Joel looks different in The Last of Us Part I. It took me a while to notice, but once I did, it was hard to unsee. There's a pain in his eyes. His clothes and features are the same, but there's a quiet, unmistakable torment imprinted on his face. I've played The Last of Us nearly a dozen times across PS3 and PS4, and I had never seen it worn so plainly. I know Joel has a troubled past because The Last of Us Part I goes out of its way to show you a traumatic death in the opening scene, but that pain was never etched into his facial features this clearly.
There's an argument to be made that The Last of Us Part I is too similar to the PS3 and PS4 versions to be considered a remake, and part of me agrees with that sentiment. The story is identical, the level design is exactly the same, and the gameplay--apart from some quality-of-life improvements--is unchanged. On paper, if you've played The Last of Us and remember it well, there's little reason to return to it on PS5.
But The Last of Us Part I is more than the sum of its parts. It's an unrelenting tour de force that strategically leverages the power of the PlayStation 5 to push its story and themes a little further. Slight though many of them may be, all its enhancements serve the story, and the story is just as good as it was nine years ago.
The most obvious way The Last of Us Part I does this is with its visuals. The overhauled lighting, sharp new textures, and smoother animations make The Last of Us a prettier game, but it's the details in the faces and characters that make it a more meaningful one. I can feel the repressed pain in Joel, sense the pervasive hope in Marlene, and glimpse fleeting moments of innocence in Ellie.
These details may not alter the way you think about these characters, but they certainly add more depth to them. Admittedly, these are also details that I've internalized through my multiple playthroughs, years of thinking about the game, and hours of consuming analysis of it. But the intricacies in the way characters are now depicted mean that, for newcomers in particular, the nuances are more immediately perceptible. The writing and acting remain as strong as ever, and although none of the changes recontextualize characters or events, delicate retouches give them greater gravitas.
What does recontextualize the characters is the existence of The Last of Us Part II. Joel's actions are harder to stomach knowing their eventual consequences, and Ellie's bloody quest for revenge in the sequel makes her character arc in Part I all the more tragic. Even if you didn't like the direction the narrative took in Part II, it makes the final moments of The Last of Us Part I tougher to swallow.
What's more interesting is that, despite knowing how things would eventually shake out, I rarely questioned Joel's motives throughout the game, even in those final moments. It's a testament to Naughty Dog's superb storytelling and fantastic characters that--despite knowing full well what Joel's actions entailed--I wanted to protect Ellie at all costs. All those complicated feelings The Last of Us left me with nine years ago came back stronger when I wrapped up Part I.
The gameplay improvements, although subtle, are also done in service of the story. Aiming is more responsive, weapons have a satisfying heft to them, and Joel is a bit easier to maneuver. He's not as nimble as Ellie is in Part II, but a lot of the rough edges in the original have been smoothed out. This kind of stuff is to be expected in remaster or remake, but in the case of The Last of Us Part I, it removes another barrier from the experience. The tweaks to the combat and gameplay give Joel a more cohesive characterization on screen. It may seem like reading a bit too much into it but think of the times you've clumsily missed your gunshots because of the way the aiming works and how that undermined a character we're told has been fighting to survive in a hellish post-apocalypse for 20 years--he shouldn't be whiffing shots in matters of life and death. With the tweaks, The Last of Us Part I's Joel feels more like a cold and calculated combatant. He is as ruthless as you'd expect from someone in his position and with his tragic history.
The improved AI, meanwhile, brings with it a greater sense of peril, especially on the tougher difficulties. Enemies are more aggressive and employ advanced tactics. Some will pressure you from afar while others will flank you if you aren't paying attention. Every now and then an enemy will wait for you to approach and go for an ambush. The unpredictable AI makes for some harrowing firefights. Success demands a mixture of forethought, improvisation, and skill.
What really makes the AI so effective is its tenacity. Enemies will fight tooth and nail to survive. If you take an enemy hostage, they will try to bargain with you. Others in the vicinity will try to talk you down before taking action. If you hold a hostage for too long, they will struggle free and return fire. The enemies you come across don't just feel like an obstacle you have to overcome. They feel like people desperately trying to survive in a world that has been torn apart.
It helps that companion AI is much better, too. In the original, Ellie, Tess, and Bill would frequently end up in places they shouldn't have been. They couldn't alert enemies, but it was always jarring to see Ellie run in front of an infected while looking for cover. Occasionally in Part I, a companion did get in my way in some tighter areas, but I haven't seen anyone carelessly wander into the fray in this new version. It's a small fix but, once again, it makes this world feel more authentic.
Where The Last of Us Part I shows its age is in its level design. Just like the original nine years ago, the game often relies on pallets, dumpsters, and ladders for its traversal puzzles. The Last of Us Part I takes place over the course of a year, and Joel never takes the time to teach Ellie to swim. This means that every time you encounter deep water you need to find a conveniently placed pallet to ferry her across a small body of water. It was hard to overlook back then, but it's even harder to overlook now. Naughty Dog has gone through great pains to immerse the player in the world, and these simple puzzles don't fit the tone of the game. They are rote video game moments in an experience that doesn’t need them.
The Last of Us Part I is an unrelenting tour de force that strategically leverages the power of the PlayStation 5 to push its story and themes a little further. Slight though many of them may be, all its enhancements serve the story, and the story is just as good as it was nine years ago
The combat arenas also feel a bit too enclosed and straightforward. There are some standouts, like the docks at the beginning of the game or the bookstore in Philadelphia, but most of the encounters take place in linear corridors with waist-high objects used as cover. This lack of freedom limits your options in combat and makes it difficult to improvise when your back is up against a wall. It's a shame because Joel's arsenal is varied, and his craftable items can be fun to use.
It's even harder to overlook given how impressive Part II's level design was. The reason why combat felt so dynamic in Part II was because there was always room to improvise and multiple avenues of approach to support this. This is unmistakably one of those moments where the limited scope of this "remake" undermines the idea of creating harmony between the first and second parts of The Last of Us' overall story. While the narrative and characterization certainly feel more cohesive now, the same can't be said for how it feels to play the two games.
The biggest example of this is Joel's inability to go prone. It may have seemed like a minor mechanic in The Last of Us Part II, but it fundamentally changed the way I approached combat. Obviously, Part I was not designed with a crawling Joel in mind. There is no grass to hide in, and cover is almost always waist-high, but the inability to go prone does create more of a dissonance between Part I and Part II.
However, fixating on gameplay discrepancies between both games diminishes The Last of Us Part I's achievements. The brilliantly-paced narrative is supported by some of the finest environmental storytelling in the business. So much of the world and its inhabitants can be extracted from the smallest details. A throwaway line between two hostile enemy NPCs can shed light on other parts of the world, while a simple message scrawled across a wall hints at how the outbreak was handled two decades ago. The environments are rich with details that add flavor to Joel and Ellie's journey.
The most welcome addition to The Last of Us Part I is its impressive suite of accessibility features. Like The Last of Us Part II, there are a wide range of visual, auditory, and difficulty settings that significantly lower the bar to entry and make the experience more accommodating. You can customize subtitles, tweak screenshake, enable different vision modes, and retool the controls at any time to fit your needs. Even if you don't think you need any of these features, you might find something in there to make your experience a little smoother. I frequently played with high-contrast mode enabled to help me track down smaller collectibles that I wouldn't normally be able to see, but for others, these newly added options might make what was previously an unplayable game into a playable one.
Additionally, The Last of Us Part I adds a ton of new unlockables in the Extras menu. Like in previous Naughty Dog games, as you play through the story you accrue points that can be used to unlock all sorts of things. There's concept art from both the original and remake, new and returning character skins, gameplay modifiers like infinite ammo and explosive arrows, and a handful of behind-the-scenes videos and podcasts. While none of this fundamentally changes the experience, I spent hours digging through this menu to admire all the intricately designed character models and test out the new gameplay modifiers. These bells and whistles do a good job of rounding out the package.
The most painful omission from this remake is Factions, the stellar PvP mode from the original game. The multiplayer mode had players choose a faction and build out a camp of survivors by running Supply Raids, which were matches that pitted you against the rival faction. Success would earn you resources to keep your compound afloat. Naughty Dog is working on an expanded standalone multiplayer component set in the world of The Last of Us and its sequel, but it's a shame the original Factions mode didn't make the cut.
Those looking for a little longevity from the game can instead try the speedrun and permadeath modes. The permadeath mode in particular fits nicely with the themes of The Last of Us. It's not for the faint of heart, even on easier difficulties, but it significantly ups the stakes. Every encounter must be tackled with precision, and a wasted bullet could lead to an untimely death. The speedrun mode on the other hand feels at odds with what The Last of Us accomplishes with its story. The thoughtful pace and quiet moments are undone by a timer and a scoring system. It's not necessarily a bad inclusion, and it's available as an option, but it's definitely not the way I'd like to experience The Last of Us Part I.
All these improvements taken by themselves may seem minor, but together they make one of the most memorable games of the PS3 era even better. In some ways, the two parts of The Last of Us are now better aligned, making transitioning between them much smoother. However, in other ways, the years of progress in game design and development are all too apparent. But while some of the level design may not have aged all that well, the vivid cast of characters and remarkable story are more poignant than ever.