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How far would you go to seek revenge on those who wronged you? Would you let a maddening drive for retribution fester until it plagued your every waking thought? Could you let it go, and allow the cooling salve of sanity return you to your senses?
The Last of Us Part II, the next installment in Naughty Dog’s thrilling post-apocalyptic action-adventure franchise, attempts to answer these questions in an alarmingly bleak yet refreshingly realistic manner. The journey picks up five years after the conclusion of the first game, which originally debuted on PlayStation 3 in 2013.
The ballad of the haggard, paternal Joel and plucky, teenage Ellie continues as the pair attempt to make a new life for themselves. Most of the world’s population was wiped out years earlier by the spread of a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus. It ripped through the world like wildfire, turning most of humanity into zombie-like creatures known as the Infected.
Joel and Ellie now find themselves in Jackson City, Wyoming, at a settlement owned by Joel’s estranged brother, Tommy. Life is as peaceful as it can be in Jackson, until a traumatic event threatens to shatter everything Joel and Ellie hold dear. Pushed to her limits, Ellie vows to make those responsible pay. With the aid of those close to her, she makes the snap decision to seek an eye for an eye in this tale of revenge.
Ellie, now 19, is an unrepentant assailant, brimming with white-hot rage and perpetually on the brink of boiling over. Even so, this hostility can barely mask the agony she’s clearly feeling inside. Her maelstrom of emotion makes for an adrenaline-laden trip from place to place as she seeks out anyone she believes is responsible for the injustice she’s suffered, systematically eliminating anyone in the way and moving ever forward on her quest to rain hellfire down on some very unlucky individuals.
But despite her propensity to shoot first and ask questions later, Ellie isn’t remorseless. It’s clear from her actions that many of those who fall to the barrel of her gun will undoubtedly be burned into her memory for the rest of her days. Still, she presses on. She has to — if not her, then who?
Ellie won’t be able to achieve her goal without a lot of resistance, though. Warring factions such as the WLF (Washington Liberation Front) and the Scars (Seraphites) are waiting around every corner, and they don’t take kindly to strangers. They’ll also kill without a second thought, but there’s a certain humanity to them that you don’t find in most other games.
When they get in the way, the only path forward is through them via lengthy, brutal combat scenes. The stop-and-pop gunplay of games like Uncharted is present here, but it’s more polished than ever. It feels effortless in a way that transforms those endless segments from prior Naughty Dog games, and even the first The Last of Us, into something much more exciting. There’s also the stealth option — Ellie can simply use her listening ability to concentrate and seek out enemies that make noise around her.
Each and every human Ellie dispatches feels like one more meaningful life lost. It’s easy to steel yourself and become a mostly numb killing machine for the sake of the game, but the terrifyingly human screams that permeate the sound of gunfire won’t let you. As corpses pile up on the battlefield, so do the pools of blood that blossom beneath those Ellie has downed.
You remember each one of them, each of their cries for help, and each of their companions’ tortured screams as they realize allies — friends and even family — have been murdered. It’s tough to watch the beloved dogs that patrol alongside Ellie’s enemies rush toward her because they, too, must be put down.
The Last of Us Part II manages to touch a nerve, accomplishing something shocking: getting you to care about the seemingly endless hordes of “bad guys” out to get you. They all had names. They had families. They had lives. Is what Ellie’s after really worth the violence she leaves in her wake? These are questions you have to ask yourself as you progress.
Normal humans aren’t the only targets Ellie comes face to face with. The Infected were human once, too, but now they’re mere shells of their former selves. They come in a variety of forms, such as “Clickers” and the mostly blind, lumbering behemoths with super strength. If you don’t take care of them quickly, you’re in for disaster — and sometimes, instant death. Luckily, there are a wide variety of weapons with which Ellie can destroy the monsters, including a pistol, bow and shotgun.
There’s more to the journey than combat. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded. In addition to optional locations to investigate for cool pop culture references — and even opportunities for Ellie to play guitar, just like she learned from Joel — there’s a lengthy list of collectibles to discover as well, from trading cards and notes to codes that open safes containing goodies to add to Ellie’s stores. You can never have too much ammo, after all.
That’s right — supplies are limited, of course, as this is the post-apocalypse. Thankfully, Ellie is handy with materials found throughout the land. She can craft items such as med kits, Molotov cocktails and even improvised suppressors for weapons she picks up while on her mission. This can be done anywhere on the field, even while Ellie is prone, hiding in the tall grass. Ellie can also stop at workbenches scattered throughout the abandoned storefronts and homes of the post-Clicker world, where she can apply weapon upgrades.
There’s a lot of death in store for players as well, and it comes swiftly and without warning. Several Clicker assaults result in instant kills, meaning you’ll have to be quicker on the draw than ever before. At any moment, one of the monsters could saunter up behind Ellie and tear her throat out, only a brief flash of her fate shown before a quick fade to black.
But you can press on, and press on you will. Because the story beats in The Last of Us Part II are cohesive in a way that echo some of the best TV shows of the past decade. There isn’t a single thread untouched by the end, and the entire experience is riddled with lore-building notes, photographs, and other pieces of information that serve to further enrich the world.
As the narrative unfolds, it feels like binge-watching an expertly written drama punctuated by interactive shootouts. The heartbreak is just as real and the losses just as painful. If you’ve followed Joel and Ellie since the beginning, the highs and lows will be even more personal. That’s the mark of excellent media, though. It transcends the boundaries of fiction and becomes a story in which you could see yourself. And at the end of it all, even when faced with characters and situations you may not agree with, you can’t help but come out of the experience with a sense of compassion, even toward those responsible for setting Ellie on her path of destruction.
There’s no sugar-coating it: The Last of Us Part II is as raw as games come, with one foot firmly entrenched within the realm of agonizingly realistic video game conventions and Hollywood blockbusters. At times, the lines blur in such a way that, to anyone casually observing, it seems almost more like a film than anything you’d play on a console. Therein lies its magic.
Beautifully and even gruesomely crafted, The Last of Us Part II represents the pinnacle of what video games can be. It’s an unflinching, impeccable example of how the medium can be used to propel the art form forward by employing the same visceral storytelling techniques and disturbing imagery you’d see from Oscar-nominated films. Critics have been asking when video games would “grow up” for years. The real question is this: when will films catch up with video games like The Last of Us Part II?
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Roe V. Wade