Last weekend I finished my second Grounded run on New Game +
My 5th completion of The Last Of Us campaign and, probably, my fastest - clocking in at around 8 hours in total. Grounded, for those that don't know, is the most punishing difficulty available, released separately from the "Survivor" difficulty in the original game but thrown in with the Remastered edition for the PS4. Where survivor removed the "Listen" functionality, which grants Joel the Naughty Dog equivalent of Detective Vision, Grounded takes it a step further by completely removing the HUD and UI. You are not told how many bullets are in your guns, you are not given button prompts in combat (Aside from story-specific QTE's) and you are never told how much health you have left. Your screen is blissfully uncluttered. On top of this the availability of ammo and materials are further reduced down to the bare minimum, and Joel is painfully fragile - Before upgrading your health it's possible to be killed my a single bullet, or a single hit from an enemy. As a result you're further encouraged to stick to the shadows, frequently avoiding combat altogether in favour of running or sneaking straight through entire levels without firing a shot.
It's a much different style of play that I grew to appreciate. As ammo is short - and I'm talking non existent - bricks and bottles became my weapons of choice - in the few chunks of the game where you are forced into combat, a thrown brick will stun an enemy, allowing you to grapple and instantly murder them. Similarly a melee attack whilst holding a brick or bottle will finish an enemy much faster - the most potent combo is to throw a brick at an enemy and then run at him with a melee weapon of your own - one swing will earn you an instakill. This is both the fastest way of dispatching an enemy, and also preservers the amount of hits you can make with your melee weapon.
Without the listen mode
which is removed in both Survivor and Grounded difficulties, a solid familiarity with the level design is pretty important. Combat is always risky, so if you can make a beeline straight for your destination without engaging anyone then that's obviously going to be advantageous. Similarly there are several sections of the game where, if you dash before the game is ready, you can clear chunks of the level before enemies have established their patrol routes. One example of this is at the hydro-electric plant, where you're ambushed by hunters. Once you've cleared the first room and head upstairs to the office, it's possible to ignore the 3 hunters in that room, jump through the window and dash to the end of the walkway. A few seconds later and all 9 of the enemies that are supposed to populate that level will spawn and bottleneck through the locked door at the end, meaning you can fry them all with a single molotov. I'm not a huge fan of cheesing the game like that, but I did it "properly" the first run through and it took me fucking hours. Knowing the key beats in the campaign are vital so you can make sure you have the appropriate weapons available. I had to fight the school bloater on my first grounded run with no health or molotovs and, thanks to the awkward checkpointing, that was a fucking nightmare.
The checkpoints are frequently unforgiving, and I'm not entirely sure if it's by design or not, because I don't remember them being so savage on any of the easier difficulties. The hospital at the end of the game, for example, has zero checkpoints. You need to make it up through both floors, including the second floor where every enemy carries an assault rifle, without being seen or dying. Perhaps more frustrating are the sections where you play as Ellie - that snowy town needs to be cleared in a single run, and she's even more fragile than Joel is, not to mention that whole place is a fucking maze. The weapons Ellie picks up are devoid of any previous upgrades, so say goodbye to your rifle scope. The defence sequence at the Lumber Mill is perhaps the hardest section of the entire campaign, Ellie being killed in a single hit and only having a Bow and Rifle (with a painfully slow reload speed) to do any real damage. My strategy at this point was to reserve any rifle ammo for clickers, and for the other infected I would run around David in circles and wait for his AI to either punch the infected to death or grapple them so I could rush in and shiv them - the infinite knives that Ellie holds are her one saving grace, and the "Throw a bottle then stab them" approach is pretty much the only way you're getting through this chunk of the game. And make sure you've got a Molly, because there's that fucking bloater at the end. Remember kids, no checkpoints! Yeah. It's a fucker.
By contrast, there are big chunks of the game you can simply stealth through in a single run. I cleared the entire Hunter Town, and most of Bills town, without ever getting caught up in a firefight or even being spotted. Any area with clickers you can safely ignore them and, providing you're going as slow as humanly possible, you can brush right past clickers and they won't kick off. If you do make noise you can actually duck back into stealth and escape, though they will converge on your last known location and it will fuck up their patrol patterns, so it's usually easier to take the death at that point. On my first run through I made it all the way to Bills Town without firing a shot or using a health kit. Easy peasy.
One other thing worth noting is that, once Joel's health drops into the red (at the point he's visibly bleeding and holding his arm up to his ribs) the game seems to vacuum him into insta-death animations in situations where you would otherwise be fine. If you're in a fist-fight with an infected or a hunter and you land the first blow, you should be able to maintain that combo until they're finished; If you're already on the verge of death though, the game will snap you out of that combo after the first punch, even if the enemy is stunned, and you will die. It is bullshit of the highest calibre.
Ultimately I enjoyed both playthroughs of the game. As you gain familiarity with the core mechanics and how they can be employed and manipulated, you gain a confidence that makes the game much easier. When I started playing I would sit, nervously hiding and trying to learn patrols, repeatedly being killed - but simply throwing up my hands and saying "Fuck it, I'm going for it" and stealthing out straight into the middle of the enemies, worked with surprising frequency. Fortune favours the bold, I guess.
Never had enough Shivs though. That was always a fucker.
Anyway, if you have any questions or you're attempting this yourself and you get stuck, give me a shout. I'm getting pretty close to attempting a speedrun at this point, and I'm but a few trophies away from my platinum.
I guess once that's done I need to find a new hobby...