When I rolled credits on The Last of Us‘ original release in 2013, my eyes were widened at the ending.
Video games are a means of escape for a lot people, oftentimes to be somebody or something you will never be. The Last of Us isn’t like that. While you had control over the livelihood of Joel and Ellie, there was nothing you could do about the ending, and I thought it was a cool approach. So when they announced that there was a sequel in development with Ellie in the story, I wasn’t gung-ho about its existence, but as I continued to see more of its preview coverage as the months (and years) passed, I got more interested in how Naughty Dog planned to see it through.
So now after having finished The Last of Us Part II mere days after its release, I can comfortably say that Naughty Dog did it again–the player doesn’t play The Last of Us. The Last of Us plays the player, and it’s an amazingly unique experience.
What Is It?
One of the most anticipated PS4 exclusive releases this generation, The Last of Us, Part II is the sequel to Naughty Dog’s instant classic that was released towards the end of the PS3’s lifecycle. Much like its predecessor, this sequel was released hot off the heels of Sony’s PlayStation 5 event, in essence making the game another swan song of sorts.
The game begins with Joel having a conversation with his brother Tommy about Ellie, which ends up being a synopsis of the original game. That said, while nobody’s stopping you from diving into Part II without playing the first, do yourself a favor and play it. Immerse yourself in Ellie and Joel’s relationship and the cross-country adventure they had. It’ll make Part II that much more enjoyable. Light spoilers across all Last of Us titles will follow, so let this be your warning.
Part II takes place a little more than four years after the events that occurred in The Last of Us, featuring Ellie as a main character. Both Ellie and Joel have become respectable contributors to the Jackson community, and while the zombie-like Infected still have their mark on this broken world, peace and order seems to have been accomplished. Jackson’s children are going to school, and the adults all have their roles to keep the community fed and thriving. They even have banquet parties once in a while, so we get the opportunity to see these damaged characters be merry.
Part II introduces a couple of new faces important to the community. There’s Dina, Ellie’s new love interest and Jesse, Dina’s ex who also has developed a great friendship with Ellie when they go on exterior missions. Both of which act as excellent support characters to Ellie as she did for Joel, with enjoyable banter during gameplay segments.
Everything is fine and dandy in Jackson, but this is The Last of Us, so you know you’ll eventually be in for an emotional wreck of a rollercoaster.
Why Should I Care?
The Last of Us Part II is Naughty Dog’s latest release boasting their Pixar-like grasp of the gaming industry, showcasing a series that truly is a marvel in its execution of world building and storytelling.
The original left players in awe over the fact that while they were exploring a post-pandemic world, the environments were still rich and incredible to look at. The Last of Us Remastered is a great-looking game, but The Last of Us Part II just might be the best-looking game on the PS4. Naughty Dog’s depictions of big American cities like Boston and Pittsburgh were truly sights to behold, so players should expect more of the same here as far as setpieces go.
As organized and well thought out as the community of Jackson is, it almost becomes an afterthought once things go awry. You’ll find yourself exploring Downtown Seattle, eventually coming across other communities, none as big as the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), which headquarters itself at a football stadium, utilizing the atrium and stadium suites for housing and mess halls, while the actual football field itself along with its bleachers are separated in different sections for farming, laundry, and even wildlife care.
This is especially intriguing now as we live in our own version of pandemic life, and it’s quite interesting seeing how the art direction depicting all these environments was planned out. I’d be naive to say that this is a world I want to be a part of in real life, but exploring these torn up landscapes and learning about the people that lived and died in them are among the game’s many high points. From the Space Needle to the aquarium to the convention center, Naughty Dog’s depiction of the post-apocalyptic Seattle is nothing short of breathtaking, and it’s easy to try and stop to smell the roses. The Last of Us is hardly the first series to feature collectibles and journal entries to give players a taste of its world, but there’s this sense of charm and allure that makes me care more about the world in The Last of Us as opposed to others in the medium.
Going back to its narrative, Part II will likely come across as divisive for a whole bunch of reasons, and a couple of them were brought to light due to some unfortunate leaks weeks before the game’s release. For the sake of not spoiling too much, and due to the fact that a lot of the controversy is stupid to begin with (such as the complaints about Ellie’s sexuality), we’ll just go over the one nobody saw coming: You don’t just play as Ellie. Someone else’s revenge is also at stake, and in order to better convey and connect both stories, the game jumps back and forth between incidents in both Ellie’s and Abby’s past.
So we’ll let this be the biggest spoiler in the review. The Last of Us Part II isn’t just about Ellie and Joel. The writers made the risky decision by changing things up and giving players control of another character much like the way Metal Gear Solid 2 did with Raiden. Born into the Firefly community much like Ellie, Abby experienced loss of her own. After the events of the last game pretty much disbanded the Fireflies, Abby joined and became a well respected leader at the WLF who trained every day to become a force to help carry out her revenge. Her arms just give it away, and that’s not just a joke. More on that later.
You actually take control of Abby earlier in the game for a bit and you won’t know why. Then you use her again for an extended period of time over the same few days that you controlled Ellie. Naughty Dog took a bunch of risks by jumping into various parts of their timelines, and if you’re not paying attention, it could get pretty convoluted, especially if you don’t initially buy in to Abby’s story.
After all, she’s new. You didn’t spend 15 hours getting to know Abby in The Last of Us, so it’s easy to see a lot of players hating it, but after you’ve walked the miles you’ve walked during her part of the story, it’s also easy to see a lot of players loving it. This might as well be Naughty Dog’s The Last Jedi (which I loved, just to put that out there).
Unlike Ellie, Abby is built like an American Gladiator and can more than hold her own in combat. Ellie on the other hand is as athletic as she is slender, and she took a lot of what Joel taught her over the years from her craftiness with molotov bottles and negotiation tactics, in addition to using her knife to help get out of sticky situations. On the other side of things, Abby and her expertise in combat-ops allows her to craft bombs and even ammo for her weapons that you’ll upgrade with the game’s seemingly abundant amount of loot you’ll find in the places you explore.
That’s where my criticism comes in. Compared to the original, Part II seems a little easier on the combat side, and that’s due to a few a different factors–which may or may not be intentional depending on how you look at it. (It might be worth noting that I also played the game on normal difficulty.)
The first of which is the fact that partner AI is so much better than what Ellie was in the first game. They even tell you which side enemies are flanking you from when you don’t see them, so that’s useful, and definitely saved me from harm quite a few times.
Still, the game as a whole could have benefited from less forgiving looting. While there were definitely times of anxiety when I ran out of ammo or opportunities to heal, for the most part it wasn’t a problem. Because of this, fights with Bloaters and Shamblers (a new type of Infected) weren’t nearly as intimidating as they were in the original game. This might also be due to the fact that I was better prepared, having just finished a replay of the original game before getting Part II, but you do expect some challenge.
Of course, that isn’t to say the challenge isn’t there. Part II has one wildly intense boss fight–I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll say it definitely depleted all my resources to a point where I just had to run around the inside of a building, desperately tapping the Triangle button to find something to kill this enemy with, and the nerves were extremely high with what looked like a millimeter of health. Beating that boss made me let out quite the sigh of relief, and it’s been a while since I’ve felt that level of satisfaction from a single player game like this. I’d even go as far as saying this is the scariest game I’ve ever played, and it might’ve influenced me to give the Resident Evil series another try…
In order to move the story along, the game will have you jump back and forth between Ellie and Abby during its bookends, with Ellie’s side of the story taking much of the first half while Abby’s side of the story takes place during much of the second half. As you’d expect, their paths to the ending of the game are very much parallel, but when they finally collide, Naughty Dog continues to throw more twists and turns to the plot further questioning their moral fiber (including your own). The developers did an excellent job taking your unwillingness to do things you normally do in video games and making it tell a better story.
That’s where some of the gameplay nuances come in, particularly in combat. The game does a fine job pacing you with how to fight in Part II, but the main things new include dodging with L1 and the ability to get prone in tall grass by crawling. You can also get prone to hide under trucks, and it’s also used as a new exploration mechanic when crouching isn’t good enough. These are both welcome additions that we’re surprised weren’t in the original.
Another aspect that wasn’t in the original is the fact that the enemies you kill all have names. The developers tried to make each kill have a more lasting impression on the player by making enemies scream in pain as you kill their partners, but I personally feel like this missed the mark because it’s just done so much that it doesn’t feel special.
The guilt tripping does work a little better with the addition of combat-trained watch dogs. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where security unleashes the hounds on you, which is especially scary because their sense of smell can and will flush you out of wherever you’re hiding, and in order to survive you’ll have to kill some dogs. You don’t want to do it, but there’ll be some cases where it’s absolutely necessary, and it sucks hearing them whimper.
Speaking of unwillingness to do things, sometimes Naughty Dog overdoes it in that area. There’ll be times that’ll be baked into the cutscenes, but it’s also the case in its gameplay loop. There were more than a couple instances in the game where you know you have to get from point A to point B, and point B is right in front of you, but something prevents you from getting there because that’s just Naughty Dog’s M.O.
Is your target at the aquarium on other side of town? You’ll be three fourths of the way there before the road collapses and you have to swim the whole way. Oh, you’re at the top of a skyscraper and have to go to the hospital right across the street? Cool, let’s just take the elevator down–oh no, the elevator broke and now we have to go down floor by floor on a 50-floor building that wasn’t cleared of infected. Naughty Dog loves to fatigue their fans pretty frequently and they’ve been doing this sort of stuff since Jak & Daxter, but it’s worse in The Last of Us because there’s hardly anything hopeful to talk about in the story.
The lack of hope is really the theme for this game. At its core, it’s all about revenge and finding ways to make the ends justify the means, and the team at Naughty Dog really wears your patience thin with both the narrative and the gameplay. As annoying as it is for you, the player, to have to go through all sorts of crap to get to the ending, do you think Joel and Ellie enjoyed any bit of that? Hardly, and it’s just as easy to fault the writing as it is to praise it, and I fall under the latter.
As you undoubtedly know, The Last of Us Part II is extremely violent, and it uses violence to further drive home its theme of vengeance, and it’s a painful one to experience. This isn’t about sunshine and daisies (even though they’re pretty plentiful in the game). There are all sorts of arguments for and against war and vengeance, but their very existence is the reason why they’ll continue to exist in an endless cycle, and it all leads to an ending that’ll make you think the same amount as the last one did. For every bit of character development we see, there’s just as much character regression. It’s a beautiful struggle.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
I’m not a fan of survival-horror games, and while the original game barely qualified as one, The Last of Us Part II takes a huge step in that direction, and the fact that I was glued to my seat for more than 25 hours over the three days I took to finish the game just goes to show Naughty Dog’s unquestioned mastery in storytelling. Remember, I was totally fine with The Last of Us as a standalone title, and I didn’t even want a sequel to be made. But after finishing Part II, for better or for worse, I can’t wait for whatever Naughty Dog has in store next. The Last of Us Part II honestly felt like three different games, and it really made me question whether $60 was enough for this experience. So yes, it’s well worth the money.
I also want to further commend Naughty Dog on a few quick things that I feel really do matter. The first of which is their focus on accessibility. Upon first booting the game up, you have to spend a few minutes making adjustments to the game’s presentation to fit whatever special needs you might have, and that’s tremendous for all gamers. I also want to praise their diversity and inclusion of all sorts of races in their titles. As a Filipino-American, seeing an Asian in a game playing a role that isn’t stereotypical means a lot. I also gotta give a shoutout to their artistic lead, Eric Pangilinan, a fellow Filipino-American doing it big in the industry giving hope to other minorities that you can make it to the bigtime with hard work, and Eric is one of the best in the business. After all, there isn’t a single person that’ll ever say a Naughty Dog game “looks” bad.
To wrap things up, whether it’s the game’s heart-wrenching story, progressive building of a post-pandemic America, or the game’s ability to find ways for the player to relate to and with its cast of flawed and imperfect characters, The Last of Us Part II is nothing short of a masterpiece. Like we mentioned in our review of the original game in 2013, this 25-hour title isn’t just a game, it’s a piece of art.
Except this time, the canvas has been enhanced by other artists showcasing that there are multiple ways to tell the same story, and it isn’t always pretty.