With Part II, studio Naughty Dog delivers a brutal sequel which, despite being a very good game in its own right, does not quite live up to the legacy of the impeccable original.
Disclaimer: I did my due diligence to both review this game as thoroughly as I thought best and preserved the surprises that await in The Last of Us Part II. However, as ever, if you desire to know as little as possible about the game before going in, come back to this review after rolling credits.
The Last of Us Part II is a divisive and controversial video game which happens to have a lot riding on it. It is the penultimate first-party PlayStation 4 exclusive, the sequel to the critically acclaimed original (2013) and the latest entry from one of gaming’s best developers.
Ever since its reveal at PSX (PlayStation Experience) 2016, The Last of Us Part II has divided opinion on whether the 2013 original would even warrant a sequel, especially due to that game’s ambiguous ending. To appease such a concern, after the game was shown publicly, Neil Druckmann, game director and writer on both entries in the series, and now vice-president of Sony-owned studio Naughty Dog said that they would not do a sequel if they felt like they “didn’t have the right idea”. In the same batch of interviews, he also stated that the first game was meant to be about the love shared between the two protagonists, Joel (Troy Baker) and Ellie (Ashley Johnson), and that the second part would instead revolve around hate, with Ellie replacing Joel as the playable character. With no release date in sight for Part II, the fans of the original were left with the promise that Druckmann and Naughty Dog would do right for them.
The Last of Us Part II would resurface less than a year later with a teaser trailer shown at Paris Games Week 2017. The trailer, upon release, was dubbed by many in games criticism as being extreme in its depiction of “unflinching brutality” with some subsequently fearing that the game would indulge in gratuitous violence. Fast-forward to the first gameplay reveal of the game at E3 2018,which showed Ellie ruthlessly stab a woman in the throat and, not too long after, shoot another point-blank in the face, this concern was louder than ever before. Druckmann defended this by telling Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo that the most honest way to tell the story he and fellow writer Halley Gross (of Westworld fame) wanted to tell was by making the player “feel repulsed by some of the violence they are committing themselves”. Having the benefit of hindsight, it seems that Naughty Dog were always intent on making players feel uncomfortable when playing this game.
Nevertheless, after E3 2018, more delicious details about the game came to light – such as the fact that, importantly, Ellie was to be the game’s only playable character. Furthermore, with a trailer appearing at Sony’s September 2019 State of Play, the game’s marketing also suggested that Joel, the original game’s protagonist, would have an important role to play and would feature in one of the game’s later areas. The very same trailer also revealed the release date of February 21, 2020. However, only about a month later, the game would be delayed to May of the same year. Making matters worse, by February 2020, the game would, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, be delayed yet again, this time to June 19. Adding to the pressure of having already delayed the game twice and sky-high fan expectation, in March of 2020, Jason Schreier, previously at Kotaku and now at Bloomberg, published an exposé about the crunch culture present at Naughty Dog and the subsequent human cost of making such an ambitious video game. As such, with only three months before release, The Last of Us Part II had already been the subject of much heated online discourse. However, somehow, the worst was yet to come.
In late April 2020, most of the game’s important plot points and twists (but not the ending) had leaked online, sparking an incredible amount of fan backlash which culminated with many claiming that they would cancel their pre-orders of the game. This meant that by the time that the game finally released in June, the entire internet was long ablaze with fans spewing vitriolic hate at everything and anything that had to do with the franchise. What’s more, immediately after the launch of the game, The Last of Us Part II was ‘review-bombed’ on review aggregator site Metacritic, with thousands of angered users submitting scores before even being able to play the game. The amount of fan backlash became increasingly ugly with a lot of the hate online also being sexist and homophobic (Ellie is a gay woman) meaning that constructive online discourse on the game was nowhere to be found. The game then swiftly became a minefield for critical discussion.
Now, exactly why many fans seem to be upset seems to stem from how the game was marketed versus how the game actually plays out. Naughty Dog tried to pull what the MCU did two years ago with Avengers: Infinity War – intentionally misdirect fans in order to preserve the surprises of the story and subvert fan expectation. This being said, the jury is out with regards to whether Naughty Dog pulled this off correctly or not, but what they did does feel manipulative in a way that the Infinity War trailers were not. It all becomes even more complicated due to the fact that Sony restricted game critics who were given review codes before launch from mentioning almost anything that had to do with the game’s later half or even how the game is narratively structured.
All these controversies, scandals and backlash lead to the current moment, where a Change.org petition to “remake the storyline of The Last of Us Part II” has garnered more than 47,000 signatures from disgruntled gamers all over the world and where the gaming sphere is debating the spiralling costs of AAA development and the (often times) resulting crunch culture. As for The Last of Us Part II, current internet consensus appears to say that it is either a total masterpiece that can not be criticised or an absolute narrative failure that is disrespectful to fans of the original. For me, The Last of Us Part II is simply neither of these. Instead, after my 25 hours or so with it, I finished the game thinking that whilst this is a very good game worthy of acclaim and credit, there are a lot of elements which sadly did not work for me.
The Last of Us Part II takes place 25 years after the Cordyceps outbreak (which is a sort of fungus that takes over the brain of its host) and four years after the events of the original game, with Joel and Ellie (now 19) living in a settlement near the town of Jackson, Wyoming. This happy-as-can-be existence is unsettled when certain events prompt Ellie to embark on a destructive quest for revenge.
Without going into specifics, the way Naughty Dog present Ellie’s story is really ambitious and I appreciate how they were looking at narrative conventions and techniques usually found in cinema and literature in order to show how perspective can turn some of our favourite heroes into monstrous villains and vice-versa. However, despite really liking this idea conceptually, the execution leaves something be desired.
Naughty Dog, in having players take control of Ellie, are banking on the fact that we, as the player, would be as enraged as Ellie is and as on-board to go on this quest for revenge as she is. And, for the most part, this works really well. It is horrible to see how Ellie loses her humanity and gives up on her relationships in order to carry on with this corrosive obsession. In this way, she mirrors Nathan Drake from Uncharted 4 as both of these Naughty Dog protagonists give in to their respective madness. My problem with Ellie lies in the fact that she, unlike Nathan Drake, never responds to her loved ones’ desperate attempts to save her. I understand that the point is that Ellie is completely taken over by this implacable desire to enact revenge but it goes to such extents that it feels unrealistic. For example, when Jesse (Stephen Chang), one of Ellie’s friends from Jackson, realises that Ellie would rather have her revenge rather that protect her loved ones and subsequently abandons her, Ellie’s reaction is to carry on with her quest unrelenting. This moment, together with some other story beats, made it that by the end of the game her motivations were only half-earned; sometimes I felt like this obsession with revenge was needed in order for the game to happen and in order for an already long game to get even longer. I am tempted to think that perhaps Naughty Dog made this game as long as it is for fears that somehow paying full price for a AAA game that is not over 20 hours long would be deemed unacceptable by the gaming public at large. But I digress.
The interesting part, about which I can not really expound upon, again for spoiler reasons, is that Naughty Dog plays with player agency in other for the players to better understand the perspective of people other than Ellie. This happens because Naughty Dog understand how important player agency is to a video game. As compared to a book like say, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, where we follow in the footsteps of protagonist Edmond Dantès, in video games we instead take control over characters and are allowed and able to use them to interact with the game world and the various NPCs present in said game world. With The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog aim to throw players completely off guard in order for them to better understand how almost everyone in this game world operates in a morally grey area and that whether or not a person deserves to be punished is a matter of perspective. The storytelling device employed here, then, is simply genius because it attempts to use the strengths of the medium of video games as a whole in a way that, as far as I am aware, only Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty has ever attempted. Now, of course, the major caveat that makes this as risky of a storytelling device as it is ambitious and genius, is that the writing needs to be solid enough to win players over. In other words, in order for this to work, Naughty Dog really needs to convince the player that no one in this game world is just a victim or a villain and that most, if not all, of the characters in the world of The Last of Us take turns with being both. For spoiler reasons, I will suffice to say that the end result is a really messy narrative and that, when compared to the first game, which benefited greatly from being tight-focused, The Last of Us Part II spins too many plates at the same time and is all the worse for it.
The game is also not helped by the fact that it is unnecessarily long. The Last of Us Part II took me about 25 hours to finish but I definitely would have liked a more compact story and I feel that shaving 6-7 hours of the total playtime would have overall made for a better experience for me. To make matters worse, the overall message of the game, that revenge is unrewarding, is repeated ad nauseum and makes it so that the final act of the game is long-winded and almost infuriating. Ultimately, by the time I rolled credits, the story lost so much of its steam and momentum that so many of its story beats fell flat to me; I found the ending and, the entire game as a whole, really, to be wholly anticlimactic.
Nevertheless, despite feeling like the story somewhat did not work for me, I do respect what Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross were going for here. The Last of Us Part II tells a deeply flawed story about vengeance, perspective and the human capacity to forgive. As for the legacy of The Last of Us Part II, I think it will be talked about for years to come and that it will eventually be cited as a game that tried to push narrative innovation in the art form. I also think we will remember this game in terms of what it did for representation in games. I truly respect Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross for the game’s groundbreaking queer representation. Naughty Dog deserves credit for their LGBTQ+ characters and I can only hope that this paves the way for a truly mature gaming industry, and that AAA games will at least attempt to catch up to indie games in terms of portraying diverse characters.
If, then, the story is deeply flawed yet conceptually ambitious, in terms of gameplay and other technical departments, The Last of Us Part II is nothing shy of incredible. Naughty Dog really put everything but the kitchen sink in this game and used all of their experience of working on Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy in order to take the template created for the first Last of Us game and expand it for this sequel. This means that even though Naughty Dog did not really reinvent the wheel, they did craft what I think to be their best produced game to date and perhaps the best produced game of the entire console generation.
The gameplay is split into combat and exploration. As aforementioned, the combat takes on the template of the original and generally innovates every single aspect. Ellie is more mobile and agile than Joel was in the first game meaning that she is able to prone, rappel upward or even dodge her enemies’ attacks. My problem with this is that the dodge can so easily be abused that it sometimes made me feel invulnerable in a way that hampered combat. Nevertheless, this increased mobility makes it so that players may now avoid combat encounters entirely and have more options when trying to stealthily dispatch enemies. When stealth is no longer an option, players have a suite of weapons to choose from including shotguns, rifles and melee weapons. Upgrading weapons makes a return from the first game and it is as satisfying as ever to see Ellie tinker with these weapons at the various workbenches scattered throughout the game world. As for using the weapons themselves, the impact is absolutely brutal. Often times I would use my shotgun on unsuspecting enemies and be disgusted to find that body parts spewed all over and, at one point, I even shot one human enemy’s entire torso off. This made me think that while I honestly do not find the violence to be gratuitous or an indulgence, I do think that the entire point is to, on one hand, punctuate exactly how brutal this world has become and, on the other, to make the player feel genuine discomfort.
As for Ellie’s opponents, they are more vicious and dangerous than ever. When facing human enemies, for example, they would often call to one other by name (every enemy NPC has a designated in-game name) and come up with tactics on how to take the player down. They might also rush the player if they hear that they are out of bullets or they might flush them out with smoke grenades if they have been in cover for far too long. Pair this with some stellar facial animation and the end result is that these enemies feel more alive than most video game goons. All of this is, again, in order for players to feel culpable for taking so much human life and perhaps share Ellie’s guilt or even lack thereof. I was also thoroughly impressed by how enemies would react to Ellie. Often times they would make a desperate cry for help as Ellie charged at them armed with a melee weapon or would beg for mercy when they were completely overpowered. I also loved how different factions would have different approaches to combat. For example, the Seraphites, a faction made up of religious zealots, would whistle in order to communicate with one another and would mainly use bows and/or melee weapons when dealing with Ellie. In addition to human enemies, the dangerous Infected also make a return. All of the different types of Infected from the original make their way into the sequel, which also adds types such as the Stalker – which would sneak up on the player character – and the Shambler – which would release deadly poisonous spores when approached. All of this being said, despite truly loving the combat in this game, I did find that the game threw too many combat encounters at me. Worse still, by the end of the game, I was tired and pretty much done with the exact same gameplay loop. This loop also felt old by the end because I almost always felt too capable when in combat, despite playing through the entire game on hard difficulty. This is a problem because, for me, part of the appeal of The Last of Us franchise and other survival horror games like it, lies in the constant feeling that every single combat encounter is neigh impossible to conquer. This was not the case in The Last of Us Part II because I always had too many resources to build smoke grenades, molotov cocktails, etc. and almost always had too much ammunition to really worry about making every single shot count. In contrast, playing The Last of Us Remastered on grounded difficulty (the hardest difficulty in the game), for example, made me truly use my ammunition sparingly and vary my tactics significantly if I was to ever finish the game. This, in turn, meant that every single battle was nail-bitingly tense and that I would have to be at the top of my game at almost every single point. By comparison, Part II was much more manageable, even on survivor (The Last of Us Part II’s hardest difficulty), and thus less exciting and interesting overall.
Speaking of resources, these can be found as the player explores the game world as Ellie. The Last of Us Part II has players interact with small game areas that need to be traversed in order to progress the story or larger ones filled with optional side-activities. Regardless of where the players find themselves, though, thorough exploration is encouraged, since the world is peppered with various resources and with collectibles such as journal entries, superhero trading cards, notes, etc. Referring specifically to the notes, I found that these told really interesting and fascinating self-contained stories about the people living in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us and that it overall made the game world feel very alive. Similarly, Ellie may be inspired by something in the environment to jot something down in her journal which is a wonderful way of allowing the players to get inside her head and explore what Ellie chooses not to speak about: reading Ellie’s poems or seeing her angry drawings is an incredible way of making the character even richer. I also appreciated how some important story beats can be missed entirely if the player chose not to explore thoroughly and interact with Ellie’s surroundings. For example, the player can completely miss one of the tenderest moments in the entire game as Ellie spontaneously picks up a guitar in a music shop and plays a devastating rendition of a-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ for Dina (Shannon Woodward), her girlfriend. In general, then, it feels like everything is contextual to the game world and it is clear to me that Naughty Dog do a truly incredible job of masking the limits of the medium.
Naughty Dog also do an incredible job of rendering this gigantic and absurdly detailed world. On a technical level, The Last of Us Part II screams effort. Every single inch of this game has been carefully and attentively pored over. Suffice to say that the production value of Part II is second to none and that this is true no matter where you look. I was blown away by all the stunning environments like the snowy region surrounding Jackson, the forested remains of Seattle and the myriad of creepy corridors and basements. For example, when in Jackson, the lighting system allows for light to bounce off the snow and, when in Seattle, one can see how rivers create bubbles. The game also looks absolutely stunning and there is passion and care put into everything from the gorgeous character models to the way waves crash onto the shores. I was left completely blown away by the fact that this was even possible on the PlayStation 4 when considering the original model is 7 years old at this point. As for the frame-rate of the game, I am happy to report that the game runs at a steady 30 FPS on both PS4 models; 1080p on the standard PS4 and 1440p on the Pro.
Credit to bringing this game to life must also go to the spectacular cast of actors and animators. Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, who return to play Ellie and Joel, respectively, are as incredible as ever and deliver show-stopping performances. I think that Ashley Johnson, in particular, is simply incredible and I was astonished by just how in control she is of Ellie. I fully expect her to win another BAFTA and sweep all award shows for the year to come.
As for the soundtrack of the game, Gustavo Santaolalla returns to the franchise with some of his best tracks yet. I also especially loved how musical cues were used to denote Ellie’s oppressive obsession with revenge. As a whole, then, the soundtrack and its implementation add so much to the entire atmosphere and vibe of this game. The sound quality and implementation is equally excellent. I adored how I could figure out a lock combination by listing to the ticks and how woodpeckers in the woods put me on edge because they sounded so eerily similar to Clickers. I also appreciated the guitar mini-game which is fantastic and which lead to a lot of covers on the internet, as well as how, generally, songs like ‘Future Days’ by Pearl Jam were used to further the game’s main themes and motifs.
Before I end, I certainly would be remiss for not mentioning the accessibility options. In allowing players to customise everything from subtitle sizes, button configurations to azimuths and camera depth, Naughty Dog made it possible for people with various disabilities to play and eventually complete the game. I really do hope that this becomes an industry standard moving forward and that AAA game developers understand just how important it is to pour resources into allowing players more options when it comes to the act of playing video games.
The Last of Us Part II is an incredible game which I would recommend even though I do not love it in its entirety. When all is done and dusted, despite not living up to the legacy of the impeccable original, muddling some if not most of its story moments and not doing enough to change up the gameplay loop, The Last of Us Part II is a brutal tour de force and a very good video game. Time will tell if other games will follow suit and try to innovate on how video game stories are told but, in the mean time, it is currently PlayStation 4’s fastest selling exclusive and on track to become one of the best-selling games of this generation. As for me, I am looking forward to eventually jumping back in for a new playthrough on New Game+.
The Last of Us Part II is available now on PlayStation 4. You can watch the story trailer below.