Returning to the world of The Last of Us is always an exercise in masochism. It is a playground of pain, a circus of self-inflicted damnation, a carnival of blood and horror. The first game introduced us to a lost world, showing us the lives of Ellie, the potential salvation of humanity, and Joel, humanity’s doom. The sequel showed us the consequences of Joel’s selfish, nihilistic choices, reverberations turning into cycles of filial revenge for Ellie.
The Last Of Us tells the story of a world taken by a virus, the Cordyceps brain infection. This is a variation on the (very real) fungi that turns, for example, ants into zombies that are suicidal. We are with Joel on the night when he loses everything, including his daughter, and we cut to him 20 years later.
Joel has been hardened by a post-apocalyptic world, turning into a character who would otherwise be an enemy NPC in many other games: a no-good, shoot-first smuggler. He is tasked with smuggling a teenager, Ellie, out of Boston because she is the only person who appears to be immune to the virus – and there’s a way to build a vaccine from her. So begins the apocalyptic road-trip, filled with horrible humans and monsters, determined to make their lives even more a living hell.
Filled with emotional moments of loss, depravity, terror and general unpleasantness, slowly humanity creeps in through the cracks, filling these two broken people. They are bonded by pain and united by endurance, saving one another, growing into the places they had thought calcified by suffering. Eventually viewing each other as father and daughter, there remains a cold rain forever cast over their interactions, dampening full joy, full embrace and full understanding. Joel’s choice at the end of the first games not only dooms the world, but, more importantly to us and Joel, creates a permanent crack in the familial facade he was crafting.
Naughty Dog has returned with a remake of this original game, called The Last of Us: Part 1 which apparently was “reworked from the ground up” for Playstation 5. Thus, it is not simply a remaster, with improved framerate and higher textures. Instead, the engine used on Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us: Part 2 envelope the PS3 game and its PS4 remake: Skins and textures are highly detailed, full use of the DualSense controller, some new mechanics on the workbench, new animations, reworked environments, instant load times. It’s all here.
The floaty combat of before is much tighter perhaps due in part to the magnificence of the DualSense controller. Every reload, movement, gunshot, safety mechanism is felt – you feel every shotgun pop, every flame burst, every explosion.
With an improved engine and far superior hardware, the physics engine now responds to every interaction. Leaping over counters sees items flying, walls and glass shatter and chip with bullets, dust and debris fly, wires and cables shake with explosions: The world is alive with violence.
It’s also hard to convey the importance of flow in a story-heavy game such as this, where loading screens once broke up pace and tension. Characters in cutscenes are the same models in the game, allowing for ease of transition between cutscenes and gameplay.
The sound design with the new audio capabilities of the PS5’s audio architecture help elevate the richness of the world. I could tell the directions of monsters and people, footsteps echoing in hallways.
Part 1 does nothing to change the story, cutscenes or missions of the original – a lot of the mechanics remain the same, in terms of on-the-fly crafting of traps, molotovs and health kits.
It just feels better. The game is what the creators wanted it to be from the beginning, but were held back due to the hardware of the time. Here, they are given full license with the power of the beastly PS5.
Despite all this, however, I am uncertain whether I would pay the hefty price asked for. There is no urgency to play this game, if you have played the original or its PS4 remaster. That game remains beautiful and engaging – and it is the same story, the same performances, the same devastation. But it is very hard to go back after the incredible mechanics introduced in Part 2, a lot of which is incorporated into the first game. (Unfortunately, some elements like going prone, are not in Part 1.)
It’s easy to simply say The Last of Us: Part 1 is just a prettier version of the original. While that remains true, that is only half the story and a disservice to the incredible work done by very talented artists and technicians. I have always loved this series, the stories and the characters. I enjoy being sucked into the brutality of its world and the unending nightmare, where human hatred, anger, selfishness are unpredictable and uncontrollable – yet against confirming that humans far more terrifying than any animalistic infected, who can be tamed and managed with the right responses.
The journey began on the Playstation 3, in the twilight years of that struggling console. It was remastered for PS4. And now it comes fully revamped on PS5. It is without a doubt worth playing, worth re-experiencing with this new gorgeous flesh. But whether that is worth the hefty price I am uncertain about, given it is the same story, plot beats, mechanics of the original – which still looks gorgeous today. This is unlike, for example, Demon Souls, which is a game from what feels like a completely different age and was inaccessible to a lot of people prior to that fully reworked version. You can play the still very beautiful Last of Us on current consoles.
I relished my time back with Joel and Ellie. The transition into the sequel felt earned and speaks a lot to what the second game does. I am glad this exists. There’s no doubt it deserves a play, the question is whether it deserves your… well, pay.