Review: The Last Guardian (PS4)

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Formats:

  • PlayStation 4

Format/Hardware Used:

  • Blu-ray Disc
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
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Title: The Last Guardian
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (13.76 GB)
Release Date: December 6, 2016
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: JAPAN Studio
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: T
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
There’s a lot of talk about how The Last Guardian looks like a PlayStation 3 game. Undisputable evidence determines that this is more than likely due to the fact that this game was announced at a time when the PlayStation 3 was considered “Next Gen”. So yes, The Last Guardian harkens back to a generation ago with a level of polish and performance provided by a current generation machine.

I’m not going to penalize the game for it’s slightly dated aesthetic. I say “slightly” because the game still looks pretty phenomenal, despite its original incubation date. But I’ll discuss that in more detail later.

For now, let’s talk about this almost-decade-in-the-making game about a boy and his dragon? The mechanics of the games in the Team ICO series, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, have never been perfect, but there’s no denying that some of the conversations about videogames as art started with these experiences.

These titles spoke volumes more with less language and dialogue than other Triple-A games expressed with hours and hours of speaking characters. They told stories of friendships without a single handshake and spun love stories without a single kiss. Needless to say, the expectations for The Last Guardian are extremely high.

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If those expectations are tempered towards the technical department, you will find the same emotional ride here that you experienced with the previous titles, and in some case the emotions will run deeper, because I swear this creature, Trico, is alive inside of my console. The articulation and performance is so authentic, that I turned my character around a few times to check if he was okay when I’d hear him whimper or call out to me.

Still, the reason I mention tempering your expectations on the technical side is not because the game is broken or buggy. A lot of the puzzles involve the climbing and dragging that we have experienced before, and there are a few camera issues when you are in enclosed locations, but when Trico is involved in the puzzle-solving, there is a certain organic element that has seldom been experienced before.

… the narrative that primarily revolves around that friendship …
Trico is not a mechanical device. He is not a switch. He is a living, breathing creature and you need him to solve certain puzzles. This means getting his attention and climbing on his back, among other tasks that I will not spoil here. If these components sound familiar, it’s because it feels like a combination of previous experiences.

Climbing up onto Trico feels a lot like the ascension of a colossus, while maneuvering the world feels like Ico. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as there is a certain “modern” nostalgia in playing within these old castle walls again.

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What feels so authentic here is the friendship between you and Trico. Dare I say, it completely dwarfs the similar friendship between you and Argo in Shadow of the Colossus. This is mostly due to the almost-flawless performance by your huge dragon-like friend and the narrative that primarily revolves around that friendship. While at its core this is a traditional puzzle game, the heart and spirit evolving throughout your playthrough is absolutely on par with what we have come to expect from this team.

I have to refrain from spoiling the story here, but what I can say is that you will experience many emotions while embarking on this adventure. It pleases me to say that, while The Last Guardian is not without its flaws, like its predecessors, it delivers the same memorable experience that Team ICO is known for.

… some amazing lighting, particularly when you venture outdoors …
Visuals:
I’ve already covered the oft-mentioned dribble that this game looks dated. Stylistically there is a certain nostalgia to its simplicity, but please do not mistake this for any lack of integrity in the visuals here. It’s almost like claiming that a game like Retro City Rampage deserves criticism for resembling a SEGA Genesis game.

Production was started a generation ago, but the polish and clarity afforded by the PlayStation 4, and the time it took to release, allows for some amazing lighting, particularly when you venture outdoors where the trademark blow out whites take over and wash over the entire environment.

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Animation, on the other hand, is the absolute indicator that this game can hang with the greatest and that you are playing a Triple-A title. The boy you control has the most fluid and organic animation. His clumsy progression as he stumbles and trudges through the broken castle ruins is on par with, if not superior to, Nathan Drake’s similarly realistic motions.

The boy glances over his shoulder to check on Trico as he runs and he trips if there is too much turbulence. He hops excitedly when he’s trying to get Trico’s attention and he cuddles up next to it to offer some reassurance with a simple press of the Circle button.

… it exists as a living creature because of its animation and performance …
But for all of this praise, it’s that dragon-dog thing Trico that deserves an award for the performance as well as heart-tugging life-like animation.

I lost my dog a year ago. She lived for almost fifteen years. Watching Trico curiously watching barrels topple reminds me of how my dog used to tilt her head when something strange was happening. I swear this thing is alive inside of my console.

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Its innocence and curiosity is evident and not through dialogue or exposition. This thing is a testament to visuals, as it exists as a living creature because of its animation and performance. This is where The Last Guardian feels modern, despite the gripes that it feels like an older game.

I challenge someone to find a digital character that evokes the types of emotions that Trico does visually in any modern game, despite all of technical tricks available to developers now.

… the clumsier camera system that had me fumbling …
The environments presented here echo a familiarity, particularly in comparison to the universe of Ico. There are some grand vistas here and, while the universe feels familiar, there is a beauty that certainly takes advantage of the newer hardware.

Not everything is perfect, and while this is far from being game-breaking, one of the elements that did come through from a generation ago was the clumsier camera system that had me fumbling with the right joystick in order to get a better vantage point of my situation.

It was heartbreaking watching Trico trying so desperately to reach you.

It was heartbreaking watching Trico trying so desperately to reach you.

Audio:
The Team ICO series of games have always maintained a unique take on language and the use of audio that has almost become a trademark. The characters in these games do not speak English. They do not even speak Japanese. They speak an invented language, and it is translated for us via captioning.

The first time I experienced this in Ico I was immediately aware that I was in a completely different world, and the melodic language was just a clue to the kind of people that inhabited this place. The Last Guardian continues this tradition, with the boy speaking to Trico in that otherworldly dialect, with an older narrator version of himself recalling the events of the game, again, in his own language.

… made this almost ancient game exist as new today …
But much like the visuals, Trico’s vibrance is a testament to the powerful result that the combination of polygons and appropriate sound effects can achieve. Watching Trico observe you from a distance while whimpering helplessly, unable to reach you, caused me at times to say out loud “I’m coming, let me just find a way to help you across”. The teams much have researched animal sounds for a decade (see what I did there?) in order to perfect the sounds that combined to make Trico’s voice a unique one.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

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Conclusion:
So it took nearly a decade to release. Hell, it almost didn’t happen at all. Situations like these usually lead to disappointment. The results can rarely match expectations. And I’m certainly not saying that the game is not without its flaws.

But in a “sum of its parts” sort of way, there is an excellence here. There is a call to a simpler time, when online multiplayer didn’t exist as it does now. When Trophies were something you earned at a martial arts tournament. It was a time when you could experience a simplistic game about friendship and sacrifice and get lost within its narrative.

Those games still exist today, but there is an innocence to The Last Guardian that has been lost in time, and the fact that development was delayed so many times has made this almost ancient game exist as new today. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air, and despite some of its shortcomings, it can stand proud next to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus as one of the great and memorable experiences on PlayStation.

Score:
8.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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