The Last of Us Part II Review – All The Sins We Bear
The Last of Us Part IIJune 19th, 2020
The Last of Us Part II builds off of the ambiguous ending to the first game and spins it into a narrative that is both bleak and gut-wrenching. For a world wrecked by the aftermath of an infection on the scale of a zombie infection, any hope for survival might rest on the shoulders of a young teenager that holds the secret of immunity in her blood. In The Last of Us Part II, the latest game from The New Dogs at Naughty Dog, this is one PlayStation 4 exclusive you won't want to miss if you have the stomach for it.
The apocalypse takes something from us all. Whether it's a sense of comfort, something we hold dear, stability, a loved one, nothing is held sacred when that safety net of society comes crashing down and those left alive are forced to pick up the pieces and try to put their lives back together. Those not infected by the cause of civilization's downfall in The Last of Us' world are expected to survive by any means necessary. For some, that means assuming the role of a scavenger or brigand, taking from those that have. For others, it could be setting up something resembling a commune or military leadership. Fanaticism and idol worship can be another coping mechanism for dealing with the sudden trauma of losing everything one holds dear. Each of these are represented with the various factions and lifestyles of those trying just to survive in Seattle, the primary setting for The Last of Us Part II.
The two major players vying for control of Seattle are the Washington Liberation Front (WLF, for short) and the Seraphites, referred to by derogatory terms like Scars by other groups. Navigating towards Ellie's goal within the city requires avoiding and often confronting these factions throughout the many-hour campaign. No one group is ever labeled as the savior or antagonist throughout Ellie's journey. Through world storytelling and discovered conversations, each faction is fleshed out so that you may see the reasoning behind everyone's actions. With Ellie often forced into a grey morality, there's justification for her actions beyond simply trying to stay alive but Neil Druckmann's story being told is so heavily focused on the human cost of simply trying to stay alive.
Without a doubt, The Last of Us Part II is among the most depressing and bleak narratives told on PlayStation, especially for a AAA title. It's not just about the coming down from an adrenaline high after surviving an encounter with infected or looters but rather the aftermath of taking a life. All throughout Seattle are signs of a world that's been well-lived in since the outbreak first came about and often without any signs of recent life. It's a bleak world to explore, made even worse with the constant threat of collapsing floors and various factions wanting to keep you from venturing any further. The infected are still a crucial part of the story, but it's the humans that are often the most dangerous.
Very similar to the first game, The Last of Us Part II is a stealth survival game at its core. Resources remain limited and often times sneaking past is better than fighting and expending your last few rounds of ammunition. Ellie's superhuman hearing is an important tool for navigating the corridors of strategically overturned couches and chest-high walls to get around encounters. Because of the scarcity of ammo, trying to find more pacifist ways to get past an encounter can be equally as important as clearing out the enemies and looting whatever you can come across to replenish your stocks. I often found myself settling for the latter because of the insatiable desire for collectibles (I acquired over two hundred during my playthrough and still missed a number) and supplements. Supplements remain the core way to upgrade abilities and unlock new passive traits, such as being able to survive a single fatal blow or crafting more arrows with the same amount of resources. Many of the skill upgrade paths require picking up collectible magazines scattered throughout Seattle to unlock and I wouldn't be surprised if they were completely missable. Though for the sake of clarity, I intentionally missed a map early on during my new game plus playthrough and it showed up again in a different location later on, so perhaps the same could be said for the skill books as well.
The Last of Us Part II's AI is bloody fantastic and among the best that I've seen in a stealth game. Each faction that you go toe-to-toe with often outnumbers you greatly and uses those numbers to their advantage differently. When trying to escape a band of Seraphites, they'll often use the overgrowth of Seattle fauna to hide from view and communicate through whistling calls when they spot the player, while the WLF might take a more militaristic approach. Enemies all feel like they behave differently with various levels of aggression AI and it's rare to be able to take the same critical path through an encounter between playthroughs (and I absolutely picked up and started my second playthrough once I had time to digest the ending). Most encounters end with some sort of locked door or obstacle to clear that both takes time to clear and causes a lot of noise. If you are immensely careful and able to use stealth to your advantage, sometimes it's possible to make it through without adding another tick to Ellie's growing body count.
Even on Hard Mode (without any of the adjustable sliders enabled), resources are not scarce enough that you'll ever be completely out of options in a combat encounter. Ellie's backpack may only be able to carry a handful of shells and arrows at any given time but that's usually enough to dispatch the various foes you're up against. Melee weapons litter the moderately-sized combat arenas, as do bottles and bricks for thrown distractions, and Ellie's toughened CQC abilities actually make her far more deadly than the first time we got to play as her. Ellie no longer has access to the disposable shivs that were an essential part of the first game's arsenal but the years of running patrols around the Jackson, Wyoming outpost have given her some useful new abilities.
There's no longer a dedicated counter button as there was in the first entry in The Last of Us. Instead, there's a dodge button that forces Ellie or her companion to duck and scuttle out of an enemy attack. It may not work against clickers, as they once again return as the obnoxious one-hit-kill enemy type, but for every other faction of enemy that isn't wielding a firearm, it's the single most effective tool of survival. The fluidity to the animation of waving out of range from an opponent's deadly swing to counter with a few quick knife slashes and backing off once again is a delicate dance that shows just how smooth Naughty Dog's combat animations have gotten without being locked into canned moves and animations.
Naughty Dog wants as many players to be able to sit down and suffer through their sequel of loss and survival, no matter their skill levels. The Last of Us Part II features some of the most incredible levels of accessibility and difficulty customization that I've ever seen in an action game. If you still want challenging combat but find more ammo scattered around, there's an option for that. Have difficulty with low-light vision and darkened environments? Enemy and ally models can be highlighted to help spot them more easily. For completionists like myself, there's even an enhanced listening mode option that helps to ping anything collectible (as well as enemy locations) to help discover ammo caches or long lost artifacts for Ellie's trading card collection. Adding in a strong support for subtitles for those hard of hearing was only the beginning and I have to applaud Naughty Dog for being so willing to provide enough accessibility to help any player that wants to take this survival journey a way forward.
The massive Elliephant in the room with The Last of Us Part II is of course in its depiction of violence. There's no escaping it: sometime during your time spent holding a controller, someone will die, whether it's by your hand or an enemy getting the upper hand. When that happens, the level of gore and sheer variety of ways to die can be completely unsettling. Getting grabbed by a clicker, for example, results in a split second of screaming followed by a fade to black but not before watching your main character get their jaw forcibly ripped apart. Ellie can use special finishers known as Strikes one an enemy is off-balance or unaware that kill the enemy in some brutal fashion depending on the temporary melee weapon she's wielding.
If the gameplay is this brutal, what about the cutscenes to The Last of Us Part II? These are often much, much darker and in-depth than any action you'll undertake holding a controller. The emotional weight to these scenes for even minor enemy combatants has such a staggering effect on the player that I couldn't in good conscience recommend this game to anyone squeamish at the sight of blood and viscera. All of the torturing, the bludgeoning, the shooting of guard dogs, everything that Ellie undertakes on the path of revenge builds towards the story's conclusion in a brilliant, demented fashion like a train wreck that's impossible to look away from. This all builds to an ending that once the credits began to tick away and I was serenaded by the credits rolling, I simply had to sit there in silence to try and digest everything that took place.
The Last of Us Part II package as a whole is much more to take in than any of Naughty Dog's previous works and I don't just mean that with the constitution needed to sit through the sheer amount of death onscreen. From the first time you pick up the controller to the last, the whole adventure marks the longest-running time in Naughty Dog's history. My final hour count came close to the thirty-hour mark for a single playthrough. I will admit that there wasn't a small amount of time spent scouring the corners of each combat arena and abandoned highrise apartment in search of trading cards and supplements but the entire narrative still isn't much shorter than that.
The first steps into Seattle on horseback introduce Ellie to an overgrown, open-world section of the city that gives player agency to explore around at their own discretion, complete with optional areas that can be missed completely and objectives that can be tackled at the player's discretion. It was moments like this that took away from the gut-punching narrative to let the player think about their actions in a solemn, reverent fashion. At times, The Last of Us Part II can feel bloated with the developers perhaps putting too much into their survival horror narrative and that could perhaps be my sole critical opinion of the adventure as a whole.
There isn't a single other game available on PlayStation 4 that can capture the bleakness of what Naughty Dog has created with this experience, save for the first The Last of Us. It's a harrowing narrative that can club you in the face with the message that this world just isn't fair for anyone. From a critical opinion, The Last of Us Part II is one of the finest pieces of cinematic gaming ever created, but Naughty Dog's final sendoff to this console generation might leave you crying in the shower.
Review code provided by the publisher.
The Last of Us Part II is bleak and at times leaves the player feeling hopeless as they play through one of the finest crafted pieces of gaming ever to grace a home console. This is one game that people will be talking about for a long time.
- One of the best looking console games this generation
- Phenomenal cutscene direction
- Emotional acting from all of the major characters
- A story of personal growth and loss
- Stealth combat with brutally smart and adaptive AI
- Accessibility options that could set a new standard for gaming
- Positive LGBT representation
- A narrative not for the weak of heart
- Bloated by the sheer density of content and locations to explore
- Resolution seems no higher than 1440P30 even on the PS4 Pro