I tried to play The Last of Us on PS3 a couple of years ago, but couldn’t finish it due to a gamebreaking bug. The bug didn’t just affect one copy of the game: it damaged the interaction between TLOU and my PS3, meaning any and all versions of the game were unplayable on my console. So I was grateful that the game was remastered for the PS4, and looked forward to finally being able to finish the story. It was a struggle over the last couple of years to avoid spoilers about the ending, let me tell you.
The Last of Us is a third-person action/survival horror game made by Naughty Dog, a developer primarily associated with the Uncharted series. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic USA where the population has been devastated by an epidemic of the Cordyceps fungus. Cordyceps is a real-world fungus which mainly affects insects and is famous for its bizarre affects on behaviour (google ‘zombie ants’) as well as the grisly protrusion of the fungal ‘fruit’ which erupts from the exoskeleton. Needless to say, the impact of the epidemic has brought humanity to its knees. Large-scale economic activity has ceased; the population has declined alarmingly, and most people live either in one of a few quasi-fascist militarized enclaves, or as part of predatory ‘hunter’ communities. It’s a hellishly bleak environment that evokes comparison with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
For most of the game you play as Joel, a middle-aged man shorn of much of his humanity. Joel is defined by his ability to survive, and over the course of the story Joel kills a very large number of people and infected in often brutal ways. The human core of the story is Joel’s relationship with Ellie, a 14-year-old girl entrusted to Joel’s care early in the game, and the story of The Last of Us is the story of their journey together. It is difficult to discuss the game’s plot without giving away major spoilers, but suffice to say that the arc of Joel and Ellie’s relationship is the emotional backbone of the game and is the main reason why this is often spoken of as one of the best video games ever made.
Joel is something of a deconstruction of the typical video game hero. In fact, he is more of an antihero than anything else, showing little charm or compassion for most of the game; but this is entirely compatible with the setting. This is a world where almost everyone from ‘our’ society has been killed off, and the most extreme kind of self-reliance and emotional insulation is needed to keep going. It’s referred to more than once that Joel has done some very bad things in the past. However, Joel’s relationship with Ellie does humanize him, and his cold demeanour makes those moments of humour and compassion all the more moving. Ellie is the breakout star of the game and, although you only control her for brief periods, the game’s real hero. Ellie seems like a real teenager and is an often entertaining companion–as well as an absolutely lethal one. While Joel is a one-man bloodbath, Ellie is also deadly with a variety of weapons and more than capable of helping Joel out of a jam if he gets in trouble.
Combat in The Last of Us is extremely violent, brutal, and impactful. Joel gains access to a variety of firearms, which all pack a heavy punch. The difficulty comes with aiming, as the game does a believable job of making it difficult to hit your enemies. Moreover, infected will generally keep coming straight at you until you kill them, meaning it’s easy to get overrun by even small groups. Ammo is very scarce, and Joel will often have to rely on improvised melee weapons, bricks and bottles, or even his bare hands to survive. These mano a mano fights have a surprisingly visceral quality, helped by the excellent cinematic camera and also the weight and inertia of Joel’s physical form. The desperation felt while sprinting to stop a hunter, about to kill a defenseless Ellie, was exceeded only by the relief that washed over me when I knocked him over and proceeded to beat him senseless. This is not a game for the faint of heart–a reflection of the world it’s situated in.
The obvious visual and gameplay influences for The Last of Us are Resident Evil 4 and Half Life 2, and the game more than lives up to those lofty standards. The graphics on the remastered PS4 version are stunning, perhaps not as advanced as they were when the PS3 original came out but extremely good nonetheless. In particular, Joel and Ellie’s facial animations are exceptional and movingly convey a range of emotion throughout the story. The decayed urban cityscapes are extremely well-designed: the various cities you explore feel like real places, that have fallen apart in believable ways. Twenty years have passed since the first outbreak and nature is returning to the cities: not just in the form of grass and weeds, but in the abysmal spread of fungus that accompanies the most advanced stage of infection. The mere sight of spores forces Joel to don his gas mask, and is normally followed by some appalling prospect of a corpse completely overtaken by fungus, belching spores into the air. Before infected get to that stage, they’re known as ‘Clickers’: still able to move, but with their brains and crania overtaken by fungus, they rely on sound to navigate, constantly making a ‘clicking’ sound from the back of their throat. The sections of the game which see you sneaking around groups of Clickers are by far the most frightening.
The sound design is yet another high point, and The Last of Us features some outstanding voice acting for the main characters. It also features an impressive turn from Nolan North, known mainly for the execrable Nathan Drake but who does a great job here. The soundtrack also cannot pass without comment: it is a perfect minimalist accompaniment to the story and, like the story, a work of sad and sombre beauty.
The Last of Us Remastered comes with the Left Behind DLC, which is a several-hour Ellie-centered expansion set during the events of the main story. It’s definitely worth a play and adds extra value to what is already an outstanding package. The main story clocks in at about 15-20 hours, and in addition to the DLC there are unlockables and multiple difficulty levels, as well as a multiplayer mode.
In making The Last of Us Naughty Dog revealed a level of maturity and sincerity in their world-building and storytelling that is totally absent from the risible Uncharted games. I only wish they would do more games like this, but at least they have created one unforgettable masterpiece. That’s more than most studios manage.