There’s a certain level of emptiness that you feel after playing a game like The Last of Us; it’s this haunting, inexplicable emptiness that leaves you wanting more as you hang your head, wipe your tears, sigh, and acknowledge that it’s over.I can’t tell you the last time (if ever, to be honest) that a game has left me sad, worn thin, and utterly speechless upon completion. It’s a good thing though, I mean, that’s the beauty of true art right? It keeps you guessing, makes you feel a little disturbed and uneasy, and allows you to make your own interpretation. The Last of Us proves to be a true work of art and a genre-defining experience that provides players with one of the most real, raw, and emotional stories to date. Receiving perfect scores and rave reviews all across the board, Naughty Dog has taken their skills a step further in what will go down as (one of) this generation’s best post-apocalyptic, survival games.
Story, Characters, and the Things Naughty Dog Does Best
When I sat down, controller in hand, and ready to play after excitedly picking up my copy of The Last of Us that Friday morning, I already knew what the game was (generically) about; it was about survival; but what I didn’t know was how in-depth and intense the story actually was. Every single thing that happened, every single character I encountered, every single word that was said was necessary to the story and perfectly placed; there were no plot holes, no list of unanswered questions, no misunderstandings; everything made sense in the end, while leaving me wanting “just a few more hours,” and that is how a perfect story should be written.
Five minutes into the game I was already interested; I leaned forward, I paid close attention, I studied the characters and what was happening to the world as they knew it and the world that I was so quickly introduced to. I could already feel my heart opening up and accepting these characters with open arms, which is such a powerful feat that Naughty Dog is superb at accomplishing. The Last of Us goes above and beyond your average structure of character development, not just individually, but the growth and development of character relationships as well.
During your journey through a years-worth of post-pandemic struggle and survival, you meet quite a few characters along the way, both friendly and enemy, and there’s a special kind of subtlety in the way Ellie and Joel look to each other for the yes-or-no when it comes to letting others in. You watch Joel transform from a hardened, selfish, soulless man into a caring, slightly less selfish but not by much (if you’ve beaten the game then you understand), accepting (of Ellie) man who has good intentions but executes them in morally wrong ways. You watch Ellie fend for herself, take care of herself, and stand up for herself, but latch onto Joel, trust him because she initially has to, and put her faith in him. You listen to the two of them converse while exploring desolate towns and empty houses; Ellie asks about what life was like before the outbreak, Joel explains, and she either makes a joke or simply asks more questions. This earnest back-and-forth happens throughout the game and adds to the strengthening of the relationship between Ellie and Joel.
In the end, yes, The Last of Us is about survival, but it’s also about an unbreakable bond between two strangers who end up relying on each other to survive, a silver lining that doesn’t quite turn out the way you wanted, and endless hope that seems like wasted time, and you can’t help but keep moving forward because you’re rooting for Ellie and Joel to experience their own happy ending(s).
Gameplay, Combat, and Other Technicalities
While there are some technical mishaps in The Last of Us like shoddy AI, and awkward combat hiccups (at times), the actual gameplay is pretty seamless. At first, the crafting system and weapon upgrade menus seem intimidating but by the time the game is over, you’re a pro at understanding what to do and how to do it. You’re passed the frantic panic stage of creating too many health kits and never leaving leftover supplies to make any Molotov cocktails (since the two require the same ingredients; don’t make the same mistake I did!), and you’ve moved on to knowing how to consolidate your supplies and make enough of what you need. Not only are you collecting ammo, food, melee weapons, and supplies to craft items, but you’re stashing pills to pay the skills, (well… improve your skills, but you know what I was trying to do), which allow you to boost your abilities; these come in handy, trust me.
I can’t really say I have many bones to pick with Naughty Dog (ha, bones) in terms of gameplay; anything that I had trouble with was primarily my fault and something I always have trouble with, no matter what game I’m playing… like navigating; navigating in The Last of Us was difficult, but that’s just because I’m a bad navigator. The environments were beautiful and the details that brought said environments to life were phenomenal, but I found myself getting lost majority of the time, especially in the darker areas of the game. There are a lot of rooms and doors to choose from and sometimes that’s overwhelming but that’s just me and how I feel about having too many options; I’m always afraid that if I go through one door, it’ll open another path and steer me away from the original path I wanted to take. Luckily in The Last of Us, more doors means more supplies, more ammo, more chances at surviving, and that is a good thing!
The combat was fun. I use the term fun because I found getting into fist fights and brutally beating people up with pipes, baseball bats, and wooden planks with scissors taped to the end of them genuinely fun; a little gruesome at times, but that just made the pressure of surviving feel so much more real. Being so used to the clean, “Rated T for Teen” combat in the Uncharted series, I wasn’t expecting Naughty Dog to make such a drastic change in their level of brutality; but I was surprised, and I quickly adapted to it, wholeheartedly appreciated it, and actually really enjoyed it.
The enemies in The Last of Us were truly terrifying; “runners, gunners, and scary mother f**kers” as I like to call them. Facing desperate human enemies (hunters) much like yourselves, different stages of the infected (stalkers/clickers/bloaters), and the authorities, you’re given many different options on how to win your battles every time. Naughty Dog did an amazing job bringing the AI to life, by giving human enemies an enraged attitude, having them curse at you, and taunt you by yelling things like “YEAH, HIDE IN THAT HOUSE, SEE IF THAT HELPS!” The tension that you experience between the AI and Joel adds to the suspense and horror of the situations that you’re put into.
When it comes to playing The Last of Us, you must remember that stealth is important. I’ve never been the best at stealth and before I even started playing, my lack of ability to sneak by enemies and kill them from behind worried me. When it comes to stealth, I usually get extremely bored; I hate moving slow, and running-and-gunning just seems like the better option. The special thing about The Last of Us is that I actually wanted to be quiet; I wanted to be stealthy, I didn’t want to be seen, and I wanted to succeed… and I did, and it felt awesome. I found myself taking the time to study the area, plan my escape route, and strategize the perfect sneak attack. Sometimes it didn’t work out the way I had hoped, but the beauty of getting caught and getting killed over-and-over again, is that you learn from your mistakes and The Last of Us makes learning very simple. It’s easy to adjust your playing style and adapt to what’s happening around you, and for someone like me who is too impatient to be stealthy, you become really good at it. By the end of the game, I was grabbing hunters and silently strangling them, stabbing runners in the neck from behind, quietly sneaking by hoards of infected, and it was an extremely rewarding feeling.
The Last of Us is, by far, one of the best games I have ever played. When it comes to Naughty Dog games, I usually find myself getting completely immersed and investing a lot of time into them. It was different with The Last of Us though; I couldn’t stop playing and I couldn’t stop feeling things that I’ve never felt when playing a game before. I couldn’t stop crying, either; even when there was nothing to cry about, I just felt this constant sense of sadness and worry that had me tearing up at any given moment, but I’m okay with that because the uncertainty of what was going to happen next was what made The Last of Us so unique, so intense, and so extraordinary.