Firstly, a confession. I didn’t love The Last of Us. Sorry, but it is true. I took an incredibly long time to get into it and even then, it didn’t seem to capture me the way it did for others. I will give it its dues though: That opening sequence destroyed me. It was a gut punch that amazed at how much a video game could affect me. Then the real game started and it never reached that level of emotion for me again, which is a shame.
Coming to terms with the control scheme and the premise of being a sneaky survival game was quite a leap for me it seems. Although the longer I played it and the further I got, the more it became second nature. And I think this is one of the reasons that I vastly enjoyed Part 2 more, already having that familiarity. But anyway, back to Part 1. Coming at it quite late (I only really got stuck into it after it was free on PS Plus, despite having owned it for a while beforehand. And even then, it took a national lockdown for me to pick it up again, but do it properly this time) it seemed that everyone else had already played and already loved this game, so what did I have to lose?
As a concept, it is a familiar one. Guy shepherding a girl through a dystopian world to get to some magical place. Alright, we all got that. What to do to make it special or different? Give them nothing to use against enemies, other than what they can scavenge! Yeah, great idea!! Only, it totally played against me to begin with as I found it infuriating and I was really wasteful (see earlier about not being in the proper mindset for this game). Then I got stuck at a specific point, quite early on, and it stopped me playing. I kept picking it up, forgetting what the controls were, failing to pass the problem point and putting it down again. Rinse and repeat. Stuck in a negative cycle there was no way out. Except, in a moment of clarity….
I ran for it.
I honestly only just realised that I have a run button so I just pegged it to get past the problem area and, in 20 seconds, I had got past the problem area that had stopped me playing for ages and ages. Damn it! Now able to breathe again and with the whole Cordyceps virus-infected world ahead of me, there was hope in the air. For a little bit. More consistent playing aligned with getting my head around the game concept and controls and a general learning of what works and what doesn’t and I was well on the way through this game. Yes! OK, so this is a pretty great game. Joel feels like a superman at times, but there are interesting twists and turns in the narrative to keep you hooked. And then there was the prescience of me enjoying playing as Ellie more than playing as Joel. How fortunate is that in light of what Part 2 is about, eh?
And that’s about it. With some tense moments, some interesting puzzles to solve and some tactical awareness, I made it through. And late one night (read: very late one night), I managed to complete this game. Joel and Ellie, strolling through the trees and stopping to talk just above Jackson. This was everything that I was working towards. This moment of relief, of wrapping things up. So why didn’t I feel triumphant about it? Well, the conversation options caused me some pause for thought. I thought I did the right thing, worked my ass off to get her somewhere safe only to find out it wasn’t the right thing to do. And now, I’m feeling guilty about it all. Great. But also, the inklings of the game design working its way into my brain. Damn, on reflection now, did it affect me more than I thought at the time?
Another main reason to pick up this game now and persist with it was due to Part 2‘s imminent arrival. Friends were playing it (and raving about it) and I was next on the list of being lent it, so the countdown had started. One thing I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t have too long to wait between finishing the first game and starting the second. That feeling of continuing this story almost straight away was a relief. And with the familiarity and concept being already ingrained in my brain, the game didn’t have to do all that hard work over again.
Another prologue and another emotional hitch, this time realising that there is something wrong between Joel and Ellie. After all the work I put into the challenges of Part 1 and this is where we are now? Also, it seems that Ellie has some issues, outside of Joel, of her own to work through. But that’s OK, we’ll be with her for a while yet so I’m sure we’ll get to deal with those things…..
Starting out on the new journey and I’m fully in the zone. Climbing, jumping, sneaking, stabbing (ooh, I’m liking that Ellie has a knife that doesn’t break after every use – this plays more to me not liking the asset management elements of Part 1), dodging? OK, that needs work as my timing is all off.
Visually though this game is astounding. I’m getting properly engrossed in the scenery and sometime to my detriment. Then, the first game surprise, I’m playing as Abby. Who T.F. is Abby? She seems alright, determined but ok so far. Hmm. OK, Gav, well done there! The first major action set piece of the game had me ready to fight, then quickly ready to run, then breathless as more and more infected chased me down, searching and hoping that I’d chosen the right way to go. Wow. That was intense. Oh, wait, there’s more to come. Aaarggh! They’re everywhere!
And then, the second moment of surprise. Not going to go into it here but, damn did it hit home. Setting the rest of the game up, forcing your perspective, giving you purpose. As mentioned previously, I enjoyed the Ellie moments of Part 1 more than with Joel and it is refreshing to have her as the main character this time around. Ellie is still fantastic to control and her abilities/talents fitted in nicely with how I was choosing to play the game. And I think that there was a little bit more of a choice in Part 2 as to how to play it than Part 1, more scope for weapon play but that didn’t really matter as I was shit shot, so I mostly stuck to sneaking and stabbing. Which is great as I never tired of scoping out a location, working out who to get first and sneaking my way into position. And this was how I continued my progress: Plan, sneak, clear, pick up, move on. That’s not to say that I didn’t use my ranged weapons, because I did, and they were very useful at times (particularly the silent, non-attention seeking bow and arrow) but I kept them for when I REALLY needed them.
As the story progressed, particularly in the early missions, exploring Seattle the scope and scale of the world was awe-inspiring and I loved just moving around in it. Even though in the back of my brain I knew it wasn’t open world but more that it was on really wide rails, this still felt like a lush, fully realised environment, moving seamlessly from outside streets and stunning vistas into dark and tight buildings and offices. Thinking back now, I can’t remember a moment of loading between areas or between the inside and outside locations. Maybe I’m glorifying it in hindsight, but that’s still pretty impressive work right there.
Anyway, there are some absolutely, superbly tense set pieces that Ellie must work her way through and another chase sequence akin to Abby’s from earlier on, both of which are so alien to the slowly-slowly pace of the sneaking and they really stand out. Another shock moment, superbly worked up to, and we get another switch. This time a longer switch to Abby. And, holy fuck, do we learn some stuff. And here is where the game really starts to mess with you, your head and your emotions. What was once all indisputably one way traffic is slowly turned around. Playing as Abby and playing her, in my opinion better, missions was the highlight of this game for me (The Descent was superb as were The Island and The Escape missions). Once again, mastering the controls (and even back to shiv creation), it all felt natural and allowed the story to wash over me and I could pay attention to the minutiae of what was happening, even in the more fraught moments.
So, as we reach towards the conclusion or somewhere close, I’m torn. Torn between the two main characters and who they are and what they are fighting for, both on similar missions, both destined to lose something. And it is this emotional manipulation that I haven’t experienced before in playing a game. To be so set in your mind to only have that whittled away, piece by piece, until you are left with two equals: neither better, neither worse. And a looming decision on the horizon that is going to break you when it comes to play out.
And it did break me. I actually didn’t want to press the button to commit the act that I felt unnecessary, that I didn’t want to carry out. Damn it! This game just made me care about a character THAT much. Caring about pixels and code, I mean in the best possible way, WTF?
Throughout all this, the great work of the visual and the world building atmosphere is completed and complimented hugely by the score and work of Gustavo Santaolalla. His melancholy guitar-work are a huge part of the emotional content and connection that the game has. I’ve listened to the scores of both games multiple times since and it doesn’t fail to bring emotional memories of the game to the fore.
So, there we have it. Both The Last of Us games completed but there is only one that I am contemplating going back to playing again, if I can put myself through the ordeal. Both games centred around the devastation of the world before by a virus but the real enemies are the people who are left to fight over the dwindling scraps. Huh, who’d have thought it, eh? Both games are fantastic pieces of work, both worthy of their accolades and a real feather in the cap for Naughty Dog, all the developers and everyone involved with these games.