Even in the age of worldwide launches, the Japanese releases of Western video games and movies are notoriously late, with some titles taking months longer to appear on shop shelves or movie theatre marquees than in other countries. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is no exception, although mercifully this time Japanese gamers only had to wait six days longer than the rest of the world to begin their digital adventure, which arrived with the addition of a Japanese voice track for those who abhor subtitles.
One of this year’s most anticipated titles, video game fans the world over have followed The Last of Us‘s development closely, falling on teaser trailers and screen shots like the ravenous mutated humans that populate the game’s devastated urban environments. Finally, some 18 months after its unveiling at 2011’s Spike Video Game Awards, The Last of Us is in gamers’ hands. And, despite its design being Western in almost every respect, Naughty Dog’s tale of survival and emotional turmoil is wowing gamers all over Japan.
The following does not contain spoilers, but those who wish to experience the game with no prior knowledge whatsoever may want to ask a friend to check it out first.
Developed by the same studio that brought us the highly acclaimed Uncharted series, The Last of Us‘s chances of success were high from the outset. Little did we know, though, that we’d be hearing statements as grand as “an experience unlike any other” from members of the Japanese press, whose tastes are traditionally a little different to Western gamers’.
Telling the tale of a middle-aged man and a teenage girl’s journey across post-apocalyptic America, the game confronts players with gangs of murderous raiders with cannibalistic tendencies, overzealous soldiers, and swarms humans infected with a cordyceps fungi that gradually overcomes and transforms their bodies. At times echoing The Road and I am Legend, and with a nod to Day of the Triffids thrown in for good measure, The Last of Us may not boast the most original plot ever devised, but its execution is nothing short of masterful, arguably making this one of the most emotionally engaging titles in video game history.
▼Check out The Last of Us, with its new Japanese voice track
- A curious, but wonderful, ending
“I can’t say that the ending was ‘good’,” uttered one Japanese gamer who had played through until the end credits, “but that’s great.” The Last of Us takes on average 12-15 hours to complete, but by goodness it feels longer when you’re crouching behind a desk in the darkness hoping, praying, that the snarling, thrashing humanoid on the other side won’t hear you, or that the door you’re creeping towards a) isn’t blocked or b) a shortcut to a room full of spore-headed ‘clickers’ who use echolocation to spot their prey. Played in a quiet room with the lights turned low, there’s enough here to warrant a health warning for those with weak hearts. So when the ending incites what gamers both east and west are describing as an unusual or even anticlimactic feeling, one might wonder whether Naughty Dog’s writers let themselves down. On the contrary, as many Japanese gamers have attested, the somewhat subdued–yet in many ways quietly shocking–nature of the game’s climax offers a believable portrayal of human sentiment, however much that may displease those who grew up on Hollywood plots with their neat and tidy resolutions.
- Emotive eye candy
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen The Last of Us in motion to learn that Japanese players, too, are praising the game’s visuals. The PlayStation 3 hardware may be more than six and a half years old (that may not seem like much, but we doubt that many can boast running the latest software at full spec using the same PC that they bought in 2006), but the game positively sparkles visually, offering fluid, realistic character animations as well as stunning sunlit vistas and decaying, pitch-black hallways.
But of course, looks aren’t everything – the game’s voice acting, haunting soundtrack and plot work together to draw the player in, to the degree that it’s easy to become as emotionally invested as when watching a blockbuster movie or engrossed in a bestselling novel. My own wife, who is perhaps the person furthest removed from the term ‘gamer’ I’ve ever known, sat positively engrossed during many of the The Last of Us‘s cinematics, gasping when either of the protagonists was set upon by the game’s aggressors. Regardless of the language in which is played, The Last of Us‘s plot taps into basic human emotions with ease and kept a tight hold on us throughout. Not wanting to rely entirely on our own impressions of the game, however, RocketNews24 also spoke with a handful of reporters here in Japan to get their personal take on the game.
▼How the beautiful game world was created.
- Inspiring empathy
“I was grabbed by the story, but I enjoyed it more because instead of playing the game, per-se, I became immersed in the world it created,” said one journalist we spoke to who had played through The Last of Us. “If we were to liken this to a movie, it would be like something you’d see in a small, independent theatre, but the visuals and voice acting are of a Hollywood standard; that really is something quite new for me.” Echoing our own feelings regarding the game’s ability to draw the player in, the same journalist went on to discuss how he slowly became attached to the characters as he progressed through the game: “The more you play the more you engage with the game–in other words, more so than with movies and TV dramas, you start to empathise with the characters as the story progresses. That’s an experience unlike any other I’ve had.”
- “Is this a PlayStation 4 game?”
“This is a rare gem of a game;” said one particularly enthusiastic member of our RocketNews24 Japan staff, “it’s something that I want even those who don’t usually go for action titles to try.” Another team member, meanwhile, simply stood by and stared at the game on screen, quietly asking, “Is that a PlayStation 4 game?”
With its thrilling story and ability to inspire empathy in players, The Last of Us has won a new legion of fans here in Japan. Naughty Dog have created an experience that transcends cultural boundaries and appeals to the deeper human spirit, shocking, thrilling and delighting every step of the way. With the industry only reaching maturity comparatively recently, there are still those who–despite never dropping their guard long enough to allow them in–maintain that video games are not for them. But with a few more titles of The Last of Us‘s calibre it’s possible that one day in the near future even the naysayers will pick up a controller and lose themselves in an interactive experience of their own. After all, saying “I don’t like video games”, with all the genres, platforms and play styles that currently exist, really makes about as much sense as saying “I don’t like books” just because romance novels don’t appeal to you.
We’ll leave you now with a final developer diary from the Naughty Dog team. We appreciate that not all of you are gamers, and that, perhaps, with the game only available on Sony’s console, some will be hesitant to give it a go, but both the RocketNews24 Japan and English teams would nevertheless like to give The Last of Us a big round of applause. More of this please, Naughty Dog. Much, much more.
Top image RocketNews24, featured image via Videoduel