It has been a depressing video game month for me. Depressing in the best way, if that’s possible. At the start of the month, I had the great pleasure of playing The Walking Dead, which you can read about here. And now, having been through Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, I can tell you that I am pretty emotionally drained, but I am not upset about that. I am grateful for the opportunity to have experienced these games.
Let us just get it out of the way: The Last of Us is exceptional, able to pull every emotion out of me – before even the title comes up – as well as keep me engrossed in a story that is far meatier and reaching than I had anticipated. As a game, it is at the height of storytelling and atmosphere. As a bookend to a console generation, it is a perfect note to go out on and something that will be compared to many a game when the argument is how best to tell a story.
Not Your Typical Zombie Tale
The Last of Us takes place in a world where a fungal mutation has emerged that attacks the human brain, causing a person to act irrationally and eventually taking over the host. Anyone bitten by or caught in certain spores released by a human host begins to turn themselves. The story takes place a couple of decades into this pandemic, where people have learned to cope but towns and cities have been displaced because of the fungi.
Enter Joel, a man in his late 40s who has experienced great loss but has also survived in this new world through any means possible. When a goods trade goes south and another group of survivors – the Fireflies – end up with the merchandise, Joel begrudgingly takes on the task of transporting some cargo for this group outside of Boston. The cargo happens to be a 14 year old girl named Ellie.
A Masterclass In Storytelling
Maybe it is too simple to say that the folks at Naughty Dog are wizards (or warlocks?), but they have certainly refined their craft to a point where it seems that way. Really it’s just a matter of experience, and after three increasingly impressive treks around the world with Nathan Drake, The Last of Us builds on the incredible set pieces that we know the studio can do by focusing “inward,” so to speak, towards Joel and Ellie. Their relationship is the heart and soul of The Last of Us, and Naughty Dog knocks it out of the park.
And they could have terribly screwed it up. Who wants to play a game that is basically one huge escort mission? On paper that probably sounds horrible, but through exceptional motion capture, acting, and animation, the life breathed into Joel and Ellie not only makes them interesting and impressive to watch but kept me totally connected to them. Joel carries a lot of baggage, and you can feel the weight of that every time he speaks. Ellie often acts like you would expect a 14 year old to act, especially one who is on a journey outside of an area where she had lived her entire life. She’s inquisitive and at times chatty. Many times along the way she’ll stop to ask about an item or object, and she verbally reacts to the violence she invariably witnesses. Conversely, as a result of only living in this post-civilized world, Ellie exhibits a maturity beyond her years. She is very strong of will and isn’t afraid to speak her mind or question situations. Through some work of magic, the game balances all of this, it all serves to develop Ellie as a character in this world, and it totally works.
For Joel, his character was summed up for me in one animation that I saw briefly after Ellie joins him and that you see all throughout the game. I am not sure why it hit me in the way that it did, but it told me everything about Joel. You see, Joel is not exactly happy to have to take on his new charge, but during the first scrape Joel and Ellie encounter together, when I made Joel crouch behind a box to avoid being seen, Ellie ran over to join him, and he immediately put his arm around her, putting his body between her and anything that could sneak up from behind. I just kind of watched that for a moment. Sure, you could say that this animation is there so that both of them can occupy the same space while hiding, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I choose, though, to believe it speaks just as much to Joel’s character as the myriad cutscenes you witness in the game, and I only grew to care more about these two as I continued along with their story.
Beyond just Ellie and Joel, other characters met on the way bring with them pasts that are varied and believable, and are all acted with aplomb. Tons of games use motion capture now, but for some reason, and I felt this way about the Uncharted titles, too, Naughty Dog is able to just do it better than other studios. I don’t know how to describe these acted scenes other than they are just better than their contemporaries, and maybe that’s all that needs to be said. Cutscenes in The Last of Us are engrossing and often times emotional, and they are a sight to behold.
It Is A Game, Too
Of course, there has to be some…game stuff in this game, right? Well sure. The actual gameplay will feel a bit familiar to Uncharted fans, but done away is a dedicated button to “stick” to cover. When crouched, Joel and Ellie will simply hide behind things by sidling up to them. Years of harsh survival has made Joel keen to his surroundings, and by holding R2, sounds made by enemies echo through walls, helping you keep tabs on their movements. Unlike Uncharted, stealth in The Last of Us is almost paramount, or it at least feels that way. Ammunition is fairly scarce and you are often outnumbered, so when you see that you have but five revolver shells and two shotgun shells and five enemies are milling about, stealth is probably the way you’ll go, throwing bricks and bottles around to distract enemies. Fortunately, sneaking from cover to cover in hopes of taking out your opponents one at a time is pretty satisfying, and often times if your path is true, you can avoid conflict altogether.
Along with some standard weapons that shoot bullets, Joel is able to craft several useful items from scraps picked up along the way. Some simple items are shivs, med kits, and molotovs, among others. Shivs allow you to take down foes with one silent strike to the neck. Molotovs and med kits do what you’d expect, but the catch is that these (and other items) share the same resources, so if you are in a bind, you will have to choose whether the med kit or the molotov is more important for the situation. And crafting these items doesn’t take place away from the game: Joel simply takes his pack off in the heat of things, making you vulnerable to attack.
Joel isn’t the only one to get into the action, either. If you happen to break stealth, Ellie will at times help out by throwing bricks or bottles at enemies to stun them. She packs a pocket knife, as well, and can stab enemies if Joel is in too much trouble.
Only one downside comes with the gameplay, and it is not about the shooting or stealth. It’s with how some combat situations are handled. One of my only real gripes about the Uncharted series were instances of straight up shooting galleries where tons of bad guys just jump over fences or what-have-you and you shoot until it feels like you can’t shoot anymore. In those instances the game(s) got a bit boring and sometimes frustrating. This doesn’t happen nearly as often in The Last of Us, but on occasion after clearing an area, more dudes just show up to continue the combat sequence. Those times aren’t always pleasant from both a gameplay and story perspective.
The Last of Us deals with some heavy issues. It is not an “Oh no, run from zombies!” game. Nothing is sugar coated, from the relationships among characters to the visuals of a world where so many lost hope and gave up. Player actions, especially the stealth takedowns, are visceral and harsh. Joel is not Rambo, so even though he has learned to take a life, the ways in which he does so are brutal and unrefined. They are a result of necessity rather than skill or expertise, and at no time does he stand up from a fight to make a one liner. He knows and acts upon the fact that it is either Joel and Ellie or them, and that’s just the way it is. Many things you’ll see in this game are jarring and tough to take in, and for the story to sell, they needed to be. The impact of the game being so raw has a direct function in causing the player to empathize or revile characters, and it certainly succeeds in that regard.
The Beauty Of Decay
This review definitely cannot end without some mention of how freaking gorgeous it is. Naughty Dog has always been good in this department, and it shows in The Last of Us. I spent probably far more time than most simply looking at things, and that is both from visual fidelity to atmosphere. I remember many moons ago while playing Metroid Prime I was blown away at how every area in the game was different, and I had echoes of that feeling throughout The Last of Us. There is just something about going through abandoned homes, every one unique, and seeing the remains of what once were normal families that made me stop and think. You can press L2 to run, but during times when the game slowed down a bit and allowed me to soak it all in, that button never got used.
Climbing on to a rooftop and looking off into the horizon, seeing broken buildings covered in years of plant growth while a warm, setting sun indifferently casts its light over everything, you can’t help but just stand there for a bit and watch.
I Kinda Miss These Guys
Now that it is all over, having seen through to the credits, I must say that I rather miss being a part of Ellie and Joel’s story. Naughty Dog crafted a world that is often harsh and terrible but filled it with two leading characters that I would gladly join again. There might have been a few instances of frustration for me during combat situations, but those are easily overshadowed by the quality of The Last of Us‘s story and the caliber at which it was acted out. Every high and low that happened to these characters landed solidly for me, and I definitely shed a few manly tears at moments in the game.
Put simply: I really cannot recommend The Last of Us highly enough. It’s as whole and complete as a game can be.