One of the first holes in my heart that The Last of Us revealed to me was that I don’t have enough solo acoustic guitar music in my life. I’ve kept the main menu open on more than one occasion to just let that slow twang fill my ears. It’s solemn and strangely comforting given the setting. I could listen to it for weeks at a time.
I won’t go that far in the description of the rest of Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, but I will have more than my fair share of praise to unload.
I talked about the well done graphics of Heavy Rain which, at the time, were cutting edge and conveyed it well. The Last of Us, coming three years later, used Naughty Dog’s first genie’s wish for infinite money to fund graphics that still retain the bar for realism. The PlayStation 4 remaster entered the party early and can still hang with the likes of The Phantom Pain and Horizon: Zero Dawn. It seems unnaturally aware in the aspect of facial realism.
There’s a scene just after you take down some unhappy jerk that attempted to stiff main character Joel and his associate Tess. Both characters have the guy down on the cement and the camera pans to his bloodied face. That shot in particular, I recall, knocking me back with the realism. You can see his nose relocated and the wrinkles of his scrunched eyes. I could practically smell the iron of his blood. I love the realism that Naughty Dog employed here because of how visceral the rest of the story’s construct feels as a result of that integer.
Of course, there are a handful of scenes where that realism cuts to your emotional core. Anyone that’s ever played through the opening 20 minutes can tell you how helpless this realism can make you feel. Any others that have made it further can tell you about the realistic sense of anxious unease that can come from fighting for your purpose in the apocalypse. The Last of Us doesn’t ruminate on these feelings so much as it evolves them over the course of Joel’s full journey to a subtle blossom.
Joel is the rudder of the story to Ellie’s sail. She, a teenage girl with a chance to save the world, is fleshed out and forced to do terrifying things over the course of the game, but my favorite time with Ellie is the attached DLC Left Behind. It’s while in a frozen, decayed mall that we see how she was before she became the sarcastic firecracker Joel knows, and where we see her with imagination. That seems like such a rare concept for apocalyptic stories, characters that actively use their imagination. To see it done so passionately sweeps in with a fresh, minty scent that just spins me on a hilltop.
The real-world danger both protagonists have to deal with are a new breed of infected. Naughty Dog, with brilliance being their second genie wish, actually found an insectoid fungal infection that could combine creative licensure with the human species, creating terrors that ripped humanity up from the root. Four main types of infected roam the world now that run down the stages of…we’ll say fungal integration. The core of the brilliance is with their marriage of rational evolution to the forms themselves. As the fungus grows over the 20 years since the original outbreak, the hosts become more dangerous and disfigured. Stage 4, visually, share only the bipedal movement of humans in similarity. All else that was human is long decayed into a blossom on the wall.
As creative and visually marvelous the infected are, this is where the big hiccup for The Last of Us is for me. In a world so realistic, it’s disappointing that the infected fit so neatly into four categories with no other variations. You can see in the concept art that the team certainly had other ideas, including some fused, dual-headed examples that would’ve really shaken up encounters. Maybe even some evolving as you fight them, sprouting armored fungal plates after some time. Just one more drop of one or the other would’ve pushed this game to another level for me.
My other main gripe here is with the enemy everyone loves to hate, Clickers. Their patterns became too simple too early for me because of a simple exploitation of their known weakness. Many others have claimed terror when they hear the standard Clicker growl, but I never felt that. This harkens back to the evolution in combat that never comes.
All it would’ve taken was one Clicker not behaving exactly as all the others and I would’ve been completely hooked. As it stands, battling the infected just felt repetitive after the opening hours.
Luckily you’ll also have plenty of bad, terrible humans to take down a peg with various crafted materials. Stealth is your friend on any higher difficulty than easy, and especially with human enemies because of their firearm love. Their movements feel natural for the most part because of their cover-to-cover, desperate tactics. I find the fisticuffs especially brutal and satisfying to behold. The moist smacking of a fist against some masked villain’s face is unnervingly felt in each brawl.
Guns become more and more discouraged as you climb the difficulty meter, the world seemingly more bereft of ammunition in the same scaling sense. Regardless, you’ll find a fair amount of weaponry pass through your ancient backpack that acts as a real-time inventory system that your fingers will have to navigate viciously under pressure. Frankly, I find anything but the handguns a serious gamble in their use. Joel is seasoned, sure, but his hands still shake with a 20-year adrenaline high and unimaginable hunger pains. You’ll be better served holding onto the larger ammo for enemies that don’t go down in a single headshot – again, a result simpler to produce with a handgun.
The upgrade system is yet another rational insertion to the benefit of all involved. You move between workbenches, find steroids (I guess), and learn lessons from books, feeling their effects on your body and arsenal. The backpack is the focal point as you have to craft on the fly and are limited by the slots you have on-hand for weapon storage. This feels like the freshest, modernized version of Resident Evil’s inventory system to the same tense, calculated effect. You won’t have to travel back to boxes but risk your safety instead as you dig and craft. It’s an exhilarating curve on the formula to be sure.
The Last of Us feels the most dated when you’re not shooting, watching, or planning. When the game is simply walking, running in a cutscene, or all-together in exploration-mode, there’s actually very little to the experience added. Find a gate to lift? Triangle. Moving a board? Triangle. Quick-time event? Triangle. The top of your controller may well have a thumb indentation by the end, and this feels like the undoubted bloat of the experience. With the story so brave and the gameplay daringly realistic, to have triangle solve a good 40 percent of problems Joel and Ellie face seems empty by comparison.
To the surprise of a fair amount of people, Naughty Dog used their final wish to bring The last of Us online in an original and satisfying way. For me, the meta-but-not-quite-meta game is the star. As the driving leader for either the Fireflies or the Scavengers, you have to keep your performance high in matches in order to bring home food, help the sick, and generally play a text-based adventure with your camp. This is an bracing way to keep the experience singular, draw on the fragility of the community mindset from the singleplayer, and move you against other leaders. The gunplay and gadgets make the transition very well for the most part, but that overarching mission and hardship seal the deal for my time and multiplayer attention.
To the story of The Last of Us as a whole I flock to mostly as a harbinger of positive vibes. The gameplay has but a few holes that keep it from being the timeless classic that hordes of others hold it as. That being said, I’ll always treasure the time in this world and await the sequel hungrily. With the multiplayer and DLC additions to the Remaster, I just can’t hold back the last point I’d originally deny The Last of Us prime.
Here, have it.
The Last of Us Remastered Score: