Review Scan is a periodic feature here on EEDAR’s blog, where analysts take a recently released title and break down critical reviews of it, laying out the game’s major strengths and weaknesses. Just as EEDAR does in our custom mock reviews and game evaluations, suggestions are then provided for how the game could have reviewed better and been received more positively. Today's post focuses on the long-awaited title from Fumito Ueda, The Last Guardian, which was released in December last year.
Incredible creature and world designs
The Last Guardian’s biggest strength, according to reviewers, is its astoundingly realistic and compelling designs for both the main creature, Trico, and the world around him. Reviewers praise Trico for feeling like a real animal, and interacting with the world in incredibly realistic ways. As the boy and Trico explore the castle, Trico will paw at and play with different elements of the environment, and he will rear back and cower from things he is frightened by. He’s stubborn, powerful, and vulnerable at times, and while he is of course the product of computer code, players praised him for feeling like a real, unique being that they could form a bond with.
The game’s levels were also praised – the castle is an intricate place, and the puzzles often take players from one area to another and back, showing different perspectives on each area as they go through. Though the indoor environments were cited as fairly drab, the outdoor environments were called lush and lovely. The architecture also works well with puzzles, as a few reviewers praised the environments for feeling like real places to be explored rather than just a canvas for puzzle designs. The audio was also impressive, with the boy’s footsteps and Trico’s cries echoing off of the castle walls in a very believable way. Reviewers really enjoyed the design and implementation of both the game’s levels and its main creature.
Uncompromised artistic vision
The Last Guardian is the result of a very long development cycle, and while many games that suffer from that problem end up feeling cut off or unfinished, reviewers praised this title as a fairly intact, delivered vision from Ueda and his team. Even issues that reviewers called frustrating (like the rough level geometry, likely a result of development for previous consoles) were seen as Ueda delivering what he believed the game to be.
Even design decisions that affected reviewers negatively were praised because the game shows the reasons and choices behind them. More than a few reviewers called out Trico as stubborn, for example, and said that they had to walk away from the game when they knew what they were meant to do but couldn’t do it because he wouldn’t cooperate. Reviewers then said that when they came back, however, they were almost immediately able to solve the puzzle. Even though the game took so long to develop, and even though some decisions were included that caused frustration, reviewers praised the game as a vision that Ueda and his team were able to deliver completely.
Story delivers strong emotional moments
Reviewers also said that despite any frustrations they had with the game or the character of Trico, the story paid off extremely well, and that even the low points led to a bond with the creature and to emotional moments that were completely earned by the title. Reviewers didn’t include spoilers for the game’s story, but many of them said that the boy’s journey from being wary or dismissive of the creature to connecting with it was a very strong one.
In this element, then, The Last Guardian definitely succeeds at what it sets out to do. Many other games have attempted to connect the player with an AI character (Fallout 4 famously offered a dog, along with other types of companions, and even Call of Duty and Titanfall 2 have tried to connect players with AI helpers and allies), but reviewers say that Trico is a clear example of turning a few pixels on a screen and some AI coding into what seems like a real, living, breathing creature that they can connect with. Any developers looking to connect players with a human or animal element could use this title as an example of how to do it effectively.
Some low quality geometry and level/puzzle designs
While reviewers generally praised the game’s architecture, many of them also said the indoor areas were fairly boring, and that much of the geometry (both of the levels and of the character models) felt low quality. The Last Guardian started out as a title for the PlayStation 3, and so it made sense to reviewers that while the designs were impressive, the implementation in places was not quite up to current standards on the PlayStation 4.
Reviewers also attacked some of the puzzle designs for being particularly finicky to solve. Physics is used as a mechanic in many of the game’s puzzles, and often players would need to line up something exactly or throw an object in exactly the right place, but the title’s physics wouldn’t behave as expected. When players require physics to behave to move forward through the campaign, it can be extremely frustrating to see them fail. Most reviewers were able to accomplish whatever they needed eventually, but they did knock the game for some problems with complicated and unreliable puzzle objects.
Rough controls for movement and cameras
In addition to the issues with level design, reviewers also said they were often hampered by the title’s controls. The camera was probably the biggest issue, with a lot of reviewers saying that whenever the game entered tight spaces, the camera would often get caught in foliage or not show off a clear path forward. Again, this is an issue with many PlayStation 3-era third-person titles, so there may be some connection here to the game’s long development cycle. At any rate, when the camera doesn’t work automatically, players can be very frustrated with not being able to see what they’re doing.
Reviewers also said that the boy’s movement controls were cumbersome at times. The boy is animated well, but he will often stumble or face the wrong direction, causing problems. Getting on and off of Trico was also cited as a rough part of the controls, and a few reviewers said that there were many jumps in the game that weren’t easy to judge visually, given the boy’s unreliable movement. It’s understood that the young boy moves like a young boy (rather than a well-trained athlete, for example), but while that realism was appreciated for its art, it was irritating when the player just wanted to complete a puzzle.
AI can make Trico feel unresponsive
Likewise, while most all of the reviewers of The Last Guardian had a lot of praise for the Trico character, many of them lamented that he behaved almost too much like a real cat, in that many of the boy’s commands went unheeded and even ignored. When reviewers wanted to tell Trico to perform a specific move, they first had to press a multi-button combination to give the correct command, and then they had to wait and see if he would respond. Sometimes, reviewers reported, he would ignore them entirely, and sometimes they would return to the game after a short break to see that he had done exactly as they said.
There’s a few issues here. First, even if Trico is going to be stubborn, responding to player commands in some way will help them see that the game has responded, even if they haven’t accomplished their original goal. It makes sense in terms of realism that a huge creature might not instantly follow the directions of a small boy, but giving players some kind of response makes for a much more satisfying experience. Additionally, the game’s commands are never fully explained, according to some reviewers – they’re words that Trico never clearly understands. That creates even more issues, making the game’s mechanics extremely imprecise and unreliable. In The Last Guardian’s case, reliability appears to have been traded out for realism, but the game may have been reviewed better if Trico’s general responsiveness was higher, and the commands were more clearly implemented.
EEDAR’s biggest recommendation, if analyzing this title during development, would have been to focus on the controls, making sure they’re as reliable and as dependable as possible. Games like Titanfall 2 and Uncharted 4 do a great job of making sure characters move realistically while also allowing players to quickly and easily command their avatars, and that should be the goal here. The protagonist should move and act like a real boy, but if constant stumbling or rough controls cause precision issues, then responsiveness should be prioritized. Camera controls are also important – if players have to fight to see the next platform or to see what Trico is doing, then their gameplay will be negatively affected. Making a camera show what’s necessary in a 3D space is tough, but the best games in this genre have cameras that work reliably and well.
The puzzles could have more variety as well. Fighting with finicky physics is never fun, and so it would be helpful to add more types of puzzles to the game, in addition to the physics-focused activities available. Pushing players to solve identification puzzles or interact with Trico in a deeper way would create variety and provide more options for players. Trico is an animal, so it might be interesting to see him trained directly. Perhaps players could use the game’s food to encourage certain behaviors, first in an inconsequential way (like teaching him to roll over or “bark”), and then later in a game-affecting way (he could “bark” to fight off enemies or roll to create a path through a rough area).
Finally, EEDAR would also recommend improving and adding more details to the interior areas of the game. Currently, they’re lacking in texture and variety, and it would be interesting to see interiors more closely aligned to functionality. If players enter a big room in the castle, it would be nice to see details identifying it as a ballroom or as a dining room, complete with separate rooms and alcoves (like a kitchen or serving area) that better add lore and location to the title. Currently in the title, indoor areas can be rather drab and dull, but adding more details to them will better help ground the setting, making Trico himself more fantastical and interesting.
Of course, as a released title, The Last Guardian is certainly an impressive piece of work, and has been received positively among most reviewers. EEDAR’s analysis could have helped to improve the reception, further, however. Really nailing down and improving these specific issues would have quieted some reviewer complaints, and insured a higher score (and better reception) overall.
Manager of Qualitative Insights, EEDAR
EEDAR regularly performs analysis like this on titles both released and in development. For insight on your title or project, reach out to Cooper Waddell and see how EEDAR can help you.