A clicker leaps across a pile of bricks and rubble as the pounding rain blacks out the world beyond a narrow alley. A man crawls away in terror, slowly approaching the camera. As he calls for help, his hand presses against a window, blood smearing as he begs for someone to do something. We move back through the glass and into the apartment, and suddenly the blinds are drawn down, a candle is lit, and a worn copy of To Kill A Mockingbird appears in front of us. That’s when we see Ellie’s face for the first time. I’m prompted to “Tap X to turn the page,” as she sips a cup of tea and sinks into her couch. As the man screams and pounds on the glass with increasing desperation, I’m tempted to get up and help, but I already know one wrong move could destroy Ellie’s wellness meter and send her tumbling into a negativity spiral, so I hold back. These are the first five minutes of my short hands-on with The Last Of Us Part II, and I’m already hungry for more.
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The Last Of Us was one of the defining games of the last decade. It’s story of gruff, violent Joel escorting a young girl named Ellie across a plague-ravaged country was considered a breakthrough in narrative gaming. And as I watched the sequel’s stunning new gameplay of characters jogging along scenic trails and building birdhouses, it’s clear Naughty Dog is not content to rest on its laurels. The Last Of Us Part II is intent on taking another leap forward by dropping all combat gameplay and exploring Ellie’s inner growth as she accepts that she can’t change or control the infected around her and focuses on self-care by relaxing on a beach and taking an enriching beginner pottery class.
“Story is the basis of everything we do, and this time around, we knew we wanted to have Ellie show her strength by becoming more mindful of the energy she is projecting and breaking free of her crippling need to please other people by saving them from the infected,” said game director Neil Druckmann, who I spoke with after the demo about what was informing the move from stealth-driven horror gameplay to the lighter, more straightforward action of managing Ellie’s breathing during a yoga class. “It’s a bit of a departure, but we feel like spending three hours of game time gathering fresh wild ramps and cooking with ancient grains is part of Ellie’s personal journey. The people in the infected towns? She can’t fix all their problems. She needs to have a healthy relationship with herself after doing so much emotional labor caring about the people dying around her.”
During the few hours I spent playing The Last Of Us Part II, I got to see how Naughty Dog has blown out the world and really expanded the different strategies available to the player. After witnessing a bombing attack by the Fireflies that kills and maims dozens of civilians, I had the option to close my eyes and meditate, run to see my therapist, or seek comfort by spending time playing in the yard with my dog. With each choice I made, Ellie was able to cultivate a different level of inner harmony by getting in touch with her own desires instead of focusing on the desires of others for medical care or someone to put them out of their misery.
Most interesting of the new elements introduced is the RPG-like “Aura” system, which is a branching series of self-affirmations and care routines that the player can unlock by making healthy, empowering choices in the world. In The Last Of Us Part II, Ellie needs to learn to say “no” to people and enforce boundaries. A well-timed push of the R1 button will interrupt an NPC warning you about an upcoming chemical attack and tell them this isn’t your battle, otherwise you can get sucked into their toxic desire to cure the cordyceps infections. As you learn Ellie can’t change other peoples’ negative tendencies, you access higher levels of wellness abilities, including mindfulness exercises and landscape painting.
“These suffering people just drain Ellie’s spirit, and she needs to fight their emotional blackmail of always saying, ‘I’m so hungry,’ or, ‘save my child.’ In Part II, energy vampires are just as dangerous as bullets or zombies were in the first game,” explained Druckmann. “We didn’t just want to do the same thing again, we wanted to expand on the character moments that made The Last Of Us great, and we think it will be amazing for players to watch Ellie flourish as she pickles carrots and daikon radishes for homemade banh mi sandwiches. The quarantine zone governments are out of her control, toppling them is not her responsibility, and through that self-discovery and positive attitude, she becomes a light in other people’s lives.”
While I only played one small chapter, Druckmann told me players can expect at least 30 to 40 hours of Ellie growing as a studio sculptor and working on her relationship with her girlfriend, which will play out over several hour-long conversations about commitment and respecting each other’s journeys with branching dialogue trees. He also detailed the crafting system, which is a much larger, more important focus this time around, with Ellie able to construct flower bouquets and wicker baskets from the items she scavenges instead of molotov cocktails.
Although we will have to wait until later this year to see the whole thing, it was hard not to be impressed by the ambition we saw or the incredible detail Naughty Dog has packed into The Last Of Us Part II. Druckmann revealed that they recorded 120 hours of motion capture alone just to get the precise movements of Ellie playing Settlers Of Catan in her weekly board game club. It was amazing to see Ellie’s vegetable garden or the subtle finger impressions on the clay pot she was forming rendered in brilliant 4K. This is certainly the most anticipated game of 2019, and we can’t wait to spend more time with Ellie, seeing her come alive, leaving the toxic world of battling the infected behind, and becoming the woman she was always meant to be.