What happens to heartbreak when it’s relentlessly polished? Repackaged, reiterated, resold, again, and again, and again? Does it maintain its potency? Or does something profound transform itself into something that’s merely a product?
2022's The Last Of Us: Part I is an excellent video game, for the simple reason that 2013's The Last Of Us was an excellent video game—and Part I is a beat-for-beat remake of Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, devotedly recreating every single inch of its harrowing cross-country road trip through a zombie-ravaged United States. Every moment in the relationship between hardened survivor Joel (Troy Baker) and teen hero Ellie (Ashley Johnson)—still one of the most convincing pairings in all of gaming—remains intact. (Literally; it’s the same performances, recorded nearly a decade ago at this point, but imported into new animation rigs.) Every combat encounter, whether with murderous humans or fungus-ravaged wretches, persists. It’s all here, every violent, painful moment. The only meaningful differences—for all that Naughty Dog appears to have moved heaven and earth to recreate the entire game on new tech for this “new” version—are that Part I carries a host of welcome accessibility features, it looks somewhat nicer, it now runs natively on the PlayStation 5…and it will now cost players another $70 to acquire.
Exactly one of those updates feels like it was worth the effort.
Make no mistake: The accessibility features in The Last Of Us: Part I (mostly adapted, like many of the technical elements of this remake, from 2020's The Last Of Us: Part II) are robust and thoughtful. Sony remains at the head of the pack at finding multiple angles to make their games playable for the widest array of people, and Part I’s additions include aids for the game’s visuals, its sound, and its gameplay, all designed—like the new audio descriptions for cutscenes, or high-contrast modes that make items easier to pick out in the game’s crowded environments—to make this a game that as many people can enjoy as possible. Accessibility is the one metric on which Part I is unambiguously superior to its previous versions, and if it’s a make-or-break issue for you, it’s a very easy game to recommend.
Elsewhere, well… It’s probably going to depend on how long it’s been since you last played through The Last Of Us, honestly. This is the best version of this game that’s been made to date (of the several that Sony has trotted out onto shelves over the last 9 years), a totally faithful recreation of cordyceps-ravaged Boston, Lincoln, Pittsburg, and beyond, now mildly enhanced in a number of small regards. Nothing has been broken here in the pursuit of next-gen ideals; where Part I has gameplay faults, they’re sins that have persisted throughout TLOU’s lifetime—like a mild over-reliance on the same three stock “puzzle-solving” elements (oh, to never move another awkward physics-object dumpster like it’s suddenly 2013 all over again), or a combat system that wants you to reflect on man’s cruel indifference to man, but which often conjures thoughts of The Last Of Us’ cruel indifference to its players’ patience, instead.
Don’t get us wrong: TLOU combat (sneak, shiv, shoot, repeat) is often fun, when you’re doing exactly what the game wants you to do. But the degree it goes toward punishing “bad” play to underline the fragility of your heroes has always been a momentum-killer. On multiple occasions, the game can tip over from “exhilarating” to “frustrating,” the relief at the end of a long combat encounter serving not as a parallel to Joel and Ellie’s exhaustion, but as a reflection of what a pain in the ass that particular battle became, somewhere around the third time a fresh wave of dudes spawned in to stunlock you with a hail of gunfire. (Look: If you don’t want anyone to go poking your sacred cow, don’t bring it back to market with a fresh coat of paint slapped on, okay?) Still, if this combat is your jam, it’s here, and abundant—especially since Naughty Dog has added in a new speedrun mode and a flexible permadeath mode that strips out some, or all, of the game’s checkpointing, for those who legitimately love that stuff.
The aspects that are good, great, or sublime, meanwhile, are all right here where you left them. There’s the compulsive crafting system, which sees you happily scavenge every loose bolt from Boston to Salt Lake City to meticulously enhance your guns. (The tactile way each upgrade is applied is one of those “attention to detail” things that’s always helped elevated this game above the pack.) There’s the steady sense of pacing that builds tension masterfully, then releases it in moments of genuine beauty or abject horror. And there’s especially that script, which, both in the base game and the included Left Behind DLC, ably channels the outline of a standard zombie movie into something a lot more personal and painful for both of our long-suffering heroes.
For the first several hours of playing Part I, though, the overwhelming sensation is simply one of deja vu, mixed with an ounce of awe at some of the new visuals. (Most notable early on in Boston, which feels much more like a barely-living city than in the original game.) You’ll round a corner, see a distinctive room layout, and a feeling of dread will sweep over you. “Oh fuck, this is where the truck shows up.” “God, I remember these clickers being a pain in the ass.” “Welp, time to meet Henry and Sam.” It’s to the credit of the source material that those nostalgic sensations eventually fade. By the time the game’s fantastic Winter chapter rolls around, we were no longer looking for familiar map features, trying to do mental compare-and-contrasts. We were just playing The Last Of Us, a rare tragedy in a medium that so rarely indulges in the form.
The much-vaunted new animation system looks good, the AI imported from The Last Of Us: Part II makes the enemies even worse bastards than they were before, and the game milks its new and updated apocalyptic skylines for all they’re worth. It’s a very good version of a game you’ve almost certainly played before; it’ll be a hell of a lure for the hypothetical non-players who end up watching the TV show when it debuts on HBO next year—and who then may want to go see what Joel and Ellie’s original journey was all about.
The hollowness set back in, though, as we closed in on the game’s iconic, brutal, emotionally complicated ending. The Last Of Us is a tragedy in the true sense—a story where people make the same awful choices again and again, even when they know the consequences will damn them. There is no version of Joel Miller who does not do what he does at this game’s climax, his heart locked in stone by mountains of trauma and love and need. Playing through it again, shinier but exactly the same, we couldn’t help but feel similarly trapped in the past. The Last Of Us: Part I is a great game because The Last Of Us was a great game—but The Last Of Us already exists. It broke our hearts just fine on PS3 technology (or with the PS4 remaster); very little about The Last Of Us: Part I, for all its minor technical tweaks, makes the case that this remake was ever really necessary, except as a line item on Sony’s budget.
If that sort of philosophical distinction doesn’t bother you, more power to you; this is the nicest-looking version of the game there is, a more comfortable and accessible experience all around, and a nice showcase for the PS5's graphical power. The problems with its existence are largely extrinsic, a symptom of a model of AAA gaming utterly beholden to the safest, most tried-and-true choice—rather than embracing the same boldness that produced the original game way back when. The Last Of Us: Part I is an excellent copy of an excellent game. It’s a beautiful product, to be sure.