On December 7th, 2016 the world witnessed a miracle. Nobody turned water into wine, a strange comet did not appear in the sky, and there was no imminent proclamation of doom. On December 7th, 2016 The Last Guardian was officially, mercifully, almost unbelievably, released to the public. With an immense legacy and over 7 years of heated, occasionally confused anticipation to live up to, the game seems fated to fade out of memory, a disappointment. And yet if we allow ourselves some space from these expectations it is possible to see that The Last Guardian may well develop its very own legacy.
The uninitiated reader may need some backstory to understand what is so dramatic about this game’s release. The saga really begins in the early 2000’s when developer Team Ico, led by creative director Fumito Ueda, released two of the most revered examples of the gaming medium as an art form: Ico in 2001 and Shadow of the Colossus in 2005. This alone granted their next game, The Last Guardian, a captive audience when it was first put on displayat E3 in 2009 for the Playstation 3. As excitement over Ueda’s newest project reached a fever pitch however, progress on the game slowed. It was very rarely seen at future expo’s or trade shows, and in 2011, the same year it was originally supposed to be released, Sony went silent on the game. With Ueda’s departure and Team Ico’s dissolution, most of the world came to the conclusion that The Last Guardian was canceled, never to be finished.
And yet Sony remained intriguingly coy whenever asked for a firm announcement about the game’s fate. Years passed. Then, like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, the game was reannounced at E3 2015 for Sony’s Playstation 4 with Ueda and other members from the Team Ico development team working on it from their new company GenDesign. A release date of October 25 was set in early 2016, but, as if the dramatics couldn’t get any worse, the game was delayed yet again to December 7 when, after nine years of active development and even more pre-production, The Last Guardian finally made it into gamer’s hands.
And it is quite the conundrum.
Reviews for the game have been positive but not particularly exciting. It currently holds an 83/100 on review aggregator metacritic, a very respectable score but nowhere near the universal acclaim that seven years of anticipation might hope for. Further complicating this matter is the wide range that produces this score. Though 83 is the final aggregate many critics have lauded the game with praise and granted it perfect scores while just as many have acknowledged the game’s strengths but find its weaknesses too inexcusable to give it more than a 70. Yet these, like most scores, are somewhat misleading.
As many video game journalists tend to state, and as I’ve mentioned in a previous article on the nature of reviews, the true content of a review is in the writing, not the final score. Taking a deeper look into the lower ranges of The Last Guardian’s reviews reveals a great amount of appreciation for the game. Marty Sliva, writing for IGN, gave the game a 7/10 and in his closing statement said, “I found myself willing to put up with all of these hiccups if it meant experiencing any of its multitude of incredibly-beautiful moments.” Many reviews tend to echo this, either claiming that the game is filled with nuisances that clutter an otherwise wonderful game, as in Marty’s review, or that these hindrances, though present, are ultimately ignorable. You are just as likely to come across an article on the internet explaining why The Last Guardian is a masterpiece as you are to find one that claims it is not. It is a difficult game to review because its problems are so evident while its achievements, though substantial, are sometimes very subtle. How do you rate a game like that? Yet despite this difficulty, there remains a palpable sense of respect in just about every article I have read about this game.
A Colossal Shadow
An important thing to remember when considering The Last Guardian’s place in the pantheon of games is that a memorable, important, or masterful game does not have to be “perfect.” Even Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, Ueda’s previous two “masterpieces,” had the same kind of clunkiness many are complaining about in The Last Guardian. The argument is that a new game, coming twelve years after its predecessor, should have worked its way around those issues. This is a more than fair critique but it is one that was leveled at the previous games as well and ultimately did not prevent them from becoming exemplary titles in the medium. Ueda’s games all have the same floaty-feeling physics. In fact, while some argue that the control problems are more exacerbated in The Last Guardian, I would counter that many of these issues were even worse in Shadow of the Colossus.
Let’s be clear about one thing: The Last Guardian was always going to be some kind of a disappointment. There were just too many factors working against it ever since production shifted from the PS3 to the PS4 in 2011. Effectively the gaming public had waited seven years by the time of the game’s release. Seven years for expectations to rise and fall. When it was first announced many major gaming outlets were already preparing to call it a masterpiece purely based off the strength of creator Fumito Ueda’s previous two games. Those kinds of expectations, drawn out over years and years, meant that The Last Guardian had to be one of the greatest games of all time or it would be a disappointment.
And that’s the real underlying element that plagues The Last Guardian. Ico was a wonderful game but it did not find mainstream commercial success. Shadow of the Colossus was the game that really propelled Ueda’s team into the spotlight and now its success haunts The Last Guardian. Because Ico was not a big success Shadow of the Colossus could establish itself on its own relative merits. The Last Guardian, on the other hand, was always going to be immediately compared to Shadow. It would be impossible not to.
The problem here is that Shadow of the Colossus is not actually a perfect game even if we remember it that way. The same nuisances in all of Ueda’s games pop up. Floaty controls, difficult camerawork, and the occasional bit of frustrating moments that will break your immersion with the world. We don’t necessarily remember how frustratingly long it took to lead the ninth colossus into the exact right spot on the map to be able to climb it. We don’t remember how much it hurt to have to start the climb up the sixteenth colossus from the beginning after falling to your doom because you didn’t quite make the jump you should have (likely because the camera was in a wonky spot). We don’t remember those things. Instead we remember its hauntingly beautiful atmosphere, minimalist and mature approach to story, and stunning final moments.
Shadow of the Colossus was a unique kind of experience, an emotionally affecting and non-traditional approach to game design that still isn’t often attempted at the AAA stage. Make an overworld and populate it with nothing but the protagonist and some lizards? Who would do such a thing? The same team that will base a game entirely around the relationship between a giant fluffy bird-dog companion and a child. None of Ueda’s games are “perfect” and they all have different frustrations but they ultimately overcome them to deliver something unique. The Last Guardian is the only one that had a legacy to fulfill. It is this attitude that exacerbates its more frustrating elements, not the gameplay itself.
I do not mean to imply here that we should overlook The Last Guardian’s gameplay faults and declare it a masterpiece simply because the industry was more tolerable of those faults in the past. Honestly if I were to “score” this game I would probably rate it close to the Metacritic aggregate. That doesn’t detract from how much I love it though. Games are often most memorable in spite of their flaws. The Last Guardian is one of these games, a game with problems to be sure, but one that is nonetheless almost singular in its achievements.
The Last Guardian is not Ueda’s magnum opus. Shadow of the Colossus is that game. It was the breakthrough, a true industry changer. The Last Guardian would never replace it. The great thing is that it doesn’t need to. These are two different games with very different purposes and drastically different mechanics, but both succeed as excellent examples of the achievements video games can make as a form of art. We are fortunate to have both of them, especially given the struggle it took to get The Last Guardian to players.
At every turn I found myself sucked into the world and the relationship between Trico and the boy. There is a creative restraint behind The Last Guardian’s narrative. It never feels like the game is trying to draw a reaction from you, rather it is simply asking you to take part in the events’ unfolding. This is what makes Ueda’s games so excellent. It always feels like there is something more to the stories, like we can grow from them. Ueda and his team weave their stories with a maturity that is little found in video games and that is what makes The Last Guardian, and the previous two games in this “trilogy,” so special. Despite the seeming disappointment and technical flaws, The Last Guardian will have an enduring, if somewhat muted, legacy of its own.