Monday, December 12, 2016
The Last Guardian - A BlueHighwind and His Dog
The world has become somehow a less magical place now that all my dreams have come true. That’s probably the worst lesson of becoming an adult. It is more enjoyable to want than to actually have. I spent six years on the Final Fantasy Wiki working to become an Admin, and when it happened I felt no joy. If all of a sudden tomorrow somebody hired me away from my day job to work full time as a video game/movie commentator/reviewer… whatever thing I am, I imagine I’ll be disappointed in that too. Because once you’ve achieved your goals you realize how hollow they really were. Life just becomes all the more empty.
And what do you know? It’s also appropriately Christmas, the time of the year when we get all kinds of bullshit and junk that somehow never satisfies us.
It should come as no surprise that both "The Last Guardian" and "Final Fantasy XV" have not lived up to expectations. After you’ve spent six or ten years waiting for a game, they can never match the emotional investment you’ve already put into them*. "Metal Gear Solid V" last year turned out to be badly flawed in story and excellent in gameplay. But after years of watching perfectly directed trailer after perfectly directed trailer, that was not enough. "The Last Guardian" and "Final Fantasy XV" are both not enough in their own ways. I’ll cover both on this blog before the year is done.
But "The Last Guardian" is much much shorter, so I beat that one first. Thus it gets the first review:
A lot of your enjoyment of "The Last Guardian"depends on how much you like dogs. See, I happen to really like dogs. If there is a party, I always make sure to make friends with the local dog. This is a perfect strategy for lulls in conversation or just to find a place to stand when trying to awkwardly position yourself for strategic social interaction. (Assume for a moment that I am not the coolest person in the room.) And at least you’re doing better on the cool scale than the stone-faced boyfriend that clearly does not want to be here and spends the entire evening sitting by his girl talking to nobody.
But I don’t own a dog. They’re fun for a while and will love you unconditionally. But they’re also babies and pains in the ass and require constant attention. Plus they’ll spend ten minutes standing at the back door wanting to go outside and then when you get up and open the door they’ll stare at you dumbly. "The Last Guardian" is Stupid Dog Simulator 2016. If you don’t like stupid dogs, you don’t like this game.
"The Last Guardian" clearly has problems in the controls department. "Shadow of the Colossus", despite being the most beloved game of the century and the godfather of all arthouse gaming, actually controlled like shit. I bet you didn’t remember that part. "The Last Guardian" is just as bad, but add to it a major mechanic of trying to convince an AI pet to do anything. This is a beautifully realized game with marvelous animations and an emotional core let down by hideous soul-tearing flaws.
You are given an ability to command your dog/bird/rat creature, Trico with the four face buttons, but the game never tells you what the commands actually do. (This after the game reminds you every second what the jump button is.) You can make your child protagonist clap his hands, or jump up and down, or point. I still don’t know what all the commands do. Trico is simply too unresponsive or too stuck following pre-programmed solutions to the puzzles. You can spend an hour trying to get him to leap over a bridge to no effect because the game wants Trico to do a running jump, without telling you.
The worst part though is not even the big gray dog, it’s the kid. The same cruddy "Shadow of the Colossus" jumping controls are back, but made worse by the kid’s long animations. For some reason – and whoever came up with this idea should repent their sins right now lest they suffer an eternity in Hell – the kid cannot run consistently. Instead he’ll randomly stop in place and shiver and tap his feet. It’s adorable early on when the game is trying to set a mood. It becomes a hell of lot less so when the kid stops running when you’re being chased by an enemy. Fuck that so hard. Any puzzle that requires a modicum of speed or precision is made unplayable by this goddamned kid who could not hustle if his life depended on it – and it actually does.
This all sounds quite bad, if even inexcusable. And I haven’t even mentioned the frame rate, which is often atrocious. (It is unfathomable to me Sony’s own game cannot run smoothly on their PlayStation 4.) But "The Last Guardian" finds a way to worm itself into my heart and even gets a recommendation out of me. It all depends on how you’re willing to play the game.
"The Last Guardian" is a game of patience. You have to love your giant pet and you have to accept that Trico is a moron that will screw up constantly. This is a very careful almost meditative game that requires a lot of forgiveness on your part for the frustrating design decisions. Trico is either a hindrance that will ruin your life and cause stomach ulcers from blind fury. Or he’s your best buddy that just doesn’t know any better. It all depends what frame of mind you’re in.
I can tell you though, if you’re looking to accomplish anything in "The Last Guardian" quickly, you’re playing the wrong game. Trying to plow through the game on a Saturday morning to free up time for everything else you need to do is the worst possible way to play. I was screaming at my TV and pleading with universe to make the fucking dog just fucking jump already. PLEASE!
Because "The Last Guardian" can be a magical experience that is everything the trailers promised. The game is very well-paced early on to show off Trico’s abilities. He’s in love with you almost from the start, so watching him shove his giant face into a doorway to reach you is heartwarming. When you climb away from the creature he whines like you’ve abandoned him forever. Plus you can pet the big idiot.
This is a beautifully-realized character full of detailed animations and subtle traits. You might catch Trico peeing, or playing with a string. The sound design on this character is a greatest hits collection of "Jurassic Park" dinosaur roars and Chewbacca growls. After several hours you start to notice the telling quirks in Trico’s animations, giving you a better idea of when he’s winding up to jump or when he’ll turn around for no goddamned reason and walk a mile in the wrong direction.
I think of "The Last Guardian" as not a game of challenge. The puzzles are never brutal, the enemies are actually very easy to beat once you sick Trico on them. ("The Last Guardian" gets points for creating the first reverse escort mission in gaming history.) It’s a game of minimalism and atmosphere. You have to think of playing this like you’re pruning a banzai tree. You need to savor the moments. So much of this game is full of enemy-free, challenge-free climbing segments, inspired directly from the Uncharted series. That is the real soul of this thing; digesting the world and living the experience. The game never gives you much of an indication of your progress or how far you need to go, because this is a game about the current moment, not the final boss.
"The Last Guardian" is a journey between you and your dog. If you’ve ever walked a dog, you’ll know getting them to go anywhere quickly is an exercise in futility. You need to give them time to sniff bushes, piss on your neighbor’s property, and run around aimlessly. The Last Guardian can’t be seen as a game to be beaten, but of a friendship you create. Once the game is over, that’s it. Trico is gone from your life. (No spoilers on whether the dog lives or dies.) Trico loves you. If refusing to leap over a bridge means he gets more time with you, can you blame him? You need give him that time. Applaud him for when he does something right, and show him affection now and then.
So I’ve been very understanding and forgiving towards "The Last Guardian". Stick around for a few weeks when I finally get through "Final Fantasy XV".
Small warning: I’m not going to be nearly as kind.
* Unless it’s "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" or "Final Fantasy XII", two games that really spoiled me in 2006 and made the inevitable disillusionment of the rest of life just unbearable.
PS: I still don't know who 'The Last Guardian' actually was. Was it Trico? Was it the kid? Was it the bad guy? Who knows? Minor point but it bugs me.