I’ve been sending fewer words out onto the Net so far this year, and one of the reasons was The Last Guardian, which I finished last night. Now I’m missing it and maybe writing about it will help.
There’s been controversy about the game but I think that on balance it’s great, one of 2016’s more significant works of art, and also a dozen or two hours of fine entertainment for these cold winter evenings.
I’m going to wrap my impressions around a handful of my screen-grabs — the Internet has better ones, but these are mine. I couldn’t bring myself to scale them down, so they’re a gift for those of you with big screens; for the rest of you, try clicking on, then shrinking, a couple, to get the full effect.
For the 0.03% of the population who don’t already know, here’s what it’s about: You, a skinny pre-teen boy, work your through a fantastical mostly-vertical landscape of ruins and towers with the help of Trico (トリコ), a giant dog-cat-bird, and you become very close.
Trico is the center of the game and the best reason to play, a triumph of brushstrokes and imagination and precision and software; her movements teeter on the blade between clumsiness and grace, never losing balance; her rare outbursts of violence are shocking and convincing.
I just know someone’s going to lean back and flame me for calling Trico “her”, but it seems obvious. To start with, that name, in the Japanese context, sounds more girl than boy to me. And then, I’ve crawled up her tail and hind legs a few times, and I guarantee that if Trico had any male secondary sexual characteristics, I’d have noticed.
It says in this 2009 IGN piece that the motion of each of Trico’s feathers is computed individually, and I think that must be true.
The game play is about platforming and puzzling, there’s no twitch to speak of. But mostly it’s about the beautiful visuals and working with Trico. Check the screengrab below.
It’s like this: You’re on a balcony over a vast empty space, a fall meaning certain death; check. The balcony and its building are ornate, pastel-to-monochrome, and crumbling; check. You’re convincing Trico to walk around the edge of the building on a random rooftop, waiting for her to come along; check.
For me, the game regularly achieved absolute suspension of disbelief; I was absolutely trapped on this teetering ledge over a thousand-meter drop, hoping for my CatBirdDog buddy to get where I could leap to where she could grab me. And when the towers start falling beneath you… well, my heart was pounding hard more than once.
The game might be a bargain even if were just a virtual tour through its world’s landscapes, immeasurably vast, insanely detailed, admirable and sad and scary. People despaired whether the game, ten years in the making, would ever come out; but I can’t see how they ground out all this wonder in a mere decade.
There have been gripes about the game-play: controls, frame-rate, camera, and, well, Trico. Yep, the controls are kind of klunky; I never fully mastered that quick climb up Trico’s shoulder or haunch, kept sometimes straying into her ear or armpit. Others I respect hated the frame-rate, but I honestly found it obtrusive only once during my many hours in the game. As for the camera, I thought it was a triumph, always spontaneously drifting in or out or sideways to highlight the view or emphasize the space or focus on the sparkles flowing in filtered light coming from the high shattered window.
But yeah, when you’re clinging to the neck of a monstrous beast shouldering its way between narrow stone walls, well, you’re not gonna see much but feathers and stones. Deal with it.
And then there’s Trico herself. She often does not Come When Called. Or Go When Sent. Or Leap When Begged. I can see how this constitutes the road to madness for a twitch gamer, and sometimes it’s bloody irritating even for a fairly laid-back greybeard like me. But over the hours I came to appreciate the game’s forcing Trico’s pace on me; and when I was sitting perched on her back on a bridge on a tower on a buttress on a castle on a mountain in the wind, well, there was lots to look at.
Once the programming went wonky on me and Trico refused to jump up to that first waterfall for a solid half hour. But I suspect that any software sufficiently advanced to do what Trico does at some point becomes indistinguishable from a cat.
There are things to gripe about; about the eighteenth time that I was maneuvering around a turret by alternately hanging from railings, teetering along narrow boards, and leaping from ledge to ledge, I was thinking “This is a not-very-exciting platformer.” So, there were places the game could have been edited down a bit.
But, still, I got the best part of a solid day’s worth of extreme beauty, and excitement, and a relationship with a wonderful virtual creature. Maybe not as intense as the temporary relationships I’ve had with Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, or Chihiro, or Tiffany Aching. But it’s not insane to talk about them in the same breath.