(Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II – You have been warned)
It’s been seven long years since I first finished The Last of Us. In that span I have played many great games, but none that have had the same profound visceral and emotional impact on my views as a gamer or as a person than Joel and Ellie’s original cross-country trek had. In the weeks that followed me finishing The Last of Us, I spent time contemplating Joel’s decision to rescue Ellie and the lie he tells to protect himself as well as the lies he tells that he thinks are protecting Ellie. The Last of Us is a story with no winners, no heroes, and very few virtuous people and it remains one of my favorite stories in any medium.
It’s been a little over a week since I completed my journey with The Last of Us Part II and, much like the first game, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Every step, decision and victim of the characters in The Last of Us Part II stuck with me much in the way Joel and Ellie’s did. The story of The Last of Us Part II is one of revenge, heartbreak, turmoil, PTSD, perspective and empathy and it uses each of these themes beautifully to craft a brilliant story that won’t resonate with everyone that plays it, even though it probably should. And for those who it doesn’t, that’s an entirely different conversation.
My journey to complete and give my thoughts on The Last of Us Part II had originally been meant as a two-part review. The first part would have been my thoughts midway through playing the game, a review in progress of sorts, with a focus on the gameplay – and my second review was set to be a more complete review going over story thoughts, and a final analysis. I felt like this two review method didn’t serve The Last of Us Part II appropriately, so I decided to finish the game before providing my reactions which you are about to read. Let’s take a dive into my thoughts on this highly anticipated Naughty Dog sequel.
Turning Over Every Stone
The Last of Us Part II doesn’t reinvent the wheel defined by its predecessor as much as refine that wheel to make for a smoother ride overall. As a veteran Last of Us player, it didn’t take long for me to slip right back into the flow of walking, jogging, and sneaking through this twisted vision of post-outbreak America; while the locations are different this time around, the dark, damp, desolate and dangerous ruins of Seattle, Jackson, and Santa Barbara provide even more places to get lost in and explore. In terms of base gameplay, almost everything has been carried over from the first game with some minor improvements all designed to give you more control over every aspect of gameplay.
Each of the characters you control now have the ability to jump as well as lie flat on the ground allowing both for easier platforming controls and stealth maneuvers, respectively. Running, walking, and climbing on and over objects within the environment is smooth and responsive as is transitioning from prone, to crouch, to upright. Basic movement controls never feel awkward or sluggish so whether you’re slowly crawling through tall grass to stay hidden or going full sprint to squeeze by a group of running infected, you’ll always feel in total control.
Environments in the Last of Us Part II feel much bigger than before with more nooks and crannies to explore and get lost in. While not quite an open world, there are more barren buildings to investigate, intimidating crawlspaces to go under and slide through, and shaky vents to shift through inside each portion of the game. Places like Seattle feel open, giving you just enough liberty to search your surroundings to find more supplies or new places to hide/escape.
The worlds feel large and open, but similar to how Naughty Dog approached their Uncharted series, there are subtle environmental cues that mark the appropriate path to progress the story without you feeling like you’re being forced along a straight path. The Last of Us Part II is able to make you feel like you’re straying from the path and being adventurous when it’s actually guiding you to exactly where it wants you to go making it a masterclass in storytelling through a combination of both open-world and linear gameplay. I never felt bored or like I was being led on a string during my playthrough, and the freedom I felt was never hindered by a need to go a different direction to enhance the story.
Fight or Flight
Similar to the movement and exploration, many of the combat elements are carried over from The Last of Us with slight improvements designed to craft a better experience overall. One such element carried over is the emphasis on stealth. Whether you’re choosing to sneakily avoid conflict or quietly engage enemies, much of The Last of Us Part II is about knowing when not to fight your way out and knowing when you may have to fight just to survive. Sometimes deciding not to fight is based as much upon your low remaining ammo and resources as it is just simply trying to get to the next chapter of the story in one piece.
Should you choose to engage in combat, which I did more often than not, you can take the more aggressive approach, or you can use stealth tactics that have carried over from the last game such as choking or stabbing unsuspecting foes. Sneaking behind enemies is more effective as Ellie now comes equipped with a switchblade freeing her from the confines of needing to craft shivs. Occasionally, you will also slip into the role of other characters who will have different abilities than Ellie requiring different strategies to be used, especially as new enemies are encountered, some of which won’t fall to a simple sneak attack.
For the more aggressive players, or for when the jig is up and stealth is out the window, there are plenty of loud guns, melee weapons and explosives that can be used and crafted to take out both infected and uninfected alike. My personal favorites were the molotov cocktails that can take out small groups of enemies at once as well as the trip mines that can be placed on the ground wreaking havoc on whoever steps near them. Using a stealth maneuver to fell an enemy, placing a mine near their body and waiting for their comrade to set off the mine is an incredibly satisfying tactic and just one of the many examples of the chess game that can be played during each scenario.
In terms of who you’re setting these traps for, there are multiple enemy types throughout The Last of Us Part II’s journey. Infected have evolved bringing some new strategies and classes that require different tactics to engage properly. Though the average Infected will engage similarly to how they have in the past with some improvements, the human AI is vastly improved. These far more intelligent enemies will look for you under desks and vehicles, call their teammates to create new tactics, and no longer ignore NPC characters standing in front of them while hunting you.
More terrifying still, some human enemies will use their companion dogs to sniff you out and follow scent trails of where you’ve been which makes staying still not an option in most scenarios. You’ll be forced to set traps or otherwise discreetly take out the dogs to prevent them from picking up on your trail and alerting their human carriers. While killing the dogs is, perhaps, the worst thing I’ve ever been asked to do in a game morally, it’s also not safe as humans will react appropriately when they find their slaughtered pets and become more appropriately alert and aggressive.
Outside of the savage and gut-wrenching kill animations, I’ve enjoyed every combat encounter in The Last of Us Part II. Whether I tried to creep my way through encounters undetected, or took the more lax and aggressive approach, every battle has felt like hard-fought survival that was earned to the fullest making me feel powerful, skilled, and lucky all at once. The Last of Us Part II is truly an exceptional experience in terms of combat, even though by the end you may feel drained in doing so.
Beauty in Destruction
What can be said about The Last of Us Part II in terms of presentation that would do it justice? Not much. It’s the best looking game of its generation and the best looking game on the PlayStation 4 so far. Every environment is incredibly and impeccably detailed making the world feel alive and thriving while simultaneously feeling dead and decaying. Buildings look bombed out, destroyed, and overrun with vegetation in ways that truly ground the world and the characters deep in the expanding roots of the world. Lighting effects in all scenarios look fantastic, but specifically the use of flashlights in dark areas is uncanny and the best use of these lighting effects I’ve seen since the Resident Evil 2 remake.
The sound design overall is superb. Not only does every noise sound realistic, but the way the audio is presented through the speakers allows for very dynamic and surrounding experience. Ambient sounds of water, talking, nature and gunfire have never felt more real and immersive in any game I’ve ever played and the score is another masterpiece from Gustavo Santaolalla.
Character designs are also spectacular. Returning characters truly feel like aged versions of the characters we know while flashback sequences recreate the look and feel from the previous game perfectly. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a game use motion capture so artfully – every performance feels real in every single scenario. The actors, specifically Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, as well as series newcomers Laura Bailey and Shannon Woodward, all provide performances of a lifetime. I’ve also never seen a game transition from cut-scene to gameplay so seamlessly – aside from actual cuts, it’s nigh impossible to tell when you’re watching pre-rendered story exposition versus gameplay. Long story short, if nothing else in The Last of Us II hooks you, the presentation is enough to do it.
Another Point of View
When I look back at The Last of Us and my playthroughs over the last seven years, the narrative of Joel and Ellie is what sticks with me the most, even when compared to the incredible visuals and the fantastic stealth gameplay. The Last of Us unfolded in such a way that, for many who played it, their thoughts and feelings on the overall experience lived and died with how well they were able to resonate, relate to and empathize with Joel and Ellie, but more specifically Joel and his damning choices.
All throughout the course of the first game, the player is asked to accept the brutal, vile and destructive levels of violence Joel levies upon others in an attempt to keep Ellie safe. We’re then asked to accept when Joel damns the human race by taking away the one, best shot at a cure from the infection. We have no agency in Joel’s decision, even though most of us would have done the same in his shoes. Joel’s actions, when viewed from the eyes of any other character in the same world, would be seen as villainous and evil. Being able to play as Joel and seeing his perspective is what prevents us from turning away in disgust as we murder innocent people to save Ellie in the game’s final moments. We like Joel, not because he’s a good person, but because we understand.
The theme of perspective is carried over heavily in The Last of Us Part II where the player is forced to play as two separate characters for a majority of the game, Ellie and newcomer Abby. Abby is the daughter of the doctor killed at the end of the first game during Ellie’s rescue and is responsible for killing Joel during the prologue of The Last of Us Part II in efforts to avenge the death of her father. Joel’s death is, admittedly tragic and divisive. We’re meant to hate Abby and get revenge as Ellie but only up until there’s a jarring narrative flip and we’re forced to play as Abby to see the world from her eyes. While with Ellie, we love and cherish her from our time during the first game, despite her Joel levels of violence she inflicts, with Abby the player needs to be willing to get up to speed quickly to ensure her viewpoint is understood.
This incredibly risky shift in perspective forcing the player to understand the point of view of a character who, in almost any other game might be considered the primary antagonist, allows the story to blur the lines between hero and villain. In The Last of Us, the majority of the time is spent with Joel watching him commit heinous acts in the interest of self-preservation and survival. In The Last of Us Part II, we see both Ellie and Abby leave body after body in their wake, each on a mission to kill the other for equally disgusting but justifiable reasons. It becomes clear very early on that The Last of Us Part II isn’t a story about heroes and villains, or even good people and bad people – but terrible people who do terrible things to other equally terrible people and not always just to survive but not always without justification, either.
The Last of Us Part II’s story is every bit as engaging, sad, human and thought-provoking as the first game if not doubly so simply due to the nature of being a sequel. The Last of Us Part II looks at every decision made at the end of the first title and challenges those decisions at every turn and from every perspective asking you as both a player and witness to decide if you can truly live with the choices and sins of the past and present. The added wrinkle of showing you both sides of the narrative coin is a test of empathy, and understanding. As a player, you’re being tested on said ability to empathize and, your overall enjoyment of this story will correlate directly with how well you pass that test.
Every night when I get a chance to play after my wife and kids are soundly asleep, I was 100% invested in the story and in seeing what’s next for all of the characters involved. Are there story elements that are hard to swallow? Are there decisions made by both the player and the game that will cause you to question yourself, your allegiances, and your moral standing? Absolutely, but anyone who expects different from The Last of Us may be missing the point.
As can be expected, most of the appeal of The Last of Us Part II’s experience is story and, as you might expect (or may have read), there is a ton of controversy surrounding the story being told here. It is a story of revenge, forgiveness, tragedy, empathy, discovery, perspective and emptiness. The Last of Us II’s story is long, and difficult to swallow and, I won’t lie to you – I can see the perspective of those who didn’t like the story. But while I can understand the perspective of those who didn’t like the story of The Last of Us Part II, I do not share that perspective and I encourage anyone who didn’t like it to try again. In life, it’s so rare that we get the chance to understand, let alone see first hand, the struggles of anyone else outside of ourselves; here we have an amazing piece of art trying to give us that opportunity to experience the world view of the villain to see that maybe, just maybe, they’re not the villain after all…
With the Last of Us Part II dividing fans and critics with its many controversial story decisions and risky narrative changes, the question is about whether or not you should play The Last of Us Part II now that the hype has died down and the feedback has cleared. Should you be concerned, as many reviewers have cited, that you will dislike the story and hate the decisions made? The answer is simple: if you liked The Last of Us, you owe it to yourself to play The Last of Us Part II and give it an honest chance.
The Last of Us Part II is one of the best games I’ve ever played and an absolute masterpiece. The story, while not incredibly deep from a plot standpoint, is every bit as enticing, exciting, frustrating and heartbreaking as any drama told in any medium. The depth and nuance of the characters, specifically Ellie and Abby, set the bar for what can and should be expected in narrative driven games going forward.
The fantastic visuals, brilliant sound design and challenging stealth gameplay all do wonders for the overall package, but each player’s mileage will vary depending on how well they can connect with these characters, most specifically with Abby. While The Last of Us Part II is not perfect by any stretch, it inherently tells us a lot about ourselves and any story that can do that is worth being heard, watched, or played again and again.