Warning: Some spoilers for The Last of Us and its DLC Left Behind below!
A mere three years after buying it, I’ve finally got around to completing The Last of Us. Since its original PS3 release in 2014, this has widely been held up as a masterpiece of a video game; a high-water-mark in interactive storytelling. So, what did I think of it? Well…
In short, this title deserves all the praise it gets. I’ve been playing video games for longer than I care to remember, and never have I seen such a brilliantly-realised story and group of characters. Set in a United States ravaged by a fungal infection that turns people into zombies in all but name, The Last of Us rises above the somewhat pulpy background and shows us a world not so much dying as gone beyond the control of man. This is a harsh world, filled with people who have had their humanity stripped from them by circumstance and the need to survive. Everything feeds into this, from the visceral combat that is miles away from its Hollywood-style counterpart in developer Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, to the brutality of the art direction.
You never feel comfortable in the world of The Last of Us. Even in quieter moments, there is a sense that there is some horror behind the next corner. This isn’t a game reliant on jump scares or ghastly monsters to instil disquiet; this is much more about controlled atmosphere and wonderful pacing.
Really, it’s the characters that bring The Last of Us to life. The burgeoning relationship between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, is so believable and coupled with so much emotional investment that you find yourself oddly distraught in those moments when you fall to a group of infected. Who will look after Ellie now? Thankfully, we don’t have to worry too much as game overs just restart you at the last checkpoint.
Joel isn’t a typical hero. In fact, without spoiling too much of the storyline, he isn’t really a hero at all. He’s a man haunted by his past and shaped into a blunt instrument by the world around him. As a father, it’s easy to identify with the pain he goes through and the choices he makes, leading you to question your own morality.
Ellie, 14 years old at the start, is probably the most wonderfully realised character in any video game to this point. She has known no world other than the post-epidemic one, but yet still sees things with the hope and optimism of youth. The game is really about her journey, even though the majority of the playtime is with Joel, both in a physical sense and an emotional one. Her reactions to the world, in cut-scenes and during gameplay, are so believable that sometimes it’s difficult to remember that she’s only an interactive, scripted character. She seems so real at times, and as a player you develop a palpable need to protect her. I defy anyone not to feel even the slightest of lip quivers the first time Joel calls her ‘baby girl’.
I went into The Last of Us expecting this to be a better story than a game. Whilst there’s no doubt that the narrative would work as a movie (given some appropriate trimming) or TV series, what Naughty Dog have managed to do is take advantage of the immersion you can only get with a video game to help raise The Last of Us above the level of an interactive film. By taking part in the events of the game, you truly feel involved in what’s happening, despite the fact that this isn’t an open-ended RPG with moral choices. The game is linear, but never really feels it. There’s a lot of being funneled down different corridors (in the literal and metaphorical senses) but, for the most part, you never feel confined.
I have to admit that it isn’t always an enjoyable game. This isn’t a title you can relax or unwind with, and the events that occur within it are emotionally exhausting at times. The world is a nasty one, punctuated by only a few moments of sunlight, and the people within it are often brutal. It’s telling, really, that for a game ostensibly featuring ‘zombies’, the real enemies come in the form of normal people. So, no, don’t go into this expecting an easy time of it; I also mean that in a gameplay sense, as even on lower difficulty settings this can be a tough game.
Left Behind, bundled with the game in the remastered version I played, is a companion DLC that both fills in a gap in the main storyline and also provides something of a prequel to Ellie’s story in it. I won’t go into this too much, except to say that it is fantastic. In many ways, this might be better than the main game, though it can’t really be played in isolation. The running length is quite short: I completed it in around two hours. This is perfect, however; it really benefits from playing in a single sitting. The story it tells has no less impact than that of the main game, even though it does it in a fraction of the time. By focusing on a younger Ellie as well, it also allows you to explore the world more through the eyes of a young adult and, as such, has in places a lighter tone that contrasts well with the main storyline. The only slight criticism you could throw at it is that the relatively few combat sections feel just a bit forced. I’m not sure that they were needed, though I can understand why it was felt that they probably should be included.
The Last of Us, then, is magnificent. Not, perhaps, a game that you would find yourself replaying often, but one that I imagine will resonate in the mind for a long time to come.