Fumito Ueda’s The Last Guardian finally made its way out of 10 years of development hell and into gamers hands, many of whom never thought it would happen. And it’s truly a masterpiece. A masterpiece with one obstacle, infuriatingly wonky f—king controls.
The game pits you and your giant part dog, part griffin companion against the most evil antagonist in any platformer: awkward climbing, movement and jumping. In order to progress and enjoy this wonderful, unique, beautiful gaming experience, you have to grind through some seriously frustrating moments.
The game mirrors the format of Ueda’s first game Ico very closely. Just swap the girl with the griffin monster. And like Ico, you wake up inside an immense fortress and have to think your way out through a linear set of challenges. While not particularly difficult, the puzzles are creative, especially in their use of your creature, Trico, whom you do not control but must coax into helping you through the map.
But for every puzzle comes frustration. For instance, solving a cool puzzle by realizing you must get Trico to jump in the water so the massive wave he creates can lift you up and onto a ledge. That’s awesome. But you must swim and dive, which is wonky and teeth-yankingly annoying.
It’s like the yin and the yang of the game. Like life, the great moments cannot be enjoyed without the crushing hardships.
The protagonist’s bad controls don’t even make sense. They could have taken the exact same movement mechanics from their previous games, Ico or Shadow of Colossus, with minor tweaks, and the game would have played great. It seems they were rushed at the end in order to finally get a release and were not able to work out all the bugs.
But at least the creature is not so broken. Like the first two Ueda games, the AI companion is the heart and soul of the game. In Ico it was the girl, and in Shadow it was the horse.
Trico moves on his own and acts like a sentient creature. They designed it beautifully, especially its graceful movement. And each of its feathers has a mind of its own, swaying independently in the breeze. Watching Trico is like taking a trip to the zoo, inspiring the same awe as watching the movements of a powerful apex predator.
Ueda somehow manages to achieve the impossible, again and again, by creating an empathic connection between the gamer and the non playable character. I truly felt bad every time Trico got pelted with spears, just like in Shadow, 11 years ago, when my horse fell off cliff and appeared to die.
I am a shallow husk of a human being and usually play games like an unempathetic sociopath. For a game to give me cause to care about a virtual creation is something special, and Ueda does it every time. It’s no coincidence the last time I felt this way about a game was playing another one of his games.
Even artsy walking simulators, which stake their entire value on creating an emotional impact, just don’t do it for me. But Ueda manages to force empathy with painstakingly designed realistic characters and gameplay mechanics.
Despite its many flaws The Last Guardian achieves a genuine, unique gameplay experience, a rarity in an industry filled with countless variations on the same thing.
If only Ueda had another 10 years to perfect his masterpiece.
This article was written with a review copy provided by Sony.