Somewhere inside The Last Guardian is one of the greatest games ever made, although with veteran developer Fumito Ueda and his team having spent almost a decade trying to make it a reality, you have to wonder whether their original vision was even possible.
There are moments of utter brilliance in Team Ico's latest game, moments when you’re deftly juggling platforming and puzzle solving across two characters to absolutely astonishing effect.
But it’s rare for a section of the game to pass without your progress being hampered by the game’s technical aspects, be it an insolent camera, or a companion that’s so unwilling to listen to instructions that it feels like trying to herd cats.
The result is a game that’s hard to recommend without reservation. But if you struggle through its flaws then you’ll be rewarded with an experience that’s almost completely unique, and completely unforgettable.
Like all the best buddy movies, it takes a while for the relationship between The Last Guardian’s two primary characters to get going.
The game starts with your character, an unnamed child, waking up in a prison next to a giant griffin-like beast.
You’re not given any information at this point other than a voiceover from your character’s future self which suggests that you need to nurse the creature, which the voice refers to simply as ‘Trico’, back to health.
Once done, the two characters will spend their time traversing environments in what is, at its core, a platformer mixed with a fiendishly difficult puzzle game.
It’s a dynamic that recurs throughout the game as you find glowing barrels for it to consume, and remove spears that have become lodged in its side in order to coax the creature into helping you progress through the game.
Trico’s animation is stunning, and it’s graphically the finest thing about the game. Its body language is effortlessly expressive - you can easily read its happiness, fear, anger, and confusion - and this is essential to shepherding the creature throughout the game.
It feels like a proper character, one with its own thoughts and feelings, and we even found ourselves unconsciously cooing at it like you would a pet when it found unique little pieces of the environment to interact with, be it washing itself in a puddle, or nuzzling the protagonist in search of an affectionate pet (duly doled out with the circle button).
A beast with a mind of its own
But, this independence means that it’s a frequently frustrating relationship, particularly in the beginning. It’s not clear what the creature is and is not capable of, and you’ll spend a lot of time letting it do its own thing in order to see what it can do, especially since your initial control of Trico is limited to instructing it where to go.
This improves as the game progresses. As the two of your grow closer you’ll soon gain the ability to issue simple commands like telling it to jump and stand on its hind legs, but the game’s devotion to its minimalistic style means that it never fully explains what each of your commands do.
Regardless, after a little bit of trial and error you’ll soon be happily traversing your environments, and when it works the puzzles in The Last Guardian really shine.
A typical sequence will see you riding Trico as it jumps from ledge to ledge, dismounting in order to pull levers and open doors, and then retreating to behind the beast to allow it to fend off enemies that you’re otherwise unable to fight off yourself.
When it works it feels utterly fantastic, but so often controlling Trico feels painfully unresponsive.
In some ways this is a positive. It makes your companion feel like an autonomous creature rather than a pawn for you to use to solve puzzles.
But on other occasions Trico’s unwillingness to obey your commands will have you tearing your hair out with how frustratingly difficult it makes the game’s challenges.
It’s often unclear exactly what Trico can and can’t do. Sometimes the solution to a puzzle will involve leaping to a ledge that you could have sworn was out of its reach. Other times the solution will be jumping to a ledge that you’d given up trying to reach after the first four jump instructions were met with no response at all from your feathered friend.
It doesn’t help that it’s frequently difficult to just sit back and observe a level because of how bad the camera is. It’s a camera that dates the game back to 2007 when its development originally started.
It’s bad at looking up or down, it’ll frequently get the protagonist in the way of what you’re meant to be seeing, and over the course of the game you will almost certainly plunge to your death because the camera failed you at a crucial moment.
There were moments when we were desperate for the game to give us a first person view mode so we could just get a handle on our environment.
Two sides of the graphical coin
The Last Guardian’s graphics are a microcosm of the game as a whole. Artistically astounding, yet technically flawed.
The game frequently produces absolutely stunning visuals that feel close to an oil-painting, with misty outcrops and crumbling towers that couldn’t exist in any other game.
It helps that the whole game feels like a single large level. You’ll emerge out of a crumbling tower, miles above the misty valley below, and you’ll spot another piece of the level in the distance, complete with the debris that you created in order to traverse it.
But on a technical level, The Last Guardian’s PS3 roots are frequently abundantly clear, with environmental models that lack both detail and definition. Thankfully Trico itself looks technically stunning. It’s well animated, and the impression given by its shimmering feathers is technically very impressive.
It’s just a shame that the environments don’t quite hold up in the same way.
Considering the length of time the game has been in development, these graphical inconsistencies are to be expected, but what’s more surprising are the frequent drops in framerate that the game experiences, which can leave its most dramatic, action-filled sequences, looking like a juddery mess - at least on the original PlayStation 4.
PS4 Pro is supported, but 4K upscaling wouldn't address the fact this still feels at its heart a PS3 game given a touch-up.
There’s a certain low res charm to the visuals, but on a technical level they frequently leave much to be desired.
Verdict: Play it
We’re calling it now - The Last Guardian is likely to be one of the most divisive games of the year.
You can absolutely see why the game has been in development for as long as it has. But it all feels as though just six months more in the oven would be enough to perfect it. And, if we had to guess, we’d say that it’s probably felt this way for the last few years of its development.
When the game comes together, it feels like a masterpiece, combining the best of both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus into an experience that you’ll be unable to forget anytime soon.
But for every stunning vista or fiendishly clever puzzle there’ll be a platforming segment ruined by the game’s wayward camera, or Trico’s inability to understand what you’re instructing it to do.
If you’re a fan of the developer’s previous work then you’ve probably already made up your mind about whether The Last Guardian is a game worth playing. Just seeing the game after all these years is almost worth the price of admission alone.
But if you’ve yet to sample the delights of a Team Ico game, or if this is the first you’ve heard of The Last Guardian, then its shortcomings make it a hard game to unreservedly recommend.
The Last Guardian was reviewed on the original PS4. The PS4 Pro is supported, and offers 4K upscaling amongst other graphical improvements.
TechRadar's review system scores games as 'Don't Play It', 'Play It' and 'Play It Now', the last of which is the highest score we can give. A 'Play It' score suggests a solid game with some flaws, but the written review will reveal the exact justifications.
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Jon Porter is the ex-Home Technology Writer for TechRadar. He has also previously written for Practical Photoshop, Trusted Reviews, Inside Higher Ed, Al Bawaba, Gizmodo UK, Genetic Literacy Project, Via Satellite, Real Homes and Plant Services Magazine, and you can now find him writing for The Verge.