The Last of Us (2013) – a review

The Last of Us was on sale recently on the PS4 store, so I got it for HK$120 (~$15). The main storyline made for a pretty compact play-through (maybe a dozen hours?), and my main thoughts are as follows.

What makes this game stand out is its top-notch writing. In my opinion The Last of Us is among a pretty short list of mainstream games with narratives that are on par with top quality films / TV / books1. Indeed the opening scene alone deserves praise for its super-concise yet highly-impactful character building, mostly via a few well-crafted dialogues and a sharp plot-twist 2. Beyond this intro, the narrative follows two unlikely companions, Joel & Ellie, and the focus is squarely on their evolving relationship.  This relationship evolves via a convenient “road-trip” plot device, which puts the two through ever-changing scenery and a host of side characters that they briefly interact with. This eventually culminates in the disturbing (to say the least) ending that certainly generated a bunch of discussions back when the game was originally released.

What I found rather surprising about The Last of Us is that in aiming to craft such a strong story, the developers at face value completely went against the principles of player agency. This is the direct opposite of games such as The Witcher and Mass Effect series, where the player decided how the story progressed (and chose the endings) and determined the fates of individual characters. Instead, here the story is set in stone, and with one notable exception3, critical developments are all presented via cut-scenes.

In this sense, at times I found myself breaking from the immersion, because I could argue that all I was doing was getting through the action sequences so that the plot could unfold. But really this is just a minor gripe, as the story & the two characters are hauntingly beautiful. If anything, it simply shows that there’s no single correct way to make a story-driven game, each approach (to present players with meaningful story choices or not) has its trade-offs.

Lastly, to talk about the gameplay mechanics briefly… it’s primarily a stealth game with some survival scavenger design. Playing on Normal difficulty, I didn’t really fully appreciate the skills system, but there’s certainly some player agency here to pick perks that suit the player’s play-style (those who are more eager for combat vs. those who prefer stealth). The combat can be surprisingly intense due to some tricky enemy designs (some Infected, which are basically zombies, can one-shot the player if they get into melee range), and with the strict cap on inventory (i.e. you can’t stash up a ton of ammo) the player is always one bad move away from being resource-deprived. This adds a lot of extra tension to some otherwise mundane combat encounters (e.g. clear an area to progress). The only glaring problem was the AI, which I found unsatisfying due to a couple of frequently-seen issues: 1) enemy AI stealth detection when you have friendly AI following you seems erratic; 2) sometimes enemy AI reaction seems nonsensical (running around in circles, or fleeing from you when clearly he could inflict damage).

  1. The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption are 2 other AAA games that immediately come to mind.
  2. Example reaction (warning: spoilers) when un-suspecting teens play through this scene.
  3. As part of the climatic ending, the player has no choice but to perform an act that would likely be universally considered immoral.
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