The premise of The Last Guardian is that you are a boy who has mysteriously woken up in a hole in the ground next to a chained creature that looks like a Chihuahua with feathers. Either the species of animal is called Trico or the boy decides to call this particular puppy-bird Trico, but Trico is not doing okay. After the boy and Trico work together to escape the underground area where they’ve been imprisoned (or discarded?), they emerge onto a cliff overlooking a giant floating castle, which turns out to be totally empty. Since Trico really wants to go to the castle, and since the boy has nothing better to do, into the castle they go.
The game is very pretty, but it suffers from terrible controls, a terrible camera, Trico’s terrible AI, and several terrible glitches.
I rage-quit the game twice within the first hour.
During the opening sequence, the boy needs to feed Trico three barrels of food. When I started the game, one of the barrels was not there. Even though the initial area isn’t that large, I spent twenty minutes looking for the last barrel until finally going to the internet for answers. Apparently it’s a glitch that one of the barrels will randomly not generate. That was my first rage quit.
A bit later on in the game, when the boy first enters the floating castle, Trico is too large to fit through the doorway. The boy is supposed to run through an upper hallway to emerge back outside at the front of the building, where he is supposed to call for Trico. Trico will eventually make his way outside; and, if the boy stands for long enough on a high balcony, Trico will hop on up and follow him back inside. Although this sounds simple, my description doesn’t convey the sheer gigantic scale of the architecture. There is absolutely nothing to indicate to the player that Trico can “hop on up” to a ledge easily as tall as the Washington Monument, or that it can hear the boy calling from several football fields away and through multiple stone walls when its attention is focused elsewhere. That the poor game design forced me to get up, turn on my laptop, and use a walkthrough for such a seemingly easy puzzle was infuriating. This was my second rage quit.
After the semester ended, I did my best to play this game for half an hour every evening, which is about as much of it as I can take in one sitting. I kept telling myself that it’s supposed to be good, and that maybe my patience would pay off.
Unfortunately, The Last Guardian is hard in the way that NES games were hard in that it teaches the player a set of rules and then refuses to play by them. Basically, the controls don’t work properly. To give a concrete example of what I mean, there is a point in the game when the following sequence must be undertaken:
(1) The boy climbs onto a pile of rubble.
(2) The boy jumps from the rubble to a free-standing bell tower.
(3) Trico will jump on top of the tower’s cupola.
(4) The boy jumps and grabs Trico’s hanging tail.
(5) The boy climbs up Trico’s tail onto the creature’s head.
(6) Trico will look toward a ledge.
(7) The boy jumps from Trico’s head onto the ledge.
(8) The boy runs along the ledge to a broken bridge over a pit.
(9) The player jumps over the small gap in the bridge to the other side.
This seems like fairly run-of-the mill video game spatial navigation, except for two things.
First, Trico does what it wants. There are no special trigger points on the map or actions that the boy can take that will ensure that Trico positions itself appropriately, so the player frequently has to wait. If Trico doesn’t jump onto the bell tower when the boy calls out to it, the player has no way of knowing that the game expects the boy to use Trico to get to the higher vantage point. Once the boy is on top of Trico’s head, there’s also no way of knowing that the boy can jump to one specific ledge while Trico is looking in that specific direction. I suppose some gamers are born with an instinct for these things, but I’ve had to rely heavily on a walkthrough.
Second, even if the player knows exactly what the game requires, the boy can’t run or jump with any degree of accuracy. The joystick will move the boy, but the arbitrarily shifting camera and its uncomfortable “artistic” angles mean that it’s difficult to translate the directional commands of the joystick into the desired direction of movement onscreen. Moreover, the boy runs when he wants and walks when he wants, and the player can’t control his speed. The triangle button will make the boy jump; but, because the player can’t control his direction or momentum, there’s a lot of trial and error involved – every leap is a leap of faith. This renders the game’s platforming maneuvers extremely difficult to pull off. Even something as seemingly simple as hopping over a small gap in a straight bridge will frequently result in multiple time-consuming failures.
I think my problem may simply be that I’m so used to playing Zelda games, in which the controls are engineered to facilitate adventure exploration. I’m not accustomed to having the mechanics of a game actively work against me, and there’s not really a learning curve for mastering controls that aren’t consistent.
The worst thing is that The Last Guardian contains a number of dramatic set pieces in which the camera and controls work perfectly, which leads me to believe the developers could have actually made a good game if they had more… resources? staff? time? From what I understand, they had all of these things in spades, but I’m given to understand that big budget game development is a complicated process. I think that, because of the beauty of its environment and the originality of its concept, it may ultimately prove more interesting for me to read about the game’s development than to actually play it.
I’ve recently been reading a bit of academic work concerning the artistry and emotional impact of video games, and something that I haven’t seen acknowledged with anywhere near the frequency with which I encounter it is the frustration of not being able to understand how a game wants you to be able to interact with it. It’s important for a game to achieve a good balance between challenge and reward, of course, but I also find it somewhat upsetting that many players may not have the time or patience to be able to experience everything that a gorgeous and unique but still critically flawed game like The Last Guardian has to offer.
( Header image by Cerulikat on Tumblr )