The Last of Us season 1 review (2023)

Not every moment hits as well as the game, but HBO’s adaptation of the critically acclaimed The Last of Us is, for the majority of it, incredibly faithful to the source material, while also incorporating new elements and expanded storylines to make the viewing experience almost as enjoyable and memorable as playing the game.

I remember when I played through The Last of Us in its entirety for the very first time. Although I was late to the party since I didn’t own a PS3 when the game initially released, I was able to revisit it on the PS4 with the remaster and it’s one of the greatest gaming decisions I’ve ever made. I won’t say it’s the quintessential video game narrative since there are so many phenomenal story-based games I’ve played in my lifetime, but it’s definitely near the top. I always thought it had to potential to transition into a film or series beautifully, but at the same time, I was always skeptical of the prospect since, for many years, video game adaptations were terrible. However, the last few years, they’ve started to come around and there are a handful of quality adaptations, both being films and shows. Then again, there aren’t many games that could be as successful as The Last of Us TV series since the game itself is praised for being absolute cinematic marvel. AS mentioned, it’s safe to say this adaptation was inevitable, and with the right people involved, it was going to be a massive triumph. Sure enough, it is.

Like most die-hard fans, I had my own preferences for who should be cast in these beloved roles and it seems the creators involved completely ignored absolutely everyone, for better or worse (in reality, for better). I mean, I was throwing out big hitters such as Hugh Jackman to play Joel and a promising up-and-coming Kaitlyn Dever to portray Ellie, but those all seemed very popular amongst the fandom. Deep down, I think most of us knew it was a longshot for either of these to be cast in these roles. I have to say, I wasn’t even mad about Pedro Pascal being chosen to play Joel since he’s a phenomenal performer, he simply never crossed my mind. I think the same can be said about Bella Ramsey being cast as Ellie. As fans, we tend to be passionate about things we love. Of course, there’s always some toxicity involved by a select few, but I feel the majority of us are naturally protective of these stories we love so much and want them to be as accurate as possible. This is also part of the reason why we aren’t involved in the decision making process anyway. At the end of the day, these are adaptations. Sure, we expect some sort of faithfulness to the source material, and The Last of Us series definitely is, but it’s also some of the departures, such as plot points being expanded on and new characters, that make it even more special and, in a way, make it stand on its own without ruining what inspired it.

Say what you will about the casting decisions, but I think most can agree Pascal and Ramsey are fantastic together as the main protagonists, Joel and Ellie. There are shades of Joel and Ellie from the game, but they each make the characters their own as well, which is great to see. I was worried some of the memorable cinematic cut scenes and line delivery wouldn’t hit as well as they did, and although some may have not had the same impact as they did in the game, and sometimes, they sounded a bit robotic, but they were both familiar and different in all the right ways. I love the narrative additions the creators made with Joel’s character, making him feel more relatable and personal as a human being, and there aren’t many other actors as convincing and as talented as Pascal. He completely sells every interaction, whether it’s with dialogue or combat. He was the right choice for this role and it’ll be difficult to find anyone who disagrees. I’ve seen some discourse about Ramsey’s portrayal as Ellie, but I thought she was great too. I can’t say she’s better than Ashley Johnson as the character, but I don’t even think Pascal is better than Troy Baker. They each stay faithful to the roots of each of these characters, but also incorporate their own versions and, as mentioned, make them their own. I was honestly surprised how much some of the crucial moments in this story were still able to hit certain feels the same way the game did, and I think most of the credit has to go to Pascal and Ramsey for being able to deliver that. Gabriel Luna, in my opinion, is the one who resembled the original character the most as Tommy. The way he sounds, his demeanor, and his personality just screams Tommy. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of him, but I’m ready to see more of him in season two. As far as casting goes, I don’t have many complaints and feel everyone did very well. I didn’t find David to be as menacing or creepy as the game version, but it still worked. Then again, it’s hard to replicate what Nolan North was able to do with that character.

The story is, at least 80% of it, a beat for beat adaptation of the game. Some scenes and shots were seemingly ripped straight from the video game, and this being a franchise I love dearly, I was overjoyed to see the attention to detail with all of these shots, the character designs, outfits, and makeup. The set pieces, even the absolute minute details, props, and locations, immediately remind you of what made exploring and playing through the world of The Last of Us so fantastic. As for the other 20%, the creators involved were able to incorporate their own flair and originality, expanding on the story in ways I never expected. For example, the most obvious one is Bill and Frank’s story. Of course, you meet Bill in the game, who seems more like a paranoid doom prepper/recluse, but you only get hints of who Frank is. The series did this plot line so much more justice and it all came together beautifully in an episode many feel is the best, or at least the most emotionally engaging, of the season. Kudos to Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett for their phenomenal portrayals. There are other additions, such as new characters, plot details which explain some things further that weren’t exactly explored in the game, and so on. How the series explains the origins of the cordyceps virus, how Ellie becomes immune, and so on really added a necessary weight to it all. Overall, it’s a fantastic retelling that not only honors the game, but in many ways, makes it better. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as good as the game, but it’s still great nonetheless, and it’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that seems to be making a turn for the better in recent years.

I do have my nitpicks and gripes, of course. The designs for the zombies (Runners, Clickers, Bloaters, etc.) are absolutely incredible, for sure, and I was losing my mind at how well-made they ended up being. However, there simply wasn’t enough of them in this series in comparison to the game. Sure, The Last of Us has always been about how much more dangerous and ruthless humanity is compared to the dead, but the zombies were a crucial part of what made the game so thrilling and suspenseful. There are moments in the series where you definitely feel the imminent threat of the dead creeping up on you, but they’re a bit far and in between. It’s evident the series is more drama and character focused, and that isn’t a bad thing by any means, but I was really hoping to see the zombies feel more like a threat rather than something that could be avoided. Some of the episodes seemed to be rushed as well. There are certain narrative revelations that happen from one moment to the next rather than having a proper setup and giving these important details time to breathe. Of course, the series isn’t going to have as much time to work with compared to the game, but I don’t see why the first season only had to be 9 episodes long.

The Last of Us series is definitely a more realistic approach to the game. Joel is still a badass, but it’s obvious he isn’t able to do the same things he does in the game, such as jumping from relatively high places and still have his knees intact, or taking on multiple enemies at once, whether it’s humans or zombies alike. In many ways, when playing the game, you almost feel invincible, and the brutality of the combat is what made the gameplay experience so much more enjoyable. I understand why it was done a specific way for the series, but the selfish part of me was hoping to see more of it be translated to the series.

I think most who played the game will agree the series isn’t as good, but I guarantee they will say it’s a quality adaptation full of incredibly emotional and convincing performances, an engaging story, and a game-accurate world full of interesting characters, whether they’re living or not. It isn’t exactly how I wanted it to be in some ways, but in other ways, it’s better than I could’ve ever imagined. The faithfulness to the source material and the way the story is treated with care with its own new takes on specific plotlines makes the first season more than worthwhile and I’m very excited for what comes next. This may be the absolute best video game adaptation ever made.

Score: 8.8/10


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