Ellie, your 14-year-old companion in The Last of Us, likes gnomes. She used to have an art book full of them and she always thought they were kind of cute. Not fairies, though. Fairies creep her out.

That information is not important. It won’t help you survive against the infected humans who still creep around the remains of the post-apocalyptic world. It’s not something you need to tuck away in the back of your mind and then use at some later point in the game to solve a puzzle. It’s just something she mentions when she spots a display of garden gnomes in the garden center your’e raiding for supplies. It’s one of the many everyday, normal things that Ellie does as you escort her through barren, threatening wastelands that used to be neighborhoods and cities. She hums, she points out bunnies, she makes wisecracks. None of it matters, and all of it is what turns her from a gameplay gimmick into a character you will do anything to protect.

The level I played took place in the small town of Lincoln, PA, where Joel is taking Ellie in the hopes of borrowing a car from his old friend, Bill. The one minor flaw in that plan is that Joel doesn’t exactly know where Bill lives, so he and Ellie are forced to search the town. Exploration is a big part of The Last of Us, not just because it gives you the opportunity to scavenge crafting items, ammo, and documents, but also because helps you understand the journey that Joel and Ellie are on. Joel is old enough to remember how things were before the disease, before the quarantine centers, before all the death and evacuations, but Ellie isn’t. What’s bitter misery for Joel is normality for Ellie, and watching them experience it together elevates The Last of Us from being just another zombie game to being a chain of moments – big, small, emotional, terrifying, hopeful and most of all memorable.

The world of The Last of Us is beautiful and sad. Everywhere you look, something is growing – a tree, flowers, grass – but there are no people. You’ll look across the town and see a stunning sunset, but the streets are empty. Humanity experienced the end of the world, but the world didn’t seem to notice.

Though you will find guns, ammo is scarce, so gathering components for crafting weapons will be key to your survival. Components come in several categories: rag, explosive, sugar, alcohol, blade, and binding. I made a basic shiv from tape and scissors, then used some more tape and scissors to upgrade a lead pipe into something with a bit more bite. (Perfect for one-shotting the incredibly creepy Clickers, infected humans with fungus growing out of their faces. The noises they make will keep you up at night, seriously.) Shivs are handy for making stealth kills, but I preferred to save them to pry open doors that typically led to caches of crafting items. Weapons will break with use, but so long as you have the right elements, you can make more, though you can only carry so much stuff at a time.

As much as I loved sharing Joel and Ellie’s journey, the controls were often frustrating. They were just clunky enough to get in the way and made the already quite challenging combat even more aggravating. Running away is not only a viable option, it’s often the best way to deal with confrontation, but the camera sometimes got hung up which made it difficult to escape. Countering the inconsistent controls was the ability to get out of combat situations a number of different ways – the aiming for the gun is being a bit fickle, so how about we just try an old fashioned brick to the face? Excellent.

Equally frustrating was the fact that when you die – which you will do, often – you don’t hang on to anything you picked up since the last checkpoint. It’ll all be exactly where it was the first time you found it, but it’s annoying to have to go grab it all again. It’s not as bad as it could be, because checkpoints are quite close together, but it’s a real drag to have to retrace your steps because you can’t seem to get past this one enemy. Eventually you start to wonder if you really need to re-search the whole building to pick up that note, rag, and blade for the fourth time. (Yeah, you do. It’s a pain in the ass to go grab it all again, but you’re going to want that stuff.)

The controls drove me mildly crazy, but every moment I spent with Joel and Ellie made me want to see their adventure through to the end with them. As a game, The Last of Us hits pretty much all the right check boxes – plenty of weapons, lots of exploration, interesting lore, gorgeous visuals, challenging combat, outstanding writing, exceptionally good acting. If you’re looking for a damn fine game, then no worries, Naughty Dog has got you covered.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about, so many hours after I was forced to put down the controller. I’m thinking about Ellie and Joel, and how good they are for each other. The road ahead of them will be long and dangerous, but I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes them.

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