Monster Mania: The Rat King is a Boss Fight Done Right
Monster Mania is a weekly column celebrating the unique and varied monster designs in horror gaming.
For as divided as audiences remain on The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog’s continually refining the unique permutations of their infected horror world deserves praise. I also consider the sequel is a brutally bleak continuation of a series that rips, which helps my impression of it. Naughty Dog took the now rather trite enemy type, infected runners, and gave them both a cosmetic and gameplay facelift uniquely reflective of The Last of Us‘ distinct brand of zombified horror. So, color me surprised when I (incorrectly) assumed I knew exactly what the sequel had in store for me a handful of hours into The Last of Us Part II.
And then the Rat King knocked me on my ass. No easy feat when playing as the brick shithouse that is Abby Anderson. The introduction to the Rat King is as cinematic as it gets. Trapped within the confines of an ambulance, the Rat King nearly fills the entire screen. Abby’s shock and terror are made palpable for the player, who is not only faced with a new, unprecedented threat but is undoubtedly struggling to decipher just what the hell they are looking at.
Before detailing the deadliest monster in The Last of Us universe, thus far, we should understand just what the hell that name means. The moniker “Rat King” stems from the real-world phenomena in which rats become intertwined by their tails, essentially becoming one fuzzy unit. And while, no, Naughty Dog has not introduced infected rats to the series, the result is somehow worse. And when discussing monsters, “worse” always means better.
The Rat King is a gargantuan culmination of what Naughty Dog has learned over the past decade regarding monster design. The Rat King is a super cordyceps mutation composed of a stalker, clicker, and bloater-infected type fused into a multi-armed and legged monstrosity. The Rat King is encountered within the catacombs of the Seattle Hospital, which we learn is ground zero of the cordyceps fungus outbreak. Given what little we know about The Rat King, it stands to reason that if other infected were exposed to spores for a 25-year incubation period, more Rat Kings could conceivably be created given the proper circumstances. And for my money, I doubt this is the last we have seen of this creature.
As for the Rat King’s rather bulbous composition, according to an interview with GamesRadar, co-directors Anthony Newman and Kurt Margenau were inspired by director Neil Blomkamp’s short film Zygote, director Alex Garland’s Annihilation, and the creature from Playdead’s Inside. And while these inspirations may have inspired the overall concept of the Rat King, Naughty Dog proves that the universe of The Last of Us is more than the sum of its parts.
Being presented with a threat that shrugs off most firearms is nothing new, given the player’s numerous encounters with bloaters. The player is entirely unprepared for The Rat King’s deadly attributes stemming from their twisted morphology. Just when the player thinks they have a handle on the creature, a stalker and bloater-infected types, which are intertwined with Rat King, will separate from it. On their own, a stalker is manageable, but when paired with the Rat King’s chaotic bull in a china shop combat style, they are downright deadly. In addition to their usual harassment attack style, the stalker will restrain Abby so the Rat King can grab her and deliver a single killing blow. Making matters worse, the stalker can now lob explosive spores (similar to bloaters), which stun Abby, while the Rat King emits noxious clouds should she get too close.
By this point in the game, the player has discovered the devastating flamethrower that, when combined with bombs, does hefty damage to Rat King. However, just as crucial as this singularly unique monster is, the environment in which the player must fight it is equally important. The hospital basement is nearly pitch black, making for nasty close quarters confines for a boss fight. Being pursued by multiple enemies, let alone the one-hit-kill behemoth Rat King while navigating a maze-like environment with limited visibility amplifies the terror, which is incomparable until now.
The Rat King is as effective of a boss fight as it is due to more than just its stellar design. Naughty Dog has shown remarkable restraint in not overburdening The Last of Us series with boss fights. So when it comes time to lock the player into an environment with a new, monstrous threat, it feels as exhilarating and terrifying as boss fights should.
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