Attacking ‘The Last Guardian’ Over Visuals Misses the Point

Talk about selling something short.

Last week, The Last Guardian was given a release date at Sony’s E3 press conference. The crowd went nuts. For director Fumito Ueda, who may or may not have been in the crowd watching at the Shrine Auditorium, getting the information out there must’ve felt like the light at the end of the tunnel. Ueda has been traveling through that tunnel for almost a decade, since the game was first announced at E3 in 2009.

In some ways, you wouldn’t necessarily know it by just looking at the game’s debut trailer seven (!) years ago. Then slated for release on the PS3, it looked stunning – at least, if it could have kept its graphical fidelity as a seventh-generation console release.

Watching the first footage of it now, the visuals frankly look too good to be able to run on hardware that struggled to run lavish triple-A offerings at 30 FPS in its ailing years. With the natural, animalistic design AI Ueda and his team wanted to give Trico, I’m surprised it was ever conceived as a PS3 game in the first place. Regardless, Ueda has since confirmed that a big reason the game took so long is because it had a lot of technical issues – the original trailer was actually “specced up” to hide the fact that the game was, at the time, running at a much slower frame rate.

This is how the industry sometimes works – you’re shown something that is less of a promise and more of a lofty goal. Sometimes the final game hits, and sometimes it doesn’t. Still, trying to google anything about The Last Guardian at this year’s E3 – its first playable trade show appearance and likely the last before its October release – and you might come away with the impression that nine years out in development, it’s no longer “good” enough as PS4 game, citing, mostly, graphics. This is utterly missing the point.

It’s true, the visuals, though beautiful in the way the Ueda’s team exudes an ethereal aesthetic, aren’t as CG-photoreal as Naughty Dog’s in Uncharted 4. I’ve also read people express concern over the “clunky climbing and general feel of the game”, which feels similar to Ueda’s Shadow of the Colossus, a late-era PS2 game from 2005.

One impression I read even complained the overlay for tutorial controls for the demo were poorly implemented and didnt match the style of the game – probably because they needed to be mocked up as fast as possible to have the game playable in time for E3.

Talk about selling something short. Finally, The Last Guardian is really coming out – what fans have been clamoring over for so long the game had almost reached Duke Nukem Forever status. And if youre familiar with the sort of haunting emotional journeys that Ueda has a reputation for, playing it feels like coming home.

Much like Shadow of the Colossus Wander and his horse Agro, as a player you immediately feel bonded to Trico. Devastatingly, the demo – presumably the beginning of the game – begins with him unable to move, having been punctured by two spears. The creature cries out in pain and whimpers like a dog; any initial attempt the boy makes to help is met with a hostility governed by fear.

It’s a little difficult to deal with. Even the hardest heart probably immediately feels something stir for Trico right away, and introducing him as vulnerable and abused is immediately heartbreaking.

Yet it’s also motivating. Knowing that you can ease the suffering of this great beast compels you onward. Whether or not spending the opening of a game helping a mythological companion regain its strength by feeding it barrels is outside what you expect from a game is irrelevant, because The Last Guardian fools you into thinking it is. Like all of Ueda’s games, this is a story first and foremost; to that point, any thought I had about the hastily overlaid tutorial prompts was forgotten the second I realized that the spoken flashback narration was taking the place of an on-screen objective prompt.

Nor did I waste much time fretting over the graphics. No doubt the game bears the scars of a decade of game development, particularly in the shift to the PS4. Right now, it’s hard to say whether or not the technical issues it endured really had any impact, let alone how old the demo build might be. Still, using what the game looks like as a defense against it is a facile argument, and an overblown one. Even if graphics were Ueda’s be-all-end-all benchmark, critics that say it looks like a PS3 game clearly haven’t revisited the console in some time.

When you escape the caverns where Trico and the boy are initially trapped, you get the smallest sense of the likely overwhelming scale of The Last Guardian’s world, which, if you’ve been following the story, already made a spectacular re-debut at E3 last year to unanimous raves. If the original trailer was smoke and mirrors – and even just thinking about the computational power needed to make Trico’s feathers move individually on the PS3, to say nothing of his AI, it certainly seems likely it was that way – then a bump up in processing power would have been necessary to even get it to a playable state at all.

Ueda is an interesting case as a developer. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are games that command a huge deal of respect, reverence and enthusiasm from a surprisingly wide, or at least very vocal, fanbase. It’s unheard of enough that a developer could reach auteur status after only two games, and Ueda is certainly a creator of seemingly singular vision. The fact that he’s a Japanese designer outside of Nintendo just feels, frankly, impossible. Is there really any doubt he hasn’t poured his heart into this?

It’s equally ridiculous that anyone should be complaining that The Last Guardian doesn’t look as good as a game built from the ground up for PS4. This isn’t a Mighty No. 9 situation, either; Sony has clearly put a great deal of effort behind making sure Ueda’s white whale actually gets finished, and even from the 45 minutes I’ve played, I can tell the final game is going to be something special. Discounting it out of hand because it’s not as shiny as it would otherwise be is a slap in the face to everything Ueda and his team have worked so hard – and so long – to deliver.

Related Tags