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When we set out into The Last of Us Part II, we expected a lot from Naughty Dog.

The game was reminiscent of the original in its mechanics and visuals, except better on every front during our first look. Diving deeper, our opinion on this hasn’t changed.

The landscapes we encountered were nothing short of breathtaking, and the abandoned buildings, whether or not zombie-infested, inspired a feeling of dread. On top of that, the combat and stealth were fluid and challenging.

However, these aspects paled in comparison to the story, the weight of which bore heavily on us throughout the game. We were taken through an emotional rollercoaster, filled mostly with dives into desperation. And as we played from Ellie’s perspective, we couldn’t help but notice a dichotomy develop between who she is in Part II and who she was in the original.

The game launches on June 19, but you can preorder it now at the starting price of $59.99. You can also pick up some extra goodies, both in-game and out, if you opt for other editions.

It takes place a few years after the events of the previous game. To jog your memory, Joel was tasked with smuggling Ellie, a young girl, across the country to a group called the Fireflies. Ellie is apparently immune to the Cordyceps, a fungus that’s been infecting people throughout the world and essentially turning them into zombies. Finally, she and Joel arrive at the hospital to meet the Fireflies, who wish to work on a vaccine.

Starting out

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We’re treated to a recap at the onset. Joel is in the middle of recounting the end of his cross-country saga to Tommy.

He doesn’t leave much to the imagination, revealing that he rescued an unconscious Ellie from a surgery that could have produced a mankind-saving vaccine at the cost of her life. And as the loyal brother he is, Tommy accepts Joel’s decisions.

Then, we finally gain control of Ellie, the star of Part II. We find that our protagonist is living a relatively normal life in Wyoming. More specifically, she’s taken up residence in a well-fortified community in Jackson, fit with a hearty population and serious amenities. There is farming, electricity, housing — everything you could want in a zombie apocalypse. Aside from periodic patrols into the wild to take out stragglers and scavenge in buildings, you might not know there was a full-scale apocalypse.

We catch Ellie the morning after a tumultuous evening, during which the seeds for a potential love interest with the name of Dina are planted. And they discover a lot about themselves after they’re put on patrol together. Plus, among other things, they come across the workshop of a late friend that houses a hilarious secret in the basement.

However, it’s not long before the story takes a dark turn and we find ourselves on the fast track to Seattle with a singular goal in mind: revenge.

The Seattle we once knew

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The overgrown world that is Seattle is filled with new and old perils. These come in the form of humans, fungus-infected zombies and the crumbling remains of the city itself.

On the human front, there are two warring factions: the WLF, or Wolves, and the Scars.

The Wolves are a paramilitary group that overwhelmed the army soon after the outbreak and now hold dominion over some parts of Seattle.

The Scars are enigmatic cultists who are as vigilant as they are deadly.

And then there are the infected. These take the form of Runners, the standard zombie, Clickers, the very blind, but very lethal echo-locators and more. There are even monstrosities we didn’t see in the previous game.

As was the case in the original, Part II rewards stealth, speed and exploration. Most situations can be overcome by watching enemy patterns, tossing well-placed objects as distractions and taking out threats, one by one. However, there will be times when you’ll need to dash to your next objective just to survive. Part II even introduces interesting elements that ramp up the difficulty, such as dogs that can sniff out your scent trail.

And if you’re the kind of person who loves to jump in guns blazing, you’d better explore every inch of the map. Ammunition and spare parts can be sparse — do your best to search for alcoves and other areas that could contain vital goodies.

Aside from stashed ammo, you’ll find components to upgrade both your skills and your weapons like in The Last of Us. Plus, you can craft bombs, molotovs, mines and much more. Depending on the difficulty you’re playing on, we recommend concentrating your upgrades on your favorites rather than spreading things out. Find a playstyle that you like, and hone in on its efficacy.

Often during our playthrough, we did our best to avoid confrontation rather than taking out enemies. Of course, this is not always an option. Through some stretches, we spent an immense amount of time trying to work our way through an area, only to have a wrench thrown in our plans by a soldier or zombie we’d overlooked.

Soon, we were swarmed and forced to reenact the Alamo. In the end, our strategy came down to picking off only enemies in our way, or inciting a firefight if we felt confident that we’d thinned their numbers enough.

This isn’t to say it’s too difficult, though. It was a fun challenge to strategize and work through a region. And the game doesn’t just leave you to the dogs, so to speak. There is a difficulty curve that ramps up, but at a point, you’ll develop a good idea of how most of your enemies behave, when to sneak and when to go all out — as well as when to run like hell.

Accessibility

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If you have trouble getting through the game, you can tweak the difficulty during your playthrough. In the options menu, for example, you can adjust how much punishment enemies, allies and yourself can take before dying. You can also make supplies and ammunition occur more or less frequently in the world. This is certainly a rare and appreciated addition.

And when it comes to accessibility, The Last of Us Part II is second to none. For players with motor or physical disabilities, there’s the option to customize all of your controls. You can also turn on cues that will point you toward the way forward. In terms of in-game controls, you can toggle the option to hold buttons instead of having to repeatedly press them. You can also toggle infinite breath underwater, a ledge guard that will protect you from falls, auto-pickup for ammo and supplies and much more.

For the hearing impaired, there are subtitles that not only cover dialogue, but combat action, too. You can also adjust what events cause the controller to vibrate, as well as toggle prompts to keep you aware of nearby enemies. Plus, you can receive prompts telling you when to dodge in combat, as well as notifications of what kinds of items you’ve just picked up.

For the visually impaired, there is a text to speech option. It will narrate so many aspects of the game, from which options you’re selecting in the menu to what weapon you have just equipped and how much ammo remains. You can also swipe the touchpad to receive status info on Ellie (such as her health and whether she’s standing, crouching or prone). And you can toggle high-contrast mode, which will highlight the geometry of the world and brightly color enemies, allies, interactable regions and more. These, as well as the user interface, can be adjusted to different color schemes for different forms of colorblindness.

There are also special audio cues you can toggle that will create unique sounds depending on a variety of in-game factors. The first type is called Traversal Audio Cues. These will trigger when, for example, there is an obstacle you can vault, or when there is ammunition, bricks or bottles to pick up. Then there are Combat Audio Cues. These indicate when, say, an enemy is within takedown range, when you’ve taken one out or when your reticle is pointed at an enemy. You can access a glossary to learn which sounds indicate what situation.

A message at a cost

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The story that unfolds during The Last of Us Part II is complex and raw. There is love, nostalgia, adventure and a lot of pain. Ultimately, though, the message of this game is that actions have consequences. And further, everyone has a past.

Peoples’ entire lives lead them to the decisions they make, but it’s easy to forget this fact when all you know is your own story. And to end someone’s life is to discard that rich history. Part II holds a mirror up to itself and games like it so you see the kind of monster the protagonist can become.

But while we wholeheartedly agree with this moral, we had mixed feelings about its delivery. We were disheartened to find that Ellie becomes the conduit for this message. And, by extension, we are forced to act out her rash and often violent decisions with little say in the matter.

Naughty Dog goes to incredible lengths to make NPCs relatable and human throughout Part II. Whenever you’re sneaking around a WLF-held location or a Scar hunting ground, you’re made painfully aware who you’re dealing with: people.

Characters discuss their hobbies, partners and aspirations. When you take out a soldier, others cry out the name of their fallen comrade. At one point, you sneak up on someone playing a game on a handheld console. And when things go awry, Ellie simply stabs them in the neck then and there. Heck, the WLF even have dogs that they treat affectionately. And sometimes, you’re left with no choice but to kill the poor pups when they come at you.

But it’s kill or be killed … right? When you’re caught by an enemy, they immediately engage. As Ellie sneaks or shoots her way to the next area, she does so to survive. But really, the game gives you no choice. When a quick-time event prompts violence, you must obey. When it’s impossible to sneak by every enemy, and when running isn’t an option, you have to take them out. We, the players, are along for a ride as Ellie seems convinced of her goal by the most violent means necessary.

This is not the Ellie we hoped to see. This is not the Ellie we (partially) raised with Joel during the first game. And while we feel her pain, it seems as if she is being used — twisted into this unfeeling killer. This playstyle makes it even stranger when she produces visceral reactions to deaths in cutscenes or during exploration. Yet, in the next section of gameplay, she’ll stab someone in the neck who was just discussing their spouse.

Our attachment to Ellie is no accident. During The Last of Us, we got to know this tough little girl. She matured so much, and even acted as Joel’s moral anchor at times, forcing him to take the high ground instead of the path of least resistance.

And throughout this game, we live through moments in Ellie’s past that we never witnessed. Moments that draw us yet closer to her. We are also treated to her usual immature humor as well as a new romance. But in Part II, we felt a disconnect. Naughty Dog molded the story and, thus, the girl, around the lesson, not vice versa. Ellie is a tool to convey this lesson. And in being so, it feels as if a vital part of her is lost.

Bottom line

The Last of Us Part II is a gameplay masterpiece. You’ll find yourself in incredible, dynamic environments surrounded by smart enemies and well-paced challenges. And just as you grew to love Ellie, you’ll become attached to other characters too.

While the gameplay is satisfying, one of the true takeaways is the moral quandary. Naughty Dog is up front about its message, and Ellie ends up in the middle of it all. Where does she cross the line between survival and vindication? We have our stance, but ultimately it’s up to the player to decide.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed price at the time of publication.