It's been 11 years since Shadow of the Colossus shipped for PS2. I was such a fan of Ico that even though I sat directly next to the Shadow of the Colossus team at Sony Japan and all I had to is stand up and look over my cubicle's divider to see work in progress I made my best effort to not look because I didn't want to spoil the experience of whatever they were making.
So, now, 11 years since then the team has finally shipped their next game, skipping an entire generation of console.
The Last Guardian can best be described as Ico (walk around a tall castle maze on cliffs) with one Colossus companion added. That sounds like it would be awesome but something just didn’t work for me. Somehow the magic is gone.
It doesn’t help that the controls are poor and the A.I is buggy (or intentionally frustrating). I probably wasted 1.5 hrs of the 12 or so it took to clear fighting the A.I. trying to get Trico to go where I wanted him to. I know they claim he's his own animal and so you can't always tell him what to do. That's basically a cop out though for just plain bad and unbelievable A.I. It would be one thing for him to take a little nudging but it's quite another for him to go 7−12 jumps across 4 structures back for zero reason. If they wanted him to go so far away they should have added some motivation for it like some food that appears or light or animal or something.
As it is it's just frustrating.
I finished but the last 1/3 of the game was just plodding on for me and I was ready for it to end. It’s hard to tell if that’s just cliff hanging fatigue (lots of games do this now) or something else. I played Ico 4 times from beginning to end and Shadow of the Colossus 2 or 3 times but I won’t likely be playing The Last Guardian again.
I’m certainly happy it exists and at least tried something new (a giant pet) but like I mentioned maybe it’s cliff hanging fatigue.
I don’t remember video game history that well but I my short term memory remembers Ico feeling original not just in leading another character through the entire game and having to protect her but also in the wall climbing from super tall heights. Being in a very tall place, jumping from handrail to handrail, feeling vertigo. I don’t remember if the totality of that was original at the time. Certainly Jumping Jack Flash on PS1 had a feeling of vertigo and Zelda: Ocarina of Time had some climbing on cliffs. Tomb Raider on PS1 had jumping to cliffs and ledges but for some reason I remember Ico feeling original in that dimension.
But, … since then lots of games have that. I just played Uncharted 4 2−3 weeks ago and 30% of the game is exactly the same gameplay as 80% of The Last Guardian (cliff climbing with basically the same move set). I got sick of it in Uncharted 4 as well where it just seemed like a chore. I’d like to go back and replay Ico again to see if it’s actually as tedious as The Last Guardian or if the puzzles are more varied. Certainly the feeling of having to protect Yorda from the darkness was much more scary.
With Trico I pretty much felt 100% safe. I’d just jump on his back and wait as he’d kill all the enemies. I never died once in the game from anything other than bad controls falling off cliffs. Conversely in Ico Yorda got taken and the darkness engulfed the world many times. I don’t want a frustrating game but at the same time I was never scared in the Last Guardian except one sequence where I had to avoid 4 guards in a place Trico can’t go.
Also in Ico the puzzles lead up to something (getting the light on to various parts of the big gate) whereas the puzzles in The Last Guardian did nothing (just opened the next door). In other words there was a larger goal than just “get to the top” during the entire game of Ico whereas no such goal exists in The Last Guardian.
The short of it is even though Ico and The Last Guardian are really similar I’d like to back and replay Ico just to see if it’s truly a better game or if I’m just not interested in more of the same. I think if I go play it I’ll be able to point how why it worked better than the Last Guardian. Unfortunately I don’t have a PS2 or PS3 or Ico (though I guess I could play it on the PS Now free trial)
Reviews have claimed the director wanted to create an emotional attachment between Trico and the player but I felt way more attached to Yorda than I did to Trico so I’m not sure how The Last Guardian is more an experiment on empathy than Ico was. I guess the fact that you can/have to pet him to calm him down sometimes but conversely he’s basically invincible compared to Yorda’s vulnerability so I felt way more protective of Yorda than Trico and more empathy. She was a prisoner but it’s hard to say if that was true of Trico. Sure he was chained up at the start but from that point on there’s nothing to suggest he couldn’t leave the place on his own (for some definition of leave) where as Yorda was always about to be pulled into the darkness.
Another thing is I know I get picker and picker about my stories. Game stories almost universally suck. By stories I don't just mean the written story. I mean also the story the game itself tells through its design and the design of its levels. So for example when I read something like
From Ars Technica
Every broken brick, every rusted-over bridge, and every pile of rubble overgrown with weeds makes you feel like you're inhabiting the epilogue of a once-great civilization. It's a world full of ornate symbology and bronze-age-meets-magical-realism technology that's all the stronger for never being even partially explained. You'll feel like you're trespassing on the ghosts of master builders, who placed every last stone with a sense of purpose you'll never fully understand but love examining anyway.
That is what I wanted to get from The Last Guardian. Instead though I got more of "wait a minute. This places makes absolutely zero sense. Why are there all these stain glass eye windows on tracks whose sole purpose appears to be to allow the player to push them over?" In other words, they're designed to be broken by the player not designed to be used for some purpose of an ancient civilization. The same is true of pretty much all the architecture of The Last Guardian. One long disjointed path to the top. No paths that would make sense for a civilization itself. I'm not saying Ico was better, it probably also made no sense either but for some reason it just stuck out for me in the Last Guardian way more than Ico.
It is a beautiful game and Trico himself is amazing. But that beauty isn't enough to overcome its shortcomings.
I’m certainly happy The Last Guardian was made I’m just disappointed it didn’t reach the heights of its pedigree. It reminds me of Alien−>Aliens−>Alien3 or T1−>T2−>T3 where the 3rd one doesn't really meet the level of the previous 2. The Last Guardian was arguably the main reason I got a PS4 just recently. It's was one of the few games I was sure I'd want to play. I was hoping it would be up there with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus in terms of games that always come up in conversation "Did you ever play those games? No? Oh man! You're in for a treat". Unfortunately The Last Guardian is not in that category.