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The Last Guardian (PlayStation 4) artwork

The Last Guardian (PlayStation 4) review

"A Boy and His Bird-Dog"

A boy awakens in a cavern. Who is he? What is he doing there? An old manís voice narrates the scene. The camera pans to show a large, feathery dog-like creature. What is that? "Trico," the narrator calmly states, preceded by "the man-eating beast." These two disparate forces, so very different and yet so unexpectedly similar, find themselves in a ruined land as strange as they are. Are they going to team up to escape their captivity, or is Trico setting his sights on making that young boy his lunch?

The Last Guardian is methodical in its approach. It seeks to make its reveals at just the precise time and not a moment sooner. Itís a game that can best be described as deliberate, encouraging thorough exploration of the environment and Trico's reaction to that environment. How that big bird-dog reacts plays such a significant role to the overall progression of the game that he may as well be the main character even if he is never directly controlled by the boy. Trico is the more developed character of the two, anyway, his programmed iterations for each possible scenario showcasing a feat for modern game design.

Trico' programming, after all, must be the reason behind The Last Guardian's well-documented and lengthy development process. The team that brought us Ico and Shadow of the Colossus seeks to up the ante in their world-building with "the Nest" that serves as the setting for Trico and the boy. This strange world and the AI that Trico exhibits help create a believable environment that urges you to delve deeper.

Yes, beyond the surface of our main charactersí strange bond is a game that contains perilous platforming and the occasional task of combat. But the action and platforming play second fiddle to the bond between the boy and his beast. Youíll notice this any time they reach a new area, Trico staring intently at whatever clue that may have caught his eye.

A lot of the game is reacting to Tricoís reaction of the world around him. His large, feathered body offers the perfect movable ladder the boy needs for reaching high places. It serves as a vehicle for crossing otherwise impassable chasms and acts as a cushion to fall upon. Trico's cat-like tail can conjure lightning to batter down obstacles targeted from a mirror the boy finds early on. This is truly a beast of many talents. Yet he is not the means for advancement through all situations. There is only so much Trico can do before the boy realizes it's up to him to find a solution when the bird-dog's interest is lost or his massive body serves as a lock rather than a key. What to do when Trico is too big to fit through a small archway or corridor or his lightning bolts can't zap a way open? Find another way around.

The boy and his giant feathery dog grow to form a bond. Heíll soothe Trico when he's flustered, feed him when he's hungry, and call for him when he advances onward. Their strange defense of each other is unexpected yet essential. The boy is small and persistent. Trico is large yet unrefined. Without each other, they're nothing. Together, they stand a fighting chance.

Itís almost like Tamagotchi meets Ico. "The NestĒ that Trico and the boy find themselves in is a well-thought out labyrinthine complex of crumbling towers, overgrown corridors, and dizzying heights. Itís gorgeous to behold when the sun shines over head. What happened here however long ago is never fully answered, and navigating this perilous landscape requires precision and command for both beast and boy.

It's in these same gorgeous ruins and harrowing confines that the game's greatest foes rear their nasty heads. The camera and the controls, two things I would have expected SCE Japan to have gotten dialed in after seven years of development, serve as persistent nuisances. Attempting to get Trico to do what the boy wants requires trial and error, capturing the true essence of what it must be like for a little boy to command obedience from a wild animal much larger and more powerful than he is. Perhaps it is a less-than-subtle way for the game to remind us that the boy is only a boy and Trico is a wild animal. If that is the case, I would like to remind the developers that The Last Guardian is a game, and it should control better no matter the circumstances of the relationship conveyed between characters.

As for the camera, it's a real conundrum for why it's so outdated in this modern era of gaming weíre afforded. At its best, the camera offers sweeping views that tantalize with the prospect of eventually reaching far-flung towers and seemingly unreachable bridges. At its worst, it conveys an uncertain angle for the action, exacerbating tense moments during combat or making the platforming feel all the more perilous because you can't get a good view to see where you're trying to go. Instead of adding to the suspense, it takes away because you can't see what's happening.

The Last Guardian compensates for these issues by making Trico invincible and the boy nearly so. Only a very, very high fall or a total lack of attention to "the Nest's" pushover minions will result in game over. This, in a way, detracts from the atmosphere that The Last Guardian strives to achieve. Danger is offered, but it is ephemeral danger-lite. Trico and the boy are placed on a pedestal that never seriously threatens to knock them off.

And while I find all of that to take away from the game's strengths, perhaps the game's most unnecessary negative is the inclusion of constant controller prompts that appear on the top left corner of the screen instructing you on what to do. These prompts can't be turned off and they are needless and distracting. If you're playing The Last Guardian, you probably are seeking to immerse yourself in its rich world and obliquely presented lore. Constant prompts only serve to remove you from the immersion through regular reminders that essentially scream to remind that, yup, this is just a video game.

When little irritations like these pop up and take you out of the experience, The Last Guardian feels like an overly ambitious project that doesn't want to let you take it on its own terms. Itís like the game is afraid it wonít gain your acceptance without a bit of spoon-feeding, so hereís some narration and a controller prompt to ease you through. When you are in the moment, fending as the boy, using Trico as a vehicle for progression, the game comes into its own. Together their mutual suffering and shared goal of escape takes on a greater meaning.

There comes a part midway through that offers one of the best moments from any game Iíve played in recent memory. The build-up and climax offer one excellent segment of memorable adventuring. Two magnificent beasts fight each other across a tenuous arena, the boy frantically trying to help his friend. These tense moments of life or death are just as powerful as the quieter ones where Trico and the boy are learning about each other, though I suspect few will as fondly recall waiting in the weeds, watching Trico watch the boy as a controller prompt appears on-screen, coaxing you on what to do next.

As a game, The Last Guardian sets itself apart from its contemporaries as a form of media striving to achieve a higher level of greatness through storytelling. It would have been perfect as an animated film. But as a video game, it feels limited by its own ambitions. Transferring it from the PS3 to the PS4 helped as the game has little issue with framerate or rendering, but even within its own blueprint exists a fundamentally flawed idea. The Last Guardian is as wonderful as it is frustrating, as unusual as it is memorable. But at the end of the day, this is really just a tale about two odd ducks partaking in the comfort of each other. Which one is the master and which one is the pet is hard to say.


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Community review by Fiddlesticks (February 10, 2017)

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