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It could be argued that playing a video game depicting a dystopian Santa Barbara decimated by a virulent infection and loaded with jump scares may not be the best way to currently unwind. Going to bed sweaty-palmed and palpitating has not proved conducive to restful sleep or soothing distraction from real-life worry. And yet, with its exceptionally well-crafted storytelling and convincing portrayal of a post-apocalyptic Santa Barbara, The Last of Us Part II on PlayStation 4 serves as an arduous but essential experience for any Central Coast gamer with the stomach for horror.
The game is set in 2039, 25 years after a zoonotic infection ravages half of the Earth’s population. With their brains addled by an invasive cordyceps fungus, the enthralled infected are rendered violent zombies, intent on attacking the living to propagate the virus. Society has collapsed, and humanity’s survivors have broken into factions, many of which include characters just as aggressive and ruthless as their undead counterparts.
You play (mostly) as Ellie, a young woman at once miraculously immune to the virus and wholly traumatized by the pandemic’s attendant consequences. Driven by the desire to avenge the murder of a loved one, Ellie navigates a world fraught with peril, traveling from a snowpacked Wyoming countryside to the verdant city streets of Seattle and finally down the coast to a stunningly familiar representation of Santa Barbara.
The Last of Us Part II’s version of America is an unrelentingly bleak place, far more evocative of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than the broadly drawn comic book environment of The Walking Dead. If your gaming skills are anything like mine, you will see Ellie die a thousand times in a thousand horrendous ways, ranging from zombies feasting on her carotid artery to zealous cultists bludgeoning her with sledgehammers. It strikes me as a kind of strange feminist triumph to play a game in which a non-sexualized female protagonist is afforded the type of gruesome deaths traditionally reserved for the men of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption.
While the bulk of the game is set in Seattle, the story’s final act unfolds in Santa Barbara, opening on a zombie-infested stretch of Constance Avenue. It is here that we first encounter the Rattlers, Santa Barbara’s brutal gang of slaveholders who have established their headquarters in a resort that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Four Seasons Biltmore.
The attention to regional detail is truly stunning. At one point, Ellie traverses the Mesa Bluffs, working her way through Spanish Revival mansions replete with wine fridges, Fiesta-esque artwork, and encroaching bougainvillea. She later emerges onto a street closely approximating Loma Alta Drive, allowing the player the opportunity to gaze out onto an uncanny simulacrum of Santa Barbara’s coastline.
Though one can opt to employ stealth and avoid confrontation, I chose to take the fight directly to the Rattlers in the Santa Barbara train station. There, near the fireplace, I dispatched a couple bandits with a series of shotgun blasts. The battle spilled onto State Street, where some Molotov cocktails and a silenced submachine gun helped bring the skirmish to a quick end. Apologies to Loquita; I’m afraid I left their building in shambles. The game’s climax erupts in a spasm of violence, vengeance, and undone dreams on the fog-drenched shores of what appears to be Butterfly Beach. It’s a trying journey to get there, but patient players will be rewarded with one of the most compelling representations of Santa Barbara in any medium. As is frequently stated by the game’s peripheral characters, ostensibly meant as a reassuring affirmation, “May your survival be long; may your death be swift.”
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