Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Naughty Dog
Review Date: 11/3/18
A highly contagious disease breaks out that rots peoples' brains and turns them into vicious monsters. The infection spreads like wildfire, and in a matter of days society is on the brink of collapse as the human race hurtles towards extinction. Unable to contain the disease or find a cure, the United States ultimately declares martial law and the remnants of the human race hole themselves up in highly fortified camps, eking out whatever miserable living that they can. Twenty years after the initial outbreak, a mean and bitter smuggler named Joel (Troy Baker) and his partner Tess take on a job to escort a teenage girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson) to an anti-government resistance group called The Fireflies. Somehow, Ellie is immune to the disease, and The Fireflies want to synthesize a cure from her blood. But the job is fraught with danger, as infected monsters, military soldiers, rival humans, and bands of lawless marauders are all out to get them. While Joel is a strong, smart, and experienced survivor, he's also extremely unlikable and doesn't like being dragged down by a young girl, despite the fact that she can take care of herself pretty well. Over the course of a year, a strong and nurturing bond develops between Joel and Ellie as they move from Boston, to Pittsburgh, to Wyoming, to Colorado, and eventually Salt Lake City. Sacrifices must be made, and the fate of humanity's future rests in the difficult decisions that Joel is forced to make.
"The Last Of Us" is an astonishing game, and one of the finest gaming experiences I've ever had. It looks absolutely gorgeous and the art direction is superb. The decaying remnants of society create a sad and frightening post-apocalyptic environment, and the feeling of hopelessness and despair is further enhanced by Gustavo Santaolalla's bleak and haunting music score. Danger lurks around every corner, but you also have ample opportunities to explore the world at your own pace and contemplate how things used to be and the all too human tragedies that occurred. The character models are fantastic and the motion capture is spot-on. Joel looks, moves, and reacts like a muscular middle-aged man would, while Ellie looks, moves, and reacts like a real teenage girl. The subtle details and nuances are pretty amazing. The writing and character development are excellent, and both Joel and Ellie are fully fleshed out people. Despite being an extremely violent and generally unpleasant asshole, you can't help but admire Joel's tenacity, will to survive, and knack for getting things done. You can also empathize with him knowing how he became the man that he is. Likewise, Ellie is easy to relate to as an adolescent girl who is frightened, frustrated, confused, and utterly alone in the world. Her dialog is wonderful and Ashley Johnson's poignant performance really brings her to life. Veteran voice actor Troy Baker also knocks it out of the park with his commanding performance. Whereas Joel is cynical, world weary, and confined to misery, Ellie's spirit is more innocent and can still experience hope and joy. She looks to Joel as a father figure for guidance and protection, and she ultimately becomes his surrogate daughter. Watching their bond grow is the most rewarding experience of the game.
The highly polished gameplay is flawless and the overall structure and mechanics are identical to the superb "Uncharted" games (also developed by Naughty Dog). The game opens with an emotional sucker punch that sets the stage perfectly, and the dread and fear that it generates are truly tangible. I played the game on the easiest difficulty, which was just about right for my skills and reflexes. The difficulty ramps up at a slow and steady pace, but certain battles can still be significantly challenging and it's easy to get overwhelmed by multiple attackers. My first encounter with a bloater took over a dozen attempts, and I learned to avoid them whenever possible. Encounters with groups of armed humans are even more difficult, and require a considerable amount of time and patience. Combat is grim and brutal, which reflects the horror of the world and reinforces the amorality of Joel's character. The pacing is nicely balanced, which allows adequate time to relax, bond, and explore between enemy encounters. While stealth and avoidance is the preferred tactic for dealing with opponents, direct confrontation can yield rewards in terms of collectibles and crafting supplies. Inventory management plays an important role, but supplies are readily available so hoarding doesn't become critical. The game offers numerous options for tweaking the experience to best match your playing style, which is a welcomed feature. The game also keeps you on your toes so that you never get too comfortable with its presentation. Just when you think you've mastered Joel's combat skills and upgraded all of his weapons, the game switches to Ellie, who is significantly underpowered, vulnerable, and armed with only a knife. The tension and anxiety spike when you're playing as her, but the experience is amazing. An attempted rape scene is especially horrifying, which adds yet another layer of emotional depth and complexity to the nightmare world that Joel and Ellie live in. The game ends with another emotional sucker punch that leaves you with a sense of morally ambiguous doom. Was it all for nothing? In the end, it's all a matter of perspective.
The remastered version of the game includes an additional side story called "Left Behind," which is even more emotionally resonant than the main story. Playing as Ellie, you set out to find medical supplies to help an injured Joel. This short adventure is interleaved with flashbacks to when she and her best friend Riley snuck into an abandoned shopping mall, which led to her getting bitten by a horde of infected. The events leading up to this moment are heartbreaking, especially since you know how it's going to end. The relationship between Ellie and Riley is thoughtful and deeply touching, and explores the confusion, innocence, and anxiety of sexual awakening and young romance. It also fleshes out Ellie's character and personality a bit more, which is very satisfying. The segment where they're goofing around in a Halloween supply store is absolutely marvelous. I never wanted that to end.
I feel bad that it took me so long to get around to playing this game, which was a gift from a friend. It's not a game I would have picked up on my own, given that it has an unlikable male protagonist, but I'm grateful I set aside my preferences and prejudices and gave it a shot. I'm also excited to hear that there's a sequel in the works.
What does a mermaid wear to math class?
An algae bra.