I’ve been punched twice in my life and both were directly in the gut. If you’ve never been in a fight, you should know that they are intense. Your hands are shaking from a briny cocktail of adrenaline and nerves and your vision narrows as it blurs out everything but the guy in front of you. It’s something you don’t really forget, so those two punches and their effects are still rather fresh in my mind. The ambiguously placed pain, the need to double over and just breathe, and way your lungs feel like they’re collapsing from the lack of air in your entire body. I know what it’s like to be hit in the stomach.
And I still wasn’t ready for The Last of Us.
In the latest from developer luminary Naughty Dog, The Last of Us tells the tale of a hardened fellow named Joel and an oddly sprightly young girl named Ellie. The two are stuck together in a journey across the country as they try to survive the perils of suburbia, public transit, and shopping malls. Oh yeah, there are also zombies everywhere. The very real Cordyceps fungus that infests and controls the minds of insects and arthropods (before bursting out of their bodies like the most tragically beautiful piece of modern art you’ve ever seen) has taken a terrible turn and started to infect humans. So they’re not really zombies, but they’re the closest analog you’ll find.
Anyways, it’s 2033, years since the outbreak began, and Joel has since gotten over—or rather managed to cope with—such an incredibly well done and immensely heartbreaking opening 30 minutes to a video game I’ve seen in quite some time. The rest of the world hasn’t done much better, though, as quarantine zones are overly militant compounds of malnutrition and smuggling operations while the outside is full of murderous bandits and unknown infected. Joel, however, has made a name for himself here in Boston as a smuggler not to be trifled with and eventually falls into an encounter with a rebel group known as the Fireflies, other smugglers, and a whole mess of trouble.
I won’t go into much detail about the story like how Joel and Ellie end up together, their histories, and their eventual destinations along this bloody road trip, but I will say that their relationship is so…genuine. It is disgusting how well realized and heartfelt every word and movement is that comes out of their mouths and bodies. Every prop and compliment must be given to voice and motion capture actors Troy Baker (who is nigh unrecognizable as an old Southern fogey) and Ashley Johnson (who plays 14 years old so much better than anyone over the actual age of 14 has the right to) but the writing is also just terribly immense. Little touches like the conversations they have about music and whistling to how Ellie sidles up right under Joel’s arm whenever they take cover really adds to their relationship so that when you get socked in the stomach, it hurts all the more.
Which is good because without those two and their bond carrying the story, it would be an otherwise run-of-the-mill tale of the undead and a cross country trip (to wit, when things go wrong). Most of the story beats were easily guessed, but the way they are presented and the way they develop are masterful. Even the genre itself of survival zombie horror is a bit tired, but it’s a bit of meta tragedy when you hope against hope that the things you don’t want to happen inevitably happen and you curse yourself for allowing your heart to be fooled again. By the end of it, you’ll definitely feel like you’ve been through a fight.
The combat itself, however, is less pugilistic than you’d think. For the most part, you’ll spend a lot of your time crouched behind desks and tables and slowly walking behind dudes. Joel—for reasons I won’t get into—is a fairly proficient killer, but he is also still realistically fragile, or at least compared to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted hero Nathan Drake. At least in the beginning, it only takes a few hits for you to go down, so it’s often best for you to sneak around enemies rather than engage them directly. Not to mention that one of the more terrifying enemy classes called Clickers are a one-hit kill, so mind your surroundings.
Clickers are a totally blind enemy, what with their entire head engulfed in Cordyceps fungus, but they can sufficiently navigate based on sound and touch. They emit this unsettling croaking sound that will eventually haunt your dreams, so they’re impossible to miss, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to avoid. A listening mode allows you to similarly echolocate enemies through walls and floors which facilitates your sneaking—which unfortunately and strangely doesn’t work when the game wants to deliberately hide enemies from you to scare you—but you’ll often find yourself battling a mix of Clickers and Runners (generic, fast fodder enemies) and such, which makes it quite interesting to navigate each encounter. And that adds into the feel that each arena feels unique while remaining open, so running away and simply poking and prodding at the rather impressive AI until your hand is forced into action is a totally viable and heart-pounding tactic.
The problem is that each encounter is a specific type of encounter, and you don’t really know which type it is until halfway through. You either have to kill everything in the area before being allowed to proceed, forced to actively engage in open combat with throngs of foes, or you have to sneak by the best you can. Of course, you can always go for open combat if you want, but unarmed melee doesn’t work on Clickers and getting overwhelmed by Runners is a common effect of your brutish cause. But the game seems to present to you the notion that stealth is always the best option early on and then throws that out the window by forcing you to get violent.
It’s really quite unfortunate because sometimes these encounters devolve from intricate stealth to chaotic brain-bashing due to ineptitude or carelessness, so those moments of pure, abject terror are lessened, a quality further brought to light with somewhat ineffectual boss fights. Especially towards the end where enemies and bullets far outweigh sneaking and shivving, you start to feel like these are less instances of your scraping your way out of a skirmish and more like you are playing into the game’s hands.
Those hands, though, are quite nice as this is a spartan survival game through and through. At first, it feels like you don’t have nearly enough of anything to get you through any meaningful portion of the game. Health packs hover around one, ammo supply can’t fill an entire magazine, and your crafting supplies are dwindling. And as the game progresses, you eventually squirrel away enough to have what appears to be a stockpile before you’re forced to use most of it just to survive a single chapter. This inventory economy and progression is nicely done, and feels even more appropriate when you play on Hard difficulty.
The great thing about it is that you have to make choices. Molotov cocktails are great at taking out clumps of infected and dudes, but they take the same supplies as health packs to craft. Shivs can take out any Clicker or Runner quickly and silently but they also can crack open locked doors that hide workbench parts and valuable training manuals. And you simply won’t have enough parts to upgrade all of your weapons, so you have to choose what attributes and what guns are most useful to you. It’s a nice contrast from most other games that make you choose what to do first and instead asks you what can do you at all.
A perfectly viable option for not progressing in the game but thoroughly enjoying it is to just stop and look around. In a delicious Cormac McCarthy-ish slant, the world has been reclaimed by the whole of nature. Trees take root where construction workers had once laid down foundation and vines climb up skyscrapers like they would a sheer cliff face. It’s a direct visual metaphor for things The Last of Us and McCarthy’s The Road address: the conflicting will within ourselves for protecting those around us with only keeping yourself alive. There’s a character that you meet about halfway through that shines an especially sad light on this contrast.
Ellie and Joel will, in fact, remind you to breathe every once in a while. Walking through the woods, Ellie remarks to her grayed and grumbling companion that it’s a remarkable sight to be seen. It’s a reminder that all the horrible things that they do and see (both of which Ellie will comment on with stark relatability) are still in service of a blissful hope, and that’s necessary in such a dark game. The Last of Us is unequivocally tough to play; you will feel exhausted and drained at the end of each session.
There is one thing, though, that tends to break this cohesion created by the world: your companions. All of them are fully capable of handling themselves in combat, but as a concession to you as a player, their actions are nipped in the bud during stealth sections and never alert enemies or anything. So they never ruin a perfect ninja run for you, but seeing Ellie run headfirst into a Clicker and bounce off with zero consequences is rather world-shattering. The incredibly impressive enemy AI with its flanking and retreating and searching tactics more than makes up for the necessarily blundering companion AI.
However, that is a fault I’m willing to give considering how much better off the gameplay is for it. And there’s still so much in The Last of Us that just works. Joel and Ellie are now ranked among my favorite duos in any sort of fiction, let alone video games. They help spin an unbelievable and somewhat rote tale into a humanized and empathetic story of loss and compassion. And the combat and systems therein craft an interactive version of that narrative where a strident brutality manifests in figuring out when to kill and when to let sleeping Clickers lie. How many other games have enemies react differently when you brandish a weapon?
The Last of Us is a massive story and enormous emotional undertaking and substantial mechanical device. It presents a complex woven fabric of morality and questions of what it means to live and love and need that occasionally gets torn by the game itself, but perhaps that’s because of its heft. Such a heavy game is bound to put stress on the struts, but I do love it all the more for that. Even after getting punched in the gut and the face and everywhere else, even after feeling like I just finished a fight with the biggest kid in gym, The Last of Us is something that simply won’t be forgotten.
+ Believable and heartbreaking relationship crafted by amazing actors and fantastic writing
+ Genuine horror moments brought to you by Clickers and darkness
+ The immensely depressing and overbearing world of an infected land is totally engrossing and tonally and thematically consistent
– The dopey companion AI breaks the narrative fabric you envelope yourself in
– Pulls a bait ‘n switch on open stealth tactics with generic gameplay scenarios
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: The Last of Us
Release: June 14, 2013
Genre: Survival horror
Developer: Naughty Dog
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3
Players: 1, 2–8 online