spend wrestling with the camera and controls. Potential controller-smashing moments arise every time you die because you can’t see what you’re doing, or because the boy won’t face where you point him or respond to a button-press (we often found ourselves pressing an action button repeatedly before that action was enacted). And pretty much all of the game’s best moments take place when you aren’t actually playing it, but are merely watching. For large proportion of the time you spend playing it, our actual gameplay tends more towards the frustrating than the enjoyable. Which is a real shame. And to suggest it achieves some sort of perfection is, frankly, preposterous.