Hoooooo boy, it has not been easy to avoid all the chitter chatter that’s been following The Last of Us Part II for the last month. From it’s initial review bombing to some assholes sending death threats to one of the voice actors and all the other nonsense surround the release I’ve been on a very low information diet for most things just so I didn’t get the key plot points spoiled. Thankfully I managed to avoid the first leak of the critical details and so was able to play the game with fresh eyes. What has followed has been an incredibly interesting experience, one where’ I’ve waxed and waned on the game as I’ve followed the main characters on their journey. However the simple fact that I needed some time alone just to think about the game after it ended is probably a testament to how great it is, that emotional punch hitting so hard I was left reeling for a good long while after the credits had finished rolling. Unlike the original though, where I felt we got the ending we wanted but didn’t deserve, it’s sequel is very much the opposite. Will this be a must play for everyone though? Not in the slightest as the brutality the game portrays, both in its narrative and in the unforgiving game play, makes it a challenging experience even if you go in with your eyes wide open.
PLOT SPOILERS FOR LAST OF US AND PART II BELOW
Part II takes place around 4 years after the events of the first with Joel and Ellie settling down for what constitutes a normal life now in a place called Jackson. However it’s clear that the events of the past have taken a toll on their relationship although it’s not quite clear what has happened since we last left off with the pair. It’s clear though that Joel still sees Ellie as someone in need of protection though, wanting only the best for her even if that has led him to make some questionable decisions in the past. Ellie meanwhile is now an adult in her own right, being a fully functioning member of the Jackson community. Things take a turn when Joel and Tommy are out on patrol one day and get caught in horde, rescuing a stranger in the process who takes them back to their basecamp not far from the borders of Jackson. The events that unfold from here lead many down a dark path that they can’t walk back from, even if all of them find a way to justify it to themselves.
I’d forgotten that the original Last of Us was essentially the last big title to be released on the PlayStation 3 and as such was able to stretch the hardware to its utmost limits in terms of graphics. It’s sequel is no different, with us staring down the barrel of a PlayStation 5 release this year Naughty Dog has gone all out with what they can do and the results are absolutely fantastic. It is, of course, looking a little behind par due to the fact that I’m running an OG PlayStation 4 but it’s still up there with current generation PC titles I’ve played. Like any Naughty Dog game the environments are overflowing with details which helps the exploration not feel as dull and repetitive as it could otherwise be. Unlike the previous game which shied away from displaying wide open vistas Part II celebrates them a lot more, quite often showing you the vast ruinous landscape that you’re living in. Backing all this up is solid sound work both in terms of music and foley, something that you never really notice is done right but will be very aware of when its done poorly. In all honesty, whilst this level of craftsmanship is just expected from Naughty Dog these days, it’s great to see them to continue to show just how capable these console systems are when pushed to their utter limits.
Whilst I’ll still slap the survival horror tag on Part II as its main genre it has been streamlined and paired back somewhat from my memories of what the original was. In the past where your weapons we’re basically as effective at the end of the game as they were at the start Part II instead gives you numerous options to make them a lot more lethal. Couple this with revamped talent trees which include significant improvements to your character and you do actually get something of a power curve going, even if it’s not comparable to what you’d see in a Bethesda RPG. Of course this does mean that the game has a few more moments where that power increase will be put to the test but at least that now feels like a recognition of your progress more than the brick wall it used to be. You will however end up playing the same kind of game twice though given the mid-game switch from Ellie to Abbey. Whilst the latter is a somewhat accelerated experience it is probably one of the more insidious ways of “taking your stash away” I’ve seen in a while, something I’m never really ok with in this genre. All in all if you played the original you’re going to feel right back at home, even though it is 7 years later.
Combat is much the same although this time around the stealth feels like a much more refined experience, reducing the need to actually get in combat. I did find that the enemies’ reaction to me was always just a bit shorter than mine was to them though, meaning that shoot outs would typically have me on my ass from a bullet right off the bat while I tried to line up a headshot. Also it’s been a good while since I played a shooter on a console and since there’s really not that much shooting to speak of in this game it took me a good while to dial everything back in again. I have to say I was tempted to turn the aim assist on as it was honestly getting pretty annoying trying to aim, especially under fire, although after a while I settled on a combat style that suited me much better. Basically I just relied on the short range weapons most of the time, only using long range guns when I knew I could get the requisite couple seconds to line up a half decent shot. Console only players probably won’t have any issues like this however as, my skill aside, it did seem like the combat mechanics were solid.
Stealth felt a lot better this time around, mostly because I think there were a lot more options at your disposal when it came to out maneuvering your enemies. About half way through the game I got a good feel for how to make the AI “lose” me and could then work to position that spot in a place that was advantageous. You could also more readily disengage from combat if you found yourself at a significant disadvantage which was great for making the larger encounters a lot less tiresome. So for half the game I was playing this kind of stealth shooter hybrid which worked really well, enabling me to get the jump on a few enemies then disappear again before emerging somewhere else to repeat the cycle again. This strategy didn’t work as well on the infected though as most encounters with them that didn’t go full stealth usually ended up with all of them on you all at once. This has other counters of course but it was honestly quite a lot less fun to deal with infected, especially the stalkers who are by far the most annoying enemy in the game.
Progression comes steadily enough that you don’t feel stymied at any one point and whilst there are some “must have” kind of upgrades you’re given enough leeway that getting them doesn’t preclude you from specialising heavily elsewhere. Depending on your playstyle though some upgrades are going to be worth far more than others. I can imagine going a kind of “crafting-light” build that means you explore less or perhaps one that’s heavily focused on blowing the shit out of everything with the explosives tree. I can hazard a guess though that most players are like myself and had maxed out the initial and stealth trees which seem to have the most bang for buck. Similar can be said for the weapon upgrade system as, whilst most guns have a direct damage upgrade, quite often your parts are better spent on stability and capacity mods (although a quick google reveals that the capacity mod doesn’t increase the amount of ammo you can carry however. That makes it a lot less useful than I thought it was). The bow/crossbow is worth spending some of your parts on, given it’s the only guaranteed one shot stealth kill ranged weapon, but again your mileage may vary.
Exploration is done well, ensuring that there’s a decent balance between time invested and rewards gained. To be sure it’s pretty frustrating to find what looks like a secret area only to have empty drawers to inspect but that’s balanced well enough with loot rooms that’ll fill your pockets well enough to make those sting a little less. The various safe puzzles are challenging enough to make them feel worth tracking down and, thankfully, they’re all usually contained within the one encounter zone so you don’t have to backtrack far to find the combination to them. The only tip I’d give here is that if you’re going to be exploring a lot then it’s probably worth your while to be a little less…frugal with your item use as there’s nothing worse than having a full bag of items and crafting materials when you stumble upon more stuff you can’t use. I really only figured this out in the very late stages of the game and those sections were honestly a lot more fun because of it.
Now if I’m honest I wasn’t exactly in love with the idea of switching over to Abbey for a good chunk of the game as whilst I love a well developed antagonist I wasn’t really in the mood to build up my character again after ~17 hours of gameplay. Whilst the game does accelerate Abbey’s progress significantly it just felt like I was playing the same game over again, even if quite a lot of things were different. Up to that point I felt that the game had been developing at a pretty good pace, even if I was getting somewhat sick of the repetition when it came to “Oh yeah look there’s that building I want to be at way over in the distance”. Spinning it all back to basically the beginning of the story made it feel like I’d made no progress at all, especially considering that I had also built up quite the nice stash of everything as well. I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised as this is what the survival horror genre is known for doing, but it did feel like a bit of a kick in the teeth. I will say I came around in the end though as the world building done in Abbey’s story is far greater than what is done in Abbey’s.
Before I dive deep into plot territory there are a few technical issues which I think bear mentioning. For some reason the game would simply not save at the times I instructed it to, resetting some of my character’s progress at this point. The first couple times it happened I wasn’t sure anything was wrong but I knew it was an issue when my character lost an entire talent tree that I knew I had unlocked. Thankfully the game is structured in such a way that I wasn’t completely locked out of unlocking it again but that likely also meant I’d lost the supplements and other crafting mats I’d had before as well. There’s also the usual game event not triggering bugs that happen from time to time but the auto-save system usually takes care of those. In a game of this scale such bugs are minor but I do hope they’re fixed sooner rather than later.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Having not been privy to any of the script leaks prior to the game’s release I was treated to a full spoiler free experience and for that I’m pretty grateful. I haven’t had a chance to yet read through what the major complaints were but I can hazard a guess a lot of it had to do with the rather unceremonious way in which Joel was killed but, frankly, I can’t see the issue with it. In the first game Joel was already known for having crossed a lot of people something which he told Ellie about in no uncertain terms. Indeed in my original review from 7 years ago I had expected him to die in that game, given how he was built up to be the tragic hero. So his death at Abbey’s hands, whilst a confronting and horrific moment in its own right, was nothing that was out of place in the narrative that was built up before it. At the time Ellie’s reaction seems somewhat out of place, given the kind of weirdly cold relationship that they had at the start of Part II, but that’s given a solid explanation later in the game.
I’ll have to admit that part of the reason I didn’t want to play Abbey was that, in my head, I already wanted her dead. Whilst I’d accepted her reasoning for killing Joel in the first place by the time I got around to Ellie and Abbey’s confrontation I’d already fully bought into the revenge mindset. So going through a whole process of getting to know thine enemy felt, at the time, kind of a cheap way to stretch out the game a bit and make the antagonist. However that gradually changed as I got to know the world that these two characters live in. You see the original story and Ellie’s origin in Part II are pretty straightforward with little in the way of fleshing out what’s happening outside of what she sees. Abbey’s on the other hand is much broader in terms of scope, detailing the journey of how the Fireflies fell, the rise of the WLF and their war with the Seraphites. Abbey’s journey through that is one of redemption for her as she begins to question the life she’s been leading up to this point. So it wasn’t so much it was building sympathy for Abbey per se, more it was showing just how much of a monster that Ellie had become.
Which is ultimately why it’s justified that she loses everything in her pursuit for revenge. Not only did she not get what she wanted, she lost both her new family and her last connection to Joel: her ability to play the guitar. It’s probably one of the saddest endings in a game I’ve played since the original Red Dead Redemption and like it I don’t see it as a bad one. Had Ellie stayed where she was and ignored Tommy’s selfish requests for revenge she would’ve actually got what she wanted and kept the life that many others had died to protect. There’s an argument to be had over whether or not her decision to break the cycle of violence by not killing Abbey redeems her in some way but that’s something I don’t think I’ll have an answer to anytime soon.
If you’ve read this far through the review then you’re likely wondering: is it actually a good game? The answer to that is an emphatic yes, but it’s also one of the most emotionally challenging games you’ll play. The violence, horror and ugliness that the game portrays is something that will take a toll on you personally. For me I needed a couple hours after finishing it just to process the emotions that it had brought out in me as it was just that full on. But for a game to be able to do that? That’s the stuff of greatness. To be sure there’s things that can be improved and possibly parts that I’d like to see tweaked but even in its current form The Last of Us Part II is a sequel that not only does the original justice, it elevates it to a higher level. For a last of its generation title The Last of Us Part II is a brilliant way to cap off this console generation, setting the bar high for what the next will be judged by. Whilst my heart is still heavy from the experience I still feel like this is one of 2020’s must play games, if you can stomach it.
Rating 9.5/10 (I no longer feel the need to adjust for my bias anymore, so no +1 needed here!)
The Last of Us Part II is available on PlayStation 4 exclusively right now for $69. Total play time was approximately 24 hours with a total of 35% of the achievements unlocked.