It’s been seven years since the release of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, exemplifying what video games as a medium can do for the sake of storytelling. It also pushed the boundaries of what the PlayStation 3 would do graphically, making an excellent last hurrah for the console. In 2016, Uncharted 4 gave us an idea of what Naughty Dog could do with the PlayStation 4 hardware. Now, in 2020, The Last of Us Part II is finally here, breaking through the limitations of the hardware once again. The graphical barriers aren’t the only ones being broken either, but let it be known: The Last of Us Part II is another masterpiece. Considering the nature of this story, we will do our best to avoid spoilers.
Set five years after the first game, The Last of Us Part II puts us in Jackson County, Wyoming. Joel and Ellie are living in a community of survivors. Lives are starting to return to normal, or at least as normal as they can be with a seemingly endless supply of fungal undead roaming the world. To maintain this lifestyle, they have to patrol areas to clear infected from their routes. They have electricity, livestock, supplies, and overall, a thriving society in a post-apocalypse. Life is good. Unfortunately, sometimes good things must come to an end. After a very unfortunately eventful day, Ellie leaves the community of Jackson to make her way to Seattle, Washington. Saying more will move into spoiler territory, so we’ll refrain from getting into details.
While we won’t speak further on Ellie’s story, hers is not the only one to tell. The Last of Us Part II introduces a new playable character, the brawny Abby. While we didn’t experience an entire game with her previously, her story is still important to tell. So important, that players will want to understand what drives her. While we can’t say much about her story without revealing too much, we can say that her story manages something rather unique in games. Many games have done the “two sides to one story” idea before, but Naughty Dog has managed to find the perfect balance to it.
Like the first game, this sequel sets a benchmark for cinematic storytelling in video games. The first game tells its story in order of the events, taking place through each season in a year. With the sequel, it plays out in a much more disjointed sequence, jumping around from place to place. We see moments of Ellie’s past, and we even see Abby’s to understand her more. It switches around our perspectives and allows us to get a better understanding of relationships these characters form. It’s an unusual way of telling the story, but it works to give the player a certain feeling. Seeing one thing in Ellie’s story may not be how it appears in Abby’s story, or vice versa. It’s these observations that allow us to truly reflect and understand the actions we take. It also allows to to understand the consequences of someone’s actions.
In a lot of ways, Naughty Dog tries to make us feel what the character is going through. Many of the human enemies we fight and kill have names, and their allies will cry in anguish when they lose them. There are dogs and horses that will likely lose their lives in the line of duty for the other side. We will see child endangerment, torture, and a number of atrocities that no normal person should ever have to experience. Unfortunately for these characters, this is survival. This is live or let die, or in the rare instance, risking life to protect those we care about. Love is a central theme in the game, and it’s only human nature to do powerful actions in the name of it. These powerful actions come in both positive and negative flavors, and proves love can be incredible, but also quite dangerous.
It’s not only through these moments that we feel what the playable characters feel. Sometimes it’s during their downtime when they’re collecting objects for their personal hobbies. Ellie collects trading cards from a comic book series while Abby collects state coins. We also get a sense of Ellie’s PTSD, something that haunts her in the most inconvenient moments. Abby, despite her intimidating physique, has a fear of heights, and we as the player see that when she’s in high places. There’s an incredible detail of looking down as Abby that pushes the bottom of a high up place further away. She quivers in fear and tries to push the thoughts out of her head. These characters feel real, and it makes them that much more relatable.
Of course, these characters are made that much more believable due to the amazing voices behind them. Ashley Johnson once again does a phenomenal job as Ellie, seamlessly shifting tones from playful geek to merciless hunter. Troy Baker also reprises his role as Joel, managing to give an even more grizzled sound to the former smuggler in his old age. While Troy’s performance takes a step back this time around, he still has some amazing moments. And of course, we can’t forget Laura Bailey, who performs admirably as the newcomer, Abby. Like Ashley Johnson, Laura doesn’t miss a beat, and they both shine brightly in their roles. Their performances easily make the characters that much more likeable. We also have to give a shout out to the stellar supporting cast for their crucial involvement. There’s even some great LGBTQ+ representation in both performance and characters.
While the story and characters make up for a large part of what makes The Last of Us Part II good, there’s still the gameplay. Fans of the original will feel right at home with the mechanics of the sequel. It’s still a third person shooter with stealth action and occasional quick time events. Players will be able to take cover to shoot enemies, and they’ll be able to utilize melee attacks as well. The melee capabilities in particular feel like they get a bit more attention this time around. It felt like there were a lot more moments where I ended up in a fist fight with an infected Runner. There’s even a new dodge action to help make these fights more dynamic. That being said, most of the gameplay will remain the same, but there’s still more new features in the sequel.
One of the new capabilities is the ability to jump. While climbing was a part of the original game, players can now jump freely, making it feel a bit more reminiscent of the Uncharted series. Swimming returns, but now players can dive underwater and navigate the murky depths in various areas. Perhaps most importantly is the new stealth mechanics. Now players can go prone, utilizing the position to really sneak around their enemies. Not only will this be more effective in tall grass, but it allows players to go under vehicles and seek other hiding places. Of course, with the addition of these hiding places, the enemy AI will also make it a habit to check these areas. If they find you, they’ll even drag you out and do their best to kill you.
Speaking of enemies, there are new types to experience here, both of the human and infected variety. The human side offers a new brute class enemy that specializes in powerful melee attacks. The normal rules don’t apply to them and that means even stealth attacks require careful calculation. Various different factions also exist, each with their own strategies and methods of fighting. Enemies using dogs also introduces a new sense to the “Listen Mode”. Previously, players only had to worry about sight or sound, but when dogs are involved, they also have to worry about their smell. Their odor trail will be visible when a dog is involved, making an extra series of precautions.
Moving on to the infected, most that you’ll experience will be from the first game. Runners, Clickers, Stalkers and Bloaters all return, acting more or less the same as they did before. New to The Last of Us Part II is the Shambler, which is like a mutation of the Bloater. Shamblers have the ability to throw gaseous spores at their targets, and they can produce this same toxic gas from their bodies. Also like Bloaters, they’re less common to come across, though having them in the mix does require extra thought in your approach. Finally, there is one more specific instance of a special infected, though we’ll avoid spoiling that surprise here.
I will say that there are a few missed opportunities with the various enemies in the game. While there are moments when human and infected enemies are involved, it only happens a handful of times. It would’ve been nice to have just a couple more moments, especially involving specific stages of the infection. There’s also only one real moment when two of the enemy factions clash near the player. It’s a long sequence thankfully, but it would’ve been nice to see just a bit more. Either way, the game perfectly blends survival action elements with horror, keeping the tension high during many of these sequences.
Of course, when we leave the action, we get some amazing exploration segments. The Last of Us Part II opens up the world quite a bit more than its predecessor. More than ever, players can explore this beautiful, yet tragic world, finding remnants from the past and the stories they tell. Discovering artifacts, notes, or even corpses of varying ages illustrate elaborate world building. While only one area takes advantage of the larger scale, even the smaller areas are much bigger this time. If you think you’re being thorough, you’re probably not being thorough enough. This is a world I wanted to learn more about, and Naughty Dog somehow made it even more interesting than before.
When it comes to the music of The Last of Us, it sets many emotional tones with a minimalist approach. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla brilliantly provided the perfect mood with his use of string instruments during the quieter moments. During the action, he ramps up the tension and makes you feel like you’re in the fight yourself. This continues into The Last of Us Part II, with Santaolalla returning to score the sequel. Some of the scenes elevate to new emotional heights thanks to the use of his music. One new addition is also being able to play guitars in various moments using the DualShock 4 touch pad. It helps to deliver a moment of reprieve, giving a very creative way to show emotion through song. It’s an addition that fits perfectly here, and it gives some truly heartwarming scenes.
All of these elements: the story, the performances, the music, and the gameplay; they all work so well together thanks to the fantastic visuals. The Last of Us Part II, like the first game, is an amazing showcase of graphical detail. The character models are lifelike, the environments are full of detail, and the use of lighting and particles helps to create this atmosphere. Feeling almost like a movie, the game pushes these visual boundaries, even during key gameplay moments. The animation is both subtle and full of raw energy, and perfectly captures the little details. It shows a talented team of artists crafted this game with utmost love and care. This game took many years, and Naughty Dog should be proud of this visual achievement.
Of course, as truly amazing of an experience The Last of Us Part II is, it isn’t a perfect game. While the more open environments encourage exploration, it also adds a lot more time to the game. The game is much longer than the first one, and in some cases, it drags a little too long. Most of the story is crucial, so it’s tough to change, especially since the pacing is necessary. Regardless, there were definitely a couple of gameplay sequences that overstayed their welcome. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the slower story moments that made me feel this way either. There’s also at least two moments where it felt like the game could end, but then it continues on. I think the overall ending is still important to reflect on, but I would’ve been fine with the other moments too.
The other issue I have is the inventory system. It feels like it was balanced to limit the player during these key action sequences. This means never having a lot of ammo, or even crafting supplies. The problem is the world is full of these things, and far more often than not, I wouldn’t be able to pick up something because my inventory of that item was full. For the majority of the game, I didn’t feel like I needed most of my inventory. Then randomly, there would be a few moments where it takes everything I have to get through it. These moments were the areas where crafting feels detrimental, as you’re constantly avoiding an enemy. Fighting to survive doesn’t give you the time to collect what you need, and having to swap guns or ammo becomes a chore.
While these various issues can cause some frustration, it didn’t hurt my overall experience. At most, it just raised my stress levels, but that just means the game succeeds in what it tries to do. This is a story that is told is such a visually striking way, hitting us in our emotional core. I felt for these characters and lived for their relationships. Their battles, while clearly impacting their conscience, felt like a much bigger struggle to survive in this bleak world. Their fights were my fights, and while I eventually understood the motivations, there was definitely a clash with morality. Even so, I couldn’t argue with their choices. I had to see things through to the end, and I’m glad I did after roughly 25 hours.
I wish there were more games like The Last of Us Part II. It’s rare for a game to invoke certain feelings that this one does, and that’s powerful. Even if you don’t agree with certain elements in the game, it’s hard to deny that the game makes you feel something. Love, rage, sadness: these feelings can easily take control of your actions, and the game perfectly demonstrates that. It’s definitely necessary to play the first one to get the full impact, but even on its own, this is a strong experience. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Last of Us Part II is a masterpiece. It’s a game that’s going to resonate with me for a long time, and I’m perfectly okay with that.