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Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey play Joel Miller and Ellie Williams in "The Last of Us." Photo courtesy of IMDb. 

REVIEW: ‘The Last of Us’ adaptation honors and furthers video games

This review contains spoilers

On Sunday, Jan. 15, HBO released the first episode of the highly anticipated “The Last of Us” series, based on the critically acclaimed game of the same name created by publisher Naughty Dog. The TV show comes one day after the game's 10th anniversary, originally released on Jan. 14, 2013.

A big challenge with any video game adaptation is trying to create a series that will be engaging for the incoming viewer but faithful enough for fans of the game. It feels like most of the time with adaptations like this, the writing falls flat and is inaccurate to the game — with “The Last of Us,” fans have nothing to worry about.

For those uninitiated, the show takes place in a post-apocalyptic world rocked by a fungal pandemic. The protagonist, Joel (Pedro Pascal), is tasked with escorting a teenage girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), the only person immune to the zombie-creating virus, across the United States in hopes of reverse engineering a cure.

HBO’s “The Last of Us” is definitely one of the few adaptations that feels accurate to the source material. Every important beat of the story is hit in the first episode, in addition to expansions of the story that diverge from the lore completely. The first episode is so intense and heartbreaking and expertly makes viewers toe the line between fear and sadness.

The performances specifically stand out as faithful and respectful to the game. Pascal’s portrayal of Joel alongside Ramsey's portal of Ellie make it feel as if I am playing the video game all over again.

The first episode starts with a terrifying cold-open shot that gives lore background for new and old fans alike, giving viewers a glimpse of the real-world fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that inspired the zombies.

I had no clue that there was a fungus that actually did this to a creature until I did further research after completing my first playthrough of the game. This scene adds to the series and sets another layer for incoming fans that this is not out of the realm of possibility — especially when creatures are forced to evolve in our ever-changing world.

We then start off with one of the biggest additions to the lore: meeting Joel and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) at the beginning of the day before the zombie apocalypse started, rather than in the evening. This gives the viewer the chance to connect with Joel and his daughter before the world diverges into chaos, giving us greater grounding going into the horror.

As nightfall hits and we get to see the full force of this zombie apocalypse, long-time fans might be a little hurt to see the lack of fungal spores. Instead, we see tendrils that spread the infection coming out of the neighbor’s Nana’s mouth — a grotesque but new change that I know will have long-time fans on the fence since the spores were a huge mechanic in the game with multiple future plot points having the spores playing an important role.

The spores were taken out early in the show's development. The replacement with tendrils was partially to make the infection operate more like actual fungi, with interconnected networks between them, creating a unified front for our heroes to survive, according to game director Neil Druckmann. In all reality, it isn't a horrible change. It could have been worse, and having more rooting it in reality is quite interesting.

Watching the show, you get the sense that the team really cares about the story. In an after-credit scene, some dialogue suggests a certain character from the Left Behind DLC pack will be appearing in the show, meaning that the game’s DLC packs may also be explored as well. Hopefully, this will let us see the moments leading up to Ellie's infection and her connection to the character Marlene, a commander of the revolutionary group “the Fireflies.”

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The show airs on HBO Max every Sunday at 7 p.m. HBO also releases a podcast every week discussing that week's episode, hosted by Joel’s voice actor from the game, Troy Baker.I definitely have high hopes for this series' future, and I would recommend it to anyone. 

Jessica Baca is a freelance reporter and photographer for the Daily Lobo. They can be reached at culture@dailylobo.com or on twitter @Jessica_Baca_ 

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