Naughty Dog delivers its finest achievement in The Last of Us, which presents a harrowing, emotional picture of a post-apocalyptic world turned rotten.
I found The Last of Us to be a deeply confrontational video game. And, I’m not saying that because of its horror elements. I say that because of its raw portrayal of humanity’s darkest potential and how a global catastrophe can so thoroughly unravel the fabric of society.
Simply put, Naughty Dog’s magnum opus ticks all the boxes. It has suspenseful, well-designed gameplay and depicts one of the most visually striking post-apocalyptic landscapes ever produced in entertainment media. But, my lasting memories with The Last of Us will be with Joel and Ellie, and how their struggle for survival results in fighting for hope in a hopeless world.
It should come as no surprise that the immensely talented writers at Naughty Dog possess a keen instinct for developing a gripping narrative and relatable characters.
However, unlike Uncharted, The Last of Us takes on a bitter, grounded approach. It shows a world where a devastating pandemic has infected much of the human population. This global disaster has resulted in anarchy amongst the survivors. And, that’s to say nothing of the Infected, who continue to haunt humanity and my nightmares.
The Last of Us is brutal in its portrayal of civilization’s decline into near madness. As such, paranoia is a recurring theme throughout the game. The different factions of remaining humans have essentially lost hope in returning the world to its former state.
Instead, they try to gain what little power they can amongst their rivals by exploiting the limited resources. Joel is given the task of escorting Ellie through this loosely bound echo of society. Ellie is a teenager who was born into the chaos, but who may hold the key to humanity’s survival.
Joel and Ellie are some of the most human characters I have ever experienced in a video game. Both of their stories feature a fair share of heartbreak and tragedy. Their characterization is handled with a cutting realism which leads to several emotional moments.
Joel is a hardened man after his years of fighting against the fall of his species. Yet, his ties to the world before give him a sense of charm and empathy.
Ellie, on the other hand, is a product of this horrible new reality. But, she is infused with an endearing optimism due to her ignorance of how society used to be. She is able to face such incredible difficulties because of her inner levity.
Together, their relationship is nothing short of powerful. And, the chemistry that is created through the writing and the breathtaking performances of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson had me completely invested in their dynamic.
Their journey takes them to a variety of different settings across America. Here, they encounter a memorable supporting cast and are threatened from both the infected and other humans. The plot favors a pace that never feels tied down to a particular setting or scenario.
The visuals and art style presents a picture of a collapsing America. The game accomplishes this through a juxtaposition of claustrophobic urban jungles and serene, thriving wildernesses.
As such, it was inspiring how much life Naughty Dog could inject into this dying world. I must note that I played the remastered version of The Last of Us on PlayStation 4.
Gameplay is a delicious blend of stealth, action, resource management and crafting. These congruent parts are all executed with adept precision. They work together to create a suspenseful balancing act that requires thought and patience to fully master.
The Last of Us’s greatest strength in delivering an adaptable gameplay experience is in its impressive enemy variety. Most importantly, both infected and human foes pose a great threat to your journey.
Each encounter requires a calculated approach that hinges greatly on who you’ll be fighting. For example, clickers are a terrifying variant of the infected that will kill you in one hit. However, the spread of fungus has left them blind. You have to quietly inch your way toward them to defeat them.
Meanwhile, humans are much harder to sneak up on. Avoiding a chaotic gunfight with them is achieved through carefully placing nail bombs or stunning them with bricks.
Even on normal difficulty, I could feel the gravity of each bullet I shot. This is because The Last of Us demands a conservative mindset towards managing resources. This incentivized me to explore every nook and cranny of deserted building and landmarks.
I also felt an attachment to my useful arsenal of guns, bows, and deadly throwables. This meant upgrading any of my weapons held that same heavy decision-making.
Finally, The Last of Us thoughtfully executes its multiplayer component. Progressing with a clan through 12 online weeks of matches felt cohesive with this world. And, the spattering of fun modes kept the disc in my PS4 for a little bit longer.
The Last of Us is a milestone video game. I have no reservations crowning it as the gold standard for a character-driven story in the medium. The fact that it is so engrossing is just icing on the cake.
With a sequel hopefully coming out in the next 12 months, now would be the perfect time to experience or re-experience this generation-defining masterpiece. Just remember to bring along a few tissues for the ride.