Trust and survival are mortal enemies. In a world torn asunder by disease and strife, inviting one into the world of the other undoubtedly means death. When one is forced to live day by day, ration by ration, and bullet by bullet, trusting your fellow man can often be the siren luring you into a false comfort. This kind of dance has been done many times before in other popular movies, TV series and games, but the Last of Us is something much more. Smartly avoiding simple plot structures such as finding a cure or massacring hundreds of infected in blood-soaked fervor, Naughty Dog’s latest title strips down a standard survival-horror game and infuses heart and sorrow into every corner. Complete with intensely gripping character performances and an almost-perfect stealth and combat system, The Last of Us is a visceral, graphic, and moving story about some of our most intense emotional experiences.
Many years after mankind has been ravaged by Cordyceps–a real fungus that infects several species of insects–those that are left are quarantined and monitored. Joel, a grizzled and by-the-numbers survivor, takes on jobs as they come and doesn’t look back. But when a certain job goes south, he is entrusted to protect and transport Ellie, a 14-year old teenager, to a group of rebels for unknown reasons. While the various narrative twists and turns bring more depth to what is really going on involving Ellie, Naughty Dog went to great lengths to ensure such details do not occlude the primary story they meant to tell. The Last of Us is, first and foremost, about Ellie and Joel. Pitted against a world of lawless marauders and ravenous infected, their journey is as much emotional as it is physical. Drawing several comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the pair will face the harshness of reality in the darkest of ways. And yet, in such times of darkness and sadness, they also remember parts of humanity they had both given up on.
Rooted in the survival-horror genre, The Last of Us is just that–surviving the horrors of a world that has long since fallen apart. Switching frequently between fighting humans and the infected, you quickly adopt two styles of play that take up most of the game. While there are portions of the story that make combat and gun play the best means of moving forward, the key of The Last of Us is patience. Huddled in dark corners and hiding behind debris, Joel’s best offense is knowing when and when not to strike. When faced with several infected creatures and only six bullets at hand, you quickly start to understand the kind of desperation Naughty Dog wanted you to experience. Although crafty and quick-thinking, Joel is no hero, and he can die very easily and very quickly.
Joel is no stranger to death, however, and knows how to deal it out. It is important to understand that although The Last of Us is very graphic and violent, it does not abuse the use of it. Having become accustomed to a world of “him or me”, Joel’s kill animations are graphic, but necessarily so. Unlike other stealth games that strive for the silent kill, Naughty Dog ensured The Last of Us was up-front about what they wanted you to see; strangling someone is not quick and silent, but long, guttural and awkward. Makeshift weapons you craft do not last long, but leave a very fatal mark on whomever you use it on. No matter the victim or fashion, choosing to kill is, in this game, brutal and hard to watch. It is in this manner that I applaud Naughty Dog for handling violent scenes in such a mature way, opting to contextualize the necessity for such violence instead of making it so gratuitous.
On a visual level, The Last of Us might be the PS3’s swan song. Whether it’s wading through a jungle of metal and vegetation or slowly creeping down a pitch-black corridor lit only by your flashlight, nearly every detail of the world is beautiful and lush. Even more impressive are the characters themselves, who convey some of the most impressive emotional performances I have ever seen. Over the course of the journey, Joel and Ellie not only experience a gamut of emotions, but they express them convincingly with amazing facial fluidity and expression and tight script writing. By the game’s conclusion, you will firmly believe these people are quite human.
In the oft moment you are not hiding from your enemies, much of your time is spent searching the nooks and crannies for ingredients used to fashion supplies. Certain items such as pills or tools are used for upgrades such as health or weapon improvements, but the majority are shared between more common concoctions that are equally important. Because of their rarity (at least in the harder difficulties), you will still be making tough choices about which supply might be more important in the near future. Do you use your last bottle of alcohol to create a med kit, or a molotov cocktail? You’ll find yourself weighing this decision more times than you can count, and it’s yet another welcome detail that helps cement the feelings of desperation and survival.
The game’s greatest flaw, like most games that incorporate an AI partner, comes in Ellie. While her vocal performance is spot on and her interactions with Joel are organic and believable, her actions during stealth are not. Since the enemy is programmed to react to your movements and actions, Ellie is left to her own devices as she follows you. While she is competent for the most part, there are times when you will see her move and act right in front of enemies that would normally see or hear her. Seeing her get away with such liberal acts of movement take you out of the intended experience only for a moment, but the occurrence is far too frequent to not be noticed. It is a minor grievance compared to the rest of the game, but it is still worth noting.
The game’s climax is a melting pot of questions and emotions, neither of which are less important than the other. Naughty Dog was very deliberate to leave us with such feelings because it is the very philosophy that The Last of Us wanted to follow. In times of desperation, anger and uncertainty, the most human reaction is precisely how Joel and Ellie have acted the entire story. Do we rely on our instinct to survive, or do we open ourselves up to the potential pitfalls of trust and reliability? After such a journey that couldn’t be possible without trusting another, how do we grapple with our humanity in a world that is without it? These questions, and many others, remain the crux of the story that The Last of Us wanted to tell, and I don’t think there is a better example of it.
See you in the next level,