The Last of Us Part 1 review — a pristine post-modern powerhouse

By Lee Brady,

In this review of The Last of Us Part 1, Naughty Dog’s second re-release of its 2013 opus in under ten years, we discuss whether the graphical top-to-bottom rework for the PS5 fundamentally alters the game we know and love.

The Last of Us Part 1 — much like its prestigious progenitor, 2013’s The Last of Us, and its first remaster, 2014’s The Last of Us Remastered — opens with the image of a broken window. Like any good tone-setting piece of symbolism, the window’s gently gesturing nature suggests meaning without actually defining anything, allowing the viewer to ascribe to it whatever interpretation they think makes the most sense, regardless of whether they’ve played the game or not.

TLOUThe window in The Last of Us Part 1.

However, in The Last of Us Part 1, the window has changed. The single sprig of thick leaves that teases through the open frame is now a thick bushel of foliage. The sparse sheets of fractured glass are now more numerous and varied. The window is, in essence and in effect, broadly the same as it always was — yet, its rendering has changed subtly since its debut.

Everything you need to know about The Last of Us Part 1 is encapsulated in this opening image. For first-time players jumping aboard the game’s PS5-powered second remastering, the window functions as it always has, teasing the verdancy of its post-apocalypse while imparting the wistful, serious air of a game that wants you to take its content seriously. For players already familiar, wondering "is the third release of The Last of Us worth it?" — the window is a tell. It lets us know that this is very much still The Last of Us — albeit, with a fresh coat of paint.

The Last of Us Part 1Don't worry, the paint they used wasn't neon pink.

The Last of Us Part 1 is not a “cash grab”

Before we talk a little more about what the game actually is — which, as I'll try to make clear, will be mostly talking about what the game already was — let’s briefly clear the air about one thing that The Last of Us Part 1 is not: a “cash grab.”

“Fans” have insisted The Last of Us Part 1 be branded a cash grab on the behalf of its developer, PlayStation StudiosNaughty Dog, for reasons ranging from a perceived lack of effort on the developer’s part (which greatly undermines the tremendous effort needed to improve a game’s performance and graphical fidelity while preserving the artistic heart of the original), to the game’s arriving to market at full retail price (which insinuates that interested buyers are somehow obligated to buy the game at all), and every petty niggle in-between.

The Last of Us Part 1 reviewThat feeling when you're crawling through the sewer of bad faith social media criticism.

The Last of Us Part 1 is akin to an upscaled 4K Blu-Ray re-release of a well-loved film. The enriched fidelity may or may not be exactly to your eyeballs’ preference, and the cost of ownership might be just a little too high when all you want is to own a physical copy of Apocalypse Now; in which case you might just want to pick up a DVD copy for a couple of bucks. Either way, what you’re buying is essentially the same film, so expecting it to fundamentally change your established opinions or justify itself beyond what it has always been justified to be is beyond reason.

If you liked The Last of Us pretty much just the way it was, then you’ll have a great time with The Last of Us Part 1 — so long as it makes sense to repurchase it. If you liked The Last of Us but wished it played a bit more like The Last of Us Part 2, then what you actually want is something new, or more disconcertingly, what you want is the skin of something old draped hauntingly over something else. In either case, The Last of Us Part 1 is not for you.

The Last of Us Part 1 reviewIf you still have one of these, and your copy of The Last of Us is still working, then consider giving Part 1 a pass.

If you didn’t like The Last of Us, then you won’t like it now, and if you never played The Last of Us, you’ll have to play it to know whether you like it, in which case it may as well be the latest version. Having played the original, I approached Part 1's graphical remixing with some scepticism, but — as I’m about to detail more thoroughly — ultimately my play experience this time around was neither better nor worse; it was simply as good as my original experience.

Quick Note: This is a review of The Last of Us Part 1 as a ‘game’ rather than The Last of Us Part 1 as a ‘product,’ but for fans of the Factions multiplayer mode from the original release, do know that I share your pain at its absence here. Factions absolutely rocked, and I hope you'll join me in eagerly awaiting its standalone rework.
The Last of Us Part 1 reviewMiss my Factions clan, pictured here.

Iterating on a masterpiece
The Last of Us Remastered was a relatively straight port of the original release from the PS3 to the PS4, bringing with it an improved framerate, a couple of new features taking advantage of the then-new PS4 hardware, and some gameplay refinements — changes roughly on par with those we noted in our Uncharted Legacy of Thieves review. The Last of Us Part 1 is slightly different in that it presents a massive graphical overhaul of the original game. Every visual element, from the texture of the environment, to the assets that litter the game’s world, to the lighting and water effects, to the characters' faces and expressions — every element has been given fresh detail.

New features have been added, in which we see Naughty Dog once more iterating on its masterpiece with tiny, frivolous touches like it did for PS Plus Essential mainstay Remastered. Where that version introduced PS4-centric additions, such as using the touchpad to navigate Joel’s inventory and the DualShock 4’s lightbar indicating health with coloured lights, Part 1 introduces remarkably robust accessibility options, a more minimalist-inspired HUD, and the DualSense controller's adaptive triggers and haptic feedback to, in some immeasurable way, enhance immersion.

The Last of Us Part 1 reviewPhoto mode from Remastered returns with a full suite of new additions too.

Unless these features offer accessibility options that effectively allows you to play the game for the first time, most players will find most of these offerings change virtually nothing about the gameplay experience. Despite the marketing gush about giraffe pet-enhancing haptics, the effects they have on the game are subtle and non-intrusive, even when set to the highest intensity. Other changes, like the graphical revision to the generator starting minigame and the simulated resistance offered by the controller’s adaptive triggers, do not meaningfully improve upon or detract from The Last of Us’ core feature — its stunning game and narrative design.

Trophy Tactics — new trophies
As confirmed in our article on The Last of Us Part 1’s leaked trophies — yes, the trophies here are pretty easy to unlock. They don’t require you to beat the game on Grounded difficulty or wrap your head around the game’s strange multiplayer clan system to earn trophies like Populace or Hunter any more, and that's a good thing.

For returning players, the trick this time around will be to trying not to miss entirely the new trophies that have been added deep into each chapter; otherwise, you'll find yourself repeating long sections of the game for a single, rather simple bronze. Lights Out, for example, asks you to stealth your way up to the spotlight generator in Pittsburgh near the end of the chapter — easily done, but easily ignored if you're not on the ball. There's also Waterlogged, which asks you to raft Ellie over to one side of the sewers, then unnaturally blitz over to where Henry and Sam are standing and join them in riding the contraption over to join her. Frustratingly, I missed that one the first time around.
When The Last of Us Part 1 received a comparison to previous titles, I (rather knee-jerkingly) suggested that swapping out the assets of the original release was “akin to changing the purposeful environment behind the Mona Lisa.” I can admit now that this was full-blown armchair reactionism — playing the game, the effect of the world’s art design and the impression it had left upon me felt largely the same.

The Last of Us Part 1 review...the comments.

My takeaway about the changes was, ultimately, this: playing the original The Last of Us is like watching a seminal Oscar-winning movie from the comfort of your own home. The Last of Us Part 1 is like watching the same movie at a cinema screening with a live orchestra performing the score while you watch. The vibration of the music will ratchet the intensity of the viewing sky high; the details expressed upon the grandeur of a cinema screen will pull you further into the film’s world. However, whichever way you view it, it’s still the same movie, and for the vast majority of viewers, it will always be the first viewing that leaves the greater impact.

A good movie; a better game
When I, and many others like me, first played The Last of Us back in 2013, what stood out most about it was its non-interactive elements. The stylistic language of cinema was, at the time, finding itself more and more at home in video games — the PS3 itself being home to cutscene extravaganzas like Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted 2 Among Thieves, and Heavy Rain, for example.

The Last of Us Part 1 reviewSpent about 15 minutes playing in a puddle at the start of the game. That's video games.

The Last of Us differed itself tangibly from previous examples by employing a generally more grounded cinematography, embuing its character performances with identifiably stage-like acting cues, and by having a character-focused script laced with more nuance and emotional ambiguity than most video game players had ever experienced even outside of games. Matched with the game’s rich environmental storytelling, the non-interactive elements of The Last of Us left an impression that, in 2013, had myself and others recommending it to friends and family like we would a HBO-produced prestige drama.

However, upon playing The Last of Us Part 1 in 2022, it has become abundantly clear that were it not for the interplay between Naughty Dog’s immaculate game design and ingenious narrative design, it's very possible those non-interactive elements might never have made any impact at all back in 2013. From the enemy variety and layout of its combat encounters, to the choice-laden channels of each of its downtime zones, to even the repetition of its ‘puzzle’ mechanics — each game design decision taken (or not taken) throughout The Last of Us’ runtime has been precision-honed to evoke some element of the game’s world, leaving narrative micro- and macro-impressions in the player's mind from start to finish.

The Last Of Us Part 1Obviously this was a time before we knew there would eventually be a HBO-produced prestige drama.

For example, The Quarantine Zone’s tutorialisation of the game’s main interactive elements — i.e. movement/manoeuvring, contextual action button pressing, object placement, and shooting — invites the player to learn core mechanics so naturally that they might not realise they’ve also been subconsciously taught a myriad of other lessons along the way.

We learn light backtracking plays a small factor in the game after you collect your backpack with Tess. In the area where we meet our first ladder ‘puzzle,’ we also learn that nature has reclaimed the world, shaping the level geometry and obscuring our objective. In that same area, we also find a small open door we can crawl through that leads to a dead end, showing us that the level designers will always include multiple routes for us to explore, but not to expect perpetual rewards for doing so. Perhaps some players quietly decide then and there to stop exploring optional areas — in which case, they’ll unlearn that lesson when the combat forces them to scrounge for resources in a few minutes' time.

The Last of Us Part 1 reviewNot everything is tutorialised, by the way. I didn't know you could smash the glass to break into vending machines until this playthrough, for example.

The player learns to aim a gun when they’re given the choice to put a trapped infected man out of his misery. In the same several seconds-long instance, we learn about ammo scarcity when we lose one bullet and only get two back next to the man’s body. We’re invited early on as the player to dictate something of Joel’s humanity, or at least state ours from beyond the fourth wall — something that invests us in our main character and in our own moral position in regards to the game’s world, setting us up for some uncomfortable questions about both much later on. We can imagine a more pragmatically designed game propping us down in front of some manikins for target practice — instead, The Last of Us masterfully intersects these various game design and narrative beats to heighten our investment with the game as a cohesive whole.

Trophy Tactics — collectables
For new players, and even some returning players, if you’re a savvy enough scrounger as you play, you’ll likely miss very little of the collectables as you go, and mercifully the game lets you see what’s still left to grab in each chapter when you back out into the menu. Chances are you won’t get Look for the Light on the first playthrough — no matter how hard you scrounge, the idea that you would ever find some of these Firefly tags as they dangle unremarkably from a stray tree or power line is madness even in a fairly thorough playthrough.

Optional conversations needed to pop Getting to Know You and jokes needed for That’s all I got can be easily missed simply by accidentally walking past an area a little too quickly, so expect some trial and error and some checkpoint restarts. You’ll also likely need to engage in new game plus to stand a chance at earning Combat Ready, so best not exhaust yourself frantically worrying where you’ll get enough scrap to upgrade them all — chances are you won’t.
From there, it never stops. We learn that no matter how carefully we play, sometimes it’s simply kill or be killed — we can never be too frivolous with our resources. We learn to think of our HUD’s appearance on screen as a survivor’s well-honed sense for oncoming danger. The big choices resound, like how gameplay fundamentally alters into something scrappier when we switch from Joel to Ellie, delivering wave upon wave of character depth in as tried-and-true a game mechanic as choosing Luigi instead of Mario. The subtle choices ring louder — consider how we’re allowed time to reflect on the growing mental toll of the journey and the thunderously shifting demeanour of our heroes only after we fail to effectively pull off our second-to-last of the ultra-repetitive boost onto a ledge animations.

The Last of Us Part 1 reviewThis quiet little foreshadowing tucked in the back of one of the opening areas is definitely going to be hamfistedly crammed into the HBO show, isn't it?

The Last of Us Part 1 preserves The Last of Us’ masterful, diamond cutter-honed game design in pristine condition, and it’s as effective today as it ever was in 2013. The narrative of The Last of Us might make for a decent movie or TV show, but much of the reason we believe that is because The Last of Us is a wonderful game.

Full on brick
I appreciate that The Last of Us Part 1 gave me another chance to analyse and to fall once more in love with Naughty Dog’s 2013 opus — however, for the most part, what needs to be said about the game has been said a million times already between 2013 and 2022. People are probably well aware that The Last of Us is a good game; maybe most even agree the game is among the best ever made.

While replaying, it was clear to me that, aside from many more granular notes and realisations on game design and its interplay with narrative design, there wasn’t a whole bunch in here that I wasn’t broadly aware of. Pages upon pages of notes I wrote while playing can mostly be summarised with a single “yup, that’s why I loved it in the first place.”

The Last of Us Part 1 reviewHandwritten note reads: "the brick master celebration is probably my favourite human moment in the entire game."

However, if the purpose of a re-review (which we have to suppose a review of Part 1 is) is to, first, reflect on a work in order to, second, appraise how we might see it years removed from its debut before, third, predicting or proffering a direction in which the conversation might turn in the future — then here’s my punt at the bigger picture.

The Last of Us is not just a good game; it’s good art. More specifically, it’s good art not because it’s a good story well told, or because it takes itself quite seriously, but because it’s a good game — The Last of Us Part 1 is an excellent example of good video games as art. Now, much of this argument will depend on whether one of your various definitions of good art agrees with one of mine, but two of the definitions I use are whether a work can elude a sense of structure despite having structure, and whether that work possesses the ability to impose an effect on an audience regardless of the authenticity of its viewing experience.

The Last of Us Part 1 reviewArt.

The decisions undertaken by the various teams at Naughty Dog when designing The Last of Us can as easily be separated from each other as the story from the gameplay — which is to say, not without great effort and without losing much of what makes it good. The structure of the work as a whole is a shifting, subjective beast — even despite having what many would deem a single-pathed, water-tight narrative progression. That qualifies it for the first interpretation.

It's due to The Last of Us Part 1 specifically that I feel assured The Last of Us qualifies for the second interpretation. At first, the design team's bold altering of the original game's art style, replacing whole assets and adding more detailed character expressions, practically invited reactionary jerks like me to write dismissive comparisons to the changing of the Mona Lisa. Yet, ultimately, the effect of the game has remained profoundly the same — the story's emotional beats got me in the exact same way, the horror of the hotel generator segment still had my heart racing, and the many abandoned bedrooms and workplaces still imparted the exact same sense of dread and ennui.

Trophy Tactics — Left Behind
There are a handful of trophies specific to Left Behind that you will need to earn to get the It can’t be for nothing platinum trophy. None of these are especially challenging — just don’t lose the brick throwing contest (Brick Master) or the water gun fight (Skillz), keep an eye out for collectables if you want to earn the Chronicles gold, and throw a stray brick at some point to get the infected to attack the cannibals (Live Bait).
Like zooming into the Mona Lisa Wikipedia page on your laptop or watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on your iPad, the effect of The Last of Us’ design is so great it shines through even the waking modernist’s nightmare that is The Last of Us Part 1 changing all of the original art assets. If that doesn’t qualify it for some definition of good art, then I’m not entirely sure what will.

tlouThe Last of Us Part 1's hardest trophy, seen above, is at least double art.

Though perhaps a reflection on some of the game’s goofier elements will at least remind readers familiar with the game that it is, at least, not because the game wears a serious air better than other games. After all, this is a game with jokes in it — a game that pings you a trophy if you let them all play uninterrupted. A game in which Joel’s refusal to carry a ladder beyond a single use, even over rooftops, can double as characterisation, allowing us to interpret his ladder-wary attitude as a pragmatic survival skill employed for some inscrutable reason.

The Last of Us is a game that will occasionally disregard its ammo scarcity mechanic if it means putting the player in a tense situation dangling from a rope. This is a game that will have you reckon with Joel potentially being a kleptomaniac, and have you asking questions as to whether Ellie has developed her own kleptomania by following Joel's example. This is a game whose HUD will remind you, constantly, that your brick capacity is full, making you think of the words ‘brick capacity’ and the subsequent notion of being ‘full on brick.’

The Last of Us Part 1 reviewFull on brick.

The Last of Us is as much art because Joel refuses to say thank you to anyone until one optional dialogue near the very end, completing a beautifully subtle game-long narrative arc, as it is for how its stealth arenas conjure comparisons between Joel and Pac-Man — a comparison that is made all the funnier when you realise Joel gets better at fighting this world's equivalent of ghosts after popping some pills.

Consider that, in all three versions of The Last of Us, the aforementioned window changes. After your first playthrough, the opening image adds Ellie’s switchblade to the windowsill — an addition as evocative as it is technically meaningless. In The Last of Us Part 1, upon adding the switchblade, the sun lowers in the sky outside the window — a new change that effectively changes nothing. Yet, regardless of the version you play and regardless of whatever the intended meaning might be, the window continues to speak to something. If that balance of meaningfulness and meaninglessness doesn't qualify The Last of Us as art, I don’t think I would like to learn what art is.

Summary

TLOUThe final window.

If you love The Last of Us on PS3 or PS4, you should feel no obligation to purchase The Last of Us Part 1 — though you might stand to gain a renewed appreciation for the original's design and video games as an art form by revisiting it here. If you have never had the opportunity to experience The Last of Us, know that you do not stand to lose a single iota of what made the original so great by playing The Last of Us Part 1. That is, in my eyes, as soaring a recommendation as one can give a remaster of this scale and magnitude.
10 / 10
* Lee played The Last of Us Part 1's story campaign, plus the Left Behind additional chapter, for roughly 23 hours while on holiday with his family in County Wexford, Ireland. He collected 23 out of 29 trophies in that time. TrueTrophies received a review code for this game via Sony Interactive Entertainment, the game's publisher.
Lee Brady
Written by Lee Brady
Staff Writer Lee keeps one eye on the future (Shadow x Sonic Generations), one eye on the past (PS Plus Premium games), and his secret third eye on junk he really likes (Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts games). Then he uses his big mouth to blurt out long-winded opinions about video games.
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