Since creating Crash Bandicoot in the 90’s, developer Naughty Dog has been at the forefront in releasing some of the most well known games for every Sony console. The PlayStation 2 had the Jak and Daxter trilogy and the PlayStation 3 had the Uncharted trilogy (later turned saga by the next console installment). One of these masterpieces that released at the tail end of the seventh generation of gaming and the start of the eighth was The Last of Us. Originally planned to be revealed alongside Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, it’ was pulled at the last minute while an Easter Egg in Nathan Drake’s third outing almost let the cat out of the bag. And with the sequel due in mid June, it’s time to look back on the legacy this left behind and see if it holds up today with a batch of new consoles on the horizon. As a fair warning, this review will go over many details in the story, so if you haven’t played this seven year old game yet, stop reading this and go play it now. Be sure to bring a box of tissues with you.
Our protagonist Joel (Troy Baker) is a man who’s lost his humanity due to tragic events, and relies on his bitterness for daily survival. An apocalypse has engulfed the world through a fungal outbreak, turning people into clickers: a zombie species with contagious spores growing out of their heads. When the government fails to protect the people, a group known as the fireflies take their fate into their own hands, rebelling against all regulations. From here, Joel is pulled out of his comfort zone by the leader of the fireflies, Marlene (Merle Dandridge), to go on an escort mission with a girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson). It turns out Ellie is immune to the infection and is the key to finding a cure for humanity, if Joel has the patience to travel to the laboratory that will utilize her DNA to develop the vaccine.
The zombie apocalypse isn’t a new idea in storytelling. In-fact it’s been one of gaming’s most popular trends ever since Telltale made a splash with The Walking Dead. Lee and Clementine tackled the surrogate father/daughter relationship a whole year before Joel and Ellie.
So what separates this from the glut of other zombie narratives? Well these zombies aren’t your run of the mill brain gorgers, they’re actually a human twist on an infection originating from the bug kingdom. The clickers are based on cordyceps, a fungi that latches on to insects like ants and uses them as a breeding ground to reproduce spores. This alone gives the game a unique identity from other zombie outbreaks past, present, and future. No one has ever attempted to use a real life disease as the basis of these creatures, and it’s a grim “what if” scenario should mother nature ever take her revenge on humans.
But Joel and Ellie are still under investigation for plagiarizing the father/daughter relationship, right? Wrong. Zombie tales in media focus on short term goals like survival rather than the long term achievement of a cure. You can use a shotgun to land as many headshots as you’d like, but without a cure, the clickers grow in numbers with every bitten victim. Ellie is humanity’s last hope for salvation as they not only battle clickers, but other humans who are just as bad as the infected: robbing people of supplies, turning to cannibalisitc diets, and making sacrifices when the going gets tough. Expectations are subverted with every new season while every action taken has severe consequences. That’s not even mentioning the character moments between Ellie and Joel that fuels the entire backbone of the journey, making this the definitive zombie survival story.
There’s also downloadable content in the form of Left Behind, which shows the events that take place right before Ellie’s winter mission. She has to take more charge with Joel healing from an injury, all the while her backstory is told through flashbacks. This really adds a lot to her character, contrasting her more carefree personality in the past with her present situation molding her into a different person. It makes the remastered version on PlayStation 4 feel like an extended cut of the theatrical PlayStation 3 edition. The flashbacks never interrupt anything because both the gameplay and story compliment each other at every intersection. And to those who complained about the “wokeness” in the sequel’s trailer, this completely obliterates all the backlash, because Ellie has a unique personality and evolution to go along with her coming out scene. If you can’t stomach her identity in this, there’s no going back in the sequel, because this is who Ellie is.
Defending the Ending
Recently, the ending has gotten a lot of flack for how all the sacrifices in the story were wasted by the resolution. Joel and Ellie arrive at the firefly hospital where Ellie is being prepped for surgery to produce the cure. The only fine print is the doctors have to harvest the enhanced cordyceps from her brain, effectively killing her in the process. Marlene understands the sacrifice enforced by the final collectible recording to Ellie’s late mother. Joel being Joel on the other hand can’t stand to lose another daughter, and fights the entire group, including the unarmed doctors, to “save” Ellie, inevitably dooming human kind to never return to a normal life. Playing as Joel I felt queasy with the actions taken that ends up mimicking the beginning of the game, but the ending is still very powerful in the discussions it generates. We’ve spent so much time getting to know these two and what they went through over their journey. And in Joel’s very little defense, there’s never been concrete evidence that the process would guaranteed a cure. There’s only speculation surrounding the matter since very few people have the same level of immunity Ellie possesses. If anything, there’s a good chance she would’ve died without leaving a cure for humanity with so few tests performed in the first place. A happy ending in a zombie apocalypse is as rare as an ice cream sundae in a desert: you can find it, but chances are it’s a mirage trying to play with your sense of hope. Still, there are a lot of questions surrounding an alternate ending (not the operatic edition) where Joel decides to let go of Ellie and have the cure developed for the human race. Would he continue to live with the guilt while humanity returns to normal, or would he have ended it all out of elevated depression after experiencing loss a second time? We’ll never know, but that’s what makes it such a romanticized discussion. The story may seem like your run of the mill zombie survival journey, but underneath it houses some of the best writing to separate itself from the pack. And whether or not you agree with the outcome, it’s something that sits alongside The Graduate, Inception, and La La Land for taking a daring approach to the conclusion.
Being one of the last games developed for the PlayStation 3, The Last of Us really pushed the console to its limits. And the remastered edition on PlayStation 4 is the definitive way to experience the technology at its best. The frame-rate can be toggled from 30 to 60 frames per second and unlike The Walking Dead’s cell-shaded stylization, the realistic approach enforces the post-apocalyptic ruins and decay. Motion-capture might be more common today in all media, but back then using it to create human characters was a polarizing artistic decision. Keep in mind that two year prior, Mars Needs Moms destroyed Robert Zemeckis’ animation company Image Movers Digital. People were sick of seeing humans that looked more like an alien-robot cross species than a living creature, even if Spielberg’s Tintin film showed Hollywood how to properly balance cartoonish designs with real life detailing. In-fact the technology was better suited for creating non-human characters like Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest or Caesar from the Planet of the Apes reboot: Because it relies less on human anatomy and more on anthropomorphic imagination, which we don’t see every day. This game however went all in with so much hyper realism that would normally imprison anyone in the uncanny valley, yet somehow it still convinces gamers that what they’re seeing is alive even if it’s trying to kill you.
And that’s held down by three factors: One, the grungy aesthetic fits the apocalyptic setting perfectly. With all the decay and desolation showcased over four seasons, there’s always a yin and yang to the changing nature of the world building. Crumbling skyscrapers and spore infested houses are always reminding the player of the impending doom around every corner. However new weather patterns combined with Naughty Dog’s attachment to jungle environments highlight the natural beauty taking back what humanity stole years ago. No environment looks the same on this cross-country adventure, and its always welcoming, nerve-racking, or both.
Two, when it comes to the technology, it makes sense to use motion capture to visually present the fading humanity in everyone, be it normal people or the animalistic clickers. The average survivor like Joel is burdened with bags on their eyes, bloodied scars (both physical and emotional), uncontrolled hair growth, and unwashed clothes. The clickers have been robbed of all their humanity as the spores continue to takeover, eventually turning the host into a well armored bloater. And yet they come off as one of the most memorable adversaries in gaming through their haunting de-evolution and sound detection to locate their prey. This type of unclean presentation knows both the potential and limitations of motion-capture to use in all the right places.
Finally, the performances, particularly from famed voice actors, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Baker has been a staple voice in this generation playing a number of characters in video games such as Vincent Brooks from Catherine, Robin from the Batman: Arkham series, and Booker DeWitt from Bioshock Infinite. This might be one of his best performances, encompassing the bitterness, anger, fury, and rage of a broken down spirit, and yet he’s still approachable when learning what he’s been through for 20 years. Meanwhile, Ashely Johnson has come a long way since playing Gretchen from Recess and Tara from Teen Titans. She knows how to lighten the mood with curiosity and a sense of humor, yet she knows what’s at stake and displays a willingness to learn new survival tactics. Both actors play off each other naturally through thick and thin as shown in the linked video below.
Coupled with a melancholy score composed by Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild, and Borrowed Time), the sense of dread, fear, and hopelessness is present throughout the journey whether through ambient silence or sorrow strings. It’s incredible how this game took many artistic risks and paired them with some of the most talented actors and musicians working in the entertainment industry today.
At the time of its release, The Last of Us reinvigorated the survival horror genre when Resident Evil was putting its faith in action more than its terror pioneering roots. Dead Space kept the tradition going for a while, but the threequel had abandoned any connections to its macabre atmosphere thanks to Electronic Arts’ over controlling nature.
But even after Resident Evil made a comeback, this still stands on its own. You’ll go through the game armed with nothing but a pistol and possibly a glass bottle/brick. Overtime, your arsenal will grow as you discover new weapons and collectible items to upgrade both your health and gun stats. There’s even materials like rags, water, blades, and alcohol to craft shivs, molotov cocktails, and nail bombs. Various melee weapons like pipes, planks of wood, and axes can be found and used to deal a more powerful strike to your enemies. Other collectibles take the form of dog tags for unlocking extras, manuals that can improve crafted items, and letters that tell their own stories of other people who adapted to the changing world. Of course if you run out of ammo, there’s always the classic knuckle sandwich recipe to combat disaster, but that doesn’t mean you take everyone out Rambo style. No, you can either do that or sneak around silently taking out your enemies one by one, or avoiding them altogether. In a twist of variety, the game gives you multiple ways to approach a dangerous situation, so long as you’re aware that fully transformed clickers can only be assassinated with shivs. Keep in mind though, ammo and materials are as scarce as a five star hotel; that is an operational five star hotel. So choose your actions carefully in order to stock up on resources. The game might be linear, but it’s the branching path approach that shakes up the gameplay. Joel has a sense mode where you can detect enemy locations, but this skill is omitted from the survivor and grounded difficulty, which I highly recommend for people who really want to immerse themselves in a real challenge.
From a gaming standpoint, having to constantly protect an AI partner sounds like the worst setup for a zombie game. Over the years, the escort mission has become one of the most hated tropes in gaming because technology could never match developer ambitions. Not even Resident Evil 4, one of the most celebrated games in history, can escape this criticism. But this along with Bioshock Infinite took that trope and shattered it into a million shards of glass. Not only is Ellie one of the best artificial intelligence partners through optional conversations, but she will always try to help you out through collecting items and killing enemies. There are moments where you have to keep her from being torn apart by clickers, but they don’t stop the game in its tracks because the same thing can happen to other characters that tag along on your quest. To those who claim that single player games are dead, The Last of Us debunks every one of those claims.
Last but not least is the multiplayer which has you fighting in one of two groups: the fireflies and the hunters. These campaigns can range from supply raids to interrogations, but it ultimately ends up as a game of cat and mouse scrambling for crafting material, ammo, and gears for upgrades. If you’ve played the Uncharted multiplayer it’ll feel familiar, but there’s enough new content to keep everyone on their toes, even if they’re on a losing streak. If only it didn’t have multiplayer trophies, which at this point, might as well be given once the servers shut down, less they be locked away forever like Resistance 2.
The Last of Us still stands as on the best games of all time for a number of reasons: It broke so much ground with new twists on the zombie apocalypse story, the graphics still look unbelievably lifelike for an early PlayStation 4 game, the all-star cast and crew reach new peaks in their careers with grounded performances on screen and with instruments that demand so much out of their talents, and it’s branching survival horror gameplay gives it a sense of uniqueness even after Resident Evil made a comeback over the last couple of years. This is one of those modern classics that I hope will be inaugurated into the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., alongside Pong and Dragon’s Lair. It bridged the blurred gap between movies and video games and should not be forgotten by time. Pick up the remastered edition on PlayStation 4 if you haven’t already gotten it on PS Plus, as it contains the multiplayer, campaign, and the Left Behind DLC in one package. While all eyes are now on the sequel wondering where the series will go next, there’s no doubt that this works as a stand alone story that has etched itself into gaming history and won’t be forgotten even as we move on to the next generation of consoles.