MAKING DUE WITH THE BEST YOU HAVE
The Last of Us tries hard to live up to its credence as a grueling survival horror game. But there are too many fail-safes in place to truly manufacture the nail biting experience that Naughty Dog advertised. In their first visions of the game, so revealed back in 2011, they described an experience where fighting was condemned on extremely dire levels. Supplies were countable on one hand and any sneeze equaled death.
While fighting is discouraged, careful players running through on the normal difficulty won’t experience this reality. Whether they didn’t have the gumption to stick to the script or simply found it unfeasible, it’s certainly possible to kill every enemy and still finish the game in good standing inventory wise.
These first impressions led to the idea that Joel could spare those bandits that, despite their crass comments and merciless brutality, are in equally perilous straits and could hence be identified with on some level. In contrast to this idea, most areas cannot be simply escaped, and require the room to be cleared before the duo can move on.
The game starts off within the boundaries of scraping by in a desolate world, but by the end Joel has a flamethrower and ninja powder bombs. His team may traverse several rooms with very few supplies scattered around, then find a plethora of bottles and bricks, the two throwing items used to distract or stun enemies.
These kind of shifts in scenery all too clearly telegraph when fights are ensuing, dulling some of the tension. This is an odd decision since you can only carry one at a time – why not scatter them everywhere?
In similar sobriety tests, The Last of Us drunkenly swerves and stumbles while walking that fine line of featuring allies as liabilities and as assets:
It would not be desirable to have them bailing you out of situations, but infinite ammo for all but you frays the reality a bit.
It would be equally regrettably to have clumsy friends reveal your position during stealth scenes, but terrible pathing and movement AI lead to them sprinting around rooms and sometimes bumping into enemies, all without consequence.
While the burden of survival is rightly placed on Joel’s shoulders, there are scenarios where he might ponder why Ellie isn’t shooting more frequently while he’s getting his neck ripped apart.
Instant kills on Joel are instead rendered as generously timed countdowns for allies, giving him time to shoot them off. Health is not cumulative for them either, so they make for good meat shields.
Problems like this create a form of ludonarrative dissonance – ironically reminiscent of Uncharted – that the developers were trying to avoid. Ultimately the nightmare spoken of and portrayed in cutscenes doesn’t come to fruition while control is in the player’s hands.
There’s no question that this game avoided almost all the pitfalls predicted for it and other titles that share a similar description on paper. Neil Druckmann even lived up to his vow from 2011 to “raise the bar” for storytelling and command “more realistic” performances out his actors than ever before. The narrative alone more than condones for any sins that may have been committed here.
But they did set the bar a little too high in terms of its gameplay though. It’s too bad too, since it’s so hard to imagine a sequel recreating this kind of dramatic tension and continuing the story. Hopefully they leave well enough alone and let this franchise end here.