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‘The Last of Us’ (2013) Retro Game Review

‘The Last of Us’ (2013) Retro Game Review

Credits

Developer: Naughty Dog
Directors: Neil Druckmann, Bruce Straley
Stars: Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, Hana Hayes, Merle Dandridge
Platform: Playstation 3, Playstation 4 (remastered)
Genre: Horror, Adventure

4.5

Twenty years after a devastating infection has turned the population into horrific, aggressive monsters, a survivor named Joel is tasked with escorting a teenaged girl who might hold the key to finding a cure across the United States, in this Playstation exclusive title, The Last of Us.

There is a moment during this game – and I won’t say when – that sees Joel (voiced by Troy Baker) talking about sacrifice with Ellie (voiced be Ashley Johnson). As he says that word, “sacrifice”, he briefly touches his wristwatch. Why he does this I will leave you to discover, but it has significant impact. The gesture is subtle, and perhaps missed by many who have played it, but it is telling of the detail the developers of this game put into this remarkable experience. I hesitate to even use the word “game” as it truly bends the definition.

Joel is a man who has lost much in this post-apocalyptic world. He has learned to survive not only against the cannibalistic creatures infected by a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus, but also against some hostile humans who have set up outposts or roam about the land. He meets the leader of the Fireflies, a rebellious group who are fighting against the government mandated quarantine zones. Her name is Marlene (voiced by Merle Dandridge), who makes him an offer for supplies if he will smuggle a girl to the Fireflies hiding in in Boston. Ellie is infected, but her immune system is holding off the mutation and it is thought she might used to find a way to stop the infection or reverse its effects. When they arrive at their destination and discover the Fireflies have all been killed, a last stand leaves Joel and Ellie alone and on a new quest to find any Fireflies alive and Ellie to them.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us, 2013

Laid out in seasons, the story follows Joel and Ellie as they trek across the country, learning about the world they live in and about themselves. As a shooter, it it meticulous, deliberate, and desperate. Every shot counts and has meaning. There are not hordes of enemies in which you mow down. It is about survival, and even facing one enemy can mean terrible loss. Every last item you carry is precious, and you have little time to think about how to use them when the inevitable fight for your life – and more importantly – Ellie’s life comes up. And come up it does. Often. With staggering effect. Strategies do not always work. Honestly, sometimes running is the best choice. It is pulse-pounding, unnerving, and in the early hours, unforgiving. You must learn to live. As a story, it is moving, sudden, and powerful. You will wonder often about what you would do given the same situation. Who are the bad guys when all anyone wants to do is survive? Some decisions are difficult to watch. Some events will leave you in awe. It is an experience with no equal in gaming.

There are minor flaws but The Last of Us deserves high praise. In playing through a second time, I’ve compiled an short breakdown of the good and bad.

Characters

The Last of Us
The Last of Us, 2013

Pro:
Joel and Ellie are every bit the reason I played it again. The reason for who they are, why they came to be together, and the fight they endure to get to the “end” are well-crafted, excellently voiced, and entirely satisfying to watch. Ellie especially left me profoundly moved throughout the game.
There are also dozens of other characters that populate the game and they are all deeply developed and carry a lot of weight. Each comes and goes with purpose. That says a lot.

Con:
As rich as the relationship is between Joel and Ellie, I felt it could have been deeper. I imagine because of the restrictions of the medium that some restraint had to be made, but there were several moments that I wanted more. Perhaps this is testament to the delivery, but I became so involved that I projected myself into the situations and wanted “my” reaction to be their reaction. There were numerous times that could have been given a bit more time for the sake of the story, especially some critical turning points for Ellie. While it is not a film, the experience feels like and therefore it’s a bit jarring for some moments to end without the emotional impact that was hoped for.

Game Play

The Last of Us
The Last of Us, 2013

Pro:
Mostly an excellent experience. Fluid controls, easy to understand mechanics, and just enough “figure it out for yourself” moments that make it really shine. There is “no pause” feature that is outstanding, and creates a tremendous effect on your strategy. When you’re engaged, you must act. When Ellie tells you to “hurry” in her frightened voice as you desperately try to craft a weapon before the Clickers (the infected) come, you not only get stressed, you feel her stress.

Speaking of Ellie, she is a great companion. As she progresses and become hardened by the journey, she evolves into a person you truly want to save. And the first time SHE saves YOUR life . . . it’s a powerful moment. You don’t think about how lucky you were she was there, you feel anger and remorse for why a fourteen year girl must kill. It makes you try all the harder to keep her safe. And when you duck for cover, and she wriggles under your arm for safety, you can’t help but feel the need to get her out of harm’s way. Brilliant stuff. You won’t forget Ellie for a long time.

Con:
And yet . . . I imagine due to the need to keep the gamer in control of their own strategy, it is disheartening to see Ellie run around looking for cover directly in front of the enemy with no effect – sometimes bumping right into them. She remains almost utterly invisible in nearly (but not all) confrontations. This is a design decision that allows the player to keep their plan without it being constantly broken by something they can’t control. And that right there makes it a constant reminder that is indeed only a game. I wonder what it would be like trying to control a frightened fourteen year old child in a shootout with transforming infected zombies . . . or worse, the humans also fighting to defend their lot in this desolate wasteland. Perhaps it is something I wouldn’t want to handle in a game, but all the same, it pulled me out of the experience many times.

Graphics

The Last of Us
The Last of Us, 2013

Pro:
Easily the best seen on the Playstation 3. There’s no other way to say it. Vistas are grand, abandoned buildings are dense with details, the environments are thick with eye candy. A gorgeous game to play through. And the seasonal changes are a wonderful touch. But all of that pales in comparison to the people. Joel and Ellie are more than just their incredible facial features, their body movements reveal their pains, their burdens, and even the occasional joy.

Con:
If you’ve seen Joel shiv one Clicker, you’ve seen him do it a hundred times. The animations for every recurring action, be it getting a ladder, strangling a person, heaving Ellie up to a higher position, opening the backpack . . . it is exactly the same. This is minor of course, and a gaming convention that is part of the process, but in such a polished adventure, it would have been nice to see some variety.

Story

The Last of Us
The Last of Us, 2013

Pro:
It starts with a difficult to watch sequence as the plot is revealed and gets heavier as it goes. It is not a joyful, happy, gaming experience, yet that is not a complaint. It is about survival, and nurturing, and sacrifice. There are several intense, adult, moments that weigh heavy, and that is good. Games need to mature, and this a remarkable step forward. The final twist is inevitable, but equally frightening to learn as it occurs. I hope more games will take this approach.

Con:
Tropes, tropes, tropes. I think the zombie has been played out. It’s tiresome now. In comparison with fighting the zombies or the humans in this game, I would rather fight the humans every single time. Zombies shuffle in place, they react only to sound, they run fast when activated, none of it is fresh. I’m not saying the action isn’t exciting but it seemed to serve no other purpose other than to make the player use weapons. After my first encounter with other human survivors trying to defend themselves, I wished the story had only been about that: a wasteland of people struggling to make it alive. Certainly the writers could have made a more significant reason for the journey of Joel and Ellie. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and it had so many powerful moments, but I wish had been about something more realistic than zombies.

Yet the larger (though extremely minor) issue I have with the story is the detachment of choice. The user has no options for any actions. Whenever something comes up that requires a choice, it is a cut-scene. There are several little moments where you are given the option to speak to Ellie at certain landmarks or in peaceful situations (she signals this with a little icon above her head) and if you choose to ignore her, her dialogue changes slightly, but beyond that, it’s a linear ride. Of course, it’s not an RPG, so this is entirely forgivable – the developers have a story and we play through it, but because of how rich and how obvious the choices were presented, it would have been nice to have the ability to play them out.

The Last of Us is a remarkable achievement. It should be remembered as the peak in gaming for the last console generation. It ushers in a new way to present mature gamers with story over mindless action games and I hope will have influence on up-coming titles. The Last Of Us is available for both the PS3 and remastered for the PS4.

I leave you with the Top Ten reasons to experience this game:

1) Ellie
2) Flamethrower
3) Brothers again
4) Brick and Molotov combo
5) Joel needs medicine
6) Giraffes
7) The lodge
8) “I can’t swim”
9) Ellie and the rifle
10) The watch

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