Review: The Last of Us Part II
Delays. Story leaks. A remake of the first game for the current generation. Working on other IPs in their catalog. Releasing at the end of yet another console generation with its successor on the horizon. While the wait for The Last of Us Part II may not have been as bad as it has been for other titles that have languished in development for a lot longer, I generally fall into the camp of wanting to see a well-rounded product pushed out with delays. Games rushed to release hardly ever bear good fruit, so ample time to realize their goals is always welcome.
That’s not to say that Naughty Dog’s track record with quality should be put into question, though. It might ebb and flow from game to game, but picking one of their games up is usually a safe bet for quality. Taking a chance on the first game in this series was definitely a bit of a gamble in contrast of their back catalog.
A realistic post-apocalyptic zombie-esque stealth-based game from the people who brought you Uncharted? Yeah, that’s definitely a pretty stark departure for this developer to say the least. More importantly, the bleak and brutal story The Last of Us told through its societal breakdown turned cross-country romp was one that kept my hands on the controller for lengthy sessions purely because of how invested I was in Joel and Ellie’s journey and wanting to see both of them succeed.
So where does that put Part II, especially given the ending that the prior game had? I had a lot of questions upon completing that, and popping this game in had me excited to see how they were going to tie up that plot thread in particular. Developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, The Last of Us Part II released exclusively on PlayStation 4 on June 18, 2020.
Survival and Revenge
Set five years after The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie have made a life for themselves within a fortified settlement in Jackson County, Wyoming. The Cordyceps Brain Infection still ravages on. Residents continue to keep Infected at bay and away from their stronghold. Upon starting the game, it’s readily apparent that the relationship between Joel and Ellie has changed. They maintain as healthy as a relationship as they can for the good of the settlement, but it’s obvious that their relationship has shifted as a result of Joel’s actions in the prior game. Despite all this, they’re both able to have a semblance of a normal life in here. Life in Jackson contrasts starkly with the outside world, but it’s a safe place.
Past this point is where the plot of the game kicks into high gear. Divulging it would honestly do the game a disservice to those lucky enough to be able to dodge the leaks. Experiencing the plot for yourself is still the best way to experience this game. Shocking moments will blindside you at various points during a playthrough, and for once they actually work.
Littered throughout the story are flashbacks that help expand the lore and characterization. I found these to be jarring diversions at first, but quickly found myself enjoying these scenes. More often than not, they’re quiet and humanizing sequences with bits of danger thrown in. Some of these moments are as touching and emotional as you can get. While some are fleeting, it carries a level of emotion you don’t see often these days in games. Often flanked with emotions of rage and revenge, it’s hard not to feel for all involved. It’s a complicated situation, and everyone is just trying to get by.
The conversation surrounding the game and the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” is worth mentioning. Going between tender and sincere moments one moment and visceral murder the next is almost whiplash inducing. It’s almost as if the game feels the need to keep the player engaged with constant violence to keep them playing. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic society, but conflict for conflict’s sake is hardly a strength when it wants to be sincere as well.
Does that mean that the story and writing here is bad? Certain plot details do irk me, but it’s a largely solid script that tells two separate revenge stories that intertwine. There are plenty of shocking and brutal moments throughout the campaign and it leans on that pretty hard, sure. Despite the more semi-centralized nature of the story, it’s compelling and engaging enough to keep you on your toes. Even with the dissonance, what’s here is as enthralling as its predecessor and then some. It may not be as realistic as it wants to be, but I enjoyed it a lot. So much so that certain emotional moments hit me in ways that a video game doesn’t do very often.
More to the point of certain LGBTQIA+/POC aspects of the plot, it’s usually natural and normalized. During my playthrough, I never once thought that these characters felt like caricatures of themselves that screamed they needed to be seen because of it. Survival matters more, and this is just who they are as people. Certain characters take issue with some of this in ham-fisted ways in select exchanges, and it doesn’t always connect the way it should. But it’s good to know that there’s some sincere thought put into this part of the script and approaches it in a way that doesn’t feel insincere. While there is representation, it’s by no means a main focus of the story and is more of a natural thing than anything else.
Improvise to Stay Alive
One thing that dug into me with the first game was the high quality of stealth. It was (largely) fantastic, required your full attention, and forced you to use effective strategy and resource management. Thankfully, Naughty Dog did the right thing and expanded upon it in subtle but effective ways.
Movement is worth pointing out here, as you’re frequently required to maneuver through environments that will quickly kill you in the right circumstances. You’re now able to crawl, which is great to use in places where very tall grass is plentiful. Hiding under vehicles is also an option, but even then targets can drop you quickly when they’re right on top of you.
You’ll have plenty of silent options at your disposal, though. Listen mode is about as useful as it was before for movement and planning. Arrows are quick, silent, and powerful ways to drop an isolated foe. If none are available, a makeshift pistol silencer can be used to maintain your stealth. More often than not, your resources are extremely limited even with thorough scavenging, so the best option is usually a stealth kill. This isn’t always an option with certain Infected that require more force and power, but nearly anything human is fair game.
Maintaining stealth is such an important aspect of the game that crossing that threshold often results in instant death when discovered. You’ll be able to turn tail and hide again, but straight-up combat is really a last resort. The survival aspect of this game is generally polished, but certain combat situations can’t be fully managed. Oftentimes, these situations will quickly involve you getting blindsided in the middle of combat with disastrous results. The normal difficulty here is no slouch, but proper planning will help you progress. Even when you have to craft/use items on the fly in the heat of combat, planning is key.
The best way to think about these portions of the game would be to approach them like their own micro-puzzle. It’s a little more complicated than some of the simplistic environmental puzzles seen here. Each encounter requires careful planning in order to press on. While it isn’t extremely rigid, planning out precise movements and adapting to the situation is pretty much required. Doing certain things drain certain resources that you have to obtain again, and good accuracy helps maintain those resources. Nothing’s stopping you from relying on the plentiful checkpoints throughout, but it’s quite satisfying to succeed with the right planning.
There will be certain fights that rely on effective stealth, and others that involve tougher Infected. The latter definitely throws stealth out the window in favor of frantic planning and well-placed damage. But more often than not you’re going to find yourself sneaking around with anything less threatening than that. It’s not something out of the blue given the prior title, but encounters like this are a bit more plentiful than before.
Complementing this portion of the game is a fairly robust upgrade system. Getting access to this will require you to scavenge for the appropriate materials. Supplements improve ability-based moves, strikes, and the like. Things like being able to hold your breath to steady your weapon, better Listen mode effectiveness, and the like. Scrap metal, while more scarce, will let you upgrade your weapons at workbenches found throughout your journey through Jackson and Seattle. Adding scopes to certain guns, increased damage, and other factors that give you an edge in battle are straightforward in execution.
While you’ll be able to upgrade your abilities throughout, you won’t be able to fully do so unless you locate the appropriate skill book. If you’re looking to maximize your combat effectiveness, this is the way to do it. Obtaining each book opens up a new skill tree to upgrade from, and every upgrade has some benefit somewhere. It goes without saying that exploring areas and scavenging will have its benefits, and locating select documents will lead to a small bounty of supplies. Thorough exploration is always a good idea, and often leads to gameplay benefits or minute snippets of ancillary lives.
Traversal is generally done on foot, but there are segments that do involve using faster modes of travel. While scarce, they handle (relatively) well for the most part. One segment has you covering a vast amount of ground with a map to help, and another is water-based. The execution for either of these aren’t broken by any means, but it’s safe to say that one mode was better executed than the other. Certain platforming segments are occasionally frustrating, but it’s still competent.
Broadly speaking, the gameplay is largely a honed affair. My nitpicks feel more like tweaks I’d like to see improved upon, but my skills and execution weren’t at odds with poor design. There were surprising moments that caused moments of panic, but tight controls and competent design kept the frustration down. Mostly.
Finding Beauty in Devestation
It’s safe to say that Naughty Dog took the opportunity to push the PS4 harder than most games on the platform, and it shows. Games in this generation were no slouch in presentation, that’s for certain. But in the case of Part II, there was significant effort in making the bleak environments here look as believable as possible. When the original game released on the PS3, pointing out the level of detail was basically a requirement.
You aren’t traversing through the remains of a war-torn country scarred by bombs, but a land that nature reclaimed. Lives in urban areas were well-lived yet quickly abandoned when things went south. Suddenly the dominance that humanity once cherished gave way to escape for safety, allowing nature to step up and make its own mark. It’s not uncommon for you to come across constant overgrowth and vegetation where highways once were. Buildings may still stand tall, but they’re merely a shadow of their former selves.
Needless to say, all of this is an absolutely breathtaking sight to behold. While it may be commonplace for Ellie and Co., this game’s interpretation of a post-apocalyptic environment really shows how much money went into presentation. It’s fantastic, really. Some might not find much use for the included Photo Mode, but you’re more than welcome to get creative. This was useful for grabbing screenshots, but I’d love to see what the community comes up with here.
While some people may balk at some of the character designs and the meme-tastic nature of some of the facial expressions, they’re largely fine. Motion capture for main and ancillary characters alike look, move, and attack in believable ways. Since most Infected fall somewhere in between shambling and rage zombies depending on the (now expanded) forms, the range is pretty wide.
Don’t expect much in the way of music here. You might get some ambient music in very scarce areas, and most of the time music is added to add tension and stress to gameplay. But considering that stealth is so important here, some may find it a distraction. Not everyone wants to hear bombastic music every time an enemy discovers them. There are some times where you’re playing guitar in safe spaces, and those are usually reserved for quiet moments. I guess it’s one of those instances where less is more, and I’m okay with it.
The voice cast here is as good as you’d expect for a setting like this. Relationships established and shared through delivery is often sincere and believable. Everyone gets their role in the story, and often execute in a way that fits the situation that they find themselves in. Some of the flavor lines in the heat of combat are a bit annoying at times. You may find yourself tuning out the umpteenth time that a character curses. Though it’s not something that kills immersion. Generally speaking, you’re dealing with a well-executed performance from everyone involved.
I’d Surely Lose Myself
Playing though either title in The Last of Us series often lends itself to serious self-reflection. The first game’s story showed that even when you have investment in a character you really like, that person may not be the paragon of morals that you think they are. I’m still mad that Joel did what he did at the end of that game, but Part II‘s focus shift made me accept that nobody is perfect. Sometimes you have to atone for your sins, and you can’t always fix everything. Exploring the morally gray areas in the midst of post-apocalyptic America may not feel especially unique nowadays. But Part II‘s story is a gut-wrenching and emotional tale that I’m still reeling from. It’s not a perfect story, but it’s a damn good one.
That said, there’s so much in The Last of Us Part II that I can’t help but love. However, I must stop short in calling it a perfect game. I will say that it is a game that stands above other games that wish they could feel as mature and visceral as this. In that way, I give it as much praise as I can muster for that fact alone.
Part II is an unavoidable achievement in so many ways. The few things it doesn’t get right don’t bog it down as many seem to think. Collectively speaking, this game subverts expectations in ways that make it stand out head and shoulders above the rest. For that reason alone, you should feel confident that the money you drop on this game will be money well spent. The PlayStation 4 couldn’t have received a better swan song.
Review copy purchased by reviewer for PS4. Screenshots and feature image taken by reviewer.