Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
I went into The Last of Us with very little knowledge about the game itself, having largely ignored the hype machine in full swing for the most part simply because I was not an owner of a PS3 until very recently. I have not seen any of its trailers, gameplay footage, interviews or any of the pre-release marketing that comes with any blockbuster AAA game. All I knew was that it was set in some post-apocalyptic future infested with zombie-like creatures, and that it was apparently “gaming’s Citizen Kane moment“.
As circumstances would have it, I had just enough money saved to buy a PS3 and a monitor at that time, and having been repeatedly frustrated in my attempt to save up for a gaming laptop, I decided right after seeing that picture to finally enter the 7th generation of consoles and see what all the fuss was about.
Unsurprisingly, that statement turned out to be just hype. The Last of Us isn’t gaming’s Citizen Kane moment. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary gameplay-wise, nor does it even take any bold steps into uncharted territory in terms of story-telling.
The premise is nothing the industry has yet to see, and the gameplay elements of stealth, shooting and melee combat aren’t particularly innovative.
And yet, I believe the game deserves all of the praise it has received, Empire magazine’s hyperbolic analogy aside.
Starting off with the presentation, this game is drop dead gorgeous. I think I’ve already spoiled myself graphically because the rest of the PS3 games I’ll be buying will look like monstrous Clickers compared to The Last of Us’ ruggedly handsome man’s man Joel.
The lines on the aforementioned leading man’s face draw all the burdens he’s carried in his soul. Ellie, the girl who’ll save the world, exudes spunk in her bright eyes hardened by years growing up in the brink of humanity’s extinction. Light shafts piercing through lush green leaves of trees in summer speak of hope, and the blistering snowstorms of winter hail an ever darkening struggle.
Characters come alive with the superb animation (motion captured by some of the VAs themselves!) that only has the smallest of hiccups in tight situations in-game. Joel shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head at the thought of having to travel across states with a teenage girl, and I believe his frustration. Ellie shows all her doubts and dreams in her wide-eyed stares and the slight downward curve of her pursed mouth.
Without relying on bombastic gestures, the cast is rendered all the more human with subtle body language saying all that needs to be said. This nuanced display of emotion then makes their outbursts all the more powerful.
The infected also show how great a job the animators did; writhing, twitching, lumbering and running after the player in appropriately disturbing and manic fashion.
Much kudos should be given to the sound department as well. Every footstep is distinct depending on the ground covered. You can hear the crunching of broken plates just as panic sets in, having alerted an enemy because of your mistake. Voices are muffled in the distance and when behind obstacles, only getting clearer in open spaces and in close proximity.
Gunshots puncture the silence like a signal for the ensuing chaos, shiv stabbings rip through your ears, the gurgles of the strangled are suffocating, and the weepings of Runners and the clicking of Clickers will haunt you.
Academy Award winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla crafted a very understated soundtrack. Clean guitar picks awash in melancholy move the music forward, while the undercurrent ebbs and flows from sinister to hopeful, slowly rising to the surface with heavy strums and ominous percussion.
The voice acting certainly doesn’t let down. Troy Baker showcases impressive restraint in his work as Joel, balancing grit and gallantry in his Texan accent. There’s force in his bark, resignation in his sighs, and warmth in his reassurances to Ellie.
Ellie’s VA is no slouch either. Ashley Johnson sounds every bit like a playful yet determined teenage girl with a potty mouth. She is earnest in her anger as well as in her wonder.
Of course, all this top caliber voice acting would’ve been for nothing had the dialogue been subpar.
It’s excellent, by the way. There are no grand pronouncements, just stating the hard facts; no forced one-liners or cheap comedy, just small moments of kindness and good-natured ribbing; no melodramatic cries of anguish, just panicked breaths and shocked silence.
The quality in writing extends to the fleshed out characters, the relationships they build, and how those bonds affect the plot. There is genuine growth in the main duo’s connection as well as in their own individual characters, especially in the case of Ellie who has become my favorite female character in video games.
The people they meet along the way each have clear purposes and their own little quirks that make them memorable. Every choice they make is grounded on their beliefs, their hardships and their sacrifices.
And it all unravels in a measured pace, giving players time to soak in the development and the atmosphere in between frantic and heart-pounding set pieces.
The gameplay reflects this philosophy of self-control, never giving the player too much that it all becomes expected and a chore to go through.
Joel is tough but he’s no one-man army, and life 20 years after the end of the civilized world means very little resources. So instead of taking on enemies upfront, you’ll be mostly hiding behind overturned tables and empty vehicles. Pressing R2 brings up Listen Mode, acting as a radar of sorts that detects the locations of enemies based on the noise they make.
Pick up a brick or an empty beer bottle and throw them somewhere as a distraction, or right on the enemy’s head to stun him/her/it. Creep up behind so you can either go for a little noisy strangulation or silent throat stabbings if you have a shiv.
Scattered throughout the areas are a number of items which you can use to craft makeshift weaponry. Scissor blades, medicinal alcohol, and cloth rags combined turn into shivs, molotovs and medkits, making scavenging integral to survival.
Overlap between resources necessary for crafting different items and the limited amount you can bring make for more strategic thinking. The nail bomb you create now might not be as useful as a modified 2×4, and the rags and alcohol you used for a molotov could have been used to make a medkit to patch up your wounds with enemies approaching.
If you do get found out while sneaking around, you can choose to engage in open combat if you’ve got a melee weapon at hand or a gun with ammo to spare. You’re chances aren’t as good as silently taking down enemies one by one, especially with how scarce bullets are and that all melee weapons break after a number of hits. Ellie and whoever else is with you help out in the chaos, firing whatever guns they might have or jumping into the fray with a knife or a baseball bat while ducking under cover if possible.
Joel’s fists are his last resort, and he can dish out a lot of pain. This is most apparent when punching in closed environments, as the unarmed fights are context-sensitive, lending to brutal displays of violence where Joel slams people’s heads hard on desks and rams their bodies up against walls, choking them with his forearm on their necks. It’s ugly, but in a good way.
You can upgrade your projectile-based arsenal with the help of gathered tools and a workstation; increase clip capacity, improve range, hasten reload speed, etc. Collected prescription pills also allow you to enhance Joel in different ways such as amplifying Listen Mode’s range and giving Joel the ability to use shivs when Clickers grab him, which means instant death without those blades.
But again, you won’t be getting too many parts and pills that you’ll be maxing out all of the upgrades in one playthrough. You have to decide which areas you want to focus on to really get the most out of the weapons you’ll receive, and to survive the situations you’ll find yourself in.
And boy can those situations be intense. Armed hunters will head for cover, signal to others in the area, separate to flank you, pull back if you’re packing heat, and charge you if they know you’re out of ammo. Even the infected show some intelligence, as Runners and Stalkers swarm you if they see you, dashing to your last seen location while weaving in between obstacles so you’ll end up surrounded.
The most nerve-wracking of all though is when you’re navigating through a dark maze filled with those damned Clickers. Blind they may be, their heightened sense of hearing demands that you move ever so slowly. One hurried footfall can spell your doom, as they charge quickly and relentlessly, screaming to rip your throat out.
It wouldn’t be a modern Naughty Dog game without the cinematic sequences that will have you holding down L2 to sprint while deftly avoiding death through button-mashing square in moments of struggle. These segments are largely few and far between, and never do they overstay their welcome, making these tension points all the more effective in their economy.
When you’re not lurking in the shadows or running and gunning past enemy hordes, you get to explore the empty expansive environments with a little platforming involved for a sort of meditative journey. The silence only breaks in the short conversations between Joel, Ellie, and whoever might be tagging along at the time.
I’ve already mentioned the great dialogue, but it bears repeating, as even the optional ones where you talk with Ellie about the world that has come and gone before she was born are fascinating with how much they reveal about the characters.
Then there are the artifacts hidden away in every area, each one telling a story of the many people that tried to keep on living in a world that has forgotten how. They range from amusing to disturbing to heartbreaking. Coupled with the other collectibles that can be found throughout the game like comics and pendants, they all help build the fully realized world of The Last of Us.
The online multiplayer is a whole different post for another time, but in short, it’s just as intense and fun as the singleplayer campaign.
The Last of Us doesn’t set out to change the way video games are played, nor does it look to blow anyone’s mind with a wholly original plot full of twists and turns. It takes every factor in the gaming formula, refines each one to the point of perfection, and brings it all together to deliver a tight and compelling experience that simply asks us why we live.