Friday, January 6, 2017

Extended First Impressions: The Last Guardian

Waiting ten years for anything is a harrowing experience.

Think about it. That's ten entire years to get excited. Three-thousand six-hundred and fifty days (plus leap days) for daydreaming about it, for wondering what it'll be like, for worrying it won't be what you expected or as good as you hoped.

And if, at the end of those ten years, that thing you've been waiting for ends up failing--if it isn't everything you hoped for--then all that waiting suddenly feels meaningless. Wasted.

That's a crushing feeling.

And that's the very reason why I was both thrilled and terrified when I heard The Last Guardian was releasing last month. It's also why I was almost hesitant to put the game in my PS4 and start playing. I was haunted by that fear:

What if it isn't as great as I hoped it would be?

I've purposefully tried to stay away from any media surrounding The Last Guardian to avoid spoilers and bias, but I did hear mixed reviews about the game, including lots of frustration with the controls. I tried not to let this bother me; after all, I'd heard lots of people complaining about Yorda's behavior in ICO, but I'd never had a problem with her. She felt like a real person to me in the way she moved and acted; I assumed your animal companion in The Last Guardian, Trico, would do the same.

At least, that's what I was saying over and over again to try and reassure myself as I finally started up the game.
 
Now, I admit that I haven't finished the game yet, so rather than this being a full review, think of it more as an "extended first impression" (second impression?). However, at least some of my initial impressions of the game still stand: The Last Guardian is the ambitious hybrid child of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. It has elements of both games while possessing its own unique qualities, too: qualities that involve pushing the boundaries of a modern video game. To summarize, if you enjoyed either of the previous two Team ICO games,* you will probably like this one also.

I can say that pretty confidently because this game does the same thing ICO and SotC did: tell a mysterious story in an atmospheric setting while challenging you to think about how to overcome the obstacles in your path.

Although, as I said last week, The Last Guardian is not (and was probably never intended to be) a puzzle game. In fact, TLG tries to make you forget it's a game at all. Instead, it's built to be something you experience, something you feel. It's these "un-gamey" elements that set TLG apart because they go above and beyond what most modern games have to offer. In fact, I'd love to see more (not all, but more) games follow The Last Guardian's precedent and become less "game" and more "interactive story."

Now, yes, there have been some frustrating moments in this "interactive story..." but they're the exceptions to a great overall experience.

From the start, this game makes you feel like you ARE a little boy trying to befriend and work together with an animal--an animal that swiftly becomes your companion and best friend. There's a great deal of teamwork required to solve most of its puzzles, which makes solving each one incredibly rewarding. In fact, sometimes I almost forget Trico is a computer AI--mostly because this game has not once insulted my intelligence by constantly dropping hints or blinking waypoints in my face.

This game does 95% of its puzzles perfectly, gently guiding you through while making you feel smart for figuring them out.

How?

Trico literally points you in the right direction. Just like a hunting dog pointing out fallen prey, Trico will often look in the direction you're supposed to go. It's subtle, but clear to an observant player.

And when introducing new game mechanics, the narrator (an older version of the protagonist; The Last Guardian is technically a frame narrative) will often pipe up in an unobtrusive way.

Both are subtle. Both require you to be thinking, listening, looking, observing. And both add to the story AND progress the game without reminding you that this is a game.

But there is still that remaining 5%. One of the downsides of this "forget it's a game" design is that The Last Guardian doesn't teach its mechanics flawlessly. In fact, two of my four frustration moments were because the game never mentioned vital tools I needed in order to advance.

My other two frustrations? At this point, I'm not sure whether they were glitches or additional instances of me not knowing all the game's mechanics. Either way, when a puzzle game has you wondering whether YOU did something wrong or the game did... that's a pretty big flaw.

But for me, those few frustrating moments are vastly outweighed by the fun and, well... awe.

As with Final Fantasy XV, I can't help but recognize what a labor of love The Last Guardian is. There's just too many handcrafted details to ignore: the carefully-crafted dialogue of the narrator, the "un-gamely" removal of health bars and HUD's, the detailed architecture, the lovely level designs--even the sound of the protagonist's bare feet padding softly on the cold stone floors.

But all my favorite details are embodied in Trico. Trico's animations are phenomenal and only add to the realism of this fantastic creature. Despite Trico having ostrich legs, a rat tail, glowing antler nubs, and feathers all over his body, the way Trico acts and moves made him immediately believable. His mannerisms are just that lifelike. The developers even went so far as to make Trico respond differently depending on where you pet him: patting his hindquarters makes him fluff out his feathers and slightly arch his back, while petting him behind the ear makes him tilt his head into the scratches with delight--and probably many more I haven't even discovered yet.

And just from body language alone, you can nearly feel Trico's intense affection for you. He follows you as you run around the castle ruins. He curiously sticks his head through holes way too small for his body, grumbling in distress when he can't follow. Just the other day, I happened to set the controller down for a moment and glanced back up to see Trico nuzzling my character from behind. Trico isn't just a character when I play this game. This is my partner. This is my teammate. This is my baby and my best friend, and I will do whatever I can to keep him safe.

As you can probably tell, yes, I am biased toward this game. Yeah, I probably am being too gentle on its faults. But that's only because I value the good parts of it so much more than its flaws.

So to sum it all up, you want to know what I love the most about The Last Guardian?

The mystique of this misty world that sparks the imagination.

The refined attention to detail in the character designs, the castle designs, and the animation.

Those breathtaking moments when you make a leap of faith, when you watch your character falling... falling... falling... and you can only pray that Trico will catch you.

Those are the things I love most about The Last Guardian.

So no, this game is not quite as polished and perfect as I had hoped. It has some bugs and it has some flaws...

BUT--

The Last Guardian is definitely the game I hoped it would be. And if any of that sounds interesting to you, I'd recommend giving it a try to experience this story for yourself.

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*It was only while writing this article that I found out production of The Last Guardian shifted from Team ICO to genDESIGN (See Wikipedia's Article on Team ICO). However, since Trico was Fumito Ueda's brainchild, it'll always be another one of the Team ICO games in my reckoning. ;)

From Him, To Him

9 comments:

  1. I've wanted to get into Team ICO's works more, but I barely even played the previous works from them.

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    1. I'd definitely recommend starting with ICO. There's a not-too-old HD remastered version with ICO and Shadow of the Colossus you can probably still find lying around. ICO will give you an idea if you like their storytelling and gameplay, though SotC is definitely pretty different from ICO or The Last Guardian. Much more combat-oriented.

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    2. Good call. I've heard great things about ICO. I wanted to play Shadow of the Colossus ever since I found out that Ko Otani (composer of Haibane Renmei) scored the soundtrack.

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    3. Wow! No wonder the music is so good. It's an excellent soundtrack. So much atmosphere in every tune that perfectly complements the fight.

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    4. I've heard some of the music and I really liked it. As I said in my Haibane Renmei review, Ko Otani is one of the most underrated composers out there. Sure, he's scored the occasional big name series like Outlaw Star or Gundam Wing, but I feel that he gets overshadowed by the notoriety of Joe Hisaishi, Yoko Kanno, or Kenji Kawai.

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    5. It's pretty telling when I recognize Joe Hisaishi and Yoko Kanno's names but not Ko Otani's. Though I'm not sure if that's more telling of the flood of popularity for Hisaishi and Yoko Kanno or if it's just telling how ill-versed I am in the music scene. :P Probably both.

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    6. Yeah. It's weird because he's worked on big series like Gundam Wing, Outlaw Star, and Eyeshield 21 of all things, but he never gets talked about as much as those composers.

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    7. Definitely. I think more people should pay attention to some more composers.

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