Naughty Dog understands survival horror. While people are looking to Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within to take us back to survival horror’s roots, The Last of Us, although not a survival horror in the traditional sense, is already pushing the genre forward. Firstly, the game successfully reinvents a classic horror staple: the zombie. It might seem like a small change – to go from shambling corpses, to the ‘zombies’ seen in TLoU – but the truth is, we’ve become desensitised to traditional zombies.
The cordyceps virus seen in TLoU might initially seem like a way of just avoiding saying the word “zombies”, but there are a few key differences. Because of the way the cordyceps fungus infects the host, mushroom-like growths sprout from their body. As cordyceps attaches to the brain, this usually means it sprouts from the top of the host’s head, ruining their good looks and their eyesight.
Before this happens, the infected look more or less human. Called Runners, they behave like the fleet-footed infected in 28 Days Later. Crucially, these enemies can detect the player by sight and try to overwhelm with numbers, surrounding the player and throwing wild, hammer-fisted punches. Those further gone – the Clickers – don’t have the luxury of eyeballs, what with their new mushroom headdress, so they see in same way bats do – chattering their teeth together and making a blood-curdling croaking in the back of their gullet, they see the world through echolocation.
If you’re near a Clicker, the best way to approach the situation is with stealth. Crouching and moving slowly is key to getting past these creatures, but you also have to be aware of your surroundings – knocking over any apocalyptic debris isn’t the best idea. If you do draw their attention, a Clicker only has to get its hands on you, its rotted teeth sink into your neck and the screen fades to black as a discordant synthesised screech signals your death. The Clicker’s deadliness, along with their inhuman noises and twitchy, erratic movements are part of what makes them so terrifying, but a lot of the fear comes from stealth being the best way of dealing with them.
It’s your best option, especially on the harder difficulty levels, because, as survival horror tradition dictates, ammo is scarce. You must actively search for ammo throughout the game, reinforcing the feeling that you’re fighting for every bullet. This means you often have to place yourself right in the middle of a room full of Clickers, essentially exposing yourself to death if you make a wrong move. With a headset on, surrounded by all these eyeless horrors, the brilliant sound design does all the work keeping you on edge.
Sometimes there’s Clickers and Runners, and being spotted by one of the latter will draw the attention of the former, so sometimes you have to prioritise silently strangling Runners before they spot you. Stealth-killing Clickers requires a shiv. Shivs are created using the game’s crafting mechanic, again, using the finite resources you scavenge. Crafting is also done in real-time, so there’s no respite to be found in a pause menu – if you don’t have a shiv and you want to deal with a Clicker, you need to tuck yourself into a safe corner and make one first.
The game also uses some clever pacing, switching between reflective, peaceful moments, all out action with fights against other survivors, and creepy, pitch black sneaking through dank, Clicker-infested basements. Most importantly, the game knows how to use loneliness to heighten tension.
Throughout the game, Joel has an NPC companion. Rather than making the game about protecting the NPC, they’re invisible to enemies and often help you out in a pinch. You feel empowered when you have companions in TLoU – even in the rare moments when they are in danger, you have plenty of time to rescue them. That’s why The Last of Us saves its most terrifying moments for when you’re isolated.
The first time it happens is in an abandoned museum. Joel is separated from Ellie and Tess and has to try and make his way to them past statues of civil war soldiers, their shadows creating eerie shapes on the walls from the light of your torch, and a floor full of Clickers. The Clickers are placed so that it’s difficult to avoid some sort of confrontation and the doors are dotted about to make it easy for them to get behind you once they’re alerted to your presence. If you have to resort to shooting, the game makes your reticle sway and each shot has tremendous recoil. You’ll also often have to go into your inventory to switch weapons.
The most terrifying moment in the game comes later. One minute you’re fighting survivors in an abandoned hotel, then Joel falls down an elevator shaft and is separated from Ellie. You’re now in a pitch black flooded basement and it seems initially like you’re alone. As you creep through this area, enemies are teased at you for the first time in the game, catching a glimpse of them as they bolt past doorways. The build up creates a palpable tension, punctuated by the appearance of some rage-filled Runners when you chance upon a keycard to exit the area. Once dealt with, you have to start up a generator, which not only unlocks the area’s exit, but also alerts a horde of Clickers, Runners and – worst of all – your second ever encounter with a Bloater.
The Bloater, like the Clicker, also kills you instantly, tearing off your jaw with giant hands. Players first encounter a Bloater in a nice, spacious arena. This time, it’s a claustrophobic basement and your best option is to run. As you’re trying to escape the beast, Runners grab you and hold you up, disorientating you in the maze-like area. It’s the most terrifying encounter in the game because of the sudden vulnerability placed on players. The game makes its NPCs feel so important that you feel exposed without them. Naughty Dog uses a mix of clever pacing, sound and mechanics to create nail biting tension, all combining to make TLoU one of the best survival horror games and simultaneously one of the best action games in recent years.