Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: The Last of Us Part I by Naughty Dog

Still the best at what it does.

The Last of Us Part I
is not a fun video game. It contains heavy themes that are thoroughly explored over its fifteen-hour runtime. Sure you can turn on some modifiers for unlimited health and blaze through or you can skip all the cutscenes and focus on killing infected enemies, but you would be missing the point. Heavily inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Last of Us Part I gives players control of Joel as he navigates a post-apocalyptic American wasteland with an undesired mission and an even more unwanted companion.

What Naughty Dog manages to accomplish in the first fifteen minutes of The Last of Us Part I most video games can't manage over the entirety of their runtime. Their strong approach to character relationships, growth, and relatability sucks the player in right away. Next, atmosphere. The game immediately sets up a sinister vibe with its audio and lighting, a hum of danger vibrates under the surface. Then the dominoes start falling and the game sets up the underlying character motivation for Joel and it’s up to the player to help see him through to redemption.

Part I
is not a remaster like 2014’s The Last of Us Remastered, it’s a complete overhaul of all the assets and animations, breathing new life into an aging game. Now, Part I and II are closer in graphical prowess and ready for a new audience to experience once the show drops in 2023. The amount of work that has gone into fleshing out all of the existing assets is astonishing. The Last of Us Part I is one of the best-looking games on the market. It was difficult to stop myself from taking a ton of photos in the newly fleshed-out photo mode. The visual fidelity is astonishing and is one of the two pillars maintaining the tone of one of gaming’s most atmospheric series, the other is Gustavo Santaolalla’s unforgettable soundtrack.

Harrowing, heartfelt, and heavy, Santaolalla’s score is incredible and entwined perfectly into every aspect of The Last of Us Part I. From the end of the game’s first sequence until the last lines are delivered, Santaolalla provides music that gets under your skin and becomes as much of the game as the characters themselves. I get chills thinking about the moment the credits roll and the soundtrack begins.

Of most significance in Part I are the characters. Not only the main characters, but the ones you meet throughout your journey. This remake does more justice in representing the integrity of the voice actor’s performances than the original did. The new animations depict the characters in such stunning detail that, when comparing them, it gives quite a shock. Part I is an example of a studio that loves its property and wants to ensure it is respected. Many people cried foul when it was announced and were quick to denounce it as a simple cash grab. The Last of Us Part I is anything but.

Themes of loss, trust, surviving without a purpose, man v.s. self, society, and nature, as well as many others, are woven throughout the narrative. Every piece of this game is meant to fit into its place. There are no superfluous portions of Part I. They are all meant to flow, and do so, in one of the best-paced video games ever made. Each sequence gives the player time to experience what is going on before allowing them some downtime to reflect. The denouement is appropriately climactic, and unlike almost any other game, forces the player to reflect. Again, not fun.

The gameplay is as grounded as the story. Joel feels heavy as you navigate the world. You can upgrade your abilities, but Joel is never a superhero. His aim is slightly shaky and he takes a while to craft and heal. Taking your time to ensure a properly placed shot is critical, especially if you play on the harder difficulties where ammo and resources become even more scarce. But even on normal, it’s easy to waste your stock, so the player has to be conscious and prepared for future encounters. A sense of urgency and resource consciousness is present in almost every encounter, creating tense engagements regardless of enemy type.

Speaking of enemies, Clickers have become synonymous with The Last of Us franchise, even briefly appearing in the trailer for HBO’s upcoming show. These enemies inspire a sense of dread when playing on a difficulty that matches the player’s skill level. Their creepy clicking noises act as sonar, forcing the player to move slowly to avoid activating them. When combined with the Runners who can see the player, combat situations can quickly turn from stealth to all-out assault as a swarm of enemies chases you, moaning and screeching. If a Runner gets to you, they slow you down, but if a Clicker gets to you, it’s instant death for the player. The quick cutscene that follows the player’s death is gruesome but cuts away before the final damage is done, leaving some to the player’s imagination. It creates a terrifying effect that would be lessened with a more gratuitous finisher.

The writing in The Last of Us Part I is top-notch. The story is quite simple. Its main purpose is to serve the plot and character relationships and growth, so it never becomes convoluted and exposition-heavy like a Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy game (don’t get me wrong, I love both Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy). There are plenty of other games with much more unique and even better overall stories, but almost none that nail the underlying themes and character progression the way that The Last of Us does. In keeping the overarching story basic, Naughty Dog can focus on what matters. There are so many moving parts under the surface of each character’s action and dialogue—all of which is masterfully implemented. Every cutscene is brimming with heartfelt line delivery from the voice actors, and painstaking detail from Naughty Dog’s animators. The Last of Us Part I is a thorough labor of love.

Though the game is missing its amazing Factions multiplayer game mode present in the original release, a version of the game mode is confirmed for 2023. The remake does include the fantastic Left Behind DLC which is, like the main game, remade from the ground up. In addition to the inclusion of Left Behind, Part I takes some notes from Part II’s playbook and includes a whole host of new accessibility features for disabled gamers. You could technically play the game blind or deaf. The Dualsense is used in unique ways as well, including allowing the controller to vibrate in a way that represents a character’s line delivery which has proven helpful for deaf gamers. Naughty Dog has taken extra time and care to ensure that everyone could take part in the story they made nine years ago, and it’s present as soon as you look at the accessibility list of features.

Nine years ago I started a game that I was unsure about. The game was heavy, depressing, and sometimes frightening. But over time, the characters grew on me, the music transfixed me, and the setting sucked me in. When the last line was uttered and the credits rolled, I thought, “Was that the end?” And though I played it a few more times over the years, I would constantly think about the characters I’d come to love, their motivations, and the intent of the game’s final spoken line. One word, and yet, many ways to interpret it. It wasn't until The Last of Us Part II that any of my questions were answered. But for a game to have such a profound impact on me was an incredible awakening. I considered the actions I had been forced to take during my time with the game, challenged the protagonist’s motivations, and put myself in his shoes. Would I do what he did? Was that the right choice? The Last of Us Part I isn’t a fun game. It’s a game about reflection, and more than a game—it’s an experience. This remake is undoubtedly the best way to play this cinematic masterpiece. The Last of Us Part I isn't just Naughty Dog’s best title, it’s one of the best examples of what storytelling in a video game can achieve.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 10/10

Bonus: +1 for its best-in-class storytelling. +1 for living, breathing characters. +1 for one of the best video game soundtracks. +1 for incredibly inclusive accessibility options.

Penalties: -1 for lack of Factions mode.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.