Spoilers ahead for “The Last of Us” (2013) and “The Last of Us Part II.”
“The Last of Us Part II,” the hotly anticipated sequel to the 2013 survival horror game, is out Friday on PlayStation 4. The game, developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony, offers a complex, emotional story and lots of infected zombies.
“The Last of Us” (2013) was a smash hit, selling 20 million copies by 2019, according to Niko Partners senior analyst Daniel Ahmad. It’s the third-best-selling PlayStation exclusive as of 2019, after “Marvel’s Spider-Man” and “God of War,” according to Mat Piscatella, executive director of games at research firm NPD Group.
The game is even being developed into a TV series by HBO (which is owned by CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia) in conjunction with Sony Pictures Television and PlayStation Productions.
The franchise is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a mutant fungus infected most humans and turned them into cannibalistic “zombies.” In the original game, players traverse the world as Joel, a smuggler, and Ellie, a young woman who has been orphaned.
The timing of the sequel’s release during a pandemic could actually attract more people to play it, analysts say. The ever present threat of infection in ‘The Last of Us’ franchise has clear parallels to reality, and players might find comfort in the agency they have in the fictional world.
“The Last of Us Part II” continues the story from the end of the original game. Ellie was revealed to be immune to the disease and her cells could unlock a vaccine, although the procedure to harvest her cells would kill her. Joel is unwilling to let Ellie die, and so he murders a doctor and lies, telling her that researchers are no longer looking for a cure.
“It was an incredibly bittersweet ending with tremendous room for interpretation and conversation,” said Rami Ismail, a game developer in the Netherlands. “From what we’ve seen so far, ‘The Last of Us II’ does not seem to hold any punches, and once again showcases the improbable level of craft and borderline unhealthy levels of effort by its creators.”
Part II of the story picks up five years later, where almost immediately Ellie embarks on a mission to avenge a person dear to her. As in the original, players switch characters throughout the game and experience different perspectives, from Ellie to another character whose actions may be difficult for some fans to stomach.
Amid the gunfights, explosions and zombies, the game also has cinematic cutscenes that deepen the player’s connection to the characters. When Ellie tells Dina, her new companion and lover, about her zombie bite mark and how she’s immune, she doesn’t take Ellie seriously.
It’s a tender moment within a post-apocalyptic world, where there are few humans and most buildings are in disrepair.
While the game falls under the shooter genre, ammo is a scarce resource, so players focus on outmaneuvering zombies through stealth and on character interactions that further the narrative.
The game will run on the PlayStation 5, which will be released this holiday season. David Cole, an analyst at research firm DFC Intelligence, said that will be to Sony’s advantage, given how the original Last of Us was released on the PlayStation 3 and then remastered for the PlayStation 4.
“Sony releasing an enhanced PS5 version not only gets people to buy the game again but also buy a PS5,” he said.
Why fans love ‘The Last of Us’
“The Last of Us” franchise heavily relies on cinematic elements and emotional narrative, and this depth of storytelling is attractive to its devoted fanbase.
Joost van Dreunen, founder of video game investment firm New Breukelen, told CNN Business, “The games industry has long suffered from Hollywood-envy and titles like ‘The Last of Us’ are among the few that show that video games can deliver an equally compelling experience.”
Dreunen expects “The Last of Us Part II” will be a “slam dunk” and a “blockbuster hit for Sony.”
Julia Singh, 21, a graphic designer in New York, who played the original and has already purchased Part II, explained why she loves the franchise.
“The story, to me, was so well-told and touching, showing the emotional bond between Joel and Ellie,” she said, “A bereaved father, and a girl with no home…They were survivors together, and I loved all of the detail in the game between them.”
Macaiyla Edwards, a 21-year-old Twitch streamer based in Missouri who said she plans to stream “The Last of Us Part II,” told CNN Business, “The storyline really makes you feel like you’re a part of the game itself. I genuinely enjoy the game and I’m excited to see where Joel and Ellie go from where they last stopped on their journey.”
The original “Last of Us” was also celebrated for its queer representation. While Ellie was shown to be queer in a later downloadable release for the game, she isn’t explicitly defined by her sexuality.
“Given gaming’s historic issues with representation, this was considered a triumph by gamers who want to see games catch up to the reality of their player base,” said Laine Nooney, assistant professor and historian of video games at New York University.
Still, the game has received criticism on Twitter for not carrying a trigger warning for violence. Two minor characters in scenes that occur later on in the game deadname a trans character — calling him by his “dead,” given name, and not his chosen one.
For that reason, Kazuma Hashimoto, a Japanese-to-English translator and journalist based in Germany, called out the game on Thursday.
“The scenes that are in that cutscene can be extremely triggering, and even re-traumatize trans people regarding the abuse that we face, the dead naming, the small instances of violence that occur in our everyday lives,” he told CNN Business.
Sony and Naughty Dog did not immediately respond to comment.
CNN Business was provided with early access to the game by Sony.