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In my time playing The Last of Us, I never really felt as though I was doing well. There was never a sense of accomplishment or victory in clearing a room of bandits or escaping from a Bloater. I made it through another encounter, and because of my mistakes I have a total of six bullets among all of my guns to deal with the next one. Between the gameplay and narrative, I couldn’t shake the sense of dread — my luck is going to run out.
The Last of Us is the story of Joel and Ellie above all else. Yes, it is a post-apocalyptic story akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with a splash of zombie fiction, yet character interaction is the meat of the narrative. Whether it is the dynamic between Joel and Ellie, or the unique cast of character who make appearances throughout the story, it all feels fresh. The Last of Us reuses typical situations for the genre, but twists it in such a way that it doesn’t feel cliché. You feel for the characters, and their problems become your own.
The world is dark, yet technically beautiful. There is a section where you must traverse an office building which demonstrates the level of detail Naughty Dog put into the environments. The building has conference rooms, break rooms and office cubicles, many of which serve no purpose to the game. Many don’t even have pickups or any reward for searching them. These rooms exist because realistically they would have been there. Beyond the physical location, Naughty Dog establishes the cruelty of the world through example, shoving the evidence for the game’s bleak and broken the world in the player’s face.
The gameplay is solid, capturing the story’s brutality. Melee especially demonstrates some chilling death animations, showcasing how brutal it would be for a person to kill someone with their bare hands. Each encounter holds weight, with a couple of bandits managing to be more than a challenge for Joel. As encounters grow in scale, players will rely on a hybrid of stealth and hit-and-run tactics to survive. A lack of bullets prevents the game from becoming Uncharted, yet it is nigh impossible to perfectly sneak through any section without being caught. The gunplay is a major improvement from Uncharted as well, with most enemies dying after a few shots. Crafting adds to the equation, allowing Joel to create nail bombs, smoke grenades and Molotov cocktails. Every resource is valuable, and none of the weapons feel arbitrary.
Unfortunately, the game has some flaws. Most reviews have mentioned the enemy AI’s tendency to look past Ellie as she runs right in front of them. While I wish the companion AI were tweaked so it almost never interfered with stealth, I appreciate that Naughty Dog made Ellie invisible rather than have her force the player into a fight. While not a flaw itself, some players may also be frustrated with the game’s difficulty. This isn’t to say The Last of Us is particularly hard, but players shouldn’t go into The Last Of Us as though it were a traditional stealth game. You will need every bullet, bomb and bottle to make it through.
What flaws the game does have pale in comparison to the polish. The game includes character dialogue for a variety of optional parts of the game. For example, Joel and Ellie will discuss the contents of a note in a child’s bedroom. This dialogue is an optional result of an optional note in an optional room, and the fact that Naughty Dog took the time to record it is fascinating. Another fun little addition to the game was Ellie’s thefts. Throughout the game, Ellie has a tendency of stealing things, only to tell Joel later. If you watch Ellie, you can actually catch her in the act, and find that the objects are missing. No one would fault Naughty Dog for not including these little details, but the game is made better because they did.
Overall, I love The Last of Us. It is a dark, tense journey that punishes you. Naughty Dog has polished the gameplay and story to a mirror sheen and uses them in tandem to make one of the best games this year. To players looking for not just a great video game narrative, but an excellent narrative in general, I fully recommend The Last of Us.