After years of development, a series of delays, and a massive spoiler leak. The Last Of Us Part 2 has been through hell and back, the events leading up to its release were as bleak as the post-pandemic world both we and the characters of the game were living in but yet, the game has miraculously arrived. I’ve been keeping up with the game’s release for years now, as a fan of the first game I was eagerly anticipating this sequel. I trotted through the spoilers, I mean I pretty much saw everything that got leaked but still, I was adamant that the game would still be great and tried my best to keep an open mind. I even aired my own concerns surrounding the spoilers, developer Naughty Dog’s damage control, and the direction of the story but I can admit that my issues were based on mere speculation, and looking back I hypothesized several things that were confirmed to be false. Overall the game was shaping up to be an extremely divisive sequel, as evident by the response from critics and fans alike who either love the game, hate it, or are in the middle of the spectrum. This divided response merely fueled the hype for me, I was more than ready to see exactly what the hell Naughty Dog did to the sequel of one of my favorite video games of all time.
I’ve played through The Last of Us 2 now, finishing it up last night and I can honestly say, never has a video game left me feeling so empty and conflicted before in my life, and I say this as both a good thing and a bad thing. The Last of Us 2 is a harrowing sequel that follows Ellie, the loveable bad-mouthed youth protagonist from the first game who is now 19 and on a path of vengeance through a post-apocalyptic Seattle. The game attempts to examine the lengths one will go to when they are driven solely by blind hate, punctuated by its violent gameplay and dark atmosphere. The game’s narrative, which has been subject to criticism, disrespects key aspects that the first game built, treats its characters as expendable, and overall feels meaningless at times. Yet, it kept me intrigued because it also carries equally great aspects that provide new insight into the franchise, as well as several moments that left me shaking as I witnessed the events unfold with a thousand-yard stare.
Before delving into my review, I’d like to point out that I will be talking about several features (mainly story-related ) that are heavy spoiler material. I feel it’s necessary to discuss these features because they are important to the overall experience. Early reviews were forbidden to discuss or show the entire second half of the game which I found pretty ridiculous, as a majority of the controversial aspects of the game happen during this section but you can blame Naughty Dog’s unnecessarily strict embargo guidelines for that. However, I’m not a professional critic, I’m just a mere 20-something year old that likes to complain on the internet. So I’m going to do my best to keep everything unfiltered.
Gameplay, Atmosphere, and Tone
Similar to the first game, Part 2 is a survival horror-esque action game. players are encouraged to scavenge the dilapidated world for supplies, ammo while going up against other survivors and various forms of infected, people that have succumbed to a mutated form of the Cordyceps fungus that turns them into zombies. The gameplay loop, for the most part, is: find supplies to craft any equipment that you need, then use either stealth or full-blown action to clear out an area. It’s a gameplay model that many games have used (Batman Arkham series, Metro, etc) and the first game excelled at this style but I’ll admit, it did feel formulaic and linear especially replaying it in 2020. Every section that required combat or exploration felt blatant. Like you knew what to expect when you enter an empty building or an open area with telltale signs that combat was coming up. It also doesn’t help that the linear nature of the first game offered much more to be desired, in my opinion at least.
Part 2, however, changes things up a bit immensely. The game offers a quasi-open world take on exploration. Several areas of Seattle are open-ended hubs that allow players to interact with the surrounding environments, to engage in finding supplies and secrets. At times it threw me off because I never knew what to expect. As soon as I’m dropped into a dilapidated part of Seattle, I don’t know if I should be exploring for supplies or getting ready for a fight. What I like so much about this approach is that it never felt contrived, too many games go for the open-world style with very little to offer and as a result, the game feels empty. Here though, these vast hubs feel just right. What makes them even more invigorating is the pay off for exploration, maybe you’ll find a weapon early or stumble upon a cutscene you could have missed. This is helped further with the game’s graphics. Areas strike a balance between destroyed, worn out sections and lush vibrant nature. Exemplifying the I Am Legend aesthetic of post-apocalypse meets forestry vibe the first game brought.
The combat and overall gameplay are where Part 2 really shines. It takes bits and pieces of what made the first game so good and builds upon them. For starters, crafting has been simplified and minimalized. Most of the recipes you need to craft health kits, molotovs, smoke bombs, and so forth are given to you early on in the game and require maybe 2–3 ingredients for you to make. The gunplay feels more punchy, when you fire off a round of a shotgun you feel the “oomph” of the kickback. It doesn’t feel as clunky as the first game. Granted you’re not a pinpoint sharpshooter nor are you a dud with a gun. There’s a welcome balance, the same can be said for the melee combat. You can now dodge attacks that give you the chance to hit back with a counter, an addition that gives players a standing chance during close combat. Stealth is more warranted thanks to Seattle’s overgrown environments. Tallgrass and bushy trees act as camouflage to help you sneak past guards. Using bottles and bricks to distract enemies like in the first game feels just as satisfying.
This time around ammo for guns is scarce, and melee weapons degrade even faster in the sequel, it makes the combat sections feel more calculated as you have to make on the spot choices. Do I use the last of my supplies to make a trip mine in this hallway or do I use the few bullets I have left in my pistol? These decisions are exemplified further thanks to the game’s impressive AI. The human enemies will make call-outs that expose your hiding spot or position should you get caught. If they stumble upon a dead body, they’ll actively search the surrounding area that you’re hiding in. Some will employ the use of guard dogs that’ll track your scent, making for a desperate attempt to break the trail. Once they do, they go into full aggro mode as they desperately try to kill you, flanking your position to get the upper hand. As for the infected, they’re completely unpredictable. Some variations will stalk and sneak up on you when you least expect it, others will mob towards you in a horde while a few can (and will) kill you in one hit. It’s moments like this that feel they were ripped straight out of Resident Evil. The combat is tense and left me on the edge of my seat as I gambled with just how long I’d survive before I was met with the game over screen.
When the action kicks in though, it pulls no punches. Surviving in a post-apocalyptic world is gritty as expected, but the brutality and sheer violence that The Last of Us Part 2 depicts threw me off guard completely. Calling this game dark would be an understatement. When Ellie kills an enemy from behind, she grits her teeth as she guts them with her knife, blood spilling onto the ground as their body convulses. During combat enemies would scream in pain when they’re wounded, fellow teammates would become hysterical when they find their dead companions, crying out their names. The guard dogs would nudge the lifeless bodies of their owners after I landed a perfect headshot, howling, and whining for them to get up. Often times enemies would survive an encounter, leaving them maimed after an explosion/gunfight until they bled out or until Ellie decided to finish them off. This overall theme of violence and hate permeates the gameplay, at several points during the game I winced at what was happening onscreen, certainly a first for me. Whereas a game like Mortal Kombat that revels in the gore and excessive violence with cartoonish attitude. The Last of Us Part 2 makes its violence so much more visceral and realistic that you might feel a bit of remorse. What made it even more visceral was the fact that I was in control of these events. I was deciding to pull out my rifle and open fire, I was deciding to engage in combat. This notion of violence and existentialism seeps its way into the environments. Through exploration, players will come across notes that illustrate the last-ditch effort of a person who committed suicide because they feared of succumbing to the virus, then come across the decomposed corpse of that individual. You’ll find groups of enemies practicing ritual sacrifice, leaving their victims strung up high on trees and light posts as warning signs. It’s a feeling that I’ve never second-guessed, let alone even considered until I played The Last of Us Part 2, and it’s one that enhanced my time with the game immensely. It made me question the choices I made as a player, it made me feel terrible for the violence that I inflicted, even if I wasn’t given any other option.
The plot for The Last of Us Part 2 has been met with a divided response. I won’t mince any words when I say that the story is at its best serviceable, but at it’s worst, extremely disappointing. Writing a sequel to one of the most celebrated games of this past decade is a feat that is going to be met with a ton of expectations. You can either craft a story that is mere fan service or one that makes players question what they think they know, and subvert expectations entirely. Part 2 attempts to do the latter but its execution is haphazard and messy. Here’s where the spoilers start so read at your own discretion.
Before I get into a story analysis I need to address the “SJW” parts of the game, simply put, there are none. A pretty childish fear fans were having towards the game was the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters in the game, some even blaming this inclusion as the reason why the plot is as messy as it is, according to the story leaks. I can report that Part 2 almost never focuses its attention directly on the “gay stuff”. It goes as far as: This is Ellie, Ellie is a lesbian, she has a girlfriend, and that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. The inclusion of LGBTQ+ themes should not be seen as a factor that hinders a project, nor should it be viewed as a negative aspect in any regard. I wasn’t bothered by it and neither should any other player.
The story takes place during three days in Seattle, the first half of the story focuses on Ellie searching for the people responsible for killing Joel, the main playable character from the first game and the father figure in her life. Detailing her deteriorating relationship with her girlfriend, allies, and the ongoing trauma she puts herself through on her path of vengeance. It’s eerie at times to see the once bright child who was full of life and hope in the prequel, transform into a vindictive adult that relishes in violence in the sequel. At several points, you’ll feel the aftermath and post-trauma she experiences after brutally interrogating one of the game’s villains or arguing with her allies about the direction she’s going in. When put in the same situation as her, when your back’s against the wall and when the closest thing to family is taken from you in a heartbeat, how far are you willing to go to seek justice? Especially in an apocalyptic world where it’s kill or be killed?
Her side of the plot carried some of the most emotional moments in the entire game and were genuinely the best parts of the story for me. Most notably the several flashbacks between her and Joel, filling in the blanks between the two games and showcasing how their relationship slowly crumbled. It’s saddening to see how their father-daughter relationship became fractured but it merely adds more fuel to Ellie’s fire for going to the lengths she does. There’s this element of guilt that hangs over her head that acts as the sole reason for her to go off on her killing spree that by the end of the game, she’s become a shell of what she was in the first game. Having driven everyone in her life away as she’s become numb to the violence and nihilism she put herself through. Ellie’s story was heartwrenching, depressing, and powerful in my eyes. I couldn’t help but compare her to Emily Blunt’s character at the end of Sicario: beaten, traumatized, and alone.
Halfway through, we switch perspectives to the game’s villain Abby, the person who kills Joel at the start of the game, showcasing what she was doing during these three days and revealing her motives for killing Joel. It’s at this point in the story where my issues lie. Attempting to humanize somebody with no actual redeeming qualities. The game persuades you to understand her side, showing that her father was a surgeon Joel kills at the end of the first game thus triggering her to find and kill Joel, but her backstory is told so poorly that I never really cared for her plight. Throughout her story, she’s put in a situation where she has to work with two kids from a warring faction, a clear message that shows the people she’s been taught to hate are actually just as human as she is, an effort to show how her blind rage of mindless killing strips away from the issues that these kids are going through. Even with a message like that, I still didn’t find any interest in Abby’s story.
My issue mainly stems from the way Abby is introduced and written. Her backstory isn’t told until the halfway point, so if you were one of the lucky few who went in spoiler-free, seeing her kill Joel at the start with no context as to why she hates him whatsoever feels so unwarranted, a lame excuse at subverting expectations in my opinion. If her plight was included earlier on then maybe I would've cared slightly? While on the topic of death, the handful of Ellie and Abby’s companions feel so expendable, especially the ones that die throughout the game. There was little to no build-up or suspense at times, it literally boiled down to “Character A opens a door and is shot in the head”. Even the few that have drawn out cutscenes (mainly the villain deaths during Ellie’s story) didn’t have that much of an impact, as difficult as they were to watch unfold. It contrasts the way the first game handled character deaths, in that game, there was something poetic about it. Yes, it sucked to see beloved characters die in the prequel, but there was something there that alluded to them dying. In Part 2, there really is no care, and characters just die left right and center. Even the few that live aren’t given enough screen time for me to care.
My conflict with the story became clearer towards the game’s end. I won’t say what happens, but to me, it felt as if everything both characters went through in the past 20–30 hours of the game was for nothing. The ending is so anticlimactic that it hurts, even though I just commended how powerful Ellie’s story concludes, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with it at the same time. While I can respect that the writers wanted Ellie to experience the thing she was scared of in the first game, the way it’s handled in Part 2 could’ve been done so much better. I won’t even bother explaining what Abby goes through during the final act, just know that her story just ends, straight up. I couldn't help but feel so empty as soon as the credits rolled, it’s like I did all of this, just for nothing. I can’t see Naughty Dog justifying a Part 3 just based on this ending alone.
Overall, I’m glad I played The Last of Us Part 2. I found that when it comes to divisive works of media like games, films, etc, there’s no better experience than witnessing it for yourself. I certainly enjoyed the video-gamey aspects like the combat, level design, and tone. Something that Last of Us 2 does a lot better than most games right now, especially with how the game treats players with regards to the violence. However, the story leaves a lot to be desired. While a liked certain parts of the narrative, there’s a larger chunk that felt so contrived and boring that it damn near ruined the overall theme that the game was trying to convey. Towards the end I found myself struggling just to see the story finish and even when it did, I left wanting more.
The bigger question is whether or not the game is worth playing. If you were a fan of the first game or not, I highly recommend giving the game a shot when it goes on sale. For a full-price game, the gameplay isn’t enough to outweigh the spotty story, but it’s something that everyone should experience. The Last of Us Part 2 is one of the most divisive games in recent memory, and one that will have gamers talking for years to come.