The Last Of Us review
“Once upon a time, I had somebody I cared about. And in this world, that shit’s good for one thing. Gettin’ you killed”
Every once in a while, you come across a game that seems to just blow away your expectations for what can be truly achieved in this medium, something that not just raises the bar for visual fidelity say, but also redefines how a game presents its narrative to the player. It is crafted in such a way so that it remains grounded in the remarkable interactivity that only a video game could achieve, but also possesses a delicate nuance that a film has always thought to have had exclusive in this realm of entertainment.The Last Of Us is that game.
It takes place in a world that has been decimated by a viral outbreak two decades earlier, society has collapsed and with it the humanity of the few who have survived. You play as Joel, a stoic, experienced survivor who is charged with escorting a very special young girl called Ellie across the United States to the headquarters of the rebel group The Fireflies. The narrative is completely gripping for the whole length of the 18 hours or so you will spend on the main experience, your progression is also symbolised through the development of the characters of Joel and Ellie, the events that happen during the course of the game leave their own distinctive mark upon them, another difficult aspect to get right but which TLOU so effortlessly excels.
Let’s move on to the characters now and since you take the part as Joel, we’ll start with him, Joel is a grizzled, veteran survivor of the outbreak that has due to the events the game’s shocking prologue become cold and disconnected from what remains of society. It’s continuously reinforced that Joel is no hero, he’s an average person who’s had to do appalling acts in order to survive. The development of his relationship with Ellie is the defining aspect of the game itself, he initially views Ellie as an unnecessary burden and a risk but gradually comes to care for her and willingly assumes the role as her protector. Furthermore, I would say that Joel is possibly one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever come across in gaming, his grey moral compass wholly corresponds with the world they now live in, Troy Baker does an excellent job at conveying the underlying trauma that’s he’s never recovered from, the old Joel was left behind in the prologue, now a grief-stricken and apathetic man remains in his place.
Ellie meanwhile is an appropriate opposite to Joel in almost all traits, despite the world she’s been brought up in she has retained a certain innocence and has a fascination for learning about the world as it was before. She’s responsible for the more light-hearted moments throughout the game and can be extremely witty, her exchanges with Bill being a particular highlight in this regard. However what’s refreshing in TLOU is that although Ellie is still a young girl, Naughty Dog has firmly resisted the notion of presenting her as meek and helpless. Rather she is instead extremely capable at skills such as stealth and has no qualms about using violence in order to help Joel in certain situations, Ellie like Joel is possibly one of the best characters I’ve come across in gaming for all the reasons stated above and more. There are other character interactions which I won’t spoil, whilst minor, yet astute character details serve to elevate the narrative journey to another level.
The gameplay however revolves around combat mechanics, stealth and minor environmental puzzling, all are meshed together in sublime fashion and the pacing is pitch-perfect throughout.
First thing to state is that the combat is raw and utterly ferocious; indeed this desperation to survive is reflected in uncompromising savagery, it takes multiple wild strikes to bring down a foe, infected or no. This is combat at its most tense and visceral, bricks can be picked up and smashed into faces with an unflinching motion, heads are slammed into walls and knives are plunged into throats with a sickening gurgle. Even if you catch an enemy unaware from behind to stealthily strangle him, it takes an arduous amount of time to finish, enemies will claw at their throats, eyes will bulge, until they eventually go limp and you can breathe easy once again, albeit always a little shaken. The key thing I took away from the gameplay of TLOU is how every confrontation feels different, yet all retain the screamingly tense atmosphere as the last.
The infected are clearly a big part of the gameplay and they usually come in the forms of stalkers and the dreaded clickers, stalkers are of the usual fare, they’ll charge manically at you but are usually quite weak and can be easily dispatched one by one although they can easily overwhelm you in numbers. Clickers however are the most distinctly recognizable, not simply due to their grotesque appearance but also because of their blindness, as such they produce horrible clicking noises in order to track down sources of sound. They can kill you in one grisly attack, therefore you must either get either carefully around a clicker through stealth or kill it before it gets too close and use up a lot of precious resources in the process. The enemy types throughout TLOU are distinctive and varied, but best of all they deftly inform the player that they need to adapt their gameplay strategy as and when needed, go in shooting will not end well in a pitch black area full of clickers, survival requires adaptation and you must do everything to survive.
This brings us neatly on to summarising how stealth is so vital to the experience, despite remaining beautifully clumsy and desperate, what I mean by that is that Joel will scurry for cover, knocking over bottles and straining himself to get his body out the way, again reminding you that he’s not a conventional battle-hardened super-soldier for example. It also more importantly works well too, it takes a little while to get used to but soon you’ll be able to work out how to creep out of areas without being seen, using bottles and bricks as sound decoys. It’s a good job too because in this ruined world, ammo is very scarce and although Joel can aim and fire a weapon, it doesn’t mean he’s extremely proficient; aiming feels shaky and guns are unreliable with their reload times. You can accumulate materials to upgrade weapons to improve things such as these, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make, although the combat is immensely satisfying you should always look to avoid it where possible, Joel isn’t a super-human he is extremely vulnerable just like everybody else.
The tension is also heightened through the organic presentation and execution of the game’s crafting system, materials can be found in the world to make various items such as a shiv for dispatching enemies faster and quietly and also health kits which provides some terrifying moments when you need to heal quickly before you’re seen by an approaching enemy and Joel is bandaging his wounds in real-time. The lack of a pause menu is ingenious and fits perfectly with the pacing of the game, it also presents dilemmas as well, a Molotov cocktail and a health kit use the same resources for example, so you’ll often have to choose between them for the struggle ahead…
You aren’t locked out from the experience by any means, the Last Of Us has many hidden secrets and subtle little tales woven into the main adventure. This desolated world is the backdrop to many a tragedy and devastation, handwritten letters and recorded messages achingly convey the sense of hopelessness and despair that so overrides the survivor’s view of this world. There are many bleak examples, a child’s toys scattered across a makeshift nursery, little bodies covered in sheets, a dad penning a letter to his son telling him to leave the area if he doesn’t return from a supply hunt. Many stories all waiting to be discovered and interpreted, all acting in tandem with the main experience. They’re not forced on you, its understated style means you can look around for them if you want to, but forgotten tales of poignant loss and grief are never far away in this cruellest of worlds.
It’s unsurprising for me to say after all this that The Last Of Us is the most visually impressive game I’ve ever seen, Ellie and Joel’s journey across the United States means that the landscape is often varied and perilous but always possesses an unmistakable beauty. It’s remarkable how canny the art style is with regards to the narrative of The Last Of Us, nature is reclaiming its own world, a fungus capable of infecting plant species has moved on to claiming human victims. Although I’ve wrote about how bleak and barren the world is, desolation can often be translated into a form of immense beauty, indeed throughout the game there are breathtaking sights to behold, crumbling cities now booming with vegetation, stunning forests that dominate the empty countryside and gorgeous sunsets that burn above a ruined skyline. The Last Of Us presents a world that may be empty of humanity but clearly refutes a perception that it is devoid of life.
Also on this point, you just have to look at how beautiful the main menu is with regards to its imagery; the way the vine has penetrated through the broken glass, a rotting window sill and torn curtains is a perfect representation of the world of the Last Of Us, nature again encroaches and eventually destroys the remnants of humanity, it’s a cruel reversal of roles don’t you think?
Furthermore, the soundtrack is also staggering in its execution, the simple yet strong folk instrumentals by composer Gustavo Santaolalla, the stripped-back sound of the game again resonates with the themes explored throughout its duration. During scenes of respite you’ll hear perhaps nothing other than your character’s footsteps and the sounds of nature outside, you’re a stranger in your own world now and its more apparent after every passing day.
The Last Of Us is a true masterpiece, it’s stellar narrative is sustained through exquisite pacing and incredibly satisfying gameplay; indeed it never loses its identity of being a game despite its stunning advancements in aspects such as voice acting and animation. Thus, maybe that’s the most refreshing thing about it; in an age where games are trying to be as emotionally complex as films but in turn sacrifice the enjoyment of the player. The Last Of Us resists such a compromise to undoubtedly become the definitive title of its genre.
+ Extraordinary characters
+ Peerless narrative
+ Mesmerising world
+ Fantastic, layered gameplay