The Last Guardian (2016) Retrospective

Boy meets beast, beast ignores boy, boy ignores player

There are many games I enjoy that are objectively average or bad, and quite a few I dislike that consensus tells me are good. The Last Guardian sits somewhere in the middle as one of the rare games I desperately wanted to like more than I did.

Coming from the now defunct Studio Japan and director Fumito Ueda – of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus fame – and having gone through a tortuous development cycle going back to the PlayStation 3 era, The Last Guardian is an unevenly paced journey, with incredible storytelling and audiovisual spectacle shackled to clunky and often frustrating gameplay.

The Last Guardian follows the trials and tribulations of a young boy who awakens in a cave alongside a wounded chimera, “Trico”, with no idea where he is, how he got there, or what the tattoos that now cover his body mean. Just like Ueda’s prior games, it features a compelling mix of oppressive isolation, risky platforming, and wondrous discovery that only makes sense from the perspective of a child.

The ancient ruins are sprawling but also vertical and continuous, ensuring you can often see where you need to be and look back from whence you came. Despite the scale, there’s plenty of fine detail as both environmental storytelling and character interactions carry the story, with limited narration – much of it for guidance if you get stuck – and only a handful of cutscenes that eventually reveal past events.

The Last Guardian Visuals

It’s not the most original story of a child and beast bonding and saving one another from a shared threat, but it is beautifully told through the aforementioned cutscenes and evolving in-game interactions. The journey is full of literal ups and downs as the boy and Trico try to access a mysterious tower that dominates the ruins – a tower seemingly protected by other aggressive chimera and a source of much pain for Trico.

After key moments in the story, their bond grows and the boy gains more direct control of Trico through a series of simple, exaggerated gestures. Simultaneously, Trico regrows its feathers and horns, becomes more assertive in pointing out the way forward, and acts without needing player input – but it also becomes more tender and protective of the boy.

The Last Guardian Storytelling

If nothing else, The Last Guardian is a game for pet lovers – so long as you can take the emotional highs and with the gut-punching lows. Trico feels like a mix of kitten and dog – clumsy, playful, and nimble, but also loyal, protective, and food-obsessed. Interactions are wonderfully animated, as Trico investigates and prods the environment, fixates on barrels of blue food, and nuzzles the boy playfully if you remain idle. On the other hand, it’s devastating to watch Trico limp around and whimper when injured, or become manic and uncontrollable when frightened or enraged.

Feeding and calming Trico are in-game mechanics, and the boy can stroke it in several spots to elicit different reactions. Despite the increasingly weird and fantastical setting, these small and significant animation details make their evolving relationship feel real.

The Last Guardian Petting Trico

Unfortunately, The Last Guardian rarely plays as well as it looks and sounds – especially during an opening half that features gameplay scenarios frustrating by design. For the first few hours, the boy can only call Trico towards a location; cling to Trico’s flank or leap from its back to reach high places; and very briefly use a shield to clear obstacles with tail-spawned lightning before it disappears until the final act.

Given Trico’s often erratic movement in confined spaces and around jump points, far too much time is spent repeatedly shuffling the boy around and spamming the “call” button, then desperately clambering onto Trico’s back while praying it doesn’t start moving.

Now, given Trico becomes more controllable and helpful over time – saving the boy from certain doom multiple times thanks to his indestructible shirt and wrists of steel – it’s much easier to forgive this design when The Last Guardian can be completed in a dozen hours.

What doesn’t improve, however, are the loose and inconsistent controls, which make platforming and puzzle elements feel too unpredictable. A big part of the problem is how The Last Guardian frequently shifts between free- and semi-fixed camera control, which makes it difficult to predict which direction the boy will jump, and often sends Trico leaping back across a chasm you just struggled to clear. Mercifully, checkpoints were frequent enough to limit time lost.

Unfortunately, there are other gameplay issues. The first is a common problem with all cinematic games – not doing what the developers expected. A prime example was a cave-in that had me clambering around trying to free Trico, when what I needed to do was abandon Trico and walk away down a corridor until I encountered hostile spectral armour, triggering a scripted sequence.

Talking of spectral armour, Trico is quick to smash them apart but, when separated, they chase down the boy and attempt to carry him off. It’s a fate easily circumvented by mashing buttons, but while it initially added tension to puzzle sequences, these encounters soon become annoying. You either run loops to clear space or just accept endless button-mashing disruptions.

To The Last Guardian’s credit, there is a cutscene around two-thirds of the way through the game that felt like a pay-off, followed soon after by the reappearance of the shield and the catharsis that comes from blasting them apart with lightning.

The Last Guardian Angry Trico

Now returning to my point about wanting to like The Last Guardian more than I did, it is still a game I’d recommend everyone try despite my issues with it – and not least of all because it’s frequently discounted, still looks incredible, and has a 60fps update for the PS5 that make it feel smoother but does little to remedy the control issues.

Aside from being an intensely cinematic, audiovisual spectacle the PlayStation brand has become renowned for, The Last Guardian is one of the few games that manages to capture the subtleties of human-animal bonds by smartly working into the narrative, animations, and gameplay mechanics. Animal companions have become ubiquitous in modern games, but most are little more than easily marketable gimmicks that function as cute accessories you can pet when you’re bored. Despite the potential for frustration, The Last Guardian‘s mythical Trico feels more real than any other animal companion in video games that came before it or since.

The Last Guardian is available on PS4 and PS5.

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