The Last Guardian is one of the most hyped PS4 games of 2016, fueled mostly by a dedicated following of loyal Ico and Shadow of the Colossus fans. The only other contender to really tip the hype scale this year was No Man’s Sky, which had its rocky launch a few months ago. No Man’s Sky was yet another lesson on the negative effects of hype and how a breakdown in communication can have a lasting impact on a game, and some are worried that given its long development cycle, The Last Guardian may fall victim to the same effects as well, albeit for somewhat different reasons.
Much of the excitement surrounding The Last Guardian comes from the fact that it’s being crafted by Fumito Ueda, the lead game designer at Team Ico who is best known for creating the beloved Ico and Shadow of the Colossus games. The Last Guardian appears to be designed with similar stylistic elements in mind, as it features a young boy who befriends a giant bird-dog creature named Trico. The duo must work in tandem to solve puzzles and attempt to escape a castle. All the while, a touching narrative about friendship and co-dependence unfolds, sure to hit us all right in the feels.
It’s not the heartfelt premise that’s cause for alarm, but instead the lengthy development that warrants hesitation. To bring you up to speed, The Last Guardian went into production in 2007, just a couple years after the release of Shadow of the Colossus on PlayStation 2. A few years later, the game was officially announced during Sony’s press conference at E3 2009. After that, it was basically radio silence until the game poked its head during E3 2015, with a new gameplay trailer to boot. Behind the scenes during this time, the project was shifted over to the PS4, which had not yet been announced. The development team essentially had to play catch-up in order to rebuild their game and allow it to function properly on the new system.
While the desire to launch a game on the newest console is understandable, this change may ultimately hinder the progress they’ve made on the game overall. There was very little to go off of in terms of gameplay and information, and yet The Last Guardian managed to gather a dedicated following thanks to the legacy built up by the game’s predecessors, Ico and SotC. These dedicated fans were kept waiting anxiously for the tiniest morsel of information over the span of nearly a decade, causing the hype surrounding the game to swell with each passing Guardian-less year. Had the game actually launched on PS3, it probably would have been one of the best games available on the system, but on the PS4 it now has a lot more to live up to.
When the hype bubble bursts at launch, there’s a good chance that the game won’t live up to what players had imagined. Then again, perhaps ‘hype’ isn’t the right word. The hype for this game has a basis in nostalgia that warrants excitement from fans of Ueda’s previous works, a hype that is an entirely different flavor than that of a new IP like No Man’s Sky. Plus, The Last Guardian’s radio silence may actually work in its favor. They’ve really only shown a small portion of gameplay, so there’s not a whole lot to criticize in terms of what to expect, which will likely eliminate any sort of media kerfuffle that could have occurred otherwise.
Oddly enough, one potential reason to mitigate hype surrounding The Last Guardian has to do with its visuals. This may come as a surprise for some, considering that the setting and environment are rather beautiful, boasting an overall style and design reminiscent of both Ico and SotC. However, after seeing the gameplay footage and even screenshots, many have voiced concerns about the game’s graphical fidelity, claiming that the game looks like it belongs on a previous-gen console, like the PS2 or PS3. These seemingly hyperbolic claims actually reveal many of our inflated underlying expectations, and are not entirely unfounded considering that The Last Guardian was originally intended for the PS3 to begin with. A shiny CG Cinematic trailer was released today to drive momentum for the upcoming PS4 title, but as the video states, it doesn't show any actual gameplay footage, leaving us in the dark about the game's look and feel once again.
In the gameplay shown during E3 2015, the environmental graphics look nice, but the movements and interactions of the young boy in particular are lacking for a game that has been in production for nearly a decade. There's also a sort of white haze over everything that leaves me yearning for a bit more contrast, or some darker hues at the very least. It’s hard to tell whether some of the rough textures are an intentional part of the game’s overall aesthetic, or if a rush in production resulted in reduced visual quality, causing the game to look a bit dated. Considering that The Last Guardian was initially meant for the PS3, perhaps the game is actually just showing its true age. The question is, should we let lackluster visuals or an unpolished final product simply slip under the rug for the sake of nostalgia?
During both E3 and Tokyo Game Show, a number of select game journalists got the opportunity to go hands-on with the highly anticipated title, and unfortunately some were able to confirm the handful of flaws that others have noted from afar. The game was often unresponsive to certain movements and had unintuitive mechanics with a protagonist who was difficult to control. I'm inclined to believe these claims, as my initial impression of the E3 gameplay alone was that the boy's awkward movements seemed unrefined, as if whoever was playing was struggling with the controls (which really isn't a good thing, considering the demo was a relatively small and manageable section). Phil Kollar from Polygon stated that “It feels like a PlayStation 2 game.” The visuals apparently got worse as well, according to Patrick Garratt from VG24/7, who described the game textures as “flat” with particle effects that “appeared positively prehistoric.”
When a game has been in development for nearly a decade, it’s not unreasonable to expect a certain level of polish on the final product. Anything less may prompt considerable backlash from those who have set the bar pretty high. This excitement, however, is not so much the fault of the development team as it is our own as players and fans.
It’s easy to construct a mental idea of how a game could be, based on the satisfying experiences created by its predecessors, in this case Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. To be fair, there still appears to be a decent number of fans who are excited for The Last Guardian who also have their share of realistic misgivings about the final product. These individuals will likely have an easier time forgiving the game’s shortcomings as a result. This is ultimately the mindset fans should be in if they are to avoid being ultimately let down by a game stuck in development hell. I, for one, would like to see a complete, polished version of The Last Guardian when (and if) it launches on December 6th, but don't expect me to hold my breath.