It was a blistering summer day, and I was in the last place I wanted to be—outside. I hate hot weather because you can’t escape the heat, try as you might by wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Even then, the worst of nature’s creatures make you regret shedding your clothes with bites aplenty. And on top of experiencing these things on that particular afternoon, it was made even worse with my mind being on fire as well. I had heatedly debated with a friend over Joel’s actions after we finished The Last of Us, and while I was sure Joel was in the wrong, my friend saw it the other way around. Mulling over the conversation felt like mowing down my sanity along with the grass on that sweltering day of yard labor because it challenged my morality with a complicated situation where one must choose between two grave sacrifices with differing principles and consequences in mind.
There’s a lot to mull over in The Last of Us as you meet its cast of characters.
Over time, I came to better understand my friend’s stance with the justifiability in Joel’s decision while remaining firm with my suspicions of his motives and overall moral character. Weeding out that conclusion was miserable, and I thank The Last of Us for that in being the first videogame to turn my world upside down. Up until then, I approached the medium as a source of lighthearted escapism, stress-relieving action, and confidence-boosting brainteasers. Naughty Dog’s game certainly has these embedded in its design, but I primarily remember it for sparking an active interest in media that strains my emotions and beliefs. The Last of Us succeeds at this for priding itself on being a “cinematic” story, and this case, it meant having a thought-provoking, heart-stirring, narratively driven experience with complex characters and memorable moments. It stood out in the medium because of this, having a similar impact on me—and perhaps the game industry writ large—that Watchmen and The Lord of the Rings had on their respective audiences and genres in terms of storytelling.
That makes The Last of Us a tall order to review as a landmark game for so many people. Doubly so since I’m more torn on it than I was seven years ago since it’s relatively unremarkable—even notably flawed in a couple major ways—with its safe yet solid design. However, the presentation and narrative are still as surprising and gripping as ever, which help the game stand out amid the ongoing zeitgeist of post-apocalyptic entertainment. In this review, I’ll be ignoring the multiplayer component to focus on the main campaign and Left Behind story DLC. Let’s get to it.
title: The Last of Us Remastered developer: Naughty Dog publisher: Sony release date: 07/29/14 platform reviewed: PS4 (Played on PS4 Pro)
Naughty Dog has had a track record of diving into other genres with each new IP it created, but The Last of Us is more like a different flavor of Uncharted than the developer’s first stab at pure survival horror. The game incorporates staples of the genre without heavily leaning into them, much like Resident Evil 4—an even blend of action and survival horror. You’ll notice that Uncharted’s DNA is carried over with platforming and exploration in a back-and-forth dance with action in The Last of Us, but it’s slower; there’s more sway and heaviness to aiming along with no hipfire; managing your inventory with crafting, healing, and weapons is deliberate. Uncharted is light and loose to encourage snappy movement and shooting, but this game is grounded, making you thoughtfully consider your approach to encounters. These handicaps and limitations are hardly downsides since the game feels wonderful to control with its weighty aiming and movement. There’s an in-your-face intensity that’s doubled since the camera not only violently shakes from the impact of hits and sprinting, but also is twice as close in perspective, so every motion and impact feels and looks like it should.
You’ll be in stealth half of the time, which consists of carefully clearing out encampments with chokeholds and arrows. Most of this is accomplished via the Listen mode: an ability that blurs and grays out your surroundings to conjure outlines of enemies at a moderate distance, even through walls. You can’t use weapons and are forced into a plodding crouch while using it, which helps you time when to quietly dispense of enemies one by one when their friends look away. But if you want to take a stronger survival-horror route, you can disable the ability on any difficulties up to Hard since it’s automatically disabled on anything higher than that. This way, you can sound out where enemies are with their footsteps and conversation. Either way, I don’t find that Listen mode ruins the fun of stealth, even if it’s a bit ridiculous that you can upgrade its range up to two times. It further removes the unpredictable, annoying factor of far-off enemies seeing you, so however you look at it, the mechanic’s inclusion doesn’t make or break the experience because there’s elements of strategy to either approach.
Uncharted gives little reason to remain stealthy, but The Last of Us makes it necessary fairly often since ammo is either nonexistent or sparse among enemies you kill, let alone around environments.
Stealth is important for not overwhelming yourself with a hunting party of enemies if it can be helped, so stealth becomes a frequent challenge to see how long you can go without alerting enemies, even if it could’ve been made more engaging with the inclusion of more tools like a silent trap and another silenced weapon. So while you need to avoid all-out combat here and there, you’re equipped and incentivised to embrace it from time to time, either by getting into it from the get go or finishing off stealth with a bang. Once you’re forced into or trigger combat, you’ll quickly discover how claustrophobic it can be. Enemies will often be aggressive with Infected hurrying to claw at you with erratic movements, whereas humans will rush you with melee weapons, attempt to flank you, and dodge if you aim at them for too long. The Last of Us is a cover shooter to be sure, but up against either or both foes, you’ll often be pushed or motivated to exit cover, and will be uncomfortable while doing so. You’ll stagger and be forced out of aiming if you’re hit; you’re vulnerable to any damage from other enemies during a melee skirmish; you don’t recover health and it takes time to heal; you have to get out your backpack to switch to other weapons unless you craft holsters and slings. These things force you to take inventory and survey environments before and during fights to take down foes effectively, so recklessness will be punished. However, when you have or want to pull off a risky rush by beating someone to death or blasting him away with a shotgun—or, better yet, stunning someone with a thrown bottle or brick to hold him hostage while killing off an enemy or two before executing your human shield? Those are exhilarating moves to pull off in the heat of the moment.
This kind of combat is less prevalent and even discouraged in Uncharted’s case with large amounts of cover (specifically with the first three games). Even when you have to move because of grenades, the levels’ spacious arenas can be traversed smoothly and quickly; pathways abound with plenty of areas to seek refuge if you happen to get into tight spots, and stuff like regenerating health and no flinch greatly help. You’re made to feel like an action hero, but The Last of Us complements its less flashy gameplay with flattened levels that often have tight spaces with sharp turns or open areas where flitting between cover feels perilous. Combined with enemies’ heavy-hitting output, their aggressive movement is a grave threat in how lines of sight can be easily lost or your cover quickly blown, which is nice amid so many shooters where enemies feel like fodder cemented in place. Humans feel varied enough with different types of rushers and sharpshooters, but the Infected leave more to be desired since there are only standard “zombies” and Clickers; however, the latter are a compelling and memorable enemy type since they’re blind but highly sensitive to noise, which can make stealth more tense. Though human encounters could have become more interesting if Infected and humans been mixed together at times, making way for strategic moves like throwing a bottle or brick to draw Infected near humans, similar to using the Xenomorph to your favor in Alien: Isolation. Another cool enemy type is the Bloater: an Infected tank that charges you and tosses bombs of spores to keep you on the move. You only see these enemies all but three or so times over a dozen hours with only one exciting scenario that has you fighting normal Infected at the same time. It’s a further example of how the game could’ve done with more variety in the quantity and novelty of enemy composition, but that doesn’t negate their consistently well-rounded behavior as AI.
It would’ve been exciting to have unexpected engagements pop up with a Bloater and humans, or even humans fighting humans.
One downside to Clickers is that they’ll instakill up close unless you happen to kill them with a melee weapon (which is inconsistent in working unless you catch them off guard) or the craftable shiv, and you can use the latter in combat by upgrading it. The first upgrade allows you to escape a Clicker’s stranglehold while damaging it at the cost of breaking the shiv, and then the second upgrade allows shivs to last for two strikes in combat or stealth. It’s an essential upgrade for a fairly common enemy, so I often reset encounters since using shivs for this purpose is a waste of supplies if it can be avoided. Weirdly enough, the easy difficulty unlocks these upgrades automatically, and as long as you don’t have a shiv on you, you have a better chance to melee them like a normal Infected since the game doesn’t automatically put you in a stranglehold with a prompt to use a shiv. It’s a bit confusing, but the point is that shivs are a forced, artificial drain on resources for crafting and those upgrades due to this unusual strength that Clickers have.
I mentioned reloading encounters, which is an unusually sour feature that weakens the impact of making even the lightest of mistakes in a game of this nature. You can even load quicksaves in the middle of encounters, so I’d often restart if missing an important shot or taking more damage. There’s something to be said for survival-horror titles that limit saving to certain locations or at certain times, which gives gameplay a slow yet steadily increasing tension the longer you go without recording your progress. And this isn’t something you can ignore since autosaves are frequent, which should have been mitigated along with quick saves not even being a thing. It’s a strong case for how something entirely removed from gameplay can strongly affect it with half of the fear and excitement disappearing. Reloading checkpoints should come with a trade off of notable progress in a survival-horror styled game.
The shotgun is the tried-and-true boomstick in post-apocalyptic worlds, and that’s no exception in The Last of Us. Make sure to catch two enemies in the spread when you can!
I’ve mentioned items and upgrades without elaborating thus far, which are made possible with materials found throughout environments. There’s stuff like supplements, tape, cloth, and alcohol. Supplements alone are used for upgrades that improve your constitution, listen mode distance, crafting or healing speed, weapon stability, and the aforementioned shiv improvements. Only the last two are important, speaking for some imbalance in desirability. As for those other supplies, they’re used in different combinations for an assortment of items like Molotov cocktails and first aid kits. Sugar in particular is the most imbalanced and poorly implemented material that appears in gross abundance and is only good for smoke bombs. On the other hand, other materials make you weigh your options with what items to craft since, if you will, ingredients are shared across different recipes. You’ll find these materials on corpses but mostly scattered across environments, which—if you loot thoroughly—will altogether have what you need to recover half of what you dealt out in an encounter. This is also why you won’t feel pressured to always either do stealth or combat more. If you’re running low or high on supplies, you can respectively lean toward stealth or combat for one or two encounters until you’re comfortably stocked up again. This mainly applies to the Hard (and perhaps Grounded) difficulty, whereas the balance of stealth and combat is not as well maintained or encouraged on lower or higher settings due to a respective abundance and actual dearth of materials.
Even melee objects can be upgraded. They’re meant to break quickly and only be used as bludgeons unless you bolster them with materials into sharp instakill weapons. They’re lifesavers since punching will often get you nowhere, and when you save your limited amount of instakill hits for a resilient enemy like an armored human or (if you get lucky) a Clicker, that’s very satisfying. Though an annoying aspect of melee encounters is how you’ll have to awkwardly retreat at times by slowly turning around or executing a quick turn, which would’ve been made more natural with the inclusion of a dodge mechanic. This could’ve also added a decent dimension to CQC by having to watch enemies more closely so that you have to dodge and strike at the right moments instead of just mindlessly hammering away at the melee button. Last but not least, upgrades are also possible with weapons thanks to “parts,” which enhance weapon attributes like accuracy, damage, and reload speed. Unique ones apply to the bow with drawing speed and the shotgun with spread, and like supplement upgrades, some are essential (like accuracy) while others are almost useless (like clip capacity and fire rate) for a game with a survival-horror bend. So, while they may add an appreciated dimension to weapon handling and an incentive to exploration, not all upgrades are created equal.
Ellie isn’t playing around. Most games have AI with one-dimensional functions and obviously programmed actions, but even when Ellie’s behavior is scripted, there are always moments where she left me in shock.
Ingredients, medicine, parts—all of these are a large part of exploration. The harder difficulty you play on, the more supplies you’ll need to scavenge for in every corner of environments, especially for ammo. Locked rooms are crucial for this as well that can be unlocked with shivs (which break after use), but these always pay off with new supplements and parts, meaning you should have one ready to make at all times if you want to make small yet substantial leaps in improving your overall effectiveness. Other than this, there’s hardly any effort put into finding supplies beyond taking time to comb buildings a block, or two at most, off the game’s wide yet largely linear paths. This can make exploration feel like a drag at times since you’ll lazily walk around rooms waiting for prompts to pop up so you can grab anything you see without really looking. It doesn’t feel like scavenging, and while most survival-horror games don’t make players work to see items, they are at least right on the main paths, involve decent brainteasers, or have to be remembered once you get a certain item to backtrack and get access to them. The Last of Us only has platforming secrets since you can use planks and ladders to get to obscured places beyond the main paths, but even these are few and far between. It would’ve been nice had the game implemented different challenges like observing environments for clues across different buildings to find key cards or codes. There’s only one instance in the game with a special animation where you can help Ellie up into an attic to find supplies, which only happens if you look up at the ceiling door’s cord to get it open with a small prompt. I was genuinely and positively surprised at this moment in a random house, but there’s little else like this that you’ll find during exploration. To be fair, there are plenty of secrets related to purely collectible items like comics and pendants, but I saw no reason to go out of the way to get these, which are purely cosmetic, much like treasure in the Uncharted games. If these had optional puzzle or combat challenges attached to them, these would be worth for that purpose, especially if the items themselves proved useful like training manuals, which improve your equipment, like the effectiveness of health kits and durability of melee weapons. However, these were mostly in plain sight throughout The Last of Us. Most of the incentive to explore is like how it winds up being in Jedi: Fallen Order—which is to say, very low.
But “scavenging” for stuff is strangely made more enjoyable and worth doing by your AI companions, namely Ellie. Very few games succeed in crafting AI that move and behave humanly, and The Last of Us is one of those titles. I would intentionally explore old stores and look at old posters and graffiti to see if Ellie would react to them. Sometimes she’ll stop to simply marvel at the environment around her, sit on top of a box if you’re taking your sweet, old time, and even interact with aspects of a room in unique ways. For example, she’ll flip through some vinyls and pick up one in a record store while talking about how it’s sad no one’s around to listen to the music. In another instance while you’re exploring a house, she’ll sit on a couch and play a dart game with a kid who briefly joins you in your journey. While half of her dialogue is triggered, some is optional as well, meaning you’ll need and want to pay attention when she asks questions or says something open-ended. Heck, outside of exploration, she’ll even give you bits of health and ammo—like Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite—or stab enemies in the back if they’re giving you a brutal beatdown. All of these attributes make Ellie a truly realistic, useful companion, and while immersion is broken at times with her walking in front of enemies during stealth, she’s otherwise a masterclass in how to create an authentic AI that never acts robotic or strange, even by today’s standards. Besides the intrigue of watching her while exploring, there are also notes and letters to find that build the game’s bleak tone and world, but they aren’t essential reading. Although I’d be lying if I said they don’t gently tug at the heartstrings or made me gasp at a few points when environmental storytelling powerfully complemented or added to what I read.
This room is off the beaten path, but it’s meticulously detailed with a story to tell. I really appreciate these moments.
While environments may not tell many interesting stories in themselves, they frequently serve as catalysts for the dialogue with Ellie and other characters because of how different and unique they all are; the developer is serious about not duplicating assets or level design. If you see a kid’s bedroom in one house among several, each one will be unique, making it more worth exploring areas to see if there is any optional dialogue or notes to be uncovered. And for its time, and even today, The Last of Us is a visual treat with its particle effects, meticulous lighting, weather effects, and especially its character models and their expressive range. Naughty Dog is among the best in the industry for their hand-animated refinement of excellent mocap with body motions and facial expressions. There’s never a moment where the game stutters or breaks immersion with pop-ins and texture inconsistencies, which is further aided by the flow between cutscenes and gameplay being as smooth as what you see in the Uncharted franchise. Even though The Last of Us may be a fine shooter, I appreciate it more for its story than its gameplay, and am quite content to watch every well-directed, well-acted, and well-written scene rivaling the intimate, raw performances from films like No Country for Old Men and Logan.
But I’ve gone all this while without saying what The Last of Us is even about! You play as a man named Joel who lost his daughter at the start of a zombie apocalypse resulting in Infected: humans who were turned into zombies by the fungal parasite known as . Joel is a hardened, cold man who fights for himself and does whatever’s necessary to survive, and then he meets a girl named Ellie. She was bitten by an Infected yet shows no signs of turning, so Joel is prodded to escort her from the east to west coast to hand her oveCordycepsr to an organization that can potentially use her to reverse engineer a cure. What follows is a story of a little girl reminding Joel of his humanity and fighting for something outside himself, even if he struggles along the whole way to make himself love again.
Sam and Henry are a parallel to Joel and Ellie. In their time together, Joel and Ellie see more of who they are and how they are different from their short-term friends.
About two-thirds of the story spends time building and straining the bonds between Joel and Ellie from chunks of time spent with several characters. From Tess to Bill and from Sam and Henry to Tommy, each of their couple hours with our two protagonists provide differing portraits of how people are affected by a harsh, unforgiving world, and how that reality influences outlooks on the reasons and motivations for survival. These side characters serve as jumping points for developing Joel and Ellie’s relationship, which not only soars with all of these interactions, but most importantly between themselves. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson’s interplay creates captivating sparks from the former’s rough, intimidating, and curt performance colliding with the latter’s feisty, hopeful, and forward performance. Joel and Ellie influence each other in believable ways, and there’s so much depth and ambiguity to their pasts and motivations that come out naturally through in-game dialogue, leaving you hanging onto every word they say as well as what they may mean. This is especially true for Joel, who serves as a profound catalyst for the game’s rigorously heartbreaking and thought-provoking ending that will have you thinking deeply over every line spoken and action taken during the final half hour.
There’s rarely a dull moment throughout the game in terms of pacing, but there are a handful of oddities with how Ellie and Joel’s relationship develops. Ellie is unusually warm toward Joel despite his off-standish nature from the moment they meet, and while she gets upset with him at times because of this, it would’ve made more sense to have her be more consistently quiet and unsure of Joel for the first couple hours with her sarcastic, humorous, and curious personality coming forward bit by bit, much like how her aggressive nature remains consistent in her time with Bill, a quirky, pessimistic fellow. There’s also an odd turn in Joel’s feelings toward Ellie without proper development throughout the level where they meet Tommy, which could’ve done with some sequence reordering to better justify Joel’s change of heart. Another interesting aspect of the game is how there’s no main villain, which goes from Infected to different groups of depraved survivors to only two individuals who are first implied to be allies. If anything, villainy is not embodied in a singular person in The Last of Us, but instead is brought out in the misunderstandings, compromises, and measures taken that humanity will make in the face of survival, even the “good guys.” Yes, it’s the classic “we are the monsters” trope in post-apocalyptic media, but it’s done very effectively in showing how profoundly and differently survival impacts and changes people.
Strong bonds are emotionally intense to navigate, especially between two people who are quite different from each other. Left Behind also interrogates this by straddling the line where platonic love and romance can confusedly crisscross.
This is a subject of interest as well in the few hours you’ll spend with Left Behind: the story DLC putting you in Ellie’s shoes during a gap in the main story where she searches for medical supplies to care for an unconscious, severely wounded Joel. A couple of stripped-down encounters take place then, but the majority of the DLC is spent in flashbacks where no stealth or combat occurs. These flashbacks lend context to Ellie’s revelation in the main story that she was with a friend who died after both of them were bitten. Now, I said that I was more interested in The Last of Us for its story, and the DLC doubles down on this as a third-person version of first-person adventure titles like Gone Home and Firewatch. It makes Left Behind unexpectedly subdued and purposefully uneventful in showing Ellie’s friend, Riley, intimately involved with Ellie in a host of casual, fun interactions as they explore an abandoned mall. These moments range from doing silly poses and expressions in a photo booth to tossing bricks at car windows to see who hits the most. The DLC doubles down on the already strong character focus in the main story by exploring the complicated ups and downs of friendship through their deluge of amusing, authentic conversation. In all of this, it’s sobering to watch two young girls tap into their joyful innocence as children through broken glimpses of the comfort and strangeness of pre-survival life. Left Behind is rather bold in its direction, feeling more akin to playing something like Life is Strange. It’s certainly worth your time.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the best of the franchise in terms of story. It took its characters and brought weight to the moral, external, and personal consequences of Nathan Drake’s globetrotting obsession with finding relics, all without losing the series’ penchant for lighthearted adventure and humor. Whereas the series up until that point was more concerned with the adventures in themselves with grand villains and stakes to up the ante, there’s more intimate drama and depth to the characters’ relationships, backstories, and motivations in the fourth game. What prepared Naughty Dog for this upswing in storytelling was the narrative excellence of The Last of Us. Besides some little bumps in how Joel and Ellie’s relationship evolves, the game’s story is wonderfully paced with an evenly distributed cast of side characters that I apprecate for differing reasons in how they contribute to the main duo’s tale, who make for one of the best pairs of characters in all of videogames. While exploration paves the way for this praise with environments designed to provoke dialogue that’s worth going out of the way to experience, the platforming and exploration leave more to be desired in depth, even in contrast to Uncharted. Combat could’ve done with some tweaks to enemy variety and quantity as well with more mechanical depth to stealth, too. Nevertheless, it feels wonderful to control with the weight behind weapon handling and the limitations to Joel’s abilities, which make for exciting shootouts among other reasons. What can be said for the whole of The Last of Us is how it has a grounded, engrossing presentation. Its gameplay and visuals meet this standard, but everything involving its narrative go beyond that with immense character and heart.