Naughty Dog has nearly always been at the cutting edge of delivering the fullest on what a PlayStation game can do and The Last of Us franchise has been a recurring prime example of that. The games have been toted time and time again as some of the best action, storytelling, and visuals that PlayStation Studios titles have to offer. There was a bit of confusion, then, when Naughty Dog announced it would be rebuilding the first Last of Us for the PS5. Still considered to be quite the stellar game, there was wonder at what would be improved. My answer after playing it is… almost everything. The Last of Us Part 1 takes the full power of the PS5 and brings the most expressive edition of Joel and Ellie’s original story yet.
Shedding new light on the outbreak
I went back and forth between playing The Last of Us Part 1 and The Last of Us Remastered (which was upgraded for the PS4 Pro around 2017) to get a good look at the changes. While not every detail will stand out as noticeably upgraded, there are some incredibly well-reworked visual effects that stand out no matter how you look at it. Static and unnatural lighting are no more in The Last of Us Part 1. The entire game has been rebuilt with new lighting and shadow effects that give a massively improved air of natural beauty and grime throughout the game.
One particularly standout detail was at the very beginning of the game when Tommy, Joel, and Joel’s daughter Sarah are trying to escape when they drive by a house on fire. In the original, the fire effect seemed strapped to a house which looked static even as it was burning. In Part 1, that same house is pluming smoke and flames from every orifice and wood and materials are collapsing in real-time as it breaks down. Further along when Tess meets a contact in Boston to open a secret path, we see light poke through the windows where previously it was an unnaturally lit room with little reaction to the daytime outside. Further still is a church in Bill’s town in which sunlight is transformed through the stained glass at the back of the altar. Every single bit of this game is lit and shadowed in a way that serves to deepen the immersion.
A lot of the textures in The Last of Us Part 1 have been upgraded too. Joel, Ellie, Tess, Bill, and other characters look far less doll-like and emote far better. Joel has serious fatigue under his eyes that actually seems to move as he responds to various situations. Meanwhile, I could actually see light flowing through the follicles of Tess’s hair as I walked behind her in different areas. Even NPC characters that weren’t as detailed felt more real, emoting properly in response to given situations in expressive or even subtle ways. The guard that lets Tess and Joel get into Robert’s hideout in the beginning isn’t as detailed as other characters, but he does have this coy smirk about him when Tess hands him a stack of illegal ration cards and asks where Robert is. These details all serve to keep a solid mood throughout the game.
The animations have really taken a bump up too. There was definitely some jank in The Last of Us Remastered that Naughty Dog was able to iron out in TLOU2. The sheer range of movement and situation-specific animation was a highlight of the game in our review and Naughty Dog has brought that pedigree here. Characters respond to the environment, combat, climbing, falling, and more in ways that rarely ever left me rolling my eyes due to some obviously silly glitch or AI failure.
That said, for all of the polish on The Last of Us Part 1, it wasn’t without any smudges. I felt this way regularly about interaction with water. In the rain, characters’ clothes get wet, but when swimming in water it seemed as though Joel’s hair and skin might stay wet for a moment, but his clothes would dry instantly. It seemed strange given that Horizon Forbidden West did a great job with water and its effects both out in the rain and while swimming.
Another notable exception occurred in one alley in Bill’s town. I got cornered by the infected and tried to melee my way out. Joel eventually died, but instead of a biting death animation from being killed by the infected, he kind of just slumped backwards over his own knees with his arm going all wet noodle. It was a very Fallout death for a Last of Us game, albeit one of few exceptions to an otherwise impeccable presentation.
Quality of life and ease of access
The additions to The Last of Us Part 1’s visual textures and effects are definitely the star of this remake, but there are a lot of little details, changes, and additions that take the game to the next level as well. For one, The Last of Us Part 1 features an entire new list of accessibility options brought over and even upgraded a bit further from the suite of similar options found in The Last of Us Part 2. You can now adjust subtitle size, assign colors to characters speaking, alter combat options, activate colorblind modes, activate sound and visual cues to aid in exploration, adjust difficulty from crushingly hard to Story Mode easy, and so much more.
This is also one of the first Naughty Dog games to feature description commentary for blind viewers. Flipping this option on has a voice describe the setting and actions going on in the scene even as the characters carry out their activities. This feature was a standout among the additions that Naughty Dog implemented with the aim of improving upon TLOU2’s award-winning accessibility and players or viewers with most impairments will likely be happy with everything available here.
Beyond accessibility, there are further improvements throughout TLOU Part 1’s gameplay that all players will likely appreciate. For instance, much of the UI has been reworked to be far less clashing with the on-screen action. It’s minimal when it needs to be, but even when the UI is there, it’s far more out of the way while still being informative. The alert system has also been improved. It still plays the airy effect when you’re in danger of being spotted, but now there’s also a confirmation when an enemy is fully aware of your presence and ready to go on the attack. Other little improvements include things like being able to bring up a clear text reading of any notes and documents you find instead of trying to have to make sense of the graphical scrawl. There's even a well-implemented Speedrun Mode to keep track of how fast you play each encounter, chapter, and a whole playthrough if that's your jam.
That said, I wasn’t wild about every change Naughty Dog made to the game. The new Listening Mode feels worse than the original. Everything is much fuzzier and sometimes it was hard to make out where enemies were looking or what direction they were facing based on the fuzzy white blobs that would appear even when Listening Mode was upgraded. Likewise, previously when you aimed the bow in TLOU Remastered, you would draw an arrow. Now you have to hold the fire button to draw, which felt a little less easy to handle for me, even if the DualSense puts a little more oomph into the bow’s handling. A lot of QoL changes in The Last of Us Part 1 feel good. Instances like the ones mentioned unfortunately feel like one step forward and two steps back.
An incredible journey all the more worth revisiting
If you’ve never played the original Last of Us, I would argue this is the version worth playing. The upgrades over the original are quite numerous. From the upgraded visuals and impeccable work done on lighting and shadows, to the expansion of accessibility options and even new ones over The Last of Us Part 2, and finally a multitude of subtle gameplay improvements that make the whole experience all the more enjoyable, this is a fully upgraded package. I won’t say every “improvement” is actually an improvement or even necessary, but the sheer amount of polish added to this version of the game likely ensures I will never go back to The Last of Us Remastered over Part 1, given the choice.
These impressions are based on a PlayStation 5 digital copy supplied by the publisher. The Last of Us Part 1 comes out on PS5 on September 2, 2022, with a PC release to be announced at a later date.