I haven’t been able to stop thinking about The Last of Us Part II. Like the brain cordyceps that caused this fictional post-apocalyptic scenario, the game has infected my mind so thoroughly that I find it impossible to escape – haunted by its visceral combat scenarios, the gorgeous scenery, and the gripping story-driven acting performances, some of which are possibly among the best in gaming history. Even my quibbles with the gameplay experience and story (not to mention the absolutely contentious and often toxic discourse that has arisen about both), I think are all predicated on the fact that this is a game worthy of thorough examination, the likes of which only come around once or twice in a gaming generation.
Like the first The Last of Us, developer Naughty Dog has once again brought us an interesting hybrid between stealth, survival horror, and action RPG. You navigate enemy encounters with a variety of basic physics puzzles and open-ended stealth combat, taking moments of respite to scavenge for much-needed supplies; ammunition, crafting ingredients, or materials to upgrade your weapons and abilities. And you NEED to take these moments to check every corner you can, as resources are scarce, as part of The Last of Us’ core survival gameplay appeal. If you are ill-prepared for whenever combat breaks out next, you will be in serious trouble. Plus, you never know if you will find collectibles clutched by a skeleton around the corner. Because after all, there needs to be something to justify subsequent play-throughs and satisfy completionists. Many will find the hyper-detailed, lived-in environment design, and notes left by the cruel world’s many victims to be reward enough, but the gameplay offers its rewards in becoming properly immersed in your role as a scavenger of the world around you.
Then the fighting starts. Whether it is the infected zombies, the gun-toting Washington Liberation Front, or the sadistic Seraphite cultists, you are always outnumbered and in peril, needing to take full advantage of your wits, the terrain, and your limited arsenal to survive. And there’s never a clear course of action or set of tricks that you can rely on for every encounter – much to my chagrin, and to the game’s credit. The balance between sneaking through a setpiece or blowing it to kingdom come is even more successfully handled following the same efforts made in Uncharted 4 A Thief’s End, even though the resource limitation encourages you to lean on keeping to the shadows. You can attempt hiding and skulking around tall grass and cover, picking enemies off one by one with stealth takedowns or silent weapons such as the bow or modified pistol, but it is really easy to mess up your shot or overextend, and thus accidentally alert the whole enemy group. You can charge in to take dudes out with your melee attacks, but then it is really easy to get overwhelmed and taken out yourself. You can try hunkering down and getting into a firefight, but prolonged shootouts make it easy to burn through a lot of your resources, setting you up for an even worse position for the next encounter. Ultimately, the combat works best when you try to balance all three – thinning out the numbers with stealth kills, whipping out greater firepower when you get caught, then ducking in and out of cover to break sightlines and get the drop on your enemies whenever the opportunities present themselves. When it works, it’s more gripping than any other stealth game of the last several years. You’re pushed not to make decisions based on what would be the most fun, but what you would do while trying to survive in that situation. A victory in these combat scenarios doesn’t feel like winning but persevering, surviving even. That’s the kind of immersion all games wish they could have, and The Last of Us Part II has it in spades.
Of course, it is not flawless. Given the hybrid nature of the game, it can sometimes feel disjointed instead of seamless. Having been conditioned by other stealth game franchises such as Dishonored or Metal Gear Solid to seek out no-detection routes, it is jarring when The Last of Us Part II expects you to get caught and then adapt to it. My experience had me often felt like I was constantly failing encounters by being detected. It’s hard to determine if this is a fundamental design to encourage roleplay in the world or an overambitious amount of enemy AI in close quarter spaces.
The melee combat also feels lackluster, with the shaky-cam effect and no lock-on system adding up to me feeling like I am fighting the camera more than the hammer-swinging brute in front of me (Though when you do pull off a solid melee kill, yowza is it a bloody spectacle). This is made even more tedious by the fact that the TLoUP2 likes to CONSTANTLY pull “gotcha” jump-scare moments, many more than it’s predecessor, that thrust you into encounters that you have no way of predicting or preparing for, and only have one real method of tackling. Admittedly, this adds to the paranoia and cinematic tension of the experience, but given that a player feels conditioned to be as cautious and calculating as possible, these moments felt like slaps to the face that made all my previous decisions inert. What was the point of upgrading my rifle to the max and rationing my ammunition if you’re just going to contrive me into a situation where said rifle is gone and I have to punch my way out?
That being said, gripes with the combat were often easy to overlook given the incredible attention to detail present throughout, and steadily improve throughout the game thanks to the delicately balanced skill paths and upgrade systems. The weapons in the game all have unique weight and power to them, as evident by the ways you can horrifically and realistically eviscerate your foes; extremely, gut-wrenchingly so. Land a lucky headshot with your pistol and you’ll see the exit wound blossom out of your opponent’s skull and splatter against the foreground. Score a stealth kill with your knife and you’ll see the stream of blood spurt out of your hostage’s neck as their eyes roll into the back of their head. Blast your shotgun at someone’s leg and watch it separate at the knee while that person then writhes and crawls in agony before bleeding out. And let’s not even talk about the explosives, because yikes, they probably violate The Geneva Convention. Combine all this with the intense, wet, disgusting sound design that will have you writhing in your seat with every kill, as you so perfectly hear every enemy choke on their blood as their friends ham-fistedly call out their unique name from a distance. The violence feels shockingly real… arguably that realism is somewhat diminished by being able to craft an effective pistol silencer out of a moldy jockstrap and old Sprite bottle.
Thankfully, said attention to detail applies to other areas as well, specifically the phenomenal environmental design. This game is literally beautiful and said beauty shines all the brighter given the bleakness of the content and characters within. It is the kind of artistic beauty you admire somewhere in between the way you see nature grow over a piece of brutalist architecture and a lion ripping a gazel open and have its lunch in broad sunlight. The Last of Us Part II takes the city of Seattle, geographically realized it with incredible accuracy, bombed it out, then stitched it back together with the lush forest as nature and life start to reclaim a land broken by the downfall of humanity. You will pass through vibrant greenery that encroaches around and through buildings, or shattered highway onramps that have now become roaring rapid rivers that snake through the remains of bookstores and coffee shops. Moreover, while other games typically have noticeable “arenas” where you can expect the action to kick in, TLoUP2 takes painstaking effort to have all exploratory and combative spaces look just like that – spaces. The distinction between what is a safe zone and combat zone bleed together, there is just this harsh yet gorgeous world, brimming with both echoes of the past and strife of the present. All of it is beautiful, all of it has the potential for danger – a parallel to the characters of the game and its overall ethos.
But I would be remiss if I did not mention the darker implications of this level of detail in the game. Ironically, The Last of Us Part II strives so hard to be received as a realistic story to be taken in with critical thinking, because after playing it I can’t help but critically think about the real-world consequences of making a game like this. In this era of game development, many developers are under scrutiny for the exploitative nature of production – everything from “crunch” conditions, to damage to employees’ mental health from researching and designing upsetting imagery in as realistic a form as possible. Naughty Dog in particular has been reputedly a grim stand out in a medium where this has become a sad norm. And it’s easy to see in this game; just take the example I mentioned earlier of blowing off an enemy’s leg off with a shotgun. How many images of gore and leg wounds did someone has to look at throughout animating these sequences? How many hours and sleepless nights did they commit to making sure the stream of blood spurts out of the blown-out artery just right before pooling in between the tiles on the ground? The answers probably aren’t uplifting, and even though many of the studios’ employees might have been impassioned and proud of their work, no doubt overworking can have repercussions on anyone in any industry, especially when the work is handling such grim material. I know many would bemoan for the need to “separate the art from the artist” in this instance, but again, perversely, I think the successful evocation of the art invites this discourse. The Last of Us Part II is a story about realistic characters going through realistic pains and trauma. How can you experience it and accept its message, and then not put the lessons you learned from it into practice? I did. And it ever-so-slightly soured parts of the experience for me, even as I was appreciating what it had to say.
I suppose that leads us to our final avenue of discussion with The Last of Us Part II – the story. Full SPOILER WARNING from here forward – so if you just want to know if you should play it or not, my answer is yes, I’d give it a 9/10, despite everything just mentioned and only calculating such a score on the games own merits and isolated from qualms on production and discourse. Now then, moving on.
The Last of Us Part II returns us to the fictional, plague-ridden America to pick up where we left off with Ellie and Joel a few years after the events of the first game. The two go on to make new lives in Jackson with Joel’s brother, though their relationship is strained as Ellie matures and builds new relationships and struggles to deal with survivor’s guilt after the events in Salt Lake City. After all, her death would have provided the vaccine for the disease, but Joel thwarted it. And it is that divisive, fateful decision, the lies it was built on, and its repercussions that set the stage for the sequel.
Right away, Naughty Dog opts for one of the riskiest stories in gaming history, as Joel Miller, the protagonist of the first game, is brutally executed early on by a woman named Abby as she executes initially unknown vengeance for his decision at the end of the first game. Ellie is then consumed with so much rage and hatred (presumably along with us as the audience) toward this person, that she embarks on a journey for retribution, accompanied by her romantic partner, Dina. The first half of the game is pretty standard zombie-apocalypse fare with vengeful energy a bit more on the depressing sides of Kill Bill or John Wick, as we follow Ellie go down her literal hit list, navigate a zombie-ridden Seattle, and contend with the warring factions therein. All the while, we are left to wonder if the gradually escalating atrocities we’re committing will be worth it by the end, and if it’s just better for her to go back home and settle down with her lover. But then, after three days in Seattle and the game builds to a second confrontation with Abby, we smash cut and the game winds back the clock.
For the larger part of the game’s back half, you play Abby’s parallel story. beginning in the HQ of the Washington Liberation Front. The game makes the bold move of putting you in the shoes of the unknown character that murdered Joel. Again, that’s a pretty hefty risk. A cynic would say that this is a flimsy attempt at making the player feel cheap guilt, as the game proceeds to then humanize many of the militia members you spent hours brutalizing as Ellie. However, if you are willing to buy in to this half of the game, you will be swept up in a story that mirrors and compliments Ellie’s, even surpassing it in some respects with setpieces that are on par with the best in the series. We discover Abby had just as good of a reason to kill Joel as Ellie thinks she has to kill Abby. Abby is equally as broken by how much violence has consumed her life, and it’s only through her connection to the people she cares about that she learns to overcome prejudices and try to atone for past sins.
Going through the events in the shoes of who you considered being the antagonist makes The Last of Us Part II a story-telling experience on par, if not on occasion superior to the A Song of Ice and Fire series, as the complete perspective of the conflict allows you to find things to love and detest on both sides. I personally found it hard to root for her in the end – but I take that as a laudable feat of how much sheer hatred toward Abby that the game instills in you early on.
But special recognition has to be paid to the motion capturing and acting done by the actors and actresses of this game, without which, so much of it would fall utterly flat, and so impressively bolstered by the animators on the other side of the equation giving the performances a life of their own. Their combined powers make the performers and the technology disappear into the background and make Joel, Ellie, Abby, and every other central character feel like their own living human being. This is, without a doubt, a dramatic raising of the bar of character performance in video gaming, period. Naughty Dog’s precision in facial animation combined with every performer giving it their all allows for so many conversations – like many other things in the game – feel entirely real. In both cut-scenes and gameplay, characters communicate with the tone, body language, and even the smallest of facial expressions to add intensity, sorrow, and heart, so perfectly informing character alongside your gameplay action in ways that even blockbuster films have a hard time achieving. The dialogue and character work are on point, with characters able to hold heavy conversations and benign banter both with total believability and purpose. While Ashley Johnson as Ellie and Laura Bailey as Abby are the obvious standouts, every character shines in their own way. Truly amazing talent in this department, through and through.
Finally, let’s tackle one last elephant in the room regarding the story: the LGBTQ+ representation. After all, what is a review if not a measurer of how much “joy” something can give? For many, meaningful representation has a significant impact on how much joy a piece of media does or does not bring you. Several of the most important characters in The Last of Us Part II are representative of the LGBTQ+ community – and they are wonderfully complex and easy to invest in. As players already knew, Ellie herself is a lesbian, her partner Dina is bisexual, and the two of them share a relationship that is so fleshed-out and human feeling, and loving that it’s arguably one of the most relatable romantic relationships I’ve seen explored in a game. Halfway through her journey, Abby is joined by Lev, a boy from the Seraphine cult who is transgender. Lev’s charm, wit, naiveté, and compassion lead him to be in many ways the heart of the entire game, as it’s he who brings out the light in Abby, which in turn lends a hand in bringing the light out of Ellie.
That being said, the game can rightly be critiqued for pain being the centerpiece of these LGBTQ+ characters’ lives. All of them go through immense suffering and persecution throughout the game – especially Lev, whose entire conflict is kicked off by their defiance of Seraphite tradition by openly declaring himself to be identifying as male. Lev is then continuously deadnamed by Seraphite enemies encountered throughout the game, and entire missions of the game are devoted to the fallout of him trying and failing to garner his mother’s acceptance. While compelling and believable, it just happens to sadly fall in line with a tired trope of LGBTQ+ characters being primarily, if not entirely defined by their pain and marginalization. The ironic thing is that game studios have made an effort to allow potentially traumatic material to be edited out as an option in either the game’s beginning or prior to the said event (Modern Warfare 2’s airport sequence comes to mind). Considering how The Last of Us Part II already has such an impressively versatile set of options for accessibility in it’s UI and difficulty, to warn or permit removal of the NPC’s deadnaming Lev could have been an easily added solution, or even still could be in a patch, and not having it seems like a missed opportunity for inclusiveness. If such a pain is a deal-breaker for you, you might want to steer clear of this one.
You could make a convincing case that TLoUP2 is not a story about LGBTQ+ pain as many have critiqued it for, but a story where all humans undergo pain and several key characters happen to be LGBTQ+. But to that point, I would then contend… is that a good thing? Is it good to make a game that positions itself as the pinnacle of prestige gaming, and being a game that also makes itself entirely about brutal pain and violence? Does that not through some transitive property then signal to audiences and publishers alike that prestige games can only be about stories of pain and violence? At the end of this console generation and at the cusp of the next one, those kinds of discussions will need to be had, and this game will no doubt be at the forefront of it. In the end though, I think the fact that The Last of Us Part II elicits such discussions is just one of the many signs of its significance. If it were a simpler game, feelings about it would be easier to process, and we would collectively move on in a heartbeat. But we’re still here trying to wrap our heads around it, and I predict we will be doing so for years; a sign of its richness.
It is problematic yet progressive, unsettling yet cathartic, bleak yet inspiring. Like its predecessor before it, The Last of Us Part II is the swan song of this current generation in gaming – the blood crusted gold standard by which we will judge everything that is next to come.