The Wonderful and Terrible Annoyances of 'The Last Guardian'

I love 'The Last Guardian,' but this game may send me to an early grave.

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Jan 3 2017, 11:00pm

We talked about it a bit on Waypoint Radio yesterday, but I can't put down The Last Guardian. I think it's bold and beautiful and sort of anachronistic, the product of a time when a game could get away with frustrating its players, so long as it was pretty and charming and otherworldly enough. And it is otherworldly and charming, with excellent level design and animation and a warm representation of the the push-and-pull of a human-animal friendship.

It is also infuriatingly un-polished.

When we started playing it, my girlfriend warned me: "I've heard the highs are high, and the lows are low." She was right, of course (honestly, she usually is), but not for the reasons I expected. I knew I'd enjoy the world design, and I knew I'd be annoyed by the terrible camera and indirect nature of controlling Trico, the massive bird-cat-dog creature integral to solving just about every puzzle and traversing the world.

But the indirect control over Trico is actually great—it mirrors a real life pet ownership—it's the control over the protagonist that's the real problem.

Trico is a positive annoyance. It's great that I can't just push a button and make this big critter-who, in-fiction has a mind of its own—just go do things. No matter how much I work on training my dog (lil Drake), he's still going to want to do his own thing. That's real, and it makes Trico feel like an actual being, like a being instead of a dull collection of if-else statements covered in digital feathers.

Header and all The Last Guardian screens courtesy of Sony

But the boy is another story. I regularly spend upwards of fifteen seconds trying to line up a jump, only to reattach the kid to whatever surface he was clinging on to. Often, I'd jump into the abyss as the camera swirled around me, giving a perfect view of my ass, but not of the angle I needed to hit. 

Worse, the kid feels slow and slippery at the same time. Like he's wearing roller skates, but weighs about a ton. When I push the stick a little on a ledge, he doesn't really move. Maybe I'll get a stutter-step out of it. But if I push too hard, he'll careen right over the edge, meaning I have to climb up whatever I just scaled, again. Or he'll half-clip into a wall, get stuck there, and I waste a few seconds moving him away from the inexplicably "sticky" surface.

I don't need—or even want—the boy to be some hero athlete. It's ok if he is somewhat realistically awkward. But it's nonsensical: walking is such a challenge, yet, this kid can scale massive structures with the greatest of ease. He gets stuck on the smallest bits of environmental geometry, but he can hang on his forearms for eternity. I swear to the sweet baby Jesus, I would rather control the Mako from the original Mass Effect, in this game, than this poor kid.

It destroys the pace of the game, which is meant to be a slow-but-pleasant burn. I'm supposed to take my time and enjoy exploring these massive, mysterious environments. I want to delight in finding solutions naturally, not swear at this kid to stop hanging backwards and upside-down off of Trico's left ass cheek.

Nowhere is the push-pull between good annoyance and teeth-grinding, controller-hurling, expletive-spewing annoyance more stark than in the puzzle I spent 45 minutes on last night. Spoilers for what I can only guess is a mid-game puzzle, but here goes:

Above: a let's play video with the puzzle in question.

You're in a giant room. One side of the room has a blue "treat" bucket that Trico wants to sniff and chew at. You attach it to a chain, and Trico—being Trico—chews and pulls at it, opening another door. This is cool! You are using an item you know Trico will be interested in to bait him into the action you want to take. When I want my real-life kitten to do something, I bait her with a treat. Same with the dog.

But the boy, moving, as he does, like a walrus on rusty ice skates, never seems to move fast enough to dodge under the doorway. And trying to move a specific object in the environment in just the right way just. Will. Not. Happen. I spent 45 minutes in this room, exhausting my options for a nice, well-designed environmental puzzle and coming to the eventual solution. But execution felt impossible, and I turned off the game.

Don't worry, I'll get back to it tonight. I haven't been able to stop thinking about The Last Guardian—it's wispy story, its beautiful ruins, petting my loving animal buddy—all day. But I would've gladly given the game another six months (out of a comically long development cycle) for its creators to have smoothed out the controls into something tolerable. Trico really should've been the only pain in the butt in this game.