As someone on the internet cleverly pointed out, “The Last of Us” has a twofold meaning. It could either refer to the last survivors of the fungal outbreak or whatever left of the remaining traits that define us as humans.
Storytelling is often superfluous in a video game. Developers relied on tried and tested tropes to design milestones that gameplay is lynch pinned against. Character development is often non-existent. Allowing players to garner points on a morality scale (a la Mass Effect trilogy, Infamous), while presenting the illusion of choice, usually means that the character is wildly inconsistent with events and happenings in the game.
The Last of Us is an extremely linear game, but in this case, the linearity very much works in its advantage, as Naughty Dog has an incredible tale to tell. There may be some revelations and unpleasant twists in the game, but each development is true to the character’s motivations. While you will certainly empathise with the protagonist Joel’s motivations and actions of self-preservation after the tragic cold opening, reflective gamers will certainly be repulsed by some of the aforementioned actions.
Joel is tasked with a mission to deliver Ellie, a young girl who somehow managed to survive an infected bite, to the Fireflies, a renegade group who is researching possible cures to the fungal apocalypse. The story unfolded over a year, and chapters of the games are delineated by the seasons.
As a character burdened by loss, Joel is very much a self-serving mercenary 20 years into the worldwide crisis. However, as players quickly learn, in this harsh new world where hardened human survivors will kill you just for that one extra ammo clip, the only way to live is to become a hard-ass self-serving bastard. The world of the Last of Us is a bleak one, and the depravity dealt by pockets of human hunters may be at times far worse than a zombie’s bite or a spore infection. In this very sense, the Last of Us is a commentary about the death of our humanity when established structures such as government, economies and medical science fail us.
The interactions between Joel and Ellie are realistically portrayed and explain adroitly how the two could have bonded over the year-long journey. Walk into a record store and Ellie will comment with a hint of sadness that the records will never find an audience again. Read a note left behind in a house by its former occupant and Ellie will comment if the lovers in said note ever found each other. The game is peppered with poignant moments like these that you kind of understand why Joel would come to see Ellie as his surrogate daughter.
As a third-person shooter/melee combat type of game, the gameplay is competent, if not particularly spectacular. Highly-evolved fungal zombies, known as clickers, can kill you with one bite. This, together with the scarcity of weapons early on in the game, revved up the tension immensely. Other zombies, known as runners and stalkers, while less deadly, will keep you tiptoeing as you make your way through the abandoned wastelands. Bands of renegade humans are equally deadly, as they can deploy tactics and try to flank you and your companions.
I have never found crafting system to be a particularly compelling aspect of gameplay. Often, it bogs down games in ways that turns them into tedious inventory management exercises. A case in point would be The Witcher 2, an otherwise solid game that forces the player to sort through his inventory ever so often. However, The Last of Us features a crafting system that is complex enough to be engaging and yet not so complicated that it becomes a tedious chore. There are 6 basic components, which players can optimize for crafting 6 different types of equipment that will be used throughout the game. It is elegant in its simplicity, really.
The Last of Us is not a game with easy answers or clear cut heroes and villains. Even as the credits start to roll, players will likely feel bitter about the ambivalent ending. It is probably not a perfect game, but it is a masterful game that you will need to play.