by Jed Pressgrove
The resistance of Trico, a humongous griffin-like creature, makes The Last Guardian a satire of the virtual-pet and virtual-helper concepts. As the boy protagonist, you are called to work with Trico to solve puzzles, but Trico doesn’t always care about making progress, so you find yourself having to feed, pet, and shout over and over again at the beast, whose whims ironically become the whole point of the affair. With this capricious animal, director Fumito Ueda lays the foundation for one of the most emotionally complex games of the 21st century, yet this startling approach is somewhat undone by the predictability of the journey.
By pouring traits of our favorite pets into Trico (such as a cat’s tendency to raise a paw, pause, then slap at things), Ueda taps into humankind’s sentimentality for animals. Such fuzzy feelings are counterbalanced by the realization that a pet makes life (the puzzle) more difficult than it should be and by the fact that an animal is frightening under distress, best illustrated by Trico’s roaring and stomping after he smashes a foe. Because these sentiments take hold of us in the context of a puzzler/platformer, The Last Guardian mocks convention when Trico doesn’t obey.
For example, sometimes the simple task of riding Trico as he jumps to a higher platform is mind-bogglingly slow compared to how such an action would go down in a traditional video game, where logical and streamlined patterns dominate. Trico can be calm and positioned right in front of the ledge, with you stamping your feet on his head and pointing at the destination, but the animal might very well show no acknowledgement of the mission, obliviously staring and turning its head. To rub in this absurd lack of rationality, Ueda includes a camera that is baffling to deal with in 2016. The frustration of wrangling Trico in a smaller room can be compounded by the camera — in a strange interpretation of your analog-stick input — doing an illogical close-up of the creature’s feathers, closing off your avatar and the environment from sight.
Due to irritation, it’s hard to laugh at Ueda’s rejection of synchronization and flow, but in hindsight The Last Guardian is hilariously, ingeniously defiant. This obstinate quality means that when things do go right, the catharsis, the affection, is more powerful. At times it can seem like you’re spending minutes (rather than actual seconds) rubbing Trico’s body to calm him down, so after he finally stops going ballistic and shows an appreciative glance, you are moved by something unusual: the sweetness of a colossus.
This emotional purpose is cheapened by a lazy approach to plot. While it is relieving and terrifying watching Trico annihilate armored foes that try to kidnap you, Ueda often recycles this scene as if writing another scenario is pointless or impossible. This tendency to turn great ideas into cliches wears down the first half of the game, but excitement returns when the suspense heightens in a section where platforms collapse, kicking off a slow-motion free fall where Trico misses catching you with his mouth, only for his dangling tail to offer salvation. Then Ueda repeats that idea. It’s an unfortunate reminder that even a game-design genius can confuse more content with epic intentions.