In The Last of Us, a “video game” where humanity is on the brink of extinction, you’ll find the most human situations you’ve ever come across. It’s when times are toughest that our species makes it obvious why we’re at the top of the food chain. We adapt. Even against the gravest circumstances, we find a way to keep on going. The Last of Us explores the deepest rooted instincts within the human race: Fight or flight, endure and survive.
The game starts right off with a gripping prologue that instantly sets the tone not only for the entire game, but for the relationship to be built between Joel and Ellie. Not even twenty minutes into The Last of Us, my eyes welled with tears. The bond between you and the characters themselves is built immediately.
The world as we know it has essentially ended, and all that’s left are pockets of civilization that are probably better off dead. The way they live isn’t any way to go about your day. Forget about a 9 to 5. Forget about health care. Forget about all of the luxuries we know all too well. There is nothing. Barely enough food to go around. Life means next to nothing. All that really matters is survival, but in a world where everything and everybody is out to get you, surviving ain’t easy.
Humanity faced an outbreak of a deadly, brain-infecting strain of fungus that’s as real as you and I, called Cordyceps. The fact that it’s a real fungus that turns insects into mindless zombies with the sole purpose of spreading these spores makes the possible reality of such a fate all the more frightening. Currently, Cordyceps cannot infect humans—we even take it as a supplement for its purported health benefits. But a mutated strain isn’t outside of the realm of possibility.
The fungal infection has multiple stages, each more horrifying than the last. First is a state called the Runner; still some human left, but unable to control their aggressive, violent outbursts. Runners, being in the first stage of infection, somewhat knowingly turn on and attack their closest friends and family members. Once the infection takes hold of the host’s brain, they’re known as Clickers. Blind, and much more monster than mortal, these mindless ‘zombies’ only purpose is to infect others. They use echo-location to track their prey, and the clicking noise they make is chilling to the bone.
Although there are plenty of Clickers in The Last of Us, the first few you encounter in Boston in the underground MBTA subway stations leave a lasting impression. It’s unlit, the air is thick with smoke and spores, the hollowness of the abandoned station echoes the horrific clicking sound, and you realize just how imposing these monsters can be. Do you really want to go up against something like that? That doesn’t feel, doesn’t think, and will end your life in the blink of an eye. The answer is no, but Joel and Ellie have little choice. It’s the Clickers, or it’s them.
As vile as these Clickers are, you soon realize that it’s the other humans in The Last of Us that are the worst, and the most capable of evil. See, the Clickers can’t help what they’re doing. You almost feel bad for the lost souls suffered so much and become something so awful. The humans, though, knowingly make the choice to hunt, kill, pillage, and commit the most atrocious of acts. Some of them have their hand forced—it’s kill or be killed after all—while others go far out of their way to make the already hellish lives of others all the worse.
Late in the game, you see just how evil humanity can get in one of the most memorable performances I can recount—game, novel, film, or otherwise. This person made me sick at the sight of him, but I’ll leave the details for you to discover on your own. Many of the examples I’d like to use for this review are so deeply ingrained in the storyline that using them here would spoil key moments important to experiencing the weight of it all.
Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie do an amazing job bringing these characters to life. I felt their pain and sorrow. And I genuinely cared about what they went through and faced. I often found myself wondering what they were thinking at any given moment—a truly unique experience. Only in film have I ever made a connection like that. Fortunate for my curiosity, Naughty Dog fills exploration and downtime with opportunities for extra dialogue and banter between the cast members, answering most questions you might have. This alone had me wanting to play through the game again, because I know I missed plenty of chances to get the full story.
Ellie’s character, in particular, has a very transformative role. Watching her develop from a helpless child into a formidable and self-sufficient sidekick to Joel is quite the sight. One event in the game pits her in some tense situations where she’s forced to adapt and become a ruthless killer like so many others around her. All the while, somehow, despite so much adversity, her innocence and sense of wonder is still very much intact.
The gameplay is well-balanced in every aspect. I can’t say it’s particularly fun, but that’s only because every situation is so tense. The best approach is to use stealth, taking advantage of your environment for cover or to throw a brick for a distraction. However, the best laid plans can go awry, and more times than not the approach I chose didn’t work out as expected and I was forced to improvise—usually by unloading precious ammunition into the bodies of the infected. This formula of trial and error proves to be a success considering The Last of Us is about survival and panic.
Using your surroundings and the supplies you located in place of running and gunning is paramount to staying alive. Ammunition isn’t impossible to come by, but it is scarce. And you find ammo infrequently enough that you may fear using it unless it’s absolutely necessary. This aspect of the game adds yet another layer of survival to a game that constantly challenges you to think, and react, rather than acting first and making up for it later. The Last of Us is far too unforgiving for that.
So unforgiving, that in the end, even on Normal, I died 56 times in my first playthrough. And that’s being careful with every situation, constant exploration for supplies, using ammunition sparingly, and generally performing well at the game. Admittedly, though, I did die at least a handful of times purposefully, just to see how brutal a death scene may be—never disappointing my sadistic curiosity. Make no bones about it, The Last of Us is a challenge.
To truly do well, exploration and effective utilization of supplies are of utmost importance. Exploration also is needed to locate parts and tools to upgrade Joel’s arsenal. And it’s vital to uncovering the entire plot and spoken dialogue between the characters. It may also provide some insight into the struggles of other survivors, both alive and dead, who left behind notes, pictures, diaries, and other legacies. It’s also worth seeing the detail put into the game. No two areas look identical, let alone similar. Even the smallest of children’s rooms in an abandoned house has character to it—you can get a glimpse of the life that used to live there. It’s saddening to see these once happy homes now deserted, or otherwise filled with Clickers.
And even with so much ugly in the world of The Last of Us, there is much beauty to behold. The wilderness has reclaimed the planet, and lush overgrowth fills what used to be paved roads. The sun still sets, and animals can be seen roaming the city streets freely. The Last of Us is one of the best-looking games on the PS3, and it’s the more tranquil scenes that really do showcase this. That’s not to say other areas aren’t well-designed artistically and graphically, but they’re designed to be putrid or dank.
One of the game’s finer points, amid so many, is how well each character is designed, mo-capped, and voiced. Facial expressions show pure emotion, without the need for an entire generation leap. I knew what characters were feeling just by the look on their faces. Still, the shining mark of brilliance found in The Last of Us is in the bonds formed between you and the characters, and also between the characters themselves. And the way their story so subtlety comes together really helps connect you to them. These characters resonated with me; they became people I cared about, and I could easily put myself into their shoes, their situation. And with the game’s world in such a bleak state, it’s not exactly easy to invoke genuine feelings of empathy. But Naughty Dog did it, and they did it so well that from the very moment The Last of Us began, I was captivated.
13 hours and 17 minutes later, the credits rolled and I was left stunned by conflicting emotions, especially by the ending. The Last of Us will have different meanings for different people, but I honestly can’t say I’ve ever been personally moved like this before. Not by a “game”. Multiplayer is damn good too, really highlighting that survival focus and feel. You can read all about it in a multiplayer preview I wrote. But for the sake of this review, I want to focus on how The Last of Us makes me feel, because that’s where its true achievement in design lies.
The Last of Us highlights the human traits in us all: our instincts, our emotions, and the things we do to get by. Recently, I’ve felt troubled. Video games have been my passion for over 25 years. It’s what I do, day in and day out. It’s my escape, but it’s also my job. I haven’t felt that special “it” feeling in a while, but I get by. This industry has grown stagnant, and I’ve been seeking an elevated experience that made me feel, not just play a game. The Last of Us is exactly what I needed. It’s a hallmark of excellence in writing, design, and performance. Naughty Dog and Sony not only have a system seller on their hands, but a game that’ll define an entire console generation—a true classic that’ll be talked about and fondly regarded for years to come.