While dogs and small children can be adorable, they can also be a huge pain in the ass when you want them to do something. Sometimes, they just don’t listen. But that’s only one of the reasons why the third-person action game The Last Guardian (PlayStation 4) — in which you help a kid and a dog-like animal get around — is so infuriating and disappointing.
In The Last Guardian, a young boy wakes up in a strange cave with a large animal that looks like someone crossed a chicken with a wirehair dachshund. Not sure where he is, how he got there, or why he’s now covered in cryptic tattoos, the kid befriends the beast, who he calls Trico, and the two set off on an epic journey back to the kid’s village.
At its core, The Last Guardian is a third-person platformer. But it’s not like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze or some other game where you’re trying to make your way through a sadistic obstacle course. Instead, you’re navigating the twosome through some abandoned ruins. Which is why this is somewhat reminiscent of the parts in Rise Of The Tomb Raider or Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End when you’re doing all the climbing and jumping.
Except that unlike a lot of games where you have to escort someone around, Trico is actually helpful in The Last Guardian. Granted, it’s usually as a surrogate foot stool, letting the boy climb up onto his back so the kid can then jump onto a ledge, though Trico also lets the kid use his tail like a rope, and can even carry the boy on his back when he leaps up onto a ledge or takes flight. He’s also a good guard dog when the kid is beset upon by the game’s version of the Terracotta warriors, who will drag the boy off if Trico doesn’t smash them to bits first.
What’s also unique about the escorting in The Last Guardian is that it’s as much about the kid helping Trico get around as it is Trico helping the kid. While some parts have the kid jumping and climbing his way to a switch that will open a large gate that’s in Trico’s way, others parts have Trico doing all of the heavy lifting in getting the kid to the switch. It also helps that the two each bring something different to the table. Trico can jump a lot higher than the boy can, and even fly short distances, and the kid can fit between the bars in large gates as well as smaller holes and cracks in the wall. More importantly, neither move like an adult-sized acrobatic archeologist.
The relationship between Trico and the kid goes beyond just helping each other get around, though. The two develop a bond that feels real, and while this won’t make you want to have a kid or a giant chicken dog, you will be glad you’ve gotten to share this time with them.
It also helps that the areas you navigate in The Last Guardian are nicely varied, often intricate, and usually require a bit of thought and observation to figure out. And that Trico has some helpful skills of his own (though nothing I can share without spoiling things).
Too bad it doesn’t work right. While The Last Guardian takes a unique approach to platforming, it’s undermined by inconsistent and infuriating control issues. This becomes readily apparent whenever you give Trico a command, since it often takes multiple prompts before he’ll do what you want. And I don’t mean you have to hit the button twice. No, sometimes you have to hit the button for five minutes before he’ll move.
Though, annoyingly, he doesn’t always jump where you’ve told him to. In one part of The Last Guardian, for instance, Trico was supposed to jump up a succession of balconies and poles until he got to an open window. But after hopping up to the second-to-last platform, he turned around and proceeded to jump all the way back to the beginning, despite the fact that I kept pointing him in the right direction.
The kid isn’t much better. It often takes him three or four attempts when you want him to hang off a ledge. And even then he’ll only do it if he’s in just the right spot. His hand/eye coordination also needs a lot of work. While he will jump or throw something when told to, he doesn’t always do it in the direction you’ve aimed him in. It’s why I ended up cursing out this game in ways I’d never speak to a child. Or a dog. Or a chicken for that matter.
Then there are all the technical issues plaguing The Last Guardian. The biggest of which is the awkward third-person camera. Sure, cameras in third-person games never work right 100% of the time, but it seems especially wonky here. Especially since, at times, the screen will go blank for a split second while the camera resets itself, which is rather disorienting in a game where being precise means the difference between leaping onto a ledge and leaping to your death.
Though it also doesn’t help that it’s sometimes hard to do that leaping to begin with. When climbing up onto his furry friend, the kid often gets caught up in Trico’s feathers, especially on top of the beasts’ head and where the tail connects to his butt. As a result, it often takes multiple attempts to get the kid to hop from Trico to a ledge.
There are also times when, as with the kid when he’s told to drop down onto a ledge, things don’t get triggered unless you’re in just the right spot. In one part, Trico won’t do anything until he gets something to eat. So, I brought him one of those glowing barrels he likes so much. But he wouldn’t eat it. Was I supposed to throw it in his mouth like the last time he fed? No, that didn’t work either. In fact, I ended up putting it in front of him about a dozen times until I found just the right spot, at which point he finally he gobbled it up and then agreed to continue onward.
Compounding this issue, the game is rather linear, and there’s usually only one true path, one true solution.
Now, the argument could be that the controls are intentionally clunky and slow to respond because little kids are uncoordinated and Trico’s clearly never been to obedience school. But while this would make sense if you had to tell Trico to do something three or four times before he did it, or the kid sometimes slipped while climbing up Trico’s side, the controls are so awkward and so slow to work that it makes this more infuriating than immersive, and makes me wonder if this isn’t a design choice as much as it is as design flaw.
When things work right, The Last Guardian is an inventive and unique platformer, and a creative take on games where you have to be someone’s escort. But thanks to its control problems and technical issues, it only works right about half the time. Which is why The Last Guardian isn’t a bad game as much as it is a real disappointment. And there’s nothing adorable about that.