The Last of Us Part II is a Somber Tune that’s Satisfying
Layered in controversy, The Last of Us Part II has received critical acclaim but is being heavily scorned by players everywhere for different reasons. Toxicity in the gaming industry, the game’s supposedly weak or confusing writing, and more than anything else (which I’m currently experiencing myself), rushed and reactionary reviews because we all want to hit on what’s trending and popular.
But given that this is the sequel to my favorite game of all time, I wanted to make sure to provide not only a fair and balanced review but also experience The Last of Us Part II at a healthy pace so that I could appreciate all of the efforts that Naughty Dog put into the game. So my playthrough took me just north of 40 hours, collecting and completing about 60% of what the game has to offer.
I’m glad I did this. Because once I had time to process rather than binge on a game for the sake of a quick review, or worse, judge it as preachy pandering towards progressivism, I realized that The Last of Us Part II is a fantastic experience. And, much like its predecessor, tries to do something very few videogames have accomplished in narrative adventures: recontextualizing the decisions of the survival at-all-costs approach by deconstructing the first game and the consequences of its actions.
I say this as someone who was initially skeptical a few hours in, thinking that this story was going to be utter garbage. So while the gameplay, visuals, and audio were groundbreaking, I had every intention of giving this a flat ‘OK’ for its story alone. At best, I would’ve rated it an 80 average—a gratuitous 4/5 score. At least, if it won me over after the game’s first 10 hours. But once I recontextualized everything that I’ve come to know about the franchise (which is a lot), and made room to process what happened, I began to see this sequel for what it was: less a story about Ellie’s journey, and more about the consequences of living a life of survival at any cost. This sequel isn’t about asking if the ends justify the means like the last game, but rather, it’s an outright commentary on how the means are evil… no matter how you contextualize them.
There’s a guilt that stays with you when taking a life (and I say this, as someone whose previous work dealt with providing mental help to those who have done just that). Murder is wrong, and I think this game’s depictions of extreme violence are a testament to how awful taking a life should feel. A reminder that’s somewhat ill-timed given both the pandemic and police shootings ravaging the nation. Still, I think the biggest reason a lot of people hate on the game is that it subverts expectations. It’s not a heroic tale, but a story about people growing up in a messed up world we can sadly relate to. A quest for revenge, which we know, ends with only one destination: bittersweet sorrow.
The Last of Us Part II is a testament to harsh reality, not a tale about the moral high ground but a tragedy about the ones who died and those of us left behind… and how we move on from there.
Endure and Survive The Way You Want To!
I played the game on hard mode because I think the struggle for survival is critical to the tone in the story. This means limited resources, challenging battles, and AI that reacts to your playstyle, forcing you to think about both your approach and available resources.
Now, not everyone is into that experience, which is why I must highlight the most revolutionizing feature in this game: its accessibility. This is the most thoughtful and customizable gaming experience I think ever created for its genre. With sound, dialogue, and lighting options for both the visually and hearing impaired so that you can customize the gameplay to your preferred level of sensory sensitivity. There’s also a great deal of attention to rope physics and glass breaking (check behind every broken window for items), environmental puzzles, and a large assortment of customizable features such as automatically picking up items, joystick sensitivity, AI control, button customization, and even navigation assistance.
On top of this, there are sprawling locations throughout the game’s nature-reclaimed Seattle. Different people, warring factions, new cordyceps zombies, and of course, unique terrains. The game also opens on a small open-world segment where you can scavenge for hours. While initially intimidating (I was horrified at the idea this was going to be like Red Dead Redemption 2), it can be quite impressive as you wander a rather close-to-life recreation of Seattle. Gameplay has always been attached to the game’s linear narrative, a story that seems aimless at first, unlike the original game. Unfortunately, the game’s more open world makes the zombies feel less dire this time around. There are many long pauses in the action and environments offer plenty of breathing room to escape — which ruined a lot of the game’s tension compared to the original. Finally, in terms of gameplay, I also didn’t like that they did away from the original’s supplements. Whereas before you could select a particular skill for your character to focus on, The Last of Us Part II now forces you to pick upgrades from a series of skill trees. Some of which are only accessible during the latter parts of the game.
The Heart of the Series
Initially, I was worried about the direction of the game’s story until we hit the flashback chapters, which are easily the highlights of The Last of Us Part II. It’s during these beautifully rendered segments that we learn about what happened between Joel and Ellie since the previous game. It’s also genuinely sweet seeing Joel as Ellie’s father (the first flashback in this game is the most sentimental moment in the series by far). His acoustic performance of “Future Days” serves as a perfect tribute, not just toward’s Joel’s feelings about Ellie, but also is a well-placed Easter Egg callback to their one night live performance and Pearl Jam: a Seattle based band. It’s oddly fun seeing how much Ellie’s grown as a person: getting into relationships, falling into trouble, and proving her worth. We see in the early chapters how normal life’s embraced with our original cast. Yet, it comes at this strange place, as there’s this distant tension between in the air between Ellie and Joel, an exploration of which, is the most compelling thing about the game.
Without spoilers, I should emphasize that the flashback chapters are not only some of the game’s most beautiful segments but are also the heaviest hitting chapters of the game. Rife with character motivations, high-stakes battles, and plot twists galore. The only thing that rivals it to me is Ellie’s chapters with her new companion Dina, which without spoilers, is a simply beautiful romance about supportive partners getting to know one another. Still, the flashbacks are a nice recontextualization that builds upon what’s worked for The Last of Us in the past: gorgeous attention to details, grounded story, and survival mechanics. Though that last section, I am a little concerned about, as the series seems to be heading towards Uncharted territory. Ellie’s climbing and rope swinging abilities remind me of protagonist Nathan Drake, and I do worry that the third game (if there is one) will see at least one of the characters going full parkour. I also worry about the incorporation of Uncharted’s melee fight mechanics. In particular, I found fistfights to be irritatingly timing-centric instead of control integrated (which is what I disliked about Uncharted’s melee combat too).
Likewise, though combat is still relatively the same, horrifying new creatures and factions do get introduced. Some are more militarized, packing an extensive arsenal of guns and explosives, while others are more melee-centric and stealthy, and of course, you have the good old cordyceps zombies. Zombies, which, unfortunately, I didn’t find that intimidating this time around. For those who played the first game: Bloaters seem to be taking a backseat to shamblers, which to me are mini-bloaters and less intimidating – though Stalkers have gotten a really creepy update this time around.
There Are No Heroes
Probably the hardest pill to swallow after all the sentimental cutscenes and distractions, like Ellie’s guitar or a hilarious snowball fight, is that despite these fleeting moments of humanity, there isn’t a protagonist to The Last of Us Part II. Not in the traditional sense, as you play the game and find out.
This brings us to the game’s most critical part: its story. To quote Tess from the original: “There’s enough here to make us feel some obligation.” Which is true, and in many ways, is actually the game’s ironic flaw. We have clear-cut foundations based on our opinions from the first, and though I liked the rollercoaster that is The Last of Us Part II’s story, I think it might be a little jarring for many fans of the series. From a production side: it also seems like there was far too much intended and cut throughout the production of the story, which is becoming a common problem with AAA games.
More than anything, probably the biggest complaint about the game was the pacing, as fans really had a hard time with the writing style (which uses non-linear narrative. A decision that while I agree was necessary to cover the massive scope of the story, loses a lot of the emotional impact) as well as had to deal with the change in perspective. Though I won’t get into the details, I will say that this technique works well on television but in videogames? Especially one so graphic and traumatic in nature… well, it is a bit of a hard sell to your audience—especially given the pre-established expectations set by the first game.
The Age of Aquarium
I have to mention that this sequel was co-written by Westworld’s Halley Gross, a series which is also known for its exhaustive tragedies. Given that the Last of Us is an emotional story-driven story, I wanted to touch base upon the game’s final chapters. Mostly, that while an interesting choice, I do feel it is sort of unnecessarily epic in scope. Not unlike some of the shows we see on HBO (Westworld and Game of Thrones come to mind), which to me, is unsurprising given that the series is being picked up as an HBO series.
I think this is the game’s biggest problem because the story is trying to do too much when it’s message is trying to tell something simple. In the original, motivations were clear-cut with a small break in suburbia. In this sequel, the explanations to why things happen are often messy flashback transitions. With villains added and a societal conflict that proves to be somewhat unnecessary but mostly, unsettling. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a fantastic story about excess and the need to move on, though it’s tough to get to that point without feeling exhausted; both intentionally in-game with how crazy the story escalates, but also: with the somber guilt felt upon revelation-after-revelation in-game.
Leaving behind Violent Legacies
Although incredibly hesitant at first, the further I went along and had gotten to reflect on it, the more I loved The Last of Us Part II. The graphics and sound are flawless and the pinnacle of what you can do with a PS4. The gameplay is more or less the same as the original, but with a few new features. I’ll likely do another playthrough to pursue a platinum run not only for the achievement but to even further take in what the game has to offer.
My biggest issue, which I think universally everyone has, is the writing. Mostly, that though well-intended, the pacing is incredibly off for a videogame and takes too long to develop. Still, if you stick with it, it proves to be one of the most violent and emotionally exhausting games you’ll ever play. It makes me reevaluate the relationships that matter most in my life. Though mostly, it makes me just want to hug my dad.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed); Developer: Naughty Dog; Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment; Players: 1; Released: June 19th, 2020; ESRB: M for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs; MSRP: $59.99