Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Last Guardian - Thoughts

There aren't a lot of games that have animal companions. It's kind of a strange fact if you think about it—a huge number of people have experience with rearing or at least taking care of a pet, but our nonhuman buddies are often neglected, sidelined, or forgotten in video games. I mean, quantifiably there's Dogmeat, Epona, and... various pokemon? Hell I'm almost tempted to say I can name more pivotal robot characters than animal ones! I don't bring this up to specifically disparage the state of pets in the video game industry, but rather as a way to emphasize just how utterly unique The Last Guardian feels. Gone are waypoints, HUD elements, skill trees, and upgrades; The Last Guardian is a subdued journey about you and your feathered friend seeking freedom together, learning to rely on one another in order to escape the confines of a beautiful—and unbelievably cruel—stone sanctuary.

There is a slight addendum to my claim about The Last Guardian's uniqueness—the game alarmingly resembles Team Ico's debut, Ico. Both games share similar tribal worlds, earthen fortress settings, restrained soundtracks, and muted stories. This isn't even taking the gameplay into account, which, in spite of the size disparity of Trico and Yorda, is heavily dependent on environmental puzzles and finding ways to safely scale gargantuan buildings. From mood alone I would argue that The Last Guardian is as much as a spiritual successor to Ico as Demon's Souls is to Dark Souls. In case you're wondering why I'm harping on their similarities so much, it's predominantly because your feelings on one game will likely predict your feelings on the other.

For instance, I greatly appreciate Ico, but man, do I not enjoy playing it. The same is true here; controlling the boy in The Last Guardian is like piloting a drunken, magnetized child at times, especially when the action gets frantic. In some ways it can aid the authenticity of the gameplay—the "scripted" sequences that would feel safe in something like Uncharted are far more real and prone to error here, every jump resulting in an unknown outcome (more than once the game went into epic slow motion during a leap that nevertheless lead to my death). But whenever you miscalculate your fiddly jump trajectory or inexplicably find yourself glued to Trico despite hammering the cross button, frustration will start to build and your tolerance for the game's wonkiness can quickly drop. I still firmly believe The Last Guardian is worth experiencing in spite of its faults, it's just that as a video game it's a pretty rough product (the framerate goes on a pretty wild roller coaster ride). I liken it best to an art film like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, where I'm left breathless by its brilliant style, but find it hard to claim that my overall experience resembled anything "fun".

But The Last Guardian doesn't need to be fun to be good—in fact, the tone throughout the majority of the game is decidedly un-fun; in spite of the bright, friendly mood the game projects, The Last Guardian is actually one of the darkest, most melancholy games I think I've ever played. It may not be immediately apparent during its introduction, but a huge amount of the game is spent helplessly watching your innocent companion get stabbed with spears, fall off of buildings, and fight against its bestial instincts. Rather than being placed in the shoes of the muscle-bound hero that's determined to save his (typically female) partner, The Last Guardian's child is a feeble bystander to many of the horrific events that play out, only able to console the beleaguered beast with soft words and gentle rubs after the action has subsided. And in typical Team Ico fashion, the game gets resoundingly brutal at the end; expect to clutch your pet close after the credits roll.

The big reason the game is so proficient at evoking pathos is due to how realistic the mythical monster feels. The animations string together to form a very smooth and very lifelike creature; Trico hops like a bird, moans like a dog, and is often obstinate like a cat. It's kind of a stroke of genius to portray your ally as a clueless pet, because it narratively masks any AI pathing discrepancies you'll notice when trying to lure Trico from one place to the next. Frustrated that your pal refuses to stand on its hind legs to  boost you up to a nearby window? Well you shouldn't expect a wild animal to follow all your orders on the first day it meets you! Don't get me wrong—you'll still get vexed when Trico doesn't do what you want it to do—but this explanation is a useful way to get you to treat your companion less like a faulty string of algorithms and more like a clumsy, silly, gentle friend.

Spending time in the more quiet moments of the game with Trico is where the The Last Guardian really shines, especially when you're in one of the game's many stunning outdoor environments. Coincidentally though, this is typically when you're interacting with it the least. Besides the mechanical problems with your player character, I don't really have a lot of love or appreciation for the puzzles here either—nearly every challenge exists to obfuscate your progression. Puzzles by definition serve that very purpose, but the quandaries here are more naked and blunt, like looking for a ladder out of reach or finding a ledge for Trico to jump to. There are definitely some inventive solutions to uncover along the way, as well as some pretty wild predicaments you'll find yourself uncomfortably thrust into, but the game isn't quite as mentally stimulating as I was hoping it would be (which I admit can be a tall order—hell, I managed to find Portal 2 disappointing).

There's a lot of clunkiness to The Last Guardian that clearly distinguishes it as a game caught between generations. It's a title I wouldn't advise to anyone that looks down upon "walking sims" or "video game stories" with scorn, as I would hesitate to call any of its gameplay engaging in and of itself. But The Last Guardian isn't (and needn't be) entirely concerned with the moment-to-moment details of its mechanics; Team Ico's laconic masterpiece knows precisely what it wants to do and executes on its premise flawlessly. It's a game with tremendous heart, passion, and vision; The Last Guardian might not be an enthralling video game, but it stands tall as a gorgeously crafted piece of art that will rend your heart to ribbons.

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