It's sometimes difficult to think of "The Last of Us" as a game, as opposed to a series of yelps, skipped breaths and sighs of relief. This is not a "fun" game. It is an emotionally and mentally exhausting journey that dips its toe into every zombie movie cliche in the book and, yet, still manages to come out the other side feeling vital and powerful.
Twenty years have passed since the cordyceps fungus (it's a real species, look it up if you dare) evolved to target human prey. Those infected with the fungal spores became aggressive, mindless carriers, and soon the few survivors were holed up in militaristic ghettos where cops shoot first and ask questions later. When a smuggler named Joel gets saddled with his most unusual cargo yet, a young girl named Ellie who might be humanity's last hope. The two of them must brave the apocalyptic world outside the city gates.
The setup is nothing zombie aficionados haven't heard before, but "The Last of Us" takes its time to makes the player care about its heroes. Before you know it, the simple scare tactics of zombies pouncing from behind corners feels like small potatoes beside the mounting dread of trying to protect Ellie against increasingly stacked odds. Despite growing up post-apocalypse, Ellie is just a regular 14-year old girl. She hums to herself. She stops to tie her shoe. She gets excited when she sees garden gnomes for the first time. Over the course of the game's 15-hour story those little details add up, making the burden of protecting her feel all the more real.
Joel is a handyman at the workbench and can slap together the junk he finds into useful upgrades and items. Alcohol and rags can be used to make medical kits or Molotov cocktails, for instance, and guns can be given scopes and faster reload times. It's a well-implemented system, but no matter how armed to the teeth Joel becomes, it's usually a better idea to just sneak by. Fortunately, the player can also upgrade Joel's hearing, which lets him "see" enemies via sound waves like a lo-fi Daredevil.
"The Last of Us" features a new spin on multiplayer, as the typical online death match becomes something of a resource-gathering game. Basically, the supplies you manage to grab in between blowing away the enemy team go toward keeping your own faction alive. Together with a team of (hopefully) cooperative teammates, you'll try to keep enough supplies flowing to the people back home to survive a pre-set amount of time. It's a clever way to raise the stakes and inject some of the anxiety that makes the single player mode so tense.
Few would jump to call "The Last of Us" a beautiful game, but there are a few moments of serene beauty made all the more precious by the heart-pounding violence that surrounds them. It's during these moments -- when the characters are getting to know one another, the score settles into melancholy chords and the sun peeks over the abandoned buildings of a bygone era -- that the player's faith that this trying, exhausting game is worth playing is restored.
No, "The Last of Us" isn't a fun game. It is, however, a game that will stick with you long after you put down the controller.