Auteur: a singular artist who controls all aspects of a collaborative creative work; a person equivalent to the author of a novel or a play.
In film criticism, the auteur theory is used in reference to a Film Director with a recognisable style or aesthetic; one whose fingerprints can be seen all through their work. Due to the technically complex nature of game design, this is naturally a far less frequent occurrence. But if you’ve played Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, then you’ve already felt the guiding hand of one of gamings foremost auteurs, in the form of Fumito Ueda. If you aren’t familiar with either of these games, they are superb platform/puzzle games that are unique in their gameplay, aesthetic and design, and I strongly recommend you check them out for yourself. In Ico, you play a boy who – with the aid of a mysterious girl – must escape from a castle, solving puzzles as you go. In Shadow of the Colossus, a young man quests – accompanied by his trusty steed Agro – to find, climb and defeat sixteen gigantic beasts. In his third story – The Last Guardian – Ueda takes what worked so well in both games (unique climbing mechanics, classic platforming and puzzle solving) and explores this theme of companionship through our own complex relationship with animals.
A small boy wakes in a dungeon, bearing strange glowing tattoos all over his body. He has little recollection of what happened, but soon realises he is not alone. A griffin-like creature – Trico – massive in size, part-cat, bird and rat all at once, is all he has for company. Along the way, you can expect revelations about the story and the world the characters inhabit, and there are some nice twists and turns. The player is guided slowly at first, as you become accustomed to each of the controls. This careful pacing in the opening hours of the game is not only deliberate but entirely necessary. It’s here you learn the finer points of controlling the boy, and all about your new companion and how he works with you while progressing through the game – how he responds to you, how he is fed, how he is calmed. Much of the gameplay has been retained from Ueda’s previous two titles. Prepare to make some daring leaps, crawl through the snuggest of spaces, clamber up chains and ladders, shimmy along ledges and tight-rope walk across some hair-raising drops. I won’t go too far into the mechanics, because discovering how the beast and boy interact with one another is all part of the experience.
The Old and the New
Originally developed for PS3, I can see why Sony decided to save this for their next generation hardware. Graphically speaking, The Last Guardian is a mixture of the old and the new, and there are some growing pains in the game that are felt from time to time. The frame rate does drop when there’s a lot happening on screen. It never becomes a hindrance to the game, but it’s notable. The graphics – while still pleasing to the eye thanks to some beautiful art direction – are still not the same level of polish of other in-house Sony titles (Uncharted 4 for example). This is no doubt a by-product of the game being developed for an older console originally. However, Sony have announced that the game will be given full 4K support for PS4 Pro with an update, so if you’re an early adopter of the Pro console (and damn your eyes if you are because I’m jealous!) and you’ve been awaiting this game since it was announced 8 years ago – then take heart. There are 2 sizable updates available already, and both are said to smooth out the frame-rate issues and fix camera issues. To be clear though, the game is gorgeous even without the enhancements. I’ll also mention that there are some subtle physics at play for the objects in the game (which make for some frankly ingenious puzzles) and I find it hard to believe that Sony’s last gen system would be able to handle the scale of the set pieces, in combination with all of the mechanics at play.
From a Certain Point of View
Some have complained that the camera is too frustrating to ignore and that it hampers the experience. Personally, I’ve been manipulating the camera for 3D platformers since Mario 64 and had very few issues. If you’ve played Shadow of the Colossus (and if you haven’t stopped reading this and pick up the HD remakes immediately – I’ll wait) then you know what to expect. So if you’re one of those people who expects the camera to magically move into the most perfect place at every moment (Uncharted 4 at al) then you’d better get used to using your right thumb and go to work. I’ll concede that in tighter spaces, the camera can have nowhere to go at times, and it can be a bit difficult to see exactly where you need to go next or gauge how far a jump is. Even here though, instead of having the camera become jammed against a wall, the screen will quickly fade to black and refresh itself – a nice compromise for an old 3D gaming problem. But the odd technical issue I can forgive for a game as ambitious as this, and none of these things detracted from the experience or affected my enjoyment of the game at any time. Sorry IGN, but nitpickers gonna nitpick…
Companion AI characters can be a bit of a hit/miss affair – they’re either too intelligent and rob the player of control, or so annoying they become a constant frustration. Perhaps it was Trico himself that inspired the boost in processing power from PS3 to 4. Ueda and his team have obviously gone to great pains to depict a living, breathing creature that has nuance, character and intelligence. It’s a testament then to Ueda and his team, that they’ve managed to create such a life-like supporting character. I never got frustrated with him. He never glitched or got in my way. He only ever behaved as I expected a creature – albeit a 15-foot tall giant feathered cat – would. Again, I won’t give you any examples of Trico’s behaviour, because again, it’s part of the journey, and these moments are given their own places in the game to shine.
Oh, there are levers to be pulled and platforms to be jumped. But teamwork is really the beating heart of this story. And as you progress, you will face a number of various obstacles. Some of them can be overcome by the boy, some only by Trico. But often, we needed to act together as a team. The boy is small and nimble (gosh, some of the ledges I dangled from and cliff walls I shimmied around would have made Nathan Drake sweat!) and Trico’s size means he can traverse much greater (and higher) distances. Together we were unbeatable, no matter how dire the situation became. And the more obstacles we overcame, the stronger our bond became. Even though there would be no ticking clock counting down, if there was something causing Trico to hiss and growl, I’d rush off and try to help him overcome his fear and frustration; my primary motivation not being to progress to the “next level”, but simply to help him and get us out of danger once and for all.
It’s not every day I feel the need to give a disclaimer about a video game, but I feel that for this game I perhaps should. I want to warn any animal-lovers out there (cat lovers especially) that there are some intense sequences in this game, that could make you feel anything from squeamish to downright terrified. I’m not going to spoil what those moments are (I hate it when reviewers do this), but once the Ooohs and Aaaahs of the beast’s animation and AI wear off, and Trico becomes your friend, he comes into danger. A number of times my partner and housemate found the game a little too distressing for them to watch. Yes, they couldn’t watch a bunch of pixels come to any kind of harm without becoming tense (and I was the one playing!). This disclaimer goes double for any younger players out there who adore animals. Watching Trico scratch and yawn may be cute, but seeing him being threatened… not so much. Such is the power of the game that spending so much time with such a realistic creature that behaves like your average domesticated pet – well, let’s just say it can have an effect. So you have been warned!
The Art of Adventure
Even in its quieter moments, nothing feels drawn out or padded in The Last Guardian. There are no side-quests or fetch-quests here. No collectibles to go back for. No filler to pad out hours of “gameplay”. There is only Ueda’s vision, and that vision is singular and laser focused. Every new experience, every behavioral milestone, every new area, each set piece – it is all carefully crafted and there to be savored. Extreme care has been taken to ensure that the connective emotional tissue between the characters is organic, and felt by the player on the stick – and not sidelined for cut-scenes. For these reasons and more, I could not help but be pulled deeper and deeper into their adventure.
After 8 years of painstaking development and re-development, amidst the kind of overwhelming expectations reserved for the greatest of artistic endeavors… A true Auteur of gaming has finally completed his next vision. He said that his one wish for the player, was simply for them to feel that Trico exists. So, when the after-credits scene faded, and I sat there reflecting on this epic journey, not only did I feel that Trico existed, but that he became something unique in all of gaming. Not an NPC. Not a supporting character. But someone loyal. Someone trustworthy.
And suddenly, 8 years doesn’t seem like such a long wait after all.