Ben: It’s been seven years to the day since Naughty Dog wowed the gaming world with their action-adventure masterpiece on the Playstation 3, The Last of Us, and over three years since its sequel was announced. With our excitement for The Last of Us Part II at an all-time high, Lauren and I decided to replay the Playstation 4 version of the original and the story add-on, The Last of Us: Left Behind. Does The Last of Us still stand as tall after the releases of newer classics like Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War? Read on to find out!
Lauren: Um… the answer is duh. Of course it does.
The Last of Us is one of those games that burrows deep into your soul and refuses to ease up on its assault on your emotions, sending deep aches rippling through your body with every traumatic beat that occurs in the story. That may sound dramatic, but it really isn’t an exaggeration to me. And as much as the opening section of the game tries to prepare you for what is to come, there’s no preparing for the heartache that stems from caring for characters as deeply as you do for Joel and Ellie. They make you feel all the feelings, and sometimes those feelings hurt. Sometimes they hurt so much it’s hard to breathe.
So maybe games like Horizon Zero Dawn and the new God of War can claim their gameplay is a little smoother around the edges (I certainly don’t remember having as many missed swings with Kratos’ ax thanks to an NPC (iNconveniently Placed Child) running accidental interference as I had this time around with Joel’s melee weapons), and their stories are far from anything to scoff at (seriously, those games are both worthy of all the accolades they’ve received as well), but The Last of Us is The Last of Us. Nothing compares.
Ben: Yeah, that was kind of a dumb question. After completing my initial playthrough of The Last of Us, I started comparing every new game I played against it, and not many have come anywhere near close to matching it. The all-too-human characters and story are supported by a beautiful and melancholic soundtrack, gorgeous visuals, and some of the best motion capture performances of all time. The Last of Us’ gameplay is solid, though nothing revolutionary, but you feel every bit of heartbreak and loss along with Joel and Ellie throughout the game’s campaign, and that overwhelming sadness makes the fleeting moments of hope and happiness they find that much more powerful.
FULL SPOILERS BELOW
After playing through it for the fourth (maybe fifth?) time, my thoughts on The Last of Us quality-wise are mostly the same, but having gone through the story so many times somehow made it both better and worse for me emotionally. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with the characters that I knew didn’t have long, and I dreaded their inevitable endings. And even after on my most recent playthrough, the game’s most traumatic events – like Tess, Sam, and Henry’s deaths or playing hide and seek with David – were just as impactful as they were when I first experienced them in 2013. I credit that to Neil Druckmann’s – one of the lead designers and writers of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, another of Naughty Dog’s best games – writing, the absolutely phenomenal score, and the unreal cast. The Last of Us is an emotional roller coaster, and I keep getting back in line… Even though I hate roller coasters.
Lauren: Roller coasters… Emotions… Both things that send lumps up your throat. And I hate the lumps.
Even knowing what was to come, and partially because of this, I played through this game with such a sense of dread because of the looming shadow cast by the other shoe just waiting to drop. Everything comes at a cost, and eventually it is going to add up to be too much for even the strongest person to bear, let alone a man who keeps everyone at a distance and a girl that is looking for the exact opposite of what he‘s willing to give. Eventually Ellie will become someone who doesn’t reach for her joke book to lift the spirits of others, someone who might not pick up the toy that someone else left in the dirt, someone who no longer feels the joy of doing something as simple as whistling.
Thank God for the giraffes…
And I guess Joel was there too… eh heh… But in all seriousness, can you imagine having to make that final choice between the one girl who finally broke through all the walls and all of humanity? I honestly can’t imagine recovering from that had the game makers put that decision in the players’ hands. I wouldn’t have survived the guilt. And something tells me it’s going to weigh heavily on everyone’s minds. Not just Joel’s, but Ellie’s. She can’t not know the truth about what really happened with the Fireflies, can she? People aren’t put in hospital gowns just for the Hell of it.
Ben: What I always loved/hated about the chase sequence in the hospital was how it was so similar to the one in the prologue. Joel lost one daughter to humans doing what was supposedly best for humanity – the soldier that shot Sarah did so to prevent the outbreak from spreading further – and it destroyed him. It took two decades for Joel to find another reason, a real reason, to live, and there was no way he was losing that again, humanity be damned.
The Last of Us is filled with moments like that, but my favorite part of the game – or any game – is when Joel decides to bring Ellie all the way to the Fireflies. During the huge fight they had right before, Joel coldly reminded Ellie that she wasn’t his daughter, but the second he had her hop on Callus with him was the same one he admitted she actually was. Ellie’s tears were barely noticeable during their shouting match, and I had a few more streaming down my cheeks as they made up. The story of The Last of Us is the most emotionally draining that I’ve experienced in a video game, but it also has more than a few uplifting moments as well, the ones centered around the happiness that Joel and Ellie find in each other.
You know what I don’t think is uplifting though? The Last of Us: Left Behind, the game’s only story add-on. While it has its short sequences of cheeriness like the main game, Left Behind has a darker undertone because you already know what’s going to happen. Ellie had told Joel, and us, how she lost her friend Riley, and Left Behind uses that knowledge to taint every bit of joy in this DLC.
Lauren: Not only that, but the DLC adds so many extra layers of heartache to the bits of the base game that gave us hope for the survival of humanity. Remember the joke books? Turns out Riley gave them to her. Remember when Ellie taught herself how to whistle? Well the last person she heard whistle was Riley. And then I made the mistake of looking at the “artifacts” in Ellie’s backpack. All this time, throughout the entirety of The Last of Us, Ellie has been carrying much more than just the pun books. She was carrying a letter from her dead mother, Sam’s robot, and Riley’s Firefly pendant. Talk about a heavy load to carry alone.
The encounter with the Stalkers might have lead to a ton of frustration and anguish for me considering they ALWAYS knew where I was no matter what strategy I used in an attempt to get through this waterlogged section (pretty sure the game was also trolling me when it said they wouldn’t pay attention to my flashlight), but opening the backpack is what hurt me the most…
At least until you brought up a glaring omission that I somehow looked past. Obviously we know that Riley goes on to die and Ellie doesn’t, but the credits roll long before these two truly have to come to terms with this. We get shielded from the grim details of how this story REALLY ends.
Ben: Indeed, the open ending leaves us wondering about Riley’s exact fate. We know that she was going to turn, but Ellie wasn’t. Did Ellie leave “Riley” behind and go back to her boot camp knowing her zombified friend would forever wander through the last place they were together? Did Ellie choose to put down her closest friend with her own hands? Was the add-on’s title referring to the ending, or the initial separation that occured beforehand when Riley joined the Fireflies? Those questions were the first ones Left Behind left rattling around in my head once the credits rolled, but then I thought of another, more important one:
Do I really want to know?
To be honest, I think Naughty Dog did me a favor by closing Left Behind like that because I’m not sure I could’ve really handled seeing what actually happened.
With all this in mind, I still can’t wait to see the person Ellie has become in The Last of Us Part II, for better or worse. Will she be the same girl we grew to love along with Joel, or will the world have already broken her? Will she still love puns, or only focus on surviving, no matter the cost? Ellie and Joel are two of my favorite characters from any video game, so I’m definitely buckling in for another go on that emotional roller coaster.
Lauren: Throat lumps and all.
Surprise surprise, we still love The Last of Us. If you liked what you read, check out our other reviews, and make sure to come back for our soon-to-be-written review of The Last of Us Part II! Until next time, remember: the best seats are in the Middle of the Row!