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This article contains spoilers for The Last Of Us Part II and it is recommended that you read no further unless you've finished the game - or at least reached the Seraphites' Island. Say no more.
Most of us have watched enough fantasy, horror and sci-fi to know that if monsters are likely to lurk anywhere, it's in the darkness, in the shadow, the hidden places far away from the sun's rays. For me, the first time this was made more than apparent was through my regular viewings of kids' TV show The Trap Door, where the amiable Berk would, inevitably, wind up releasing some beast or other from the titular portal to nastiness in every episode. It was all played for laughs but, still: there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out.
Since then, we've heard about monsters that mostly come at night, mostly. We've seen what lurks in the dark of The Lord of the Rings' Mines of Moria. We've learned that shadowy manifestations of real-world trauma can be locked away in basements and fed on a diet of worms, if we're strong enough to stand up to them. And so much more, of course.
And in The Last of Us Part II (review, here), we're always aware that the dark places are the most dangerous. Where there are broken floors and shattered walls, lethal spores to choke the humanity out of you, and there are floods to slow you down and leave you vulnerable. And most frightening of all, it's usually in collapsing towers and rotten subways where we find the very worst of the game's cordyceps-infected, zombie-like enemies.
The clickers and the bloaters, we know about - been there, killed them, in the first The Last of Us of 2013. They present no significant new challenge in this sequel. The stalkers - creepy, crafty, skittery things somewhere between a vaguely human runner and a shuffling, blind clicker - are different, however. In numbers they can swarm us and beat us down, down in the dark. We have to stay on our toes, throwing caution to the wind and sprinting, desperately, to a spot in the broken environment where we can find an advantage. Stalkers are nasty in The Last of Us Part II - but in a good way.
The shamblers I'm split on. Essentially bloaters with a gas problem, they release skin-burning chemical clouds if you get too close to them; and they take several shotgun shells to bring down, too. They don't punch with the power of a bloater, so getting up close and personal doesn't always mean death; but they feel like only the very slightest evolution (or devolution, I guess, if you wanna read into the 'lifecycle' of these things) of an enemy we first encountered seven years ago.
But that's fine, because it makes sense. The infected ranks probably wouldn't change wildly within the limited time they've been around. The Last of Us Part II is set about 25 years after the in-game Outbreak Day, September 27th 2013. Evolution is a wondrous thing, but it can only work so much magic in a quarter of a century, regardless of the human-caused potential for environmental mutations.
And that's why I absolutely hate this game's worst - by which I mean that I dislike it immensely, not because it poses the greatest risk to the player's health - enemy so much. It doesn't feel at home within this fiction, within this ecosystem of already freakishly deformed monstrosities. It feels like too much of a nod to other games, to horrors born from other virtual worlds of make-believe. It just... It just looks stupid, okay? In my opinion, the so-called rat king looks stupid.
The Last of Us games don't really do boss fights like a lot of action-adventure titles do. They happen, but when they do they usually suck - and are thankfully pretty rare. The encounter with the rat king, a writhing mass of multiple combined infected that rolls around the (sealed off) basement of a WLF-occupied hospital in Seattle, is a hopelessly formulaic, subtlety-thrown-out-the-window (or rather, kicked through it, I suppose) kind of battle that sits wildly at odds with the game's usual kill-your-own-way approach to combat scenarios.
Okay, that's not strictly true. But sneaking up behind this thing and stabbing it sure isn't an option. It's massive, and such is its strength that if it catches you, it's an instant fail. Instant fails suck, by the way. In any game, in any situation: instant fails suck. I can't believe it's 2020 and still games are coming out that don't get this.
Anyway, you can use pipe bombs, your shotgun's fire shells or, if you have it (please say you have it, by now), your flamethrower to do some decent damage to this thing. But all of those weapons require a pretty short range to be effective. And if you let this thing get close, down here in the dark, where it's not always easy to read your surroundings, you can easily find yourself stuck in a corner, no way out other than to have your face ripped open and the encounter restart.
Mercifully, the rat king - a little Resident Evil 3's Nemesis, a little Inside's Huddle, a lot of suck in this particular game - is defeated in stages. Do enough damage and a piece of it - a living, squirming, actually-still-dangerous piece of it - will scurry off. We'll deal with that, later. The shedding represents a checkpoint, so at least it's not a case of going right back to the start should you be cornered afterwards. Which is good because, if it was, I'd hate this awful thing even more.
Before we meet the rat king, we're told that where it resides is, basically, ground zero for the whole outbreak in Seattle. It's to this hospital basement that the first infected were brought, as a lot of supporting, press-triangle-to-read-this-thing documentation scattered around the place reveals. We're told that, well, who knows what's down there. That it's going to be rough. And rough is certainly what it is - but not because the boss is frightening, or an especially challenging enemy (outside of its insta-fail cheapness), but by virtue of it just seeming ridiculous. We walked across America before now, only a few years before this game's events, and didn't see anything like this. Anything close to this. IMO: the rat king is a bad boss, designed badly, encountered in a bad environment, and it makes for a very bad bit of this game. I look forward to never playing through it again.
But it's dead, now. We can move on. Naughty Dog, I dig what you're doing with these games, I do. I like the variety of infected you've got going on - and these ones that come out of the walls? Holy sheets, mine would have been brown if I'd been playing this in bed, the first time one of those came at me, all arms and teeth and get away get away get away. But the rat king idea? Leave it down there, in the dark. Please. We all, like the Berks we are, have suffered enough.
Featured Image Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment, Naughty Dog
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