TW: Gore, Death.
There perhaps, has not been a game as overhyped and lavishly praised as much as The Last of Us since the PSOne era. Not since Final Fantasy VII and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has there been this much hype towards one game in particular. However, both Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time were legitimately good games. Ocarina of Time was one of the first 3D action adventure titles and there was very little else like it at the time. Final Fantasy VII, while not exactly revolutionary in its design, did create one of the first great cinematic gaming experiences and did so in a way where, to this day, people still miss the point of what made it a great game to begin with.
Fittingly enough, The Last of Us is one of those games that took great influence from what Final Fantasy VII brought forth whilst also missing what made it a great game to begin with. Unlike the aforementioned titles, The Last of Us could not have any less original unless it stole code from other games.
Originality is not always necessary to being a good game however. Maybe people could have just gave it all those game of the year awards because it just did everything so well. Yeah and maybe we will discover that Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Freddie Mercury, Tupac Shakur, and Michael Jackson never actually died and all plan to collaborate for a comeback album but you never know.
The story of The Last of Us basically can be summed up as “survive the zombie apocalypse.” More specifically you play as Joel, our gritty desensitized “plays by his own rules” protagonist, who had his daughter killed by military troops in the game’s opening. Right away there is a major issue with Joel’s characterization, it is inconsistent. In the first scene of the game, we have a scene with Joel as a soft and caring father figure to his daughter Sarah. Yet after she is killed you see Joel having devolved into a careless prick twenty years later.
Yes one can obviously infer that it was Sarah’s death that lead to this, but the game never shows how this happened. Realistically, twenty years would be enough time for such a change to occur but from the player’s point of view it just happens in five minutes. This would be fine if it were not for the fact that so little is elaborated on with this change.
Already we have an incredible missed opportunity right off the bat. If the story focused on Joel having to simultaneously cope with his daughter’s death while surviving the zombie apocalypse (and yes I’m going to keep calling it that because the whole “infected” crap isn’t fooling anyone) then this game could have been amazing. It would have provided far more insight to Joel’s character and would have been enough to get legitimately attached. In fact it may have worked better if there were multiple time skips that occurred throughout the years similar to Dragon Quest V rather than just skipping ahead twenty years. It also would have made the ending of the game a lot more understandable.
Instead Joel’s characterization is summed up as “he is a heartless cold psychopath until he suddenly isn’t towards the end of the game.” As a result, Joel’s character becomes extremely unlikable and it severely hampers your ability to care about what happens to him. I honestly cannot see how I am supposed to sympathize with someone who openly tortures and brutally murders other people with no sense of discretion to be a fitting protagonist. This is the type of characterization that would be more fitting in a Grand Theft Auto game than in an atmospheric character driven title.
What makes his character even worse is how he acts in the final level of the game. While I will avoid spoiling what happens on said final level, I will just say that during Joel’s action, he kills and tortures people who never harmed anyone in cold blood and without any remorse. I could not feel bad for Joel’s dilemma because said ending derails his character even further. It is not even because of the outcome of said events, but more so due to how Joel reacts during said event. You end up having a scene with people begging for their lives, including a woman who was a former friend of Joel, in a sequence where you are FORCED to kill them because the plot says so.
In yet another example of the double standards that critics seem to have with this game, I would like to bring up a game that has caused some recent controversy; Hatred. For those who don’t know, Hatred is a game about a deranged misanthropic psychopath who gets fed up with life and decides to go on a killing spree. The game is based around its dark tone and you visibly see people screaming for their lives as they a brutally killed in a grotesque fashion. The gaming media went full Jack Thompson on this game and labeled it as a murder simulator without any awareness of the idea of a game being used to invoke an emotion other than “fun” while ignoring that the game’s presentation indicated that it was supposed to be dark and disturbing. (Note: This was written before I played Hatred for myself and realized how shit it was. I stand by this criticism though as I see little difference between Joel and Notim Pourtant anyway.)
Yet in the supposed Citizen Kane of gaming, we have a character who we are supposed to connect to and who is presented as a good guy, openly murder innocent people in cold blood. Unlike in games like Hatred or even Grand Theft Auto, this is treated as if Joel was in the right for doing so, and the game simply glosses over what he does.
The rest of the game’s cast isn’t much better. Ellie is admittedly not too bad of a character. She is a bit on the bland side and I didn’t really connect with her, but I didn’t have any real issues with her either. The rest of the cast is pretty much made up of one off characters that are with you for a short while only to be killed off because drama. The Last of Us handles killing off character in a way that reminds me of how Final Fantasy 2 did so; by introducing characters, giving them a small amount of screen time, and then killing them in a cheap attempt to be tragic. This is a red flag when one considers that Final Fantasy 2 was an 8-bit Famicom title.
The writing and presentation of this game is something that sounds like it is meant to appeal to teenagers. It has a lot of violence and tries to be dark, but never actually takes any risks or pushes any boundaries. A perfect example of this would be in the excessive amounts of violence the game has. Every time you end up getting killed by a clicker you have a graphic scene of them biting into Joel’s neck that you are unable to skip. Other times there may be scenes of Joel getting shot in the head with his brain matter being visible.
However the worst of these is when Joel is killed by a bloater. You have an unnecessary scene of Joel having his eyes torn out of his head and his mouth pulled open until his jaw snaps. You end up seeing this EVERY TIME you are killed by a bloater and death animations are unskipable. This does not add any tension to the game and it is not scary; it’s just disgusting and unpleasant. Yet of course the ever present double standard of “you can never hurt a child” is present when playing as Ellie. Instead of the overly gory death sequence, she just gets knocked over and falls unconscious. This basically just shows that “yeah we are willing to shoehorn gore into the game unless it is something that is controversial.”
This demonstrates a clear desire to put far more effort into looking like you have an artistic vision, than actually creating one. To add to this it also breaks immersion. The Last of Us is largely supposed to be a realistic game correct? So naturally would it not make sense for a bloodthirsty vicious beast to not care about whether its target is a child or an adult? Real life isn’t always ESRB friendly you know. Yes one does not have to be violent to be realistic or engaging but if that is the case then at least be consistent and remove the graphic death animation for when it kills Joel.
What hurts the game even more is its horrid pacing. For a game based around its story it sure is keen on trying to drag things out for as long as possible. The entire plot of the game is based around trying to get to Boston to find a group called the Fireflies yet most of the game involves trudging through random cities while fighting through hordes of infected and bandits. Normally something like this would only take a few hours to accomplish with a well paced plot. The Last of Us, however, is the equivalent of if the entirety of Final Fantasy VII was about getting to the Promised Land. It was a slight issue in Final Fantasy VII because the cities you stopped at on the way there were just an excuse to shoehorn in some character side arcs. In The Last of Us it is the entire plot. There is no real conflict or sense of agency in The Last of Us until near the end of the game and 75% percent of the plot could have been written out entirely and the game would have improved.
For a game about atmosphere, there is also a significant lack of background information about the plot. Similarly to how Joel’s back story is never expanded upon, we also never hear anything about how the infected started to form or how they spread. They just pop out of nowhere in the intro and then the game skips to twenty years into the future. We hear very little about how society has devolved and thrown into utter chaos. We know nothing about how humanity needs to survive other than that they have very little food and some people have turned savage. We hear very little about how difficult it must be for people to survive in this environment. We hear little about why the government disbanded or how electricity seemed to have disappeared.
Furthermore, one needs to ask why it was in the first place that the infected were not simply quarantined and killed off before they can spread. Joel is just one man yet he has been able to take out hundreds of them over the course of the game. So why did the government not simply send the military after the infected? We also never hear anything about the rest of the world outside of good old Murica. Not sure if you are aware of this Naughty Dog, but the US is not the only country on the planet. There are entire continents separated by oceans that likely have not had any experience with the virus that caused this, or for all we know maybe they did and the game just never told us.
Graphics wise, The Last of Us look great… at first. During cutscenes everything looks very well rendered and almost photorealistic. It isn’t the best looking AAA title but it certainly does have an effective artstyle at first glance. Unfortunately the moment things go into motion the game starts to look incredibly ugly. First of all, everything becomes blurry the moment you get within five feet of something. This is likely because the objects were rendered to look good from far away but not when you are up close.
The game also has more dust and fog than a Silent Hill title and it often feels like you can’t get a decent view of something unless you use a flashlight. Things get even worse in sewer areas that use the spore fog. At these points in the game, the fog is so thick that I was barely able to see Joel despite him being right in front of me. Hell it was bad enough that it was easier to see underwater than above ground. The visuals in The Last of Us are an absolute eye sore.
In terms of the general art direction, The Last of Us uses the typical brown and grey landscapes that most modern titles seem obsessed with. Granted there are a few areas that subvert this so at least The Last of Us is a bit better in this regard.
The soundtrack to The Last of Us is… well, there is almost no music. Most of the game is in complete silence. I have said this before and I will say this again; music is a very important part of building atmosphere in a game. Silence only works when it is creates contrast to how the game typically is. If you never have any music, you just make the game bland and emotionless.
It doesn’t even need to always have music playing; it just needs to signify events or occurrences. Games like Dark Souls, for example, is a heavily atmospheric title that is mostly in silence, yet when you engage in battle with a boss, music starts blaring which creates a really intimidating effect. With The Last of Us you get nothing, not even music to signify danger when being spotted by the infected. Just complete silence aside from in cutscenes, and even then the songs that play there are only about two or three notes. The voice acting in The Last of Us I can at least say is really good. In fact it is far better than it should be given how bland of a script this game has and how it is harder to act well with poor writing.
The gameplay mechanics for The Last of Us are kind of fun… for about a few hours. The problem is that you get by every wave of enemies the exact same way. You wait around behind cover for an enemy to walk in your general vicinity, you then sneak up on said enemy in a laughably cartoonish fashion that is practically lifted from a Tom and Jerry skit, and then you strangle the enemy to death or bash his skull in.
The stealth mechanics in The Last of Us are absolutely absurd. First of all it seems as if every human being in the world of The Last of Us is deaf. Enemies will never so much as notice the loud grunts or screams of their comrades being brutally murdered even when it occurs RIGHT BEHIND THEM, which is until of course later in the game they suddenly do. Hell there were even points where plot induced in game conversations occurred when I was right behind an enemy, and they still did not react. The only time enemies are capable or hearing is when you throw an item meant to distract them. However, when you do this, they suddenly lose their sight in exchange because they never react to the direction said bottle is thrown from.
There are plenty of other instances this is the case such as how both humans and infected walk into the flames from a Molotov like moths, or how none of them are capable of seeing your AI controlled partners even when they are not in cover. However, I will admit that the latter was a good decision considering the poor reputation that escort have and it does remove some likely frustration.
One could argue that I am just nitpicking when it comes to these things seeing as how enemy patters are not known for being realistic. After all not every game can have perfectly integrated stealth mechanics. The key problem is that that the poor balancing with stealth mechanics makes it so that simply shooting your way through, ala Gears of War, is not an option. You pretty much have to stealth killed nearly every enemy or sneak by them until only a few are left. Otherwise, you will get massacred due to the game’s horribly unbalanced shooting system.
The first problem with the shooting mechanics is that apparently, every untrained bandit with a gun is apparently an expert marksman, and will almost instantly shoot your head clean off the moment you poke out from cover. You on the other hand, need to move your cursor towards the character slowly to get a shot which often becomes difficult to do accurately even when an enemy’s entire body is in clear view. Even worse is the amount of times it often feels like enemies sneak up from behind you and shoot you even when there were none behind you before and you were clearly watching to see any that ran past you, or that were put in some obscure location that you could not see.
Furthermore you cannot even combine both stealth tactics and gunplay tactics either. While it is certainly possible to sneak up on an enemy and perform a stealth kill when they walk into the room suspicious, you apparently lose the ability to sneak up from behind the moment they spot you even if you clearly are behind them and they don’t know you’re there. Somehow the simple act of being aware you are in the general area makes them immune to being strangled or bludgeoned to death. Maybe I should remember that in case I’m ever being stalked by a serial killer and have no clue where is hiding?
To make things even more frustrating, it is apparently possible to shoot people straight in the head and will only stagger back a few steps. Not so much as even slowing down or falling over. Yet despite this, Joel is able to easily kill enemies with his bare hands as soon as they are up close. Attacking an enemy with your fists will just about always catch them in a combo where they are unable to retaliate. However, you will oftentimes end up drawing enemy attention because the enemy principal of “we can’t hear our comrades being bludgeoned to death” goes away if you don’t use the game’s specific stealth kill function; which of course does not work if an enemy is even remotely aware of your presence.
Even worse is that with said stealth kill mechanics, the animations are so absurdly long that enemies that happen to be close by will end up turning around and notice you strangling their comrade due to the length of your animation. In terms of other inconsistencies with game design, you can often shoot an enemy straight in the head and have the game claim it did not hit them while having it claim you did when you clearly hit the area to the left or right of their head. I could not count the amount of times the pointer was clearly right over an enemies head yet it somehow missed because bullets are absurdly slow in the world of The Last of Us. Lastly, Naughty Dog seemed to forget that Joel is not wielding muskets which is indicated by the fact that he needs to reload every other second and that said animation takes an absurdly long time.
If one paid close attention to what I was describing, one may assume that I am being inconsistent with describing the design. Sometimes I make it sound incredibly abusive and easy to manipulate, while other times I make it sound tedious. That is the things with this game’s design so; it is wildly inconsistent with itself. The reason for this is that the game is designed so that you can only get past enemies using one specific method; you know, because to hell with player choice and experimentation! Every area follows the pattern of either “pick off enemies very slowly by waiting them to come for you,” or “run away and hide behind cover.”
This game is clearly meant to be a slow and methodical shooter as opposed to a fast paced one, which is fine. The problem is that such a thing highly discourages any form of thought or experimentation. Stealth is always the only option unless the game makes it so that enemies already notice you. When that is the case, the game becomes exponentially more difficult because you can’t use said stealth mechanics to your advantage. As such nearly every section of the game is incredibly easy or absurdly frustrating.
Regardless of which one of these is the case though there is one thing in common; it will be tedious and repetitive. The reason for this is that there is no variety in enemy design and set up. You have a twenty plus hour game that is made almost entirely of the process of “walk forward, hide behind cover and stealth kill enemies until you are spotted, then engage in gunplay and hope you don’t get massacred” until you reach a cutscene, and then you repeat for another hour or two. There are some small elements of exploration that involve find hidden upgrades to your abilities that are admittedly somewhat entertaining. There were a few fixed rail shooter segments that were kind of fun but unfortunately these segments are few and far between.
I wanted to like this game a lot more than most of this review’s detractors would be willing to admit. I say this because I am generally a fan of these types of depressing, atmospheric games. Yes I knew that something with such a massive amount of hype behind it could not have possibly lived up to all of it but I was hoping it would at least live up to a little bit of it. Instead I got a game that was made out to be this deep, subtle, and emotional masterpiece when it was actually nothing more than a consumer pandering style over substance slog.
There is nothing remotely unique or compelling about this game’s storyline, its world, or its characters and the entire game is just bland and uninteresting. To add to this, the game is just tedious and repetitive and shoddy in terms of its gameplay and art direction to. It clearly expects players to be drawn into its world yet forgot about the part where it needs to be compelling. The Last of Us is one of the most bland and lifeless games I have ever played and I can’t name a single time I ever cared about what happened to our characters.
Oh but what would I know, I clearly can’t be right about this game; I’m just a contrarian troll who is trying to gain attention with my controversial opinion in order to rustle everyone’s jimmies! Well actually no, that is not the case. I can respect that plenty of people seem to really like this game and seemed to really like this game. However, I have a strong feeling that a large majority of these people don’t like this games based on its own merits. Instead, I am willing to guess this game only caught on because the massive amount of hype and marketing it got and a lack of standards from our mainstream critics.
There are a crap ton of games out there that handle this type of atmospheric approach far better than The Last of Us did, yet critics seem to be suspiciously silent when it comes to them. The 2010 Wii title Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, for example, does the “atmospheric post apocalyptic setting that doesn’t try to be scary” approach infinitely better than this game. Despite the fact that it was designed to not exactly be a intense and was more laid back, it never felt tedious. Even with weapons breaking (which was heavily exaggerated in most reviews of said game), it still felt far better paced than The Last of Us and possessed far more heart and emotion. Yet this game was ignored by critics because they clearly were not paid adequately enough by the publishers.
I can only imagine how many people who played this must have no idea that any games outside of whatever they see game journalists hyping up, and they enjoy this game simply because this is the only game they were ever exposed to that attempted this formula. I want to be able to respect it for letting people know that these types of games exist, but it is hard to do when the game is just not that good. As such, I can only assume that a large majority of this game’s praise came from corporate marketing and its own hype.
So no, I cannot recommend The Last of Us. Games should be held to create experiences that are engaging on their own merits, not because of marketing and game of the year awards. Chances are most of the negative reactions this review is going to get are from people who have already played the game anyway so it is not like it will hold any influence to them. Instead this review will be there to people who have held off until now because they didn’t buy into the hype. In that case I can confirm it, The Last of Us is not even close to being worth the hype
Yeah this review was a biiiiiit on the biased side I admit. I had to edit a lot of shit out before posting this hear because I just did not like how it looked before. For those that ever take a look at the games I’m into and think “Oh my God Annie, why do you only play all this hipster shit, why can’t you just play something one of us cares about?”… you probably don’t fit in among my audience. But I think the main reason why is because I’d be running a bias steamroller over every single one of them. I kinda prefer games that aren’t trying their damned hardest to be blockbuster action flicks and are instead entertaining.
The Last of Us I tried simply because of the hype it was getting and I was kinda hoping it would be different… it wasn’t. It’s not that I had no fun with it but both the plot AND the gameplay just got so repetitive. I do have a fair interest in some other AAA titles but most people don’t realize that AAA games only make up a small percentage of the total games out there. You have some people who are out there that think these are the only games that exist and then claim the game industry is in the toilet when they hate these games.
For The Last of Us specifically, I don’t mean to imply that everyone who likes this game just hasn’t played enough good stuff that REAL gamers play… but I genuinely wonder how many would have loved this so much if they knew what else was out there. Eh maybe there would still be a fair number of them but that isn’t my concern. My job as a critic is to tell you my opinion on the game, and my opinion on The Last of Us isn’t positive.
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on July 10th of 2015 and has been revised and re-edited with enhanced presentation.
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