Let’s get this out of the way right now: it’s a weird time to be playing a game like The Last Of Us Part II. From the deadly infection that swallowed the world to the desensitising grind of constantly weighing up life and death; from the pervasive melancholy and sense of loss to the armed authoritarian psychopaths patrolling city streets.
If you’re looking for escapism you won’t find much of it here. Catharsis? Possibly. Meaning? Maybe. Comfort? Not really.
Because in stark contrast to the original, The Last Of Us Part II is not a game about the search for hope when all seems lost. It’s a game about consciously abandoning what little hope remains. It’s about pain. Hate. The drive for revenge and everything it destroys: physically, morally, spiritually.
It’s uncomfortable, grim, violent, and disconcerting. But that’s not all it is.
It’s also a game with a drastically improved play experience at its core, monumental technical and artistic achievements that help bring that to life, and a narrative that will move and shock and depress you – but one that also never manages to emerge from the shadow of the original.
Because mostly The Last Of Us Part II is a game about The Last Of Us Part I.
The beginning of the end
Telegraphing the 25-ish hour slow-burn to come, Naughty Dog takes its time reintroducing us to this world. The game begins roughly four years after the end of the original, 25 years after the cordyceps fungal outbreak savaged humanity. Joel and Ellie’s relationship is enduring but haunted, caring but strained.
The Deadwood-esque settlement of Jackson, Wyoming – all wooden saloons and horses and guns, guns, guns as far as the eye can see – provides enough normality for personal drama to once again take over human life. As seen in early trailers, Ellie has caused a storm by kissing Dina, a young woman who recently broke up with Jesse, a male mutual friend. The town bigot has lost his shit.
I’m sure ours will too.
But fuck those guys.
It’s this budding relationship between Ellie and Dina (and Jesse’s not-entirely-unwelcome third-wheel) that gives the game much of its heart. It’s a convincing bond that ebbs and flows as it endures the horrors of this world, and serves as reminder that if you have someone you never truly have nothing.
Deftly directed by Neil Druckmann, the cast is never less than compelling. Ashley Johnson is powerful as a more seething, resolute Ellie, while Shannon Woodward’s performance as Dina exudes charm and cheek, balancing out the couple beautifully. Troy Baker and Jeffrey Pierce are both gritty, tortured, and extremely male as brothers Joel and Tommy.
But it’s Laura Bailey’s understated drive as newcomer Abby that lingers largest over proceedings. The game’s most contentious character is dragged through an absolute rollercoaster of an arc – one I imagine will prove divisive amongst fans.
This isn’t a safe, by-the-numbers sequel, and it’s in Abby’s character that much of that risk is centred.
There will be blood
Because good things never last in this world, before long Ellie once again finds herself trekking across the former United States of America. This time seeking blood.
Combat and stealth systems are on the surface similar but are improved dramatically with smarter, more organic AI and cleverer, more creative encounter design. Mercifully, you’ll barely spend any time placing ladders or pushing boxes.
Skirmishes are still divided into two broad types: against enemies that can’t really see you (the Infected), and against enemies that can’t really hear you (the various human factions). Both play differently, and Naughty Dog has fun mashing them together at a few standout moments.
The behaviour of human enemies, in particular, is impressive. Soldiers patrol realistically along logical routes, but also veer off path to investigate or nervously swivel their heads in anticipation of a shiv to the neck. Guard dogs that track your scent complicate matters further.
Enemies are predictable enough to allow for stealthy strategising but reactive and clever enough to keep things tense. They stalk, corner you, and then attempt to pin you down as a diversion while someone else flanks your position. I felt genuinely outsmarted by a fucking video game on numerous occasions.
Every plan feels like a maybe, which makes it all the more satisfying when you eliminate an entire patrol or crawl past one undetected.
Fortunately, should you blow it, this isn’t “quit and reload” stealth. It’s a sandbox to be manipulated and prodded, and the consequences of your mistakes can always be contained or managed. There’s benefit in remaining hidden, like preserving resources, but once discovered you have enough options and scrounged armaments to make the firefight thrilling. The new trap bomb (basically a landmine) even makes blowing your own cover an occasionally wise move.
Masterful level design is the other pillar of the improved moment-to-moment experience. Practically all the game’s combat bowls have multiple paths to plow through; some are viable, some are tantalisingly terrible ideas. They’re layered vertically with clever sightlines and places to spring ambushes, and they often open up horizontally to include multiple city blocks, only narrowing back at pinch points when Naughty Dog wants to plop you back on the narrative ghost-train.
The game plays with the overall world structure, too. At one point early on it even offers up a hub area. Not dissimilar to the jeep sections in later Uncharted games, you’re given a map and a horse and told to explore at your own pace. Doing so rewards not only resources but character development and story beats.
At one optional location I discovered an invaluable holster for faster weapon switching. At another I found an acoustic guitar and busted out a downbeat rendition of “Take On Me”. It’s nice having a degree of control over pacing, but after the fact it does feel at odds with the rest of the game, more a one-time gimmick than a core system.
During these slower moments, Naughty Dog’s diorama crafters, lighting artists and set dressers prove they’re still the best in the business. Fragments of stories are splattered across walls and scattered in scraps, none of them particularly cheery. Every location serves as its own character, more unique and creative than the landscapes of the original. The sense of place is astonishing.
The more linear choreographed set-pieces are tenser than ever, too. Escaping a swarming horde at a snowed-in ski resort. Steering a boat down whitewater rapids through the middle of a destroyed city. Exploring the rotting ruins of a long-abandoned aquarium. The game is packed with moments that will linger in the collective consciousness for a long time.
And, unlike the most enduring scenes from the original – the ending, Joel and Ellie’s growth, giraffes – you’re generally playing during them and not watching a cutscene.
Where The Last Of Us Part II is slightly less successful than its predecessor is in the story department. Make no mistake: that is an awfully high bar to reach, and Part II still delivers a complex, nuanced tale. But it buckles under its own ambition.
It attempts to cram in about three seasons worth of prestige TV drama, and moves past multiple points that would have served as satisfying endings, as if to say satisfying endings aren’t really how life works.
It spends a lot of time making the player emotionally invested in a particular storyline, and then spends an equally lengthy amount of time deconstructing that investment. Some will find this fascinating, others will find it manipulative or frustrating.
It was both for me.
The story shifts perspectives and hops back and forth through time and space, building its thematic patchwork piece by piece. Sometimes it does this in an unwieldy fashion – like flashbacks within flashbacks – but it generally has good reason for doing so.
Naughty Dog should be applauded for having the conviction to stick with such a confronting vision in such a usually safe landscape. These are all brave narrative choices… but they’re not necessarily enjoyable narrative choices. (If I’m being frustratingly vague, that’s because of both spoilers and a very prescriptive NDA.)
What I can say is a core theme of the game is perspective; how two sets of circumstances can lead to two opposing but equally valid truths. Redeeming enemies and tarnishing heroes, humanising both saints and sinners.
The game spends a lot of time ruminating on the ending of the original. It adds context, casting Joel’s fateful decision in, if not a new light, then a clearer one. It makes it simultaneously more abhorrent and more human. We see more of the consequences, but also more of the justification.
As a result, Part II makes for a fascinating companion piece to the first game – but one fairly reliant on it. Most of the sequel’s profound moments stand on its shoulders. It’s as though Naughty Dog knew it couldn’t escape the legacy of its magnum opus so it instead submerged itself in it. After all, we all spent years talking about that ending, so why can’t the game’s creators contribute to the conversation as well?
With The Last Of Us Part II, Naughty Dog has crafted a fantastic stealth combat experience with an astonishing sense of place and character. It’s brave, bold, brutal, and unrelentingly bleak. In contrast to the original, though, it’s the moment-to-moment play experience and not the story that carries the show.
The Last of Us II was reviewed using a digital copy provided by PlayStation Australia.