Between the screaming fungus zombies and the overtones of mindless militarism, The Last of Us Part 2 is basically one big, playable nightmare. But the scariest moment of the game comes at the midway point.
At the end of Abby’s “Seattle Day 2” chapter, you end up at the Washington Liberation Front’s hospital base. Your goal is to pop in, snag some medicine, and pop out. Naturally, everything goes sideways. Eventually you have to make your way to the basement; through conversations with Nora (this is before Ellie cold-bloodedly murders her) and some scattered collectibles, you learn that the area is ground zero for the cordyceps outbreak in Seattle and has gone largely untouched for three decades. Sounds like a fun and totally not-terrifying place to explore, yeah?
You sneak through the dark, plundering some cabinets and turning on a generator. At the end of your search, you find the medicine you need in the cab of an ambulance. Roughly two seconds later, a massive Infected rips the ambulance doors off. It’s called the Rat King, it’s the oldest Infected in Seattle, and it’s no singular entity. Three decades stuck in a cordyceps-filled cavern caused a small contingent of Infected – clickers, stalkers, runners, and one very angry shambler – to fuse together like a nightmare-inducing Voltron. Nothing in The Last of Us series comes closer to the horror of the Rat King. Seriously, just look at this thing:
Screenshot: Naughty Dog/Kotaku
I know I’m not the only one who summarily pissed their pants. A friend texted me as the scene went down, and had some thoughts:
You fight the Rat King in dark corridors, running for your life while emptying every clip in your arsenal into its Hummer-sized body. Once you whittle its health down enough, an Infected splits off from the host body in a brief cutscene that’s, to quote my friend, “fucked up.” You then have to fight both of them. On paper, it should make your blood run cold. So it’s a shame that the encounter itself is really rather boring.
Boss fights in Naughty Dog’s recent games tend to be cinematic, timing-based combat challenges interspersed with quick-time events. See: Nadine Ross in Uncharted 4, Talbot in Uncharted 3, Asav in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, or Nadine Ross in Uncharted 4 (again). Even such encounters in The Last of Us series follow a similar script. Recall Ellie, in the first game, sneaking through a restaurant, avoiding piles of shattered ceramic plates, just to get the jump on a sadistic cannibal with a bad haircut. These fights require a keen eye and sound strategy, or at least the illusion of it.
By contrast, there’s only one way to take down the extremely absorbent bullet sponge Rat King: Shoot it. A lot.
In defeating the Rat King, I went through an entire tank of flamethrower fuel, a dozen 9mm pistol bullets, at least half a dozen hunting pistol rounds, six incendiary shells for the shotgun, four regular shells for the shotgun, three crossbow bolts, two full clips of the military rifle, two pipe bombs, and one very sleepless night. Show me one bloater that can survive all of that.
If the Rat King touches you once, you’re done for. It doesn’t help that the fight takes place in a cramped, waterlogged subterranean room. You can technically leap through windows into various other rooms or duck behind objects, but the Rat King will simply crash through whatever wall you’re behind. So the “strategy,” such as it is, is mindless: Turn on your heel, sprint, stop, shoot, reload, repeat. There’s a convenient hallway behind the level’s starting point that makes it easy to create some distance.
The Last of Us Part 2’s wonky checkpointing also helps with the lift. Often, checkpoints will save during the middle of encounters. In this boss fight, they seem to come after you dish out a certain amount of damage. (There’s no helpful health bar indicating where you’re at in the fight, though. You literally have to just spray and pray.) Once you realise that, you can cheese your way through the fight by pumping the Rat King full of lead, dying, and reloading ad infinitum (at least on the normal difficulty setting). When you die, you’ll come back with some ammo. It sucks the wind out of the sails of what, by all rights, should be one of the most tense moments in the game. If there’s no consequence to scamming the system, why not do so with abandon?
This is the core issue in the fight against the Rat King. Most of the gameplay in The Last of Us Part 2 is all about making the most of what little you have. Even on lower difficulty levels, you’re constantly outnumbered, low on health, and pressed for ammo. The goal, then, is to find the smartest and most effective way through battle scenarios. Defeating the Rat King doesn’t require any such mastery – only patience (and a whole lot of bullets).
There’s also the unavoidable matter of narrative ramifications – or, rather, the lack thereof. If I was in Abby’s shoes, and I took this thing down, I’d never shut up about it. “Hi, yeah, I’ll take an iced oat milk latte, and also did you know that I killed the Rat King?” For Abby, though, it’s nothing more than yet another undead nightmare that stands between her and her goal. She kills it and wordlessly moves on. It’s characteristically badass. It’s also a window into how The Last of Part 2 treats this initially nail-biting, ultimately banal encounter.