There is so much wrong with The Last Guardian.
The controls are stodgy, the camera’s a pain in the backside, and as for getting your huge, feathery companion to do what you want it to do - well, that’s like trying to get a cat to do what you want.
And no, that’s not the whole idea, but I’ll come back to that.
The point is, The Last Guardian is seriously flawed and often seriously frustrating, and as I lay out those flaws before you you’re going to think I’m an idiot for awarding it five stars.
But here’s the thing: I don’t care what you think. Because I love Trico, and I love this flawed, frustrating game.
Best in show
Trico is a cat. Or maybe he’s a dog. And maybe he’s a she. Whatever it is genetically, story-wise it’s your giant, feathery, winged companion.
Awakening in some sort of pit alongside a huge beast that seems as wary and worse for wear as you are. It doesn’t take long for the young protagonist to establish a bond.
Trico is keen on barrels full of glowing, green stuff and of not being chained up, and you’re able to help him with both. Sorry, to me Trico is male and that’s just the way it is.
These two characters have the same general aim - to escape the place they’ve been left in which, it turns out, is a deep bowl surrounded by mountains and with ancient, towering ruins rising from its centre.
I’d love to say that the alliance between these two characters is uneasy, hard-fought and fragile, but actually Trico is your best friend almost instantly, like that cat you once stroked on the way to work and you’re pretty sure would’ve followed you home if you’d let it.
There is, eventually, a sort of answer for Trico’s willingness to buddy up with this particular little human, but to be completely honest it doesn’t particularly matter that this is a gaming relationship that you haven’t had to work very hard for - Trico is just that darn lovable.
It’s the way he moves and the noises he makes. All uniquely his, but also instantly recognisable, and the way he relies on you and responds to your kindnesses creates immediate affection that’s impossible to resist.
If your heart doesn’t break a little as you see him get more and more battered and bruised over the course of your journey together, you have no heart at all. You monster.
The boy with the glowing tattoo
Trico isn’t the only character to have been lavished with attention. The boy that you play is similarly, gorgeously animated, from the way he runs ungainly down stairs, to the way he hops on the spot when he’s nervous.
He feels organic and analogue, and that’s a surprisingly rare thing, even in these halcyon days of next-gen gaming.
The presentation is beautiful throughout, particularly if you’re playing on a screen that supports HDR (high dynamic range). This is a soft, watercolour-inspired aesthetic, and as you watch Trico’s feather’s shimmer in a bright light or take in one of the many vertiginous vistas, there’s nothing to do but marvel.
The frustration game
But that’s not to say that this is a flawless technical achievement. As with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus before it, there’s a stodginess to the controls that stampedes through the fourth wall.
The frustration of missing a jump because you’re an idiot is nothing compared to the frustration of missing one because the game reacted fourteen years after you pressed the button. Or because the character jumped in precisely the wrong direction.
It also annoys me that walking slowly is represented by the main character sneaking, whether there are enemies around or not. And that most of the time, he’ll stop at an edge regardless of the speed you approach, but sometimes will just run off it like a particularly energetic lemming. And that there’s very little differentiation between a ledge you can climb and one that you can’t.
The camera’s often awful as well. It stops you rotating it fully when you’re in open space. It lets Trico completely block your view. It will be too sluggish and heavy to give you a glimpse of what you’re looking for.
All of which pales into insignificance when it comes to trying to get Trico to do what you want.
The excuse, I’m sure, is that getting an untrained cat/dog/eagle to do what you want takes plenty of patience and some clear direction, but that isn’t what’s happening here. What’s happening here is that the lack of precision in the game controls is clashing with the game’s need for Trico to be in precisely the right place in order to trigger the next action.
There is nothing at all fun about finally figuring out the solution to a problem, then having to spend a further ten minutes screaming at your telly because a stupid, flaming dog/bird/eagle won’t take the blasted jump.
You end up wandering around, convinced you’re going mad and must have missed something else until, having exhausted every possibility, you go back to the original solution and suddenly Trico’s all up for it, as if he was trolling you the whole time.
The Last Guardian: Verdict
You encounter these issues a fair bit over the course of the journey, and they make you want to headbutt your TV, but they’re invariably followed by something brilliant or beautiful, or both.
I found one water section so annoying I had to walk away twice, but what followed was a ramping up of excitement and drama so all-encompassing, I had to refer to my notes to remind myself the preceding irritation had even happened.
And, in the end, that’s where The Last Guardian succeeds. It’s absolutely riddled with flaws and frustrations, but while they annoy the hell out of you in the moment, they’re surprisingly forgettable in the face of an emotional, dramatic and beautiful overall experience.
For all of its issues, this is a lovely, lovely game that will stay with you a long time after its twelve-ish hours are done. And there are very few games that have that sort of impact.