Ellie is one of the playable characters—and four years later, she's not the bubbly teenager she was in the first game. (Sony Entertainment/Naughty Dog)
The Last of Us Part II is a game that punches you in the gut right from the start, and never stops punching.
During a time like this, I honestly didn't know if I could handle a game like The Last of Us, either part of it. As a journalist in 2020, a lot of my waking thoughts go to the news (which is usually upsetting). I wasn't really tempted to escape into an apocalyptic hellscape where 60% of the world's population is killed by a parasitic fungus that turns you into a zombie.
It wasn't from a lack of interest. I've been looking forward to this game for years. The original Last of Us, released in 2013, is considered one of the best games of all time. People had extraordinarily high expectations for this new installment—and it's another masterpiece just like the first.
If you're unfamiliar with the story: The main character, Joel, is a smuggler who lost his daughter during the initial outbreak. He was hired by a group called the Fireflies to transport a 14-year-old girl named Ellie from the Boston quarantine zone to a hospital in Salt Lake City. She is immune to the virus, and the Fireflies want to use that to create a vaccine.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for the original game ... which you really should have played by now!
Despite initially being ice-cold to Ellie, Joel starts seeing her as a daughter during their journey—so when they get to Salt Lake City and he finds out creating the vaccine will kill Ellie, Joel chooses to rescue her, killing everybody in his path.
Players of the first game rationalized Joel's actions—he had gotten to know and love Ellie, and so did we. Some people (not me) say saving her was the right thing to do! But what about everybody else in the world, who has to live with the effects of decisions like that?
In The Last of Us Part II, we see what happens when the need for revenge and justice overtakes everything else. We see how the world makes people do desperate things for understandable reasons. The game doesn't glorify violence—instead, it shows you the awful effects of violence on survivors. But that isn't apparent until the top-secret second half of the game, when the waterworks really start flowing.
Ellie is now one of the main playable characters. She's 19, and noticeably different from the bubbly 14-year-old she was in the previous game. Like everybody else in this universe, Ellie has been traumatized by her experiences, and they have hardened her.
Right at the beginning, there's a glimmer of hope: Joel and Ellie have achieved a new normal, living at a compound in Jackson, Wyo., owned by Joel's brother Tommy. And at this point, everybody can handle zombies so easily that to Ellie, getting rid of them can be like going on a casual hunting trip.
But she loves playing guitar, comics, and movies. She thinks corny jokes are hilarious and collects trading cards hiding around the map. Her diary is filled with entries about girls she is dating. And she really loves her friends, her crush Dina, and Joel, despite their newly tense relationship.
She also thinks it's odd to be in a quarantine zone without hearing constant gunfire and explosions—and talks about the first time she killed somebody like she's talking about the first time she drank a beer.
Since this is still The Last of Us, you know the new normal will be ripped away pretty fast. And when that happens, Ellie heads for Seattle to get revenge. That's right: Revenge. Ellie started as a person willing to sacrifice her life to save the world. But loss has turned her into kind of a heartless monster, willing to sacrifice others for her own goals.
And since this is still The Last of Us, you'll be admiring the gorgeous, expansive world—full of puzzles, challenges and things to explore—as Ellie travels through it on her awful mission.
Part II makes you deeply aware of the consequences of your actions. In most video games, you don't question why you're killing people, you just assume that everybody in a specific faction is bad. In this game, it's not so black and white.
And Naughty Dog does a great job of getting players to connect with every character, not just the main characters. You truly feel like you're experiencing this disturbing journey with Ellie—you feel her fall in love, you feel her grief, her anger, her fears.
But you also feel for your enemies. It's crushing to hear Ellie's targets talk about their own hopes, fears, and futures when she may soon have to kill them. I started avoiding combat whenever possible, and spent a lot of time trying to sneak around dangerous humans instead of confronting them.
By the time I finished this emotional rollercoaster, I was a weeping mess. I did nothing but sob hard for about an hour. I thought I'd gotten it out of my system. But afterward, I kept bursting into tears every now and then, when my mind wandered to little moments in the game.
It's not easy to understand why I felt like that until you play the second half of the game, the part I can't tell you about.
I think The Last of Us Part II has changed me a bit as a person. It made me very aware of the little things in my life that I take for granted, the kinds of things you don't appreciate until they're ripped away forever. It's easy to get lost in the darkness of the world, but it's necessary to look at the things that bring you light.
I wasn't expecting it to be a happy game by any means, but I could have never predicted just how intense an emotional experience it was. I don't think I'm going to be able to look at the original game the same way ever again.
Kaity Kline is a columnist for NPR's Join the Game and a producer on 1A. She is a native of New Jersey, a lifelong gamer, and a former gaming YouTuber. She tweets at @kaitykline