The Last of Us Part II Review
Developer: Naughty Dog | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Genre: Action-adventure/survival horror | Platforms: PlayStation 4 | Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
Note: This review does not contain outright spoilers for The Last of Us 2. Though there may be small allusions to events that occur in the game, they’ve been kept as vague as possible.
Following up one of the most critically acclaimed games of the previous generation is no mean feat and, in this regard, The Last of Us 2 has always had its work cut out for it. Its predecessor is lauded as one of the greatest stories ever told in the medium, with a perfect beginning and ending, even if its middle does sag a bit. By comparison, The Last of Us 2 feels a bit more disjointed, with many highs along the way but an overall experience that doesn’t quite measure up to the original.
That is, of course, in terms of the storytelling most specifically. While The Last of Us had a pretty straightforward, if morally murky, plot, the sequel feels more like a series of vignettes at times, different ideas for a sequel to the original game that have been jammed together and jury-rigged into a whole. If there are two or three good choices for Ellie’s companion character, why not use them all interchangeably?
The obvious answer here is that the bond between Ellie and Joel is part of what made the first game feel so special, and made the journeys of the characters so monumental. Having so many new characters introduced, and giving them so little time to justify their existence, really cheapens the overall experience, and it definitely highlights the biggest faults of The Last of Us 2.
At the risk of sounding far too pessimistic about the game right out of the gate though, let me hold off to say that The Last of Us 2 is a very good game, it just has the unfortunate luck of being compared to one of the highest watermarks in the whole medium. Naturally, this leads to some hard-line comparisons, and also to some criticisms, that not everyone is going to share or agree with. One would think that Twitter, Metacritic, and in general, the overall online discourse surrounding the game makes that abundantly clear, but it bears repeating just in case.
Game director Neil Druckmann’s announcement that the theme of the game would be “hate” wrangled some folks the wrong way from the start. While thematically it makes sense, as the original game is essentially about the opposite, it does make The Last of Us 2 harder to cotton to. Ellie’s campaign is basically just one long journey of increasingly disturbing and disquieting revenge and this is, obviously, much harder to relate to than Joel and Ellie’s surrogate family dynamic from the first game.
Though the plot does have some fantastic twists, with a truly unexpected blow coming early on in the game, it still seems to lack the overall cohesion and tonal consistency of The Last of Us. Still, the mind-blowing midway turn of this sequel alone is to be painstakingly admired for the sheer audacity of it all, and the way the game plays with our expectations with regard to the ending is a bit of storytelling bravado that can’t go unnoted.
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out how unlikable Ellie slowly becomes over the course of the game. While Joel certainly takes a heel turn at the end of The Last of Us, Ellie becomes downright villainous in her determination by the time the credits roll around.
Of course, as becomes abundantly clear throughout, The Last of Us 2 is really about the cycle of violence and retaliation, and how they destroy us as peoples, groups, and communities. The IRA attacks, and counterattacks, in Ireland, are a great example of this and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be even more adept in relation to the game. Still, succinct as these inspirations, and the execution upon them, might be, it does make for a tough 20-30 hours of game to endure.
Plot caveats aside, however, the overall experience of playing The Last of Us 2 is much stronger as a whole. The combat has been tightened up exponentially. Hand to hand combat introduces a dodge mechanic that changes the way the game plays to an exceptional degree, while the aiming has improved upon the already excellent feel of the balance (between careful aim and anxiety) of the original.
Players also have far more options to avoid combat altogether, with stealth being a Metal Gear Solid-like opportunity to really challenge the AI and best them. The only problem with this option is that in a game so built around seeking out resources and collectibles, it really makes for an identity crisis, particularly for trophy hunters and completionists.
In this regard, players may often find themselves split between seeing where the story goes and making sure they’ve thoroughly picked through the vast landscapes and environments in the game. Granted this really depends on one’s gameplay style to begin with but it does bear mentioning.
Another vast improvement on the original is the level of gun nerd realism that is applied to upgrading weapons. The workbenches in The Last of Us 2 are downright shocking in their attention to detail. Ellie will clean her weapon with each dismantling and the way she systematically attaches and improves upon the components will wow even pacifists.
Conversely, other elements of realism have more mixed results. Enemy combatants screaming the names of their fallen comrades can be disheartening, to be sure, as they are intended to be. However, the 50th or 100th time a maimed enemy screams in agony and writhes on the ground, players will be so desensitized to it that it becomes a mere annoyance. But then maybe this gradual nonchalance about the gruesome violence we’re committing is part of the point as well.
Traversal is also much better this time around. Players will waste little time seeking out, moving and rearranging pallets or ramps here, and it makes The Last of Us 2 much more rewarding to navigate than its predecessor. Looking for the right window to smash or the right building to scale is much more satisfying than painstakingly yanking pallets around or shuffling ladders from place to place.
There are even a few impressive physics-based puzzles, and a new rope-tossing mechanic that changes the way you’ll look at traversing the game altogether. A sparsely used guitar playing mechanic, in which the player must find the key and strum with the touchpad, is strangely soothing as well when it crops up, rarely as that is. Players can opt to imitate Gustavo Santaolalla’s gorgeously haunting guitar tunes with this feature or try to create something all their own.
Truly, despite the quibbles and criticisms of the plot and feel of The Last of Us 2 the game does play quite well. It’s also not just a visual showcase but a technical one as well in terms of its appearance and style. The motion capture is completely unrivaled by anything else on the market, with the facial expressions and character movements being almost absurd in their level of precision.
The voice acting is also at the absolute top of the heap, with exceptional performances from mainstays Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, along with newcomers like Laura Bailey. Still, even less important characters are given nuance and care in their depictions by the very talented cast.
Impressive as it all is, though, one can’t help but wonder if the game might’ve benefited from being shortened and clipped here and there. Coming in closer to the 15-20 hour mark could have easily diminished the shortcomings of The Last of Us 2 while highlighting the various technical achievements and gameplay improvements.
Even so, with the sales and Metacritic both boasting wildly impressive numbers, the fact of the matter is that this game will be seen as an unbridled success for both Naughty Dog and Sony, regardless of how the online discourse surrounding the game continues to unfold.
Whichever camp you find yourself in, it’s hard to imagine many gamers coming away with a wholly negative experience with The Last of Us 2. While some may either jibe or struggle with different plot elements and tonal issues, it’s hard not to be impressed by the time and effort that Naughty Dog has put into making a worthwhile successor to perhaps their most acclaimed game to date, even if their success is set to varying degrees.
At the end of the day, The Last of Us 2 is a game most of us will be very glad to have existed in the world. Whether it lives up to the overall hype and personal expectations of its predecessor will be hotly debated for years to come but whether the game is worth playing will almost certainly not.