This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Last Guardian.
Oh man, this is an end of an era. It's only Half-Life 3 left in the infinitely prolonged sense of vague disappointment bucket. And after that the industry's gonna have to mishandle a whole batch of new longterm projects to tease us with. And that's just not gonna happen until hype for AAA games becomes worth giving much of a shit about again.
The Last Guardian was announced 9 tongue-spunking years ago. An entire tonsil-jizzing generation of consoles has passed between it and its predecessor, Shadow of the Colossus. And I'm pleased to report that The Last Guardian is disappointing right out of the gate, as it turns out that the title doesn't mean anything. It's a game about two pals, and neither of them are the last of anything, or, strictly speaking, guardians. The boy isn't a guardian although he may need one as he can't seem to get through one minute of his life without braining himself on a bit of old wall. And the monster isn't a guardian either. It's just sort of puppy-kitten-baby goat-budgerigar thing like a merging together of all your deceased childhood pets. But I suppose Shadow of the Colossus didn't mean anything either. Yeah, the colossi had shadows, but then so does Peter Weller and it wasn't called Shadow of RoboCop.
If you're familiar with Fumito Ueda's previous works, Ico and Something of the Colossus, then you should already know what to expect: a young boy getting concussions left and right like a blue bottle trying to navigate a drummers' convention, ancient ruins, lonely atmosphere, a yellowish-green filter on everything. Everyone talks a vaguely Japanese-sounding made-up language, and the camera refuses to behave itself. Seriously, if Fumito Ueda made a VR game then the player's body would spontaneously generate new orifices just to vomit out of.
And that isn't helped by the way the slightest touch of the stick makes the main character fucking sprint in the given direction waving their arms. Although that is, admittedly, a fairly understandable response to having spent 3 hours trying to teach a giant muskrat-eagle-vole thing how to shit on the paper.
But we get ahead of ourselves. The setup is, we're a small boy who wakes up in a gigantic ruined castle, covered in strange tattoos and lying next to a colossal hairy monster (obligatory 'Yeah I've had mornings like that' joke.) Your objective is to escape from the castle while a bunch of resident scary dudes with glowing eyes would rather you didn't. You may have already noticed that this setting and premise is pretty much identical to Ico's, which may explain why this game took so long; they were waiting for the last few Ico fans to die of old age. The only difference is that the princess you are rescuing in Ico has been replaced with a giant winged coyote-lamb thing, which might sound like a not insignificant difference, but there's about the same amount of brain power on display.
While Yorda was a rather oblivious little moo who seemed like she needed a few good firm slaps before she could register the time of day, you could at least grab her by the hand, pull her over to the ledge, and keep rubbing her face across the brickwork until she figured out she was supposed to climb it. Meanwhile, you grab onto Mr. Woofie's back chicken leg and at best you'll get whiplash as he absentmindedly scratches his ear. And the dynamic is changed in that you're sort of the one being escorted this time. You need Captain Whiskers to get you up to high places and to beat up schoolyard bullies. But it's uphill work when he seems less interested in your goals than he is in finding a nice giant toilet to drink out of.
I must say at this point that the developers should be congratulated on what a superb job they did at making the giant sparrow hamster act convincingly like a real animal. It moves exactly like a cat, and it stares blankly at you like a family dog trying to passive-aggressively protest the amount of Christmas dinner going into you and not him. But I'd say the emphasis is on cat, because you have about as much direct control over Fuzzy Chops as you do on a bar of soap in the bath.
You start the game with the ability to call him to your location, which is slightly redundant since he usually follows you anyway because he's still mulling over whether to play along or bite your chitlins off. Later on, your relationship improves, and you can actually start giving him commands such as jump, or 'go vaguely in that direction', or 'look around at precisely the moment I attempt leap off your head onto a ledge.' Oh sorry, my mistake. That's not a commanding; that's that one for free. And 'jump' seems to be quite an interpretive command that could equally mean 'jump up to the next ledge' or 'jump down the 7 or 8 ledges I just spend the last half hour trying to get you to climb.'
"So what you're saying is that the gameplay mechanic of directing your huge ferret osprey around is quite challenging, almost like it's some kind of, say, video game." I see your point, Joseph Mengele, but a challenge isn't fair if the elements don't act consistently. For example, our fairy friend is supposed to catch things that fly towards his mouth, but half the time the neuron apparently doesn't fire and he just zones out like he's thinking about Jaffa Cakes. This is very hilarious when you're trying to chuck him a treat and it bounces off his head with a hollow clunk; not so funny when the thing he's supposed to be catching is YOU in what is probably supposed to be a heartwarming moment of relationship building at the climax of a platforming puzzle. As you leap desperately away from a collapsing ledge and fall towards the adorable Mr. Touchyface with arms outstretched, the cinematic slowmotion activates as he cranes his neck forwards, and proceeds to heroically gormlessly stare at you, confused that you didn't bring him a biscuit as you plummet past his nose to your death.
I was THIS close to quitting in frustration after I lost half an hour trying to figure out how to make Bonzo dive into a pool and swim through an underwater tunnel. I'm sorry game. I can't seem to find the button for 'dive down and swim through tunnel' command. Perhaps it lies between the buttons for 'whap with rolled-up newspaper' and 'administer worming tablet' on the controller that doesn't exist.
But I did push through and was eventually able to enjoy the inevitable heart string-tugging ending, although the effectiveness was somewhat lessened by it - like the ending of Ico - hinging on us having grown invested in the relationship between boy and non-boy entity. While that was easier in Ico because Yorda was about as helpless as the last chicken nugget on a popular buffet table, and we'd spent the last 8 hours trying to keep her from skipping nonchalantly into the mouths of passing tigers, Fluffywhuf Barkington III felt more like part of the hazards: something we need to work around rather than with.
It'd be like getting invested in the relationship between the bloke from Shenmue and the bloke from Shenmue's forklift. Imagine that: the storybook romance between a cold piece of emotionless machinery, and a forklift.
- Responsible pet owner: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- It's time for my Christmas break so I'll be back in two weeks with the 2016 top 5s and probably a hangover
- Remember to spay and neuter your giant cryptofauna