Everyone has holes in their gaming CV, important games that they’ve missed out on over the years. Mine is a colossal one: The Last of Us, widely regarded as one of the greatest Playstation exclusives of all time and one of the best games to have been released. With The Last of Us Part 2 away to launch I wanted to finally get The Last of Us ticked off and reviewed in time for its sequel. So let’s see what all the fuss was about.
*15 hours later*
Fuck. I think I got sucker punched right in the emotions. Alright. Let’s talk about this.
The Last of Us is not a very good video game. By which I mean in the 7 years since it was released the actual gameplay side of things hasn’t aged all that well, and I’d even hazard that when it first launched it wasn’t anything remarkable. But even though it might only be decent to play, The Last of Us is one hell of an emotional thing to experience. The rich world, outstanding characters and writing so sharp it could be used by an Emo kid make this one of the finest narratives to ever grace a video game alongside the likes of Red Dead Redemption 2, Mass Effect 2 and Maneater. Well, maybe not that last one. But you get what I mean.
The opening sequence sets the dark tone of the rest of the game, and might just be the most powerful cold opens in video game history. We’re introduced to single father Joel and his 12-year-old daughter, Sarah. As Joel comes home he scolds Sarah lightly for still being awake, but she just ignores him. Sarah gifts her dad with a watch and Joel is clearly touched, even if he can’t voice it. So he asks her where she got the money and she jokingly says from selling hardcore drugs. Joel tells her that’s that’s fine, she can start helping pay the mortgage then. Just these few minutes already tell us a lot, from the clearly loving relationship to Joel’s inability to voice his emotions to the fact that things aren’t easy for them and Sarah is having to grow up too fast.
From there we play as Sarah as she awakens to find the world going to hell. Something bad is happening, and explosions can be heard nearby. Joel comes storming in covered in blood and clearly freaking out. Joel’s brother, Tommy, arrives and together the three of them try to escape the chaos. Here we see glimpses of what’s going on: an infection is turning humans violent, and its spreading fast. After an accident we briefly swap to playing Joel as we weave through the streets, witnessing people being attacked and bitten. We encounter a soldier, a beacon of hope in the madness, until the soldier receives his orders, turns his gun on us and fires.
This is going to be my only spoiler for the story, but considering it occurs in the first ten minutes of the game and its importance to the plot I think it needs to be talked about. But if you want to remain spoiler-free, this is your warning: leave the review. Sorted? Okay, good. Because the world is cruel and unfair Sarah is shot, and Joel has to watch on helpless as his 12-year-old daughter sobs in pain and cries in fear until she bleeds out in his arms. It’s a gut-wrenching scene, and it’s a testament to the writers that despite having spent only 10-minutes with Sarah and Joel I cried. I don’t shed tears easily, and almost never at the expense of a video game, but this got me. A large part of that is down to the incredible performance by Troy Baker (Joel) and Hana Hayes (Sarah.) I can’t think of any other opening sequence that has hit me so hard on such an emotional level. Some openings are thrilling, some are tense, some are funny and some wondrous, but The Last of Us is devastating.
From there we pick up with Joel 20-years later and its clear he hasn’t managed to move on from Sarah’s death. He’s broken, he’s distant and it’s obvious that he doesn’t see any good left in the world. Now, he works with a woman named Tess and the pair of them smuggle goods in a quarantined city. The infection has wiped out most of humanity, and what’s left is trying to survive. Joel and Tess get themselves an odd job – smuggle a 14-year-old girl called Ellie to a militia group known as the Fireflies, because Ellie might just be the key to saving the world. That’s all the story is: get this girl from A to B. As they say, though, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
Ellie is a kid that’s had to grow up hard and fast. She swears, she knows how to use a gun, and she’s seen things no child should ever bear witness to. And yet she still carries with her the spark of hope. She marvels at cool things she sees, makes daft jokes and tries to learn to whistle as you walk around. Unlike Joel, she can find some good in the world. The writers also sprinkle hints at her life before the game, too, reminding us that she didn’t just pop into existence. She can ride a horse and fire a rifle, two things she learned before ever meeting Joel. And she can’t swim. That one is important.
As for Joel I love the balancing act they perform with him throughout the game. He walks that fine line between being a cold-blooded killer and a father. He’s capable of empathizing with people, but he also doesn’t hesitate to unleash his pent-up rage, either. You can believe he can go either way, and you have no problem understanding how he survived all these years.
The relationship between Ellie and Joel is an amazing thing to watch grow as Ellie tries to find someone to hold onto and Joel tries so desperately hard to not let himself feel. The Last of Us is Ellie and Joel. It is their relationship. I also appreciate how much of a slow-burn Ellie and Joel are. Throughout the game there are numerous incredible scenes between the two they change their dynamic and gradually chip away at the walls Joel has put up around himself. Other, lesser games tend to boil this kind of relationship down into a single moment that magically changes everything, but The Last of Us builds towards its moment carefully, making the payoff all the more rewarding.
Ellie also helps bring some levity to the game, like how she steals a porn mag and refuses to hand it over to Joel because she “wants to see what all the fuss is about” and wonders aloud, “Whoa! How the – how the hell would you even walk around with that thing?” or smaller moments like getting to see a monkey for the first time. These moments shine all the brighter because the rest of the time The Last of Us is dark and depressing. Bad things happen and they happen a lot. At one point you meet up with a few survivors, including a kid around Ellie’s age and so you get to see some fun interaction between the too. But when the kid isn’t allowed to take a toy robot with him or is stopped from playing a game of football with Ellie it’s a stark reminder that in The Last of Us happiness is an indulgence.
Not that you could ever mistake The Last of Us for a Disney movie or something. It has no problem with depicting everything with a level of violence and aggression that makes me, as a horror fan, smile wildly. The haunting music is very rarely used, and that lets the audio design really sink into your brain and slowly drive you insane. Gunshots are harsh and loud, people scream in pain and the sound of a pipe hitting flesh can only be described as a wince-inducing meaty thud. But the true masterpiece of audio design are the infected, who moan in pain in voices that still sound recognizably human. It gives the impression of the person still being there, like they are alive but unable to control themselves, living in constant agony. It’s harrowing stuff. Then there are the Clickers who are blind but can sense tiny sounds, their horrible clicking noises echoing off of walls.
From a gameplay perspective The Last of Us’ enemies are essentially zombies, but Naughty Dog were smart and instead of using science gone wrong or a mystery disease they grounded their infected horrors in reality. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a type of fungi that can infect ants whereupon it begins to grow inside of the poor creature. It disrupts the ant’s behaviour, forcing it to latch itself onto the underside of a leaf before it dies. The fungi will then replace the inside of the ant before growing outwards, creating “fruit” that will burst and spread more spores, which in turn will go on to effect more ants. It’s horrifying and beautiful at the same time. In The Last of Us this infection makes the leap to humanity. Those who are infected become mindless and violent, infecting any human they manage to bite. Eventually, like the ant, the fungi will begin to sprout from their bodies, giving rise to the Clickers, named after the clicking sound they make. Given enough time the infection will run its course, finding a place to die and bursting to create pockets of spores.
It’s unlikely this will happen, of course, but then again, Coronavirus successfully made the jump from animals to humans. That’s enough to put a tiny sliver of fear into our brains, and in 2020 that makes The Last of Us’ infected foes all the more effective. They exist as a what if, a horrific vision of nature on a rampage.
Playing back through the game on New Game+ revealed lots of small details that I loved. At one point Ellie hands another survivor a toy robot she stole, a nice emotional beat. It wasn’t until the second run-through that I realized you can actually see Ellie picking up the toy, but she won’t do it while you’re watching her. I also noticed how Joel would glance at his watch when his mind was on his daughter. The Last of Us is full of these little moments and details that show how much love and time Naughty Dog put into the game.
I said earlier that as a video game The Last of Us isn’t really that good, so now I need to explain my bold proclamations. Take stealth as a good example: it’s barebones and gets undermined when Ellie or one of your other companions run around like toddlers hyped up on sugar. Numerous times I witnessed Elli sidle past an enemy who remained oblivious to her presence. Stuff like this can and does happen in other games, but it’s more jarring in The Last of Us because of how realistic and gritty it aims to be. It’s hard to take the threat of the infected seriously when Ellie practically skips around them. With that said, the first few times I had to sneak through an area full of Clickers, who can instantly kill you, was tense and exciting. You can use a shiv to perform an instant kill or toss bottles and bricks as distractions. Humans can be choked, too. There’s certain a sense of satisfaction to be had from sneaking through or silently taking out enemies, but it never felt as fleshed out as it needed to be.
Melee is equally simplistic with fights just boing down to mashing the hell out of square. Its saving grace is the ferocity and brutality of Joel who unleashes all his pent up anger and rage whenever he gets to swing a weapon or throw a punch. The blows you land feel painful, and the savage environmental kills are just as satisfying as they are sickening. The Last of Us doesn’t shy away from violence, but it doesn’t feel like its revelling in it, either. It’s simply saying that violence is a part of this world.
Going up against real humans means going for either the stealthy route or just shooting everyone in the face, which is made more interesting by the fact that ammo isn’t plentiful. Weirdly the fact that aiming feels clunky sort of works in the game’s favour because it makes firefights feel more frantic and messy. But the enemy A.I. are a pretty useless bunch, so they aren’t very fun to battle.
The good news is that Naughty Dog did three things to make the individually weak gameplay elements fun. First, they mix them together nicely with some areas encouraging stealth or shooting more while another leaves it entirely up to you. Second, the campaign is beautifully judged in length, coming it around 15-hours which feels like exactly what was needed. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. The third thing is the usage of smart set-pieces to keep things interesting, like hanging upside down while you fend off the infected, hunting a buck or trying to push forward as a sniper at the other end of the street attempts to blow your head off. Naughty Dog sprinkles these moments throughout the game at just the right moments to stop you from getting bored with the gameplay, and those amazing characters ensure you always want to push toward the next little moment.
Mind you, all that hard work almost gets ruined by atrocious environmental “puzzles” that require you to slowly drag a dumpster, plank or ladder around, or maybe do some swimming. Often they’re used as nothing more than busy-work so that Joel and Ellie can have a small exchange, but considering Naughty Dog are behind the Uncharted franchise the sheer boredom-inducing puzzles are bewildering.
At least the crafting and resource management fare better, especially on the higher difficulty settings. On normal, you aren’t exactly drowning in ammo but there’s still enough and there’s enough resources lying around for you to craft a comfortable stock of Molotov cocktails, nail bombs and shivs. Ramp up the difficulty though, and bullets become a much more precious commodity, which in turn encourages stealth so you can conserve bullets. Likewise, crafting materials are a bit harder to come across, so you’ll have to scour the area. It gives the game a survival edge that I thought was great.
Naturally I played the remastered version of The Last of Us for this review, since this was originally a Playstation 3 title. Despite the fact that the remaster came out in 2013 it actually holds up beautifully in 2020, although I have no idea how the standard PS4 handled it because my PS4 consistently sounded like it was trying to cook itself to death. A large part of the reason that The Last of Us looks so good even today is due to stellar art design. The world is being reclaimed slowly by nature, and despite the horrors occurring the game will stop and let you take a moment to soak in a lush green area where vines are crawling up the sides of buildings. Contrasting that are the infected who look, and I believe this is the perfect word, fucking gross. But even moving away from the art style, the remaster is impressive on a technical level with oodles of details everywhere you look.
As I write this paragraph it’s 2-days until The Last of Us Part 2 will drop through my letterbox and into my life. Thanks to those horrible little twits on the Internet I’ve seen the spoilers, and now like so many other people I’m wondering if The Last of Us Part 2 can deliver. The first game doesn’t feel like it needs a sequel, and yet here we are. If the spoilers are right and if Naughty Dog are on top form if it could be something special, but it could so easily be a disaster. There’s nothing left but to wait and see.
So maybe it took me a bit longer than most to experience the post-apocalyptic journey of Joel and Ellie, but I staggered drunkenly here eventually and that’s what counts. I said earlier that I don’t think The Last of Us is a very good video game and I stand by that statement. When you look at purely from the perspective of its gameplay, it’s pretty standard stuff. Luckily for us games these days are more than just how they play. For the story The Last of Us is telling the gameplay works fine, and the clumsiness of the shooting actually kind of helps, which makes you wonder if it was deliberate….hmm. And what a story it tells! Over the years I’d pretty much seen all the cutscenes on Youtube, but that didn’t lessen their impact when experienced them properly in-game. It’s a hellacious, brutal, heart-wrenching, heart-warming tale of love, selfishness and the depths we willingly sink to in order to survive.