When I first finished The Last of Us, I was speechless. There are only rare cases where I’ve completed a game and immediately wanted to start it all again, but here was one such occasion. While I won’t spoil the ending, even all these years later, everything which occurred in those last few hours sent me on a slowly escalating gauntlet of harrowing anxiety, to electrified panic, to a final rush of emotion and adrenaline.
Twenty years after a deadly infection devastated the world, hardened survivalist Joel (Troy Baker) is tasked with escorting the young Ellie (Ashley Johnson) across a post-apocalyptic America to find the Fireflies, a militia group dedicated to finding the cure for the disease and restoring the country to what it once was.
The story occurs over an entire year, allowing the oil and water relationship between the duo to grow deeper as they go through fundamental changes. Despite Baker’s young age (mid-30s when doing the motion capture and voice recording), his portrayal of a bad-tempered, aged survivor burdened with loss is remarkable, while Johnson’s Ellie brings in a playful, optimistic side to the pairing. As they both spend time together, they each learn to embrace the perspectives of the other as their qualities overlap, with Joel becoming more open and nurturing as Ellie learns the harsh reality of survival in a ravaged world.
For the majority of the game, you’re playing as Joel as he escorts Ellie. You help her navigate the world and protect her from harm, but she’s a lot more than a mere burden. She helps you solve puzzles, discover secrets, and her witty banter proves to be enjoyable company. Most importantly, Ellie is extremely capable in combat. She can fight with weapons, distract enemies, and find valuable items for you to use. When sneaking, she’ll call out enemy positions while co-ordinating with your own movement. It all sets in the ‘companion’ aspect of her character. She isn’t a helpless piece of cargo but behaves how a real human being would in this situation.
There are two types of combat scenarios, both wildly different from each other. The first is against other hostile humans, where stealth and forward-thinking is preferred for fear that it breaks out into ranged shootouts and brutal fist fights. It’s the antithesis of Uncharted’s high octane action sequences, as there are many moments in The Last of Us which require you to plan carefully and improvise to outdo any aggressors. It really convinced me Naughty Dog is capable of creating memorable set pieces involving more than just exploding vehicles and collapsing buildings. Everything from reloading guns to crafting items take time, making every action a tactical decision with its own risks and rewards.
These encounters also bring in a wide range of details unlike anything I’ve seen before in a video game. Hunters talk to each other, exchanging quick banter and tactical discussions. If you silently pick one off, the others will notice his absence and investigate. Although these enemies are painted as unkind people, there were genuine moments where I’d feel bad for killing someone after hearing them share their personal feelings in conversation. I actively sought to avoid any unnecessary casualties, as it felt cruel, instead opting to sneak past them.
The second type of encounter is against the infected. Think Left 4 Dead’s zombies, but deadlier. Patience is the best option here. They’re blind, and so you can move around without worrying about being seen, but their hearing is amplified enough that you want to think twice before making any quick, sudden movements. This also applies to the terrain you’re in. Dropping into water makes a clear and distinct splash, alerting all enemies to your position. It’s often easier to leave them alone if you can, as upsetting an entire horde puts you into a chaotic situation that either outright kills you or wastes a lot of supplies. On the higher difficulties, it’s almost impossible to survive some of these situations.
Overall, while the combat sometimes is at risk of feeling derivative of other third-person shooters and survival horrors, the presence of a reactive AI companion and the focus on slow, methodical encounters allows the tension of each moment to sink in. The sheer brutality of the violence does an excellent job at making you feel vulnerable without it ever being gratuitous. It’s all contextualised within a world that’s as dangerous as the people living in it.
The slow pace even carries over into the quieter moments where Joel and Ellie are walking down deserted streets or climbing through vacated apartment buildings. These sequences lie at the heart of The Last of Us’ narrative, serving not only to provide some downtime from fighting infected but to also build up the relationship between the two protagonists and the world around them. They pass by homes, apartments and offices that have been torn apart by nature in the years since the infection began, and Naughty Dog’s art designers have truly captured the feeling of abandonment and decay in these areas. They’re not empty spaces, they’re filled with props that makes it feel like it was a place once lived in. Every single room is unique with this philosophy in mind, as you get a huge sense for what kind of people used to live here, adding to the image of a fallen America.
The game’s only singleplayer downloadable content (already included in the remaster) is an addon called Left Behind, which bridges the gap between the second and third acts of the story while also expanding on Ellie’s life before she met Joel. This short two-hour experience consistently flips between both periods, having you solve puzzles and fight enemies in the present before going back for some chilled downtime in the flashbacks. While the gameplay remains largely similar, Naughty Dog also uses the DLC to experiment with more creative moments. For example, the base game kept hunter and infected encounters separate, but Left Behind features some sequences where you’re able to pit both groups against each other, allowing for a tactical advantage or an easy diversion.
I also have to give vast amounts of praise for including a crafting system that isn’t at all disruptive to your immersion. Joel can open his backpack at any moment to create improvised weapons such as nail bombs or petrol explosives. Crafting features in survival games were just becoming popular around the time of this game’s release and they quickly became a tiresome trend. But here, the abundance of materials combined with the ease of making these items means it stands out as much less invasive. It’s focused on honing the experience to be as seamless as possible, while also emphasising the apocalyptic implications of using everyday objects to produce spur-of-the-moment tools.
It’s great, as that’s just one small aspect of how the mechanics of The Last of Us fits the bleak tone of its world. Everything from the makeshift weapons to the slow combat highlights the antagonistic post-apocalyptic environment. But despite the harshness of this setting, Naughty Dog has written a story that ultimately explores the love we find and keep fighting for, and has included a cast of well-rounded, diverse characters to explore these themes. The clever blending of writing, gameplay and art design sets it in as one of the most beautiful stories ever told in a video game.
Tested on PS4 Pro
Also available on PS3
Developer Naughty Dog
Publisher Sony Computer Entertainment