Adventuring through my backlog of games, one game at a time.
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: July 2014 (Originally June 2013 on PS3)
Played On: PlayStation 4
When playing through my backlog I occasionally reach a game whose reputation is impossible to ignore. It becomes an interesting exercise to see whether a beloved classic still holds up, particularly if I lack the nostalgia factor.
My experiences with such games have been all over the place. I’ve gone back and played classics like Half-Life 2, The Longest Journey, Baldur’s Gate 2, and both Portal games, and come away with just as much respect and admiration as their ardent supporters.
Yet a few beloved cult classics, such as Psychonauts, The Witcher 2, and Beyond Good and Evil mostly fell flat for me. Their aging graphics and clunky gameplay not quite able to keep their memorable qualities on a high enough pedestal.
Despite not being all that old, The Last of Us Remastered falls somewhere in the middle.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I adored the relationship between Joel and Ellie, the variety of level designs, the clever crafting system, and the generally well-written dialogue. The final quarter of the game in particular ratcheted up the tension and drama, and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the final few hours.
But as a stealth-horror, third-person action game with a few environmental puzzles, I found it more frustrating than fun.
Much of my frustrations lie with the early game. Joel, our grizzled action hero with a tragic past and a bad attitude (stop me if you’ve heard that one before…) is a survivor, but not a soldier. He can enter a Listen mode to highlight nearby foes, creep along, and stealthily take them out from behind.
Killing them quickly requires a shiv, which you can craft from found materials. The crafting system is simple, intuitive, and a decent way to create meaningful loot. Health kits were the next most important, while the bombs and molotovs were situational at best.
But stealth never felt satisfying, and I quickly realized that The Last of Us Remastered cribs more from survival horror than actual stealth games.
I love stealth games like the Dishonored and Dues Ex series. They give me lots of fun tools and large, open levels with a variety of tactical options.
While the level designs here were varied and fun to explore, from flooded hotels to abandoned neighborhoods, they were all pretty straightforward and linear. The only stealthy tools were to creep up behind someone, or take them out with the bow and arrow. But ammo was scarce, and the best option was always to avoid enemies whenever possible, until the game just threw them at you en masse, which happens all too frequently.
The Infected were almost impossible to stealth kill or snipe from range thanks to the way they jerk and twitch, turning most engagements into a lackluster shoot-fest. The gun-play never felt great either, as I constantly fought with limited ammo and horrendous gun swaying.
By collecting vitamins Joel can improve a few different skills, like crafting speed, max health, and his aiming. I made the mistake of going after the skill that lets Joel save himself from being insta-killed by a clicker first – an issue that plagued me throughout the early game and then never happened again.
Grabbing the first skill block for Weapon Sway improved my gameplay so much that I was annoyed it wasn’t just baked into the game. Shootouts still never felt great as the game lacks a sticky cover system that I have grown used to in every third person shooter game in the last decade.
Enemy situations never got more complex than hordes of dudes or hordes of infected. There’s something about a fungal virus that ended the world, but functionally the Infected are the same as zombies, and only come in three different varieties, two of which kill you as soon as they’re in melee range.
The boss-level bloaters were just silly. They were large super-zombies who threw puffy grenades, forcing me to run around and throw molotovs and unload bullets, or just avoid them entirely.
Even worse were the incredibly dorky environmental puzzles. They were designed to break up the action as Joel had to grab ladders, push crates, or, worst of all, ferry Ellie across water. I dreaded reaching a flooded area because I knew we were up against another boring puzzle. I get wanting to break up the action but these moments were just pointless busy work, and a bad holdover from early 3D puzzle games.
What was satisfying was the story-telling. The voice acting for Joel and Ellie was easily some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game. I love how the two play off each other in every situation, with Ellie’s unflagging optimism and can-do attitude providing a rich contrast to Joel’s bleak and serious outlook.
Although the plot is basically just one big Point A to Point B, it does allow the characters to grow and experience a variety of human emotions and conflicts, from the horrors of a failed underground survival camp to a bloodthirsty gang of cannibal hunters.
When you finally play as Ellie during a particularly exhilarating back-and-forth sequence in the late game, it’s incredibly fun to see her grow into her own self-sufficient survival-badass.
My fellow backlogger Chris (DM for our current D&D campaign and one of my best friends) finished the game at the same time. We had similar mixed results, and discussed how TLoU may have simply worked better as a movie. Most of our complaints lie with the gameplay: the stealth, the combat, and the puzzles, while all the cinematic bits, the acting, the story-telling, and the world design, were fantastic.
It’s perfectly fine for games to want to act like movies. Some of my favorite modern games are very cinematic in their designs, such as the Mass Effect trilogy, and Red Dead Redemption. But The Last of Us Remastered mostly fails at making stealth or combat very enjoyable. I’m glad I experienced the story, but I also think I would’ve enjoyed watching it more than actually playing it.
- Joel and Ellie are both well-written, meaningful characters.
- The last quarter of the story nicely ratchets up the drama and tension, and I enjoyed the emotionally conflicted ending.
- I loved playing as Ellie in the memorable moments towards the end, and finding her just as badass as Joel.
- Solid crafting system that rewards exploring every nook and cranny for materials.
- Very generous checkpoint and autosave system that frankly kept me from just rage-quitting the game early on.
- The first quarter of the game is horrendously difficult and frustrating thanks to numerous insta-kill enemies and annoying weapon swaying.
- Environmental puzzles are annoying, repetitive, and boring.
- By about a third into the game, you’ve seen all the different enemy types.
- Neither stealth nor action feels wholly satisfying.
- Many of the post-apocalyptic zombie survival tropes – as well as the gruff father shepherding a kid story – have been done to death in the last few years.