It’s been nearly half a decade since “The Last of Us Part 2” was initially teased. Since then, trailers, delays and online leaks have followed this game all the way up to its final release. It’s safe to say that this game may not only be the most anticipated game of the year, but also of this console generation entirely.
I’m going to preface this review with a recommendation: if you have not seen or played anything about the first “The Last of Us” but are interested in checking out the sequel, do yourself a favor and either play the first game or look up a playthrough online. So much of the narrative of “The Last of Us Part 2” hinges on your knowledge of the first game. Simply put, there are going to be plot points and character moments that won’t make sense unless you played the first game. There is a reason this game is called “The Last of Us Part 2” and not “The Last of Us 2.”
Diving right into the story, the game takes place four years after the events of the first game. We meet our main character from the first game Ellie, who is now a young woman. While Joel is still present in the story, this game is very much focused on Ellie and her journey. After a traumatic event in the first hours of the game, Ellie is on a revenge quest against those who wronged her, tracking her attackers down into a war-ravaged Seattle. However, her journey for vengeance quickly devolves into a violent obsession.
The acting here, much like the first game, is phenomenal. Voice actress Ashley Johnson brings Ellie to life with her superb voice work as she carries most of the narrative on her virtual shoulders. This older version of Ellie is a far more conflicted and angry character whose journey stresses not only her will, but also her mental and emotional health as well. Seeing Ellie’s self-destructive tendencies on display here is both haunting and memorable as we see how far she is willing to go to get her vengeance.
While not as present in the story, Troy Baker as Joel also delivers a fantastic performance. While Joel appears to have mellowed out a bit over the years, he still carries a hint of the rage and selfishness that was rooted in him from the first game. The new characters are also interesting if a bit underdeveloped. One of them is Dina, Ellie’s girlfriend and one of her gameplay companions. She exudes a spirit of confidence and playfulness that creates a great foil with Ellie and also provides much needed levity for an otherwise oppressively dark story.
While I won’t speak too much on her role for spoiler reasons, Laura Bailey’s character is a standout among an already packed cast. Her character is sure to be a divisive figure among fans, but I would have to say that she is one of my personal favorites. While her intentions are just as destructive as Ellie’s at the start of the game, her transformation lends a redemptive quality to the narrative.
While I would say the story of “The Last of Us Part 2” is pretty good, it is not without issue. Primarily, this game’s story feels bloated at times compared to the first and suffers from severe pacing issues. Throughout the game are numerous flashback scenes. While these scenes are great in of themselves, they do detract from the momentum of the story. It feels that the game relies too much on these flashback sequences in order to flesh out the backgrounds and motivations of these characters rather than organically implementing this information into the main plot.
One of the most controversial story decisions happens midway through the game. Right at one of the most climactic scenes of the game is a sudden switch. Effectively, the story of the game is reset to provide another perspective on the conflict. While I hold that I enjoyed the second half of the game much more than the first, it does feel like it takes time before the game finds its footing again.
Technically speaking, this game is a marvel. I feel comfortable with saying that “The Last of Us Part 2” is the best-looking game I’ve seen on the PS4. Since this is the last year before the release of the next generation of consoles, Naughty Dog is not holding back on pushing the PS4’s hardware to the limit. Environments are pretty large compared to Naughty Dog’s previous games and sport tremendous graphical fidelity. The post-apocalypse looks gorgeous as nature reclaims the ruins of the old world. Seattle is overgrown with lush vegetation as it takes over abandoned highways and collapsed buildings. Certain districts of Seattle have been flooded over the years, turning these sections into a maze of drowned corner shops and whitewater rapids. Weather and lighting effects are equally impressive here with torrential downpours and blinding blizzards. It feels like nature has long since moved on from humanity with a cold indifference to our existence.
What I find even more impressive is how everything maintains a stable framerate. In my experience, I never experienced a single frame rate dip or crash during my 24-hour playthrough. Best of all, save for the initial one you get when you boot up the game, there are no load screens in between levels. This includes the absence of hidden loading screens that were present in the first game where you had to mash “X” to open a door. If this is a preview from what we could expect from the next generation of video games, I am all for it.
In terms of gameplay, not much has changed since the first game. You will spend much of your time scavenging for crafting supplies, ammo, and upgrades, and the limited amount of resources ensures you never get too comfortable with how much you are carrying. You may find yourself more often than not scrapping together whatever you can to survive an encounter.
Ellie does have a few new moves that sets her apart from Joel in the first game. Ellie is much more agile, and this allows her to dodge incoming melee attacks while also following up with her own. She is also able squeeze to through small gaps in the environment and perform short jumps. Most importantly though, Ellie is able to go prone and hide in tall grass or under vehicles. While these changes are welcome additions, if you didn’t enjoy the gameplay of the original, there really isn’t much here that could win you over.
What has changed though is a greater emphasis on stealth gameplay this time around. Ellie has more tools available to her that allows her to silently dispatch her enemies along with her new abilities to hide. The game is also far more communicative of when you are being detected due to better audio cues and the ability to toggle detection markers in the options menu.
Along with Ellie’s new tricks, human enemies have also been given a few extra tools to put the pressure on the player. The human AI is smarter and more communicative than the previous game. Enemy humans will call out your location specifically and work together to flank you. Even stealthy players should beware as the human AI is surprisingly tough to sneak around. They are vigilant and talking with each other constantly. If one of their members do not respond back immediately, they will become more alert and cautious in their patrols.
In an attempt to humanize them, Naughty Dog has also individually named each of the hostile humans you will encounter. During gameplay, if an NPC sees a dead body or witnesses you kill one of their own, they will cry out their name. While the animations are already brutal and painful to watch, this adds another level of discomfort to the combat. Even the enemy dogs are also named, and it’s heartbreaking to hear someone cry out their name when you’re forced to put them down.
Combat with humans are well-designed at immersing you in the moment, but it raises other issues as well. Namely, I feel much of the combat and how the player is forced to engage with the world is counter to the central message of “The Last of Us Part 2.” Ellie’s story is about the cycles of violence and how it taxes not only the people around her, but her own humanity as well. As the bodies piled up, both in the gameplay and in cutscenes, I found myself trying more and more to avoid a fight if I could. While Naughty Dog has provided a player a wealth of options in how to play, there is a severe lack of moral options for the player as well.
Let me use the example of the surrendering enemy. Sometimes during combat, an enemy will get down on their knees and beg the player not to execute them. They are quite literally crying and begging at you to stop and just let them go. After all the trouble Naughty Dog goes through to make their humans so lifelike, you would figure this would be a moment of choice for the player, right? Unfortunately, no. If you turn your back on the surrendering enemy, they will magically bring back another weapon and resume attacking you again as if nothing happened. It sucks that a small moment of choice where you can try to express a little bit of humanity through gameplay is ultimately non-existent. Even more frustrating is that this exact same scenario was an issue that was in the first game!
What’s weird is that you can already bypass many sections of the game without killing anyone. I found myself sneaking around enemies and rushing towards the exit in order to avoid having to kill anyone. While it was a small personal victory, it felt like I had to succeed this in spite of the game rather than the game supporting this playstyle. I understand that Naughty Dog has a particular story they wish to tell, and I respect that decision. If you could play the whole game as Ellie without killing any humans, the primary message of the game would fall flat. All I’m asking is to provide the player a little bit more agency when it comes to the morals of the game as well.
One more thing I do want to touch on in terms of gameplay is the infected enemies you will face. The clickers and bloaters from the first game were iconic on their own, but they ultimately lacked variety in gameplay. However, Naughty Dog has really upped the ante here in terms of infected variety. The enemy designs are fantastic with some variants feeling like they were lifted straight the “Resident Evil” series. These include the stalkers, a stealthy enemy type that can hide from Ellie’s listen mode and will ambush her when her back is turned.
Another new infected is the “shambler,” a disgusting mound of flesh and pus that emits spores when it gets close. You can identify these horrors with their distinct guttural cries, and anyone who has trypophobia should avoid looking too closely at these creatures. For me, the best gameplay moments involved fighting these revamped infected monsters. These are tense and creepy moments that are fun to navigate through without the moral baggage of fighting humans. I won’t go into it any further, but some of the newer infected that show up later in the game are wonderfully designed nightmares.
Strangely enough, one of the best features about “The Last of Us Part 2” isn’t in the story or the immediate gameplay. Its in your options menu; “The Last of Us Part 2” sports a wide range of accessibility and custom difficulty options. These options are in-depth and really allows the player to fine-tune their gameplay experience to their liking. The custom difficulty allows the player to individually manage different aspects of the gameplay. Maybe you like the challenge of combat and the amount of resources you receive, but feel stealth is a little too tough for you. You can modify the stealth difficulty to your liking while also leaving the other difficulty options the same if you wish.
Accessibility options are also a god send that ensures that anybody who is interested in playing “The Last of Us Part 2” can play it no matter who they are. There are options that are customizable for players who are hard of seeing or hard of hearing. For those that perhaps lack the fine motor function of aiming and shooting with a controller can also toggle on a generous aim-assist and slow-motion aiming. Best of all, turning on these options result in zero penalties to the player, and there are thankfully no trophies for beating the game on the harder difficulties. Naughty Dog did good by implementing these options, and I can only hope that this becomes the standard for future games.
Back when this game was first announced, I was wondering if “The Last of Us” even needed a sequel. I’m happy to say though that “The Last of Us Part 2” does more than enough to justify its existence. It’s a game that both surprises and builds upon the consequences of the first game in an interesting and meaningful way. While there are certainly stumbles in its execution, Naughty Dog managed to create something bold and willing to take narrative risks while also staying true to the original game. I could envision that there was a version of this sequel that could have played it safe and done just as well as this game, and I’m glad we got this version instead. While certain plot decisions may turn off fans when they first play it, I encourage them to approach this game with an open and welcoming attitude. You might be surprised at what you take away from this game.
Reviewed on PS4.