Perspective of a Retro Gamer: The Last Guardian
Perspective of a Retro Gamer was formerly known as “cross talk” when I was actively involved in the B-Team Podcast. Since I’m on a hiatus, this is the same context in that it’s a largely old school gamer playing a modern game. Think of it as a review that’s more about my perspective as opposed to that now “traditional” definition of a product review fused with a content review. As such, no scores are part of this series.
The Last Guardian has become synonymous with retro gaming, most likely because the design is as aged as the development itself: over 10 years old. So while many contemporary players are walking into the title wondering if it will appeal to them, it seems like the retro crowd such as myself are expected to take to it naturally. Couple that with the assumption that if you like previous games by Team Ico, especially the studio’s initial title Ico, you should enjoy this as well because it is similar in gameplay and design. I’m here to say that after a wonderful initial three hours and a painstaking three more that followed, this is simply not the case. I like old games, I like old game design, and I really like Ico, but I think I’m done with The Last Guardian. Not only that, I find the claim that this title shares much in common with old game design or Ico to be as inaccurate as those that compared Prototype to inFamous back in 2009. For me this is heartbreaking because the game leads you down a path with such wonder, grace, and promise that when it all gets taken away it seems cruel.
Your journey begins as a young boy protagonist – nothing new for Team Ico games there – awakening in a room. The first thing you will notice is the hulking body of your soon-to-be companion, Trico, fast asleep in the room with you. This introduction was abrupt and unexpected, which was magical, as was the reality that you are stuck in a room with a creature you don’t understand yet. There’s no prompt to do something outside of a bit of narrated exposition seemingly told to the player by a future self as well as a handful of prompts on what buttons do without a hint as to your goal. Shortly after Trico wakes up, doesn’t do a great job of telling you what’s expected, and you have to figure it all out. Your journey begins, you go exploring, it’s all basically self explanatory. It’s also stunning to look at. I will admit that the textures are stretched in areas, the shading on the game is an obvious attempt to make it look better than it should, and a vast majority of the whole art direction screams Playstation 2 game. That said Trico is crafted to near perfection. The way the fur or feathers all move as Trico walks or part away like blades of grass as you maneuver its body make the whole thing seem so real. Its eyes, those Trico eyes, are a glance so lifelike that any dog or cat owner can appreciate. Perhaps most convincing was that its movements were so familiar even though no creature like Trico has ever existed. I loved this opening.
Since you are left to your own devices, you get to observe Trico and its behaviors while trying to figure out what to do next. Far from frustrating, this actually allowed me to bond with the bird/cat/dog beast before me and even get to know its personality (yes, it has a clear personality) as I go. This particular reminded me of classic game design very much. You don’t need text on the screen telling you to “go right” or “find an exit,” because the way that first group of areas is designed teaches you how to get around, what to look for, and even how Trico gets into the mix. From there it progresses by showing you how dynamic Trico is from thankful companion to ravenous beast after the heat of combat and all worked up. Sure, there are things you can miss, like the fact that from what I can tell the barrels you can feed Trico serve as the collectible for the game and clearly something is going on with those blue doors. All in all, it’s very Ico at first and I was confident in the fact that everything everyone was saying was spot on. This was like Ico and I did like the classic design. Then it all went to crap with one simple command: hold R1 and tell Trico where to go. This ruined the game, but not for the reason you might expect.
Up until this point you are having Trico follow you. It’s annoying, sometimes Trico has no desire to follow you or just whines and waits in the other room. Other times Trico is all up in your business while you attempt to get to an obtuse ledge or grab a chain. Like having a pet, it’s a decent analogue to a living being and completely tolerable in the same way Yorda was in Ico. I could have played the whole game this way, especially because you could lose track of Trico when you are trying to accomplish a specific task. In the least you can use it for what you need – like raising you up to a high cliff – and then take over from there. Once you get the ability to issue commands, it’s like driving with boxing gloves on. The game is no longer interested in the boy, which I view as you the player, and it focuses solely on Trico. This would be fine given Trico’s appeal, except for the fact that it now wants you to do tricks with it. It’s no longer good enough that Trico lifts you to a high beam or destroys a wall of brambles, now it wants you to get Trico to jump through virtual hoops in a complicated obstacle course that’s so large in scale you don’t even know you’re supposed to do it. I spent 20 minutes on a section overlooking a cliff trying to figure out what the hell it wanted me to do with Trico and then I let go of the controller, ran upstairs to make another cup of coffee, and came back to a whole new area. Thanks to PS4’s ability to record the previous 15 minutes I looked over the footage and saw, to my shock and awe, Trico leap up and dash over a wall that I had been standing next to. I had no indication that this wall could even be climbed, that I was supposed to get over it, or that Trico could do any of this. Nope, me sitting still and letting Trico wander around for a while is what triggered it. It wasn’t just a jump over a wall, either, it was dance-like leaps over several pillars wrapping around to a suspended platform high above and far away from where we’d just been. The Last Guardian didn’t want me to play it, it wanted me to sit there and watch its Gigapet go to work without me doing anything. Worst of all, it didn’t tell me that’s what’s expected, it just wanted me to sit still and wait for that event. Uh, Team Ico, this is the antithesis of the role of a gamer. Video games are an interactive medium as opposed to the passive media of books, movies, and television. It’s literally the single concept that makes the medium stand out.
From there it just devolved further. Oh the camera sucks? Well just let go of the controller completely, wait about 5 seconds, perfect angle. Oh you’re getting attacked by monsters and Trico is behind a door? Well just find the lever to the door that’s blatantly present, open the door, and then sit on the bleachers and watch Trico go to work with all that pesky game playing you thought you were going to do. Say, are you stuck? Wanna see a cool trick? Walk to one of the four cardinal corners of the room, put the controller down, play a game of Hearthstone or Puzzle Quest on your phone, look up and you’ll be where you need to be. I completed literally two hours of this game doing this method to the point that it was absurd. I was watching a game throw obstacles at me, fetching another element of the game (Trico), and then watching powerlessly as the game basically played itself. This was not the case in Ico. Yorda couldn’t get past things without your help, she couldn’t fight, and she didn’t figure out puzzles. That made it your story and not hers, which is what I want.
This is not classic game design. Classic game design is about developing skills, facing countless opposition, and overcoming all odds to be the hero in the end. It’s not even a Team Ico game, as far as I can tell, save for those opening hours and the visual design. Is it possible that a bunch of people talking about this game got so wrapped up in the early parts or perhaps that they only completed the early parts? It’s such a foreign concept to me and frankly I wasn’t having fun. When I don’t have fun I don’t play games. Maybe it gets better as I was, tops, six hours into the game and I’ve been told it is at least twice that length. I do know that for an entire hour I was looking to my right and seeing Diablo III‘s box next to my PS4 and looking to my left and seeing my gaming PC with The Witcher III all installed and ready to get started and wondered what I was doing. If you are watching another game play itself and dreaming of other games you have readily available, stop what you are doing right away and play those games you were dreaming of. Don’t necessarily dismiss the game you were playing, but follow your desires and play what clicks with you. I wanted to like The Last Guardian, I wanted it to click with me the way Ico did, and I also wanted it to have good HDR implementation and run at a solid 30 frames per second as well. Alas, it was none of those things and I had to put it on the shelf. Hopefully I have more luck in the future when I finally decide to play it’s more-than-10-years-in-development sibling Final Fantasy XV.