There have been many games that traverse the idea of a role-playing game, from early JRPGs to modern first person shooters. Each has its own style and flavor, complete with both new techniques and overplayed clichés.
But rarely has there been the opportunity to play an emotional tour de force like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. What’s piqued my interest is how the game ends up playing on my own perception of morality. In the end, that’s what The Last of Us boils down to: musing on what it means to survive while being wrapped up in the terror of a post-pandemic shooter.
People often say that first impressions are of paramount importance. The Last of Us doesn’t fail to stun you in the opening fifteen minutes of the game. It’s a near perfect introduction to some basic gameplay mechanics without the irritating in-game text tutorials. That’s not to say that gameplay hints don’t show up in other places, but rather that they don’t conflict with the immersion in this particular pivotal plot point. The forced slow movement and the eerie lighting reinforce the idea that this will be a game where tensions run high a good deal of the time.
After watching the first of many heart-wrenching cutscenes, time skips to twenty years later where the game’s protagonist, Joel, has carved a new and somewhat grim life for himself. This is where Naughty Dog really sets the tone with the creation of a disturbingly post-pandemic world where lies and corruption are plentiful and the fall of humanity comes from both inside and out.
The plot picks up once you’re charged with your newest smuggling parcel: a seemingly normal young girl. Foul-mouthed and straight to the point, Ellie becomes a wonderfully essential part of the game. Many hours will be spent listening to Joel and Ellie build a rapport, laughing and cringing along the way. Using both of their different viewpoints–what with Ellie being only 14, a child born during the pandemic–The Last of Us manages to create a piercing commentary of modern values when contrasted with the nitty gritty details of simply staying alive.
The supporting cast also shines, providing intricate and fleshed out foils to Joel and Ellie. Ruthless hunters mixed with oddly compassionate companions truly highlight what the world has come to, now that each man must fend for himself in order to survive. Some characters will make you love them, some you’ll grow to loathe. But each one will linger on your mind as you move from chapter to chapter, causing you to ponder what it means to be human.
Gameplay-wise, the cooperation between Ellie and Joel is essential to your survival. Ellie can squeeze into places that Joel can’t, and Joel can boost her up to places that he can’t reach. Unfortunately, some puzzle themes are reused more often than not, with the biggest culprit being the water-based puzzles. It’s established early on that Ellie can’t swim, so it’s up to Joel to figure out how to get her to traverse the water, often using a combination of wooden rafts and ladders. Unfortunately this mechanic is used too often–it seems ridiculous that a majority of problems in a post-pandemic world can be solved with ladders.
The primary enemies of the game are hostile human survivors and the infected. Humans react to Joel’s movements and change tactics depending on multiple factors, including whether or not Joel has a gun or how many enemies are left on screen. The enemy AI are fairly advanced, and will do everything in their power to flank you during a gunfight.
The infected add an increasingly visceral element to the game. Ranging from the fast and relentless “runners” to the eerie and deadly “clickers,” the infected enemies force you to adopt several different tactics in order to survive. Whether the situation calls for some stealthy maneuvers or for some good old-fashioned gun slinging, Joel comes prepared with a variety of stealth tactics and some serious firepower. However, resources are scant, so making each shot count is essential.
The difficulty modes are also well balanced, offering novice players a chance to enjoy the story while challenging veteran players. As the difficulty increases supplies become scarce, leaving Joel with limited options in what he can craft in order to defend himself. It comes down to making a decision between using your remaining materials to craft a health kit or that molotov cocktail. Choose wisely.
The Last of Us is topped off with a unique online multiplayer experience. Split into the two factions of Hunters and Fireflies, players must fight to keep their clan of survivors alive and healthy. Players choose between supply raid matches and Survivor matches. The former focuses on planning and strategy, while the latter is more about staying alive as long as possible. Each mode is enjoyable, and seamlessly integrates the survival elements that make the main story so engaging into the online play.
I can safely say that The Last of Us is one of the best games that I have had the opportunity to play. Everything from the voice acting to the atmosphere and the responsive controls feels extremely polished and refined. What really makes the game so complete is the inclusion of small details and nuances to the game structure. The simple things like Joel extending a hand as he moves next to a wall, or shielding his eyes whenever there’s a bright light shows how much love and attention to detail was put into this game. This, coupled with an extremely thought-provoking story, will help forge an unforgettable connection between the game’s universe and the player.
Through the trials and hardships that Joel and Ellie face, we see that everyone’s life has a price. What’s yours?
(Editor’s note: A publisher’s copy of the game was provided for this review. Review copies are provided as a courtesy, and do not influence the opinions of Pixelitis.)