As previously mentioned, these nowPlaying posts are going to be rare from now on. I’m a staff writer at Cubed3, where I post news and occasional reviews. The reviews I post directly to my blog are done on my own time and don’t reflect the views of Cubed3.
This review won’t be spoiler-free. I’ll try to leave the biggest things out, but if you intend to play this game knowing next to nothing about it (as I did and heavily suggest you should), please don’t read on. The Last of Us is an experience I don’t want to rob you of. Go ahead, I won’t mind if you stop reading.
All screenshots taken by me, using the PS4’s share feature.
Growing up, I had a Sega Genesis and a Super Nintendo. I always liked the Nintendo more, but even then, part of me understood that great games can’t be confined to a single platform. This is true now more than ever.
The downside of this truth is that most people can’t afford every gaming platform available at any given time, at which point marketing takes over, with various game companies trying to sway gamers to buy their device.
The last generation of gaming found me with a Wii (I’ll always opt for Nintendo first; I need my Zelda and Super Smash). That part was easy. Picking between the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 was more difficult. The PS2 had won handily a generation before—Kingdom Hearts and Shadow of the Colossus had seen to that. The idea of a third Kingdom Hearts and another masterpiece from Team Ico sold me on the PS3, but when neither came to fruition, I sold it, eventually picking up an Xbox 360 for series like Halo and Left 4 Dead.
Toward the end of the PS3’s lifespan, a game called The Last of Us showed up on my radar. I watched a few trailers, looked into gameplay videos, read the previews; it was pretty clear that The Last of Us was always going to be the one that got away. Here, finally, was the PS3’s killer app. It definitely wasn’t too little, but it was certainly too late.
I wasn’t concerned. Pretty much everyone knew a PS4 port was imminent, and it was only a matter of waiting. So I waited, and I avoided all spoilers from the game. (This wasn’t difficult to do, and I suspect the game’s fans are a large reason for this, so to them I extend my thanks for not spoiling the game for those of us who didn’t get to play it the first time around.) Finally, Sony released The Last of Us Remastered for PS4.
Going in, I knew almost nothing about the game, other than it was a post-apocalyptic adventure/survival game. The very first cutscene made me uneasy: The game opens with a little girl, who we soon learn is the daughter of the main character, Joel. I had seen pictures, trailers, the cover of the game—this was not the same little girl I saw on those. Joel was accounted for, but his daughter, Sarah? Nowhere to be found. Not good.
Then the game’s first major roundhouse-kick-to-the-feels comes when the cutscene ends and control reverts to the player. I found myself not playing as Joel, but as Sarah. Oh boy. Sarah wakes in the middle of the night to a series of strange occurrences, all the while looking for her father.
It doesn’t take long for events to careen out of control. It also doesn’t take long for the game to inspire awe. There’s an unparalleled sense of realism in the game’s opening, whether it’s wandering the house half-asleep as Sarah, or switching to Joel, carrying the wounded child through a crowd of people all pushing and shoving to escape the frenzied infected among them. The characters have a sense of weight to them, like they actually interact with the digital game world presented on the screen. Everything feels real. This is something I didn’t quite notice until I played The Last of Us. Most games are games, no matter how intuitive their controls. The Last of Us feels more like I’m using a controller to tell an actual person somewhere what to do, and he immediately does it. I wish I could explain this better.
The opening isn’t physically difficult. You really only have to keep moving forward. It’s what you can feel yourself moving toward that makes each step harder than the last, that nagging feeling that this little girl you’re trying to save is not the girl you see with Joel in all of the promotional material. And then you find out why, and the game cuts to its opening credits.
I could tell it was going to be a heavy story before I even played it, but the opening scene, which culminates in something I knew was coming, was still hard to digest. I could only imagine what else was going to happen in the game, how far it could take me, how heavy it could become. This didn’t turn me off in the slightest; I was ready to press on.
The game’s realism only gets better. Using a health pack during the tutorial resulted in an actual bandage that stayed on Joel for the rest of the playable portion. More of that realism. Characters change and develop, they interact with each other and the world around them. You craft new items to use, you get ammo (very little of it) and scavenge houses. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Somehow, I did. It felt like I scoured every inch of the game world, yet I found something like 40% of the game’s hidden collectibles by the time it was through. The world is bigger than it seems, the post-apocalypse holds many secrets.
Little by little, more game mechanics revealed themselves: Placing ladders, throwing bricks and bottles to distract enemies, sneaking, swimming, climbing, helping others climb, moving furniture; the possibilities seemed endless. A lot of work went into this game, but this is all superficial. This is just the presentation. I’ve always cared more about the story.
That same depth extends beyond the gameplay. The story unfolds little by little, characters come and go and leave their mark on the world. I was surprised to see that Joel and the girl from the cover, Ellie, get off on the wrong foot. The way wrong foot, as in she-tries-to-stab-him-and-he-can’t-wait-to-get-rid-of-her wrong foot. There’s little left to the imagination here; you know what the characters feel. You can hear it in their voices, you can see it in their eyes. You’ve probably heard plenty about what an amazing job the actors have done, but words don’t do it justice. I’ve never seen performances like this in a video game.
It was particularly weird for me because (hipster mode activate!) I was a fan of Troy Baker long before he was the main character in every video game ever, back when he was Action Bastard in Shin-Chan, back when he was Excalibur on Soul Eater. It wasn’t until he voiced the Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins that I realized he was capable of so much more than I’d heard, and even that performance pales in comparison to his role as Joel in The Last of Us. Of equal talent is Ashley Johnson, who at the time I recognized only as Gretchen from Recess, portraying Ellie.
Ellie is a character that could’ve gone so wrong. A single mistake with this character would’ve sunk the whole ship; while you play as Joel, Ellie is the character most important to the story. If she had been annoying, if she had been portrayed wrong, if she had been in any way unlikable or unbelievable, the whole game would’ve dropped to a level that could hardly be described as more than just solid. It’s only because I loved the character that the story makes sense, it’s only because I dreaded seeing the credits and knowing my time with Ellie (and thus, this story) was almost over that every victory in the game was also a defeat, that every minute of playtime was an experience I could never have again.
A talented supporting cast moves the game forward. There’s Bill, the lovable asshole who likes tripwires and talking to himself. There’s Tess, the brains to Joel’s brawn, and clearly the only reason he’s still going in this world. Marlene, the leader of the enigmatic Fireflies, is charismatic where Joel is on autopilot. There’s even Ish, a character you meet only through handwritten notes he left behind, but whom you grow to love and know and feel for when his world eventually falls apart around him.
This isn’t to say the game is perfect. The infected, while interesting, are underused. The vast majority of your enemies are uninfected people who are just so deliciously evil, you can’t help but laugh as you blow their heads off. Now and then they’ll say things that project them as real people with their own motives, but there just isn’t as much thought given to these characters. They exist to be fodder for Joel’s gun, and most of their dialogue comes across as a tacked on “feel for me, damn it!” that tries to push itself on you, whereas the rest of the game invites you into whatever emotion it’s trying to convey.
There is an exception to this rule in one of the game’s later protagonists. While what he does is cliché and easy to spot from far off, you can’t help but like the guy, almost even understand him, and that’s a kind of horror all on its own.
All of this pushes you toward an endgame that’s never quite what you think it is. The goal posts keep moving, the objective keeps changing, until the game reaches its climax.
Here I’ll split my post onto another page. If you haven’t finished the game, don’t read past here. I’m going into full spoiler mode, because a lot of things happen at the end, and I want to give my own interpretation of what they are, and welcome discussion from those who might not agree. If you’re aware of the game’s ending, feel free to continue to the next page.