The Last of Us: Part II is a tale of obsession, and developer Naughty Dog clearly knows a thing or two about that. This is a painstakingly dense sequel, and it’s so tightly intertwined with the original that it’s effectively essential material for anyone who has reverence for the original release. While it continues to iterate upon the cinematic style that the Californian company has been pioneering since Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, new gameplay wrinkles make for more dynamic combat experiences, while the scope of its setting is perhaps only matched by Red Dead Redemption 2.

This is not an open world game like Rockstar’s critically acclaimed Spaghetti Western, of course, but it is big. With a running time of around 30 hours, Ellie’s adventure will take you on a journey through an obscenely detailed Seattle, meticulously brought to life by some of the best artists in the industry. No two buildings are the same, with each explorable interior harbouring its own stories about the individuals that lived and worked in them.

Just as The Last of Us realised the studio’s ambition for the PlayStation 3 era, its successor feels like a product of the ideas it explored in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Wide-linear environments take centre stage, giving you options to explore off the beaten path. There are housing estates for you to investigate and entire shopping districts for you to discover, all rendered in unparalleled fidelity.

And on top of this is a fiction that feels much larger than the characters you encounter within it. Following the events of the first game, the Fireflies have disbanded, and two new factions have formed in the Seattle area – each with opposing views. The Washington Liberation Front is militaristic and organised, while the Seraphites (or Scars, as they’re more colloquially known) are religious zealots inspired by the teachings of a prophet who rose to notoriety following the collapse of the society we know.

Behind all of this is the deadly cordyceps infection, which serves as an ominous backdrop bringing out the desperation in its cast. You play as Ellie, who’s now a fully-grown woman and an established member of a community named Jackson, which serves as a refuge for survivors in this post-apocalyptic world. A series of events which we’re sworn to secrecy about prompt the protagonist to leave the sanctuary of her home and embark on a quest for revenge.

The story is ambitious, utilising flashbacks and overlapping narratives to excellent effect. It’s engrossing stuff, and while some may feel uncomfortable with some of the topics it dares to tackle, that’s by design. No one is necessarily good or evil in this universe: there are simply shades of grey, and the conclusions you come to will depend upon your own interpretation. It’s a violent world, though, and where other titles revel in this, here you’ll be left uneasy.

This is best observed during combat encounters. Pick off an enemy with a stealthy stab to the neck, and you’ll watch them gag on their own blood as they crumple to the ground, gargling desperately. Comrades who detect their lifeless bodies will call out their name, lamenting the loss of a friend and forcing them to search for you more vigorously. But just as you steal away the companions of others, the fragility of your own associates’ mortality is always on display.

This makes shootouts particularly fraught affairs, and they’re elevated by the fact that Naughty Dog is not afraid to mix and match factions. Some of the best combat encounters see you facing off against warring human mercenaries, while infected linger nearby. With the right tactics you can manipulate your aggressors into fighting against each other, allowing you to thin their numbers and save crucial supplies for future encounters.

As with the first game, scavenging is a key element of the gameplay. Different items can be combined in a slick backpack interface, providing you with medical kits and explosives. As before, you’ll need to make tough decisions about what you craft: rags and alcohol can be merged for effective first aid, but maybe you’d be better off using them for a Molotov instead? The pursuit of essential ingredients forces you to comb the environments more thoroughly than ever before, and the scale of the world means that you’ll happen upon copious lore-building artefacts along the way.

While we can’t help but feel that the emphasis on written paper notes to reveal sub-plots is beginning to grate, The Last of Us: Part II’s environmental storytelling is so engaging that you’ll actively want to eke out every one of its secrets. Improved traversal pairs with brand new puzzles to make navigation genuinely entertaining, meaning there’s a lot more variety than the first game. Despite its scope, there are still moments where you’ll feel unnecessarily walled in by scenery that can’t be interacted with, but given the scale of the game this is less of an issue than its predecessors.

It all looks peerless, too. Naughty Dog’s art department is among the best in the industry, and its interpretation of the apocalypse is both grim and gorgeous. There are dozens of set-piece spectacles throughout the course of the campaign, but the best moments are when the studio manages to find wonder in the otherwise ordinary. For as dark and harrowing as this tale can be, the developer allows moments of real levity, which helps to humanise the characters despite the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. The cut-scene direction is on a level above the typical expectation for titles of this ilk.

It also sounds exquisite. Special mentions must be reserved for Ashley Johnson, Troy Baker, and Laura Bailey who all excel as the release’s leading cast, but several supporting characters also establish themselves extremely swiftly – owing to great performances and a sharp script. The sound design is similarly stunning, with a 3D audio setting available for those with the requisite hardware which offers a taste of the levels of immersion we can expect from the PlayStation 5.

Conclusion

The Last of Us: Part II adds a couple more inches to the already outrageously high bar that Naughty Dog has set for itself. This is the developer’s crowning achievement to date, expanding and improving upon the concepts that it’s been iterating on for over a decade now. Unparalleled presentation combines with an engaging gameplay loop that puts you in the shoes of its characters – and forces you to feel all of the tension and misgivings of its cast. It’s uncomfortable and not everyone will necessarily enjoy its direction, but that’s ultimately what makes it so essential.