Slowly I crawl behind the counter, shards of glass crack underneath my boots. I try to hold my breath, even though my heart is pounding harder like the last time in the gym. In my hands there lies my beloved shotgun, Shotty, who has saved my life just so many times. Still, right now, her metal feels like tons of weight in my hands. Somewhere, in the dark room, I can hear the sounds – a quiet clicking noise, allegedly harmless, but the precursor of a real threat. There is a clicker, just waiting for me to slip, to stumble, to sneeze in order to find me and taste my delicious living flesh. Very carefully I prepare my weapon when suddenly my knee knocks over an empty tin can… the fight for my life has just begun.
The Last of Us is a survival horror game developed by Naughty Dog (Uncharted) and released for PlayStation 3 and – as a remastered edition – for PlayStation 4. Which is the reason why I haven’t played it so far, as my PlayStation is pretty new and yet unused. However, even though I used to be a consequent PC gamer, even I had heard about The Last of Us as it must have been one of the most popular games for Sony’s console system. Thus, even without checking first, I bought it the first moment it was on sale.
At this point a gentle warning – the following paragraphs might (i.e. will) contain spoilers. So, if you haven’t played the game so far and don’t want to know what’s going on, better put yourself on your couch and start playing. This is the only warning. Behind this paragraph, it might get infectious. I’m not kidding.
So what is this game about?
When I started the game for the first time, I had no idea what to expect at all. As I said, I hadn’t checked the game out first, I knew nothing about the story, the content, I had not even the slightest idea what kind of genre The Last of Us might be. But I had just played all Quantic Dream games (especially Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls, reviews are about to come), so after controlling Sarah through the first couple rooms I thought “Oh, well, just another decision-making game, another interactive story, how nice!“. Then, suddenly, Sarah’s father Joel breaks through the door, followed by their neighbour, there is a shoot and…
Okay, here we are. Just another zombie game. Thinking back, 2013 must have been exactly that time when zombie games were super popular, thinking of DayZ, WarZ, Project Zomboid, Dead Island and whatever more there is. With zombie games, I am in a very torn situation: I love them. I really do. But they also scare the shit out of me. Remember those running zombies in Dead Island? I hated them. All of them. So, I was not completely sure whether I would be able to finish this game or not.
Not just zombies, but also characters
Let’s move on a bit. After a very long introduction ending with Sarah’s death, I felt kind of lost. Is this even a game? Where is the action? Maybe it IS some kind of visual novel? But then I learned that this is one of those games where you have to be sneaky, stealthy and shooty. Okay. I got the genre, I can do that. I liked the introductory moments – moving around with Tess and, somewhat later, with Ellie. Actually, this helped me to overcome my jumpiness from zombies, to have some company. And the characters are done just superbly. Like Tess, who seems to know her way in the streets, everybody knows her, everybody respects her. Or Marlene, who appears so tough and vulnerable at the same time, being wounded but being strong. While the Quantic Dream games never fooled me for such a long time, I never expected Marlene to be a lunatic from the beginning. Well done, screenwriters, well done!
Then, of course, there are the two main characters: Joel, who has lost his daughter, whose brother ran somewhere else, who simply tries to carry on and stay alive. Seemingly, after all these years, he has lost humanity, he does cruel and criminal things to get resources. And there is Ellie, this young girl who seems both naive and tough at the same time. At first, it feels weird that this little girl seems not to be scared at all. She can ride. She can handle guns. She knows how to defend herself. After having played the DLC Left Behind, where Naughty Dog shows a bit of her background story, it becomes clear why she is that tough little lady. And it fits. She is authentic to me.
What else to do in the game? Fighting!
Now, after discussing all the characters, what is the game about? First of all: zombies. Zeds. And where there are zombies, there are also living humans which are a real threat to any breathing creature. You all know the good old Latin saying homo homini lupus, don’t you? The human is a wolf to the human. True for all zombie games. At least the good ones.
The Last of Us follows the very popular trail of a fungal infection, inspired by that weird fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, see some article by National Geographic) taking over ants. When some human being is bitten or scratched by a zombie (or, in the game: infected), they will turn in 24 hours. After turning, they are no longer human but creatures longing for human flesh to feast upon it. The longer these people stay infected, the stronger the infection grows, thus leading to several stages or levels of enemies: runners, who can see you and are quick. Stalkers, who are smart enough to hide. Clickers, who have gone blind but definitely can hear – and are tough enemies. And bloaters, who have so much infection inside of them that they can throw with it. Man, those guys don’t look healthy! Think twice about your next Pizza Funghi!
There is a solution to every fungus
While the universe ingame is a dystopia where people believe that there is no such thing as a healing to the fungus, the game throws an obvious solution directly at you: Ellie. She has been scratched by a zombie while fooling around with her girlfriend Riley – but never turned. For some reason, Ellie is immune. And thus Marlene, leader of the Fireflies, a human group of survivors, wants her to be sent into another town where Ellie should be investigated and her immunity researched. While Marlene is gravely injured, she asks Joel and Tess to smuggle Ellie out of town, in exchange for some weapons, which – if being honest – already do belong to Joel and Tess’ group. But who cares. We will deliver the girl, it might be for the greater good. Or at least karma.
In the end, the journey takes quite a while. Starting from Boston, we visit Lincoln, Pittsburgh, Jackson, the University of Colorado and eventually Salt Lake City – in other words, Joel and Ellie cross the United States, or whatever is left of them. And everywhere there are dangerous creatures: not just the infected, but also hunters and a lot of other people trying to kill our friends.
How to deal with the enemy
As we have learned, the game is a lot about fighting. Every now and then, there is a combat encounter where you need to overcome several enemies, either infected or humans. In the best case, you manage to sneak around and kill them silently. There are knives and even a bow (yes, bows have been pretty popular in 2013, too, cf. Tomb Raider) to kill people without any noise. However, The Last of Us also provides you with a huge arsenal of handguns and rifles to save your skin. The downside: weapons are loud. And ammunition is sparse.
During their journey, Joel and Ellie find a lot of parts and chemicals which help them overcome their encounters. You can build Molotov cocktails and nail bombs to decimate groups of enemies. You can create medkits to patch yourself up. Or use some of the bricks and bottles lying around to distract your foes. Sometimes, only a QuickTime event (QTE) can save your soul. Fortunately, the QTEs in The Last of Us are rare and very fair, it is usually one button which has to be either pressed or smashed, depending on the situation. For someone like me who passionately hates QTEs, this is a relief!
Much more important: the story!
Behind all that, there is the growing relationship between Joel and Ellie, the core aspect of the game, telling their story. Ellie is a 14-year-old girl, and even though she is tough, she is more than grateful that Joel takes care of her. Yes, at some points it feels like she adopts him as her new father. He, at the same time, cannot forget Sarah, and his tragic loss has made him a cold and bitter man. At least he loves to believe so. When he is asked to entrust his brother with Ellie’s care, he eventually refuses to part from her. When she is gone, his first thoughts are about her safety. And in the end – well, those who played the game know about the difficult decision he had to make. I would have done the very same in his position, but from a more global point of view, it was a tough call. To me, it always felt like he recognised Ellie as an opportunity to undo his guilt, to finally give all the love and fatherly caring he should have given to his daughter, but failed.
After having played the whole game, I do not remember a lot of the places the three of us have visited. I wouldn’t be able to recall which maps were Lincoln or Pittsburgh. In the end, every city is the same story: some humans are trying to kill us, suddenly there are clickers and runners, and we sneak through combat area after combat area, easily recognisable by the sneaky obstacles everywhere. And if we don’t fight, we loot some houses. There are some additional stories about the people living in the regions, given by “artefacts” which are text (and sometimes audio) notes spread across the levels. But the only story I can recall is that of Ish, the guy in the sewers, and the fate of several children dying there in a room conquered by infected.
Additional content – the DLC Left Behind
I should also mention the DLC Left Behind. I already said that this DLC tells some background story about Ellie – basically, it’s a snippet of her reconnecting with a friend named Riley. The two girls used to be close until Riley ran away – and became a Firefly. Now she has to leave and thus wants to spend one last good evening with her friend Ellie. Turns out, they are little more than just friends. However, just when they discover that they want to stick together… let’s just say, turning on loudspeakers to dance in some empty mall while there are zombies everywhere is never a good idea.
The other part of the DLC, intertwined with this story, tells some part of the main story happening when Joel is badly injured after Colorado. Ellie tries to take care of him, she looks for medicine – and gets into the fangs of some really cruel bastards who earn their living by butchering and eating/selling(?) humans. The best thing about this particular part is a “new mechanic”: in this episode, there are two encounters where you fight both hunters and infected at the same time. So, the easiest way here is to let them fight each other before cleaning up. And after having had so many battles in the main game, it is quite satisfactory to see some of those crazy hunters being eaten alive. Well done, Naughty Dog!
Love is love – about LGBT in The Last of Us
Last, but not least, I want to mention the LGBT component, which is especially important to me. There are two homosexual people in this game. First, there is Bill, a guy who seems to have had some backstory with Joel (somehow he owed him), but who – even more important – had a relationship with another guy called Frank. Seemingly, the two parted, and while Bill is still living in his little castle, an old church, Frank got infected and hanged himself. My feelings are not too bad for him, as there is a goodbye letter from Frank with some very not nice words to Bill. A little bit later, when Joel and Ellie sit in a car on their way to the west, Ellie reveals that she has stolen some magazine from Bill’s place. A… magazine for adult people. Probably with some handsome guys in there. And very little textile. Or no textile at all. By no later than when she asks why some of the pages are sticky, even the last player should have realised Bill’s sexual orientation. I really loved that detail, for two reasons: a) while it is thematised, it is not super aggressively shown. To the contrary – the focus is much more on Bill’s reaction and his shocked feelings after learning that his former boyfriend had died. Quite a tough moment. And b) Ellie reacts to this “revelation” just as she reacts to every other situation – super cool. To me, this just felt right. There is some gay guy, but it’s not a big thing. Loved it. It seemed just so normal, there, at the end of mankind.
Well, Ellie being so cool about it might also have to do with the second homosexual character in the game: Ellie herself. Or let her be bisexual, I don’t know about her full interests. It is clear, however, that she kissed Riley, and that she didn’t just do it for fun, but with feelings included. And there are also trailers for the upcoming The Last Of Us 2 which show another lesbian kiss of a now older Ellie. Somewhere I have read that in 2013 this was celebrated as a groundbreaking thing. Fortunately, today there are so many more games with gay characters and relationships. Not all of them are handled well, but visibility is just so important. Do you remember when I ranted about Marvel not giving us one single gay character (yes, I know, now there is Valkyrie – still no main character)? Well, here there is one – and she is even the toughest and coolest main character one could imagine. So from an LGBT point of view, I love the game 3000.
Let’s tie these zombies up!
To sum it up: The Last of Us is more of an interactive story, including some nicely implemented stealth survival mechanisms. The places are a bit interchangeable and boring, but the characters are superb, the interaction between characters is plausible and authentic and you just want to move on to see what happens next. I also really liked the graphics, the movement of characters, how they search a house while I’m idling around. I don’t know if there is some “replay value”, there are no choices to be made, and now I do know the whole story. But I’d call The Last of Us one of the best zombie survival games I have played so far. Thumbs up!