I Finally Played The Last Of Us, 9 Years Later (Review)
In a world absent of hope, find something worth fighting for.
The game accompanies this rich narrative with surprisingly deep and satisfying combat, beautiful visuals, and some of the best goddamn music I have ever heard.
The Last of Us might not be a perfect game. But when it plays to its strengths, it comes pretty damn close.
Learning To Love
In The Last of Us, you play Joel Miller, a hardened smuggler living in a post-apocalyptic America. The apocalypse: well, it’s a virus that turns the people it infects into zombies. Joel’s daughter Sarah was killed on the day of the outbreak. 20 years later, Joel still pains thinking about her death. His watch, which cracked when Sarah died, remains a painful reminder of his long-dead daughter.
Joel and his partner-in-crime Tess are made to smuggle a girl named Ellie out of Boston, in exchange for the weapons that were stolen from them. On their way out of the city, Joel and Tess learn that Ellie is immune to the virus. She got bit by an infected zombie some time ago but never turned.
Once out of the city, Joel and Tess take Ellie to the rendevous point, where the trio were supposed to meet a group of Fireflies- members of the militia group who were taking care of Ellie. But the meeting point is deserted. Instead, the building is swarmed by US Military soldiers.
Tess then reveals that she has been bit by an infected and that there is no saving her. She gives up her life by fighting the soldiers, buying Joel and Ellie precious time to escape. Joel, for the second time in his life, has to stand helpless as someone he loves dies in front of him.
At the start of the game, it’s clear that Joel doesn’t care much for Ellie. To him, she is simply a good that needs to be transported. But as they traverse the length of the United States, a close bond forms between the two. Joel starts caring for Ellie as a daughter; Ellie looks up to Joel as a father.
So powerful and strong is this relationship between Joel and Ellie that by the end of The Last of Us, Joel puts aside the greater good because he can’t stand to see Ellie be harmed.
I think there is a particular parallel to be explored here. When I started playing The Last of Us, I wasn’t too enthralled. I thought the story was kinda cliche, and I just wasn’t gelling with the gameplay loop. I found the stealth parts frustrating at times, and the gunplay parts unbalanced. Compared to Uncharted — another NaughtyDog game that I love — The Last of Us has a lot of downtime between its high-octane moments. Those idle moments were making me lose interest in the game.
But as I trudged through the game’s opening hours and into the meat of the story, I found myself warming up to what NaughtyDog was attempting to pull off here. I understood the story being told. I connected with the characters and their world. When the end credits rolled after about 13 hours, I shed mild tears.
Chatting On The Trail
Throughout the game, you will be treated to plenty of conversations between Joel and Ellie. At the start, especially when you are not used to the voice acting and characters’ personalities, the banter between Joel, Ellie, and other characters who accompany them can be off-putting. I found dialogue such as “Stay focused! Yes ma’am” to be cringe at first.
But as the game gets more serious, the writing shines brighter and brighter until each piece of dialogue hits just right. The emotional arguments between Joel and Ellie glue your attention to the screen. The light-hearted banter dispersed amongst the downtime makes you chuckle.
The exceptionally written dialogue is what makes The Last of Us tick. It singlehandedly holds the game’s story together. Without such impactful and thoughtful writing, the game’s dark and serious story will be left feeling flat.
Fade To Black
There are story moments in The Last of Us where the game hits near perfection. One of them in particular takes place towards the middle of the game. When Joel and Ellie are trying to escape from bandits in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they meet two brothers named Henry and Sam. After initial apprehension towards each other, the four team-up to escape the city together.
Fighting their way past bandit enemies and a horde of infected, the four make it safely out of the city. They take shelter for the night in an abandoned radio tower. Ellie and Sam (the younger brother) have a deep talk about fear and the infection that ravages the world around them. Ellie gifts Sam a toy transformer that Henry had previously warned Sam against looting from a deserted shop.
Ellie leaves the room. The camera zooms in on Sam’s leg. You see a zombie bite. The screen fades to black.
The next morning, you see Ellie wake up to a scene of Henry preparing breakfast. Joel is standing by the window, looking out at the sunny landscape below. Henry asks Ellie to go wake Sam up so he can join them for breakfast.
Ellie goes to the other room but is violently attacked by Sam, who is in the process of turning into an infected. Joel scrambles to grab his gun. Henry, who realises Joel’s intentions of shooting Sam, shoots the gun out of his hands. A tense moment ensues. Henry exclaims, “That’s my fucking brother.” Joel says screw it and lunges for his gun.
A gunshot is heard. The screen pans back over to the right. Henry has just shot his brother. The half-infected Sam is dead. The trauma and realisation grip Henry. He has just shot and killed his little brother. Henry shudders violently in despair. He points the gun at Joel, blaming him for Sam’s death. Joel reassures him that it’s no one's fault. Henry doesn’t listen. He turns the gun and shoots himself in the head. Joel stands shocked. Ellie says, “Oh my god.” The screen fades to black. Slow melancholic music plays.
It is in such moments that The Last of Us is at its best. We are firsthand shown the hopelessness and brutality of the world Joel and Ellie inhabit. We understand the loss that the people in the world go through, and why their outlook on life is so bleak.
We also see how easy it is to lose someone you love. This helps put into perspective the bond that grows between Joel and Ellie. They know how easy it will be to lose one another forever. Now onwards, they will stick with each other through thick and thin. Through fire and ice. Through wellness and disease.
The Last of Us — I played the remastered version on PS4 — is a gorgeous game. The lush environments of this post-apocalyptic United States look splendid with overrun vegetation amidst collapsed infrastructure.
NaughtyDog seems hell-bent on infusing the environment with water. Whether it’s crossing tiny streams of water, riding your horse parallel to a roaring river, walking through a rain-soaked city, or driving in the rain, each shot looks as mesmerising as the next.
The graphic fidelity of the rain, foliage, and other environmental elements are by no means the best, but the game world as a whole looks pretty damn good. Facial animations hold up surprisingly well for a 2014 remaster of a 2013 game.
The infected have detailed and intricate designs. When you fight some of the bigger infected, you can make out the grotesque mutations on their bubbly skin. You see faint remains of its previous human form: fingers on hands and the still attached head. When you blast them with your shotgun or rain bullet hell upon them with an assault rifle, they explode in a shower of blood and spores.
I consider myself easily frightened, so keep in mind this may not apply to everyone who plays this game. In my experience, The Last of Us can be scary at times. But this is not due to the infected’s visual hideousness. Rather it is the accompanying sound design that truly makes the zombies of The Last of Us a frightening foe.
The blood-curdling screams of infected enemies make you shiver. Goosebumps instantaneously dot the length of your arms, as your eyes scan the game world of incoming enemies. The screams are made a dozen times more chilling when enemies let them out after being bludgeoned to death by the player. When infected run at you in a zig-zag manner, screaming to the end, there is a palpable sense of terror. The dimly lit environments of certain sections of the game make these encounters even more terrifying.
For the characters in the world of The Last of Us, an encounter with an infected zombie means a battle between life and death. But for someone playing the game, it simply means the possibility of a game over screen, followed by a reload to the previous checkpoint, most of which are placed at convenient intervals.
Therefore, this top-notch sound work on the infected zombies makes them feel like a real threat. The player is always wary of stumbling upon these enemies, not only because they may result in a game over screen, but also because they are likely to chill your bones with their high-pitched shrieks.
I didn’t have high expectations for this aspect of The Last of Us but the main combat loop (a mix of gunplay and melee) is surprisingly good. As I write this review, nearly 5 months after beating the game, I find myself looking back fondly upon the game’s combat, almost as much as its other aspects.
The main combat loop weaves together satisfying shooting, and brutal melee attacks. Gunplay is the standard third-person cover-based shooting you have come to expect from a NaughtyDog game. Unlike the Uncharted series, the playable character [in this case Joel] doesn’t snap to pieces of cover. Instead, you simply crouch and move behind it.
This gives the player more freedom in their movement and emphasises that combat in The Last of Us isn’t simply about hiding behind cover and then popping out to fire a barrage of bullets at the enemy. A more tactical approach is required. The player must be fluid in their movement across the battlefield and between different pieces of cover, maybe in an attempt to get within close range of an enemy or escape an incoming flanked attack.
Aside from being tactical, shooting is also very methodical. Ammo is extremely scarce in The Last of Us which means players carefully decide if and when to take a shot. If they decide to go the melee route, they must also consider the durability of the weapon they are wielding. This slows down the pace of The Last of Us’ combat but doesn’t leave players with any considerable disadvantage.
Enemies also play by the rules of this type of combat. They tend to remain behind cover and respect the rules of the game. The devs ensure that combat remains challenging by making enemies deal considerable damage to the player if they land a shot or blow. Moreover, the enemies aren’t bullet sponges either. They go down fairly quickly, leaving combat feeling extremely well-paced.
In terms of the actual gunplay itself, shooting is snappy and crunchy. Controls are responsive and the game’s sound design makes you hear the impact of each bullet that hits an enemy. It’s nothing special on its own, but in practice, it works extremely well.
Stealth And Crafting
While in most encounters you are forced to go out guns blazing, some can be approached purely or — for the most part — with stealth. Stealth in The Last of Us is simple yet effective. It consists of a crouched walk, a whistle to lure over enemies, objects that can be thrown as distractions, and craftable shivs to silently stab enemies in the back with.
With these four tools, the actions you complete to take out enemies may feel repetitive as the game progresses, but the unique encounter design makes sure that your stealth approach is never quite the same. It’s also crazy how entire sections of enemy encounters can be bypassed with stealth and only minimal combat.
There is one section late on in the game where you have to make your way through an underground tunnel. Unfortunately, the place is crawling with infected. I tried repeatedly to fight my way through but to no avail. There were simply too many enemies, and the moment I got past the first batch of them, I would be overwhelmed by sheer force.
So I took to the web to try and see if there was another, passive, way to tackle this section. And there was. It turns out you can stealth past the first batch of enemies, run through a passageway on the right side (in which you do have to kill a few infected), and then stealth past the rest of the enemies. Since the infected in The Last of Us can’t see, they rely on the sound of footsteps to track your movement. Therefore, as long as you move slowly and carefully, you can crouch-walk your way through an entire group of infected.
There is also crafting. Items such as Molotov cocktails, shivs, health kits, nail bombs, smoke bombs, and melee upgrades (to reinforce durability) must be crafted using raw materials found in the game world. Crafting is simple enough, with an on-the-fly menu that can be utilised at any time. Just make sure you aren’t in live combat because opening this pop-up menu doesn’t pause the game.
This crafting system means you must take careful stock of your resources, and decide what to use them on. It adds to the feeling of being a scavenger in a world that is out to kill you. It also nicely complements the more methodical and tactical combat.
Meanwhile, upgrades to your guns and bow can be made at workbenches placed at key intervals in the main story path. There are 11 such workbenches, and you will need the required amount and type of material to upgrade your weapon. Upgrades range from additional weapon holsters to ammo capacity to reload speed and bullet spread.
Don’t worry too much about missing these workbenches though, because these upgrades aren’t essential. I only minimally upgraded some weapons in my playthrough but wasn’t at any disadvantage during later game combat encounters.
I have played the four Nathan Drake Uncharted games and I adore them. So naturally, while playing another game from the same developer, I was quick to observe any noticeable similarities between the two.
The infamous sniper encounter in The Last of Us is as amazing as it is made up to be. You begin by sneaking across a town and taking out enemies, all the while avoiding sniper fire from a big house down the street. You eventually circle the sniper, sneak up on him, and take him out.
All well and done right? Wrong. Because suddenly enemies start pouring into town. Ellie and company (the previously mentioned brothers Henry and Sam) are left stranded in the exposed town square below. It is now your job to take hold of the sniper and defend your allies.
It is a fun and challenging section that feels a lot like something from an Uncharted game. On its own, it is an exceptionally designed addition to The Last of Us’ main story path, making you feel oddly calm as you single-mindedly pick off enemy after enemy.
There is another Uncharted-esque sequence that sticks out in my memory. It involves a cinematic parkour run across the top of buses in an overflowing sewer tunnel that ends with you getting stuck inside a sinking bus that you must escape from to save Ellie from drowning. It is incredible, and while The Last of Us is a very different thing from Uncharted, it is nice to see NaughtyDog incorporate some of its best features into Joel and Ellie’s journey.
Dun Dun Dun Dun Dunun
All that is there to say is that the music in this game is beautiful. It sets the mood so well and evokes so much emotion that The Last of Us would be a hollow shell without it. Every strum of the guitar is perfect and every note is so melodious. I can listen to the main theme in 10 years and it would flood my brain with memories of this game. I struggle to put the power of this game’s music into words, but trust me; it is special.
After all the praise I have heaped onto the game, let me list out some of its frustrations. There is a lot of walking down empty hallways or outdoor environments with no way to speed up the walking place. I get that these moments are there for the player to soak in the atmosphere or for the characters to have meaningful dialogue but sometimes I just want to get a move on.
The crafting system is weird to begin with. It felt odd to have to keep on restocking tools during battle. But as the game progressed, I got used to this careful balancing act and understood its importance to the game’s design and intent.
I also faced two odd difficulty spikes: the burning restaurant fight and the underground tunnel. The restaurant fight was down to me simply not understanding what I was supposed to do. I thought I had to attack the boss enemy but it would instantly kill me. I thought I had to run around and circle him from behind but that didn’t work either. Turns out we are meant to run and hide until he loses track of our position, and then sneak up and stealth-attack him. Pull off this elaborate dance thrice and the fight is over.
However, the game doesn’t guide you towards such an approach. It simply drops you into the heat of the battle. I think if the game automatically puts the player in stealth the first time around, then the player would know how to approach the fight and repeat it until the enemy is dead.
9 Years Later
Even though I am 9 years late to the party, I am incredibly grateful to have experienced this masterpiece in game design and storytelling. The remastered version on PS4 holds up incredibly well in 2022, and if you haven’t played the game yet, I highly recommend that you do so.
Joel and Ellie’s journey is a heart-touching tale of struggle, loss, and enduring hope. And The Last of Us is a special game because of it. It doesn’t do everything right, but what little things it gets wrong are just minor inconveniences in the face of everything it does so right. What The Last of Us gets right, it gets right to near perfection.
*cue main theme*