The Last of Us Episode 1 spoiler-free review: The video game curse is broken

An image of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us HBO show.HBO

The Last of Us firmly, beautifully breaks the video game curse; from the outset of the story, HBO’s adaptation is confidently handled, immaculately staged, and honors its sacred text.

Efforts to transfer the successes of gaming to the screen have fuelled the woes of studios for decades. It began with the Super Mario Bros. movie in 1993, with the so-called curse falling upon the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Max Payne, Hitman, Need for Speed, and World of Warcraft.

Neil Druckmann, the co-president of Naughty Dog, attributed this to the “Where’s my f*cking thing?” effect: you can’t win by solely pandering to the players, but you can’t alienate them by neglecting the source material. So, how does one capture the essence of a game in a different medium?

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The Last of Us is set to be the blueprint – not in details, but the passion and care behind every facet of its production. It’s an ode, but one envisioned with the reverence of prestige.

This spoiler-free review is based on The Last of Us Episode 1. We will be providing weekly coverage and detailed reviews of each new episode, including Episode 1.

The Last of Us Episode 1 promises greatness

Episode 1 is nigh-on impossible to discuss without getting into plot points, so we’ll say this much and move on: there’s stuff before the outbreak with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), and there’s the beginnings of the main story between Joel and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a young girl with a “greater purpose than any of us could have ever imagined.”

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We’re also introduced to other characters: Tommy (Gabriel Luna), Joel’s hardy, rifle-toting brother; Tess (Anna Torv), Joel’s smuggling partner in Boston; and Marlene (Merle Dandridge, reprising her role from the first game), the head of the Fireflies movement in the city.

Parker, who had big shoes to fill from Hana Hayes’ voice acting, is wonderful in the role. There’s a lived-in commitment from all of the actors, particularly Torv as Tess, who holds a quiet, telling command of rival smugglers.

It’s still early days, but Pascal and Ramsey are perfect as Joel and Ellie. The former imbues even more darkness into Joel from the start; tortured by the past, tormented by what he’s had to become to survive. The latter has all of the sweary, gutsy charm you’d expect, and instantly puts the (weird and often ridiculous) concerns of some fans to bed.

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Again, no details, but there’s a potent blend of past scenes (some near shot-for-shot) and updated writing; Joel and Sarah’s dynamic is playful and warmer than before, and the chaos of the outbreak is captured with frightening, immersive ferocity. There’s also a superb nod to Knowing.

Seeds are planted and scattered across Episode 1, which players will recognize and no doubt anticipate, but what’s most striking is how Chernobyl helmer Craig Mazin manages to port the exact feel of the game – if not even scarier in some moments – so seamlessly, recreating movements and moments in immensely cinematic fashion. It’s the greatest omen for the rest of the series.

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The Last of Us Episode 1 review score: 5/5

This is the show you’ve been waiting for: The Last of Us promises a video game adaptation experience like no other from its exceptional, emotional opener. “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.”

The Last of Us Episode 1 will be available to watch on January 15 in the US and January 16 in the UK. You can check out our coverage here.