Luke spends his time playing video games, binge-watching TV and hanging out with his German Shepherd, Ziggy and Bernese Mountain Dog Pandora.
June 19, 2020
Sony Interactive Entertainment
It is difficult to think of a sequel that has as much anticipation and expectation behind it as The Last of Us Part II. The original arguably defined a generation, proving to be a wonderfully provocative swansong for the PlayStation 3, pushing the hardware to its absolute limits. It created a new exciting franchise for talented developer Naughty Dog to flex their collective muscles, proving that they are more than capable of pulling off a gritty, tonally dark and particularly violent adventure, anchored by strong relationships and relatable characters.
Seven years have passed, and while the development team have given Uncharted a couple of entries in that time, the eagerness of players to see the next chapter in Ellie and Joel’s story has been palpable by comparison. Much like its predecessor, The Last of Us Part II comes to us at the very end of a console generation, and serves as another swansong, another feather in the cap of Sony and their focus on narrative-driven adventures. Not only does it squeeze every bit of processing power out of the PS4 itself, it will also push you to your limits, emotionally and mentally.
This game is a visceral yet passionate experience from start to finish, grabbing hold of you relentlessly and not letting go. It is by far Naughty Dog’s most ambitious project to date, in size and scope. After the end credits rolled, I felt exhausted, yet also thrilled, that I had once again just experienced what might very well be the most compelling and incredible gaming experience of the generation.
The Last of Us Part II picks up five years after the events of the first game. Ellie, now an adult, is living in a small settlement with Joel and others in relative peace. The Infected and other hostile survivors are a consistent threat, so supply runs are par for the course, along with clearing out stray Infected that get too close. An event takes place which disrupts Ellie’s new way of life and propels her on a journey for revenge, where she will have to fight through Infected, along with other human factions, to gain closure on what has occurred.
The Last of Us was very much focused on Joel and Ellie’s relationship. Their bond and the events of the first game still haunt both of them to this day, making their history a solid foundation for the rest of the narrative to be built upon. Even though their dynamic is important, the story in this sequel manages to flesh out other characters in inventive, surprising ways, giving the overall world much more depth and nuance, making for a very captivating experience that took me to places I could never have anticipated.
“If you thought the original was intense, this is a whole new level, forcing you to endure every gritty, awful kill.”
Primarily set in Seattle, Washington, the game showcases a variety of city, residential, and environmental areas in the Pacific Northwest, which has been crafted meticulously with interesting architecture and dense foliage, completely in line with a world that was ravaged by an outbreak 25 years ago. It makes for a real range of dilapidated, abandoned buildings that feel like they were truly lived in surrounded by green fauna and torn apart open highways, balanced with dark sewers and creepy hospitals that wouldn’t be out of place in Silent Hill.
The game leans in to horror much more than the original, a decision that allows for some genuinely scary setups, environments that will have you on the edge of your seat and payoffs in the form of the odd successful jump scare or abrupt moment of complete brutality that will make you recoil. In fact, it’s worth noting that The Last of Us Part II is not for the faint of heart. Stealth kills bring you uncomfortably close to your victim, as you see the life drain from their eyes. Melee attacks create a vicious, disgusting thud on impact. Slit throats, gory executions and broken bones are commonplace. If you thought the original was intense, this is a whole new level, forcing you to endure every gritty, awful kill.
Taking cues from their own experimentation with the open world formula in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Ellie too has the chance to explore a series of locations in an early section of the game filled with secrets and supplies, creating more opportunity for compelling character moments between her and her traveling companion. Delightfully, she even literally marks points of interest on the old map you find beforehand, making the search for supplies and narrative beats feel even more authentic. It made me want to scour every nook and cranny, not just because of the potential extra materials for crafting, but for the chance to experience a sweet or funny moment, like a bright spark in the very dark world. If Naughty Dog ever dial in to a fully open world experience one day, we are in safe hands.
The Last of Us Part II does a fantastic job of making each environment feel big and expansive yet consistently subtly steering you in the right direction without holding your hand. It’s quite the accomplishment really, to make a mostly linear tale feel like you have a true sense of exploration and discovery, with enough worth investigating off the beaten path. There are so many little moments you could potentially miss as well, which makes the story feel particularly personal, like perhaps you’ll stumble across something that the next player won’t even notice or get to experience.
Of course, exploring such a dangerous world means there are plenty of enemies to worry about, including the returning Infected that still haunt the torn apart landscape. Clickers are as horrible and disgusting as they ever were, their screams echoing throughout the buildings they inhabit and the fear of being caught in their grasp for an instant kill still high. Stalkers are revoltingly grown into walls and can rip off the wall to charge at you, but will sometimes creep around, hiding, waiting for the chance to lunge at you from around the corner, adding to the horror vibe. Then there’s the new Shamblers that can hurl noxious gas bombs at you, with the acid threatening to burn you alive, forcing you to move around and be more dynamic with your actions. Overall, the Infected are back and more menacing than ever.
Then there are the two human factions you’ll encounter throughout, the Washington Liberation Front and the religious Seraphites. The WLF are more militaristic, with modern weaponry and vehicles at their disposal, while the Seraphites have rejected the technology of the old world and built everything from the ground up. They use stealth, taking advantage of the vegetation and overgrowth while hunting Ellie down, their creepy whistles ringing through the environment to communicate with one another.
The feeling of being overwhelmed and severely under-prepared and under-equipped in The Last of Us Part II doesn’t ever really go away. Ellie is by no means weak, but her agile frame means she cannot physically go toe-to-toe with stronger enemies like Joel did in the original. Choosing your spots and ensuring you are in the best position to capitalise on the very clever AI is vital, as is knowing when you need to run and get some distance rather than taking on a group. She also has the ability to jump and dodge, making those up-close encounters even more fierce and personal.
Enemies of all types do not take any prisoners, either, exhibiting a level of intelligence that makes them at times unpredictable and tough as nails. Combat is intense and it occurs often, and the game strikes a careful balance of making you feel stressed and on the edge of your seat at all times, while still making you feel like you have the grit and perseverance to survive. Supplies and ammunition are regular enough that you always have some recourse to fight with, but not plentiful to the point where you can blast your way through unscathed. Learning which items you can craft more easily and taking advantage of stealth is often wiser than going in guns blazing, although sometimes you’re not left with a choice beyond fight or flight.
Throughout, it’s the meticulous little things that make The Last of Us Part II into an even more well-rounded and complete experience. When upgrading your guns, Ellie physically modifies them in front of you. Notes and letters littered throughout the world provide back-story and unique character moments about the downfall of society. Enemies will sometimes beg for their life if they realise they are defeated, forcing you to be ruthless and unforgiving when you execute them. On the flip-side, if you grab an enemy and attempt to use them as a meat-shield, their own allies may not shoot out of fear of hitting their friend… while other times they will decide to shoot anyway. Having to defend against and kill guard dogs is every bit as awful as it sounds.
There’s so many contextual animations that it’s almost mind-boggling how much work has gone in to this game. Smashing through a glass window is a different animation to when you’re swinging at a foe. If your torch flickers, you have to physically bang your controller on your hand to get it working properly again. It’s also visually stunning. You won’t believe how good it looks and just how much detail has been packed into every area, internal and external. It’s an incredible, memorable world that just begs for your attention, and I felt a sense of awe more times than I could count. The fact that so much has been thought about and carefully considered, and then that it looks so amazing visually, makes you feel like you’re really interacting with the experience on a whole different level.
“The script masterfully bounces between serious life-endangering moments and cute relatable flashbacks…”
When it comes to the talent, Ashley Johnson, Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Ashly Burch, Ian Alexander, Shannon Woodward and more might just be the most talented and emotive voice cast ever assembled in a video game. The ensemble shifts between balancing heavy, dark, emotionally taxing themes and light, playful banter in a way that feels seamless and breathes life into these characters, expertly written and their stories incredibly well told.
The Last of Us Part II made me laugh, made me cry, made me gasp and wince from violence and had me feeling conflicted about some serious consequences taking place in front of my very eyes. The script masterfully bounces between serious life-endangering moments and cute relatable flashbacks so perfectly that I found myself excited for every scene change, anticipating what was next but never remaining entirely comfortable or at ease.
And all of this… ALL of this, is before I’ve even touched on the “queer factor” and the way that Ellie is handled as a queer woman, particularly in reference to her love interest, Dina. There were a lot of concerns that this could be handled poorly, particularly when early trailers implied that this could be another circumstance of “burying the gays” among other potential problematic tropes.
In the interest of not spoiling the story, I won’t tell you what happens of course, but I will say despite some tropes that are present, The Last of Us Part II handles its queer protagonist and its queer supporting characters delightfully well. They are honest and human, they are grounded in reality and their relationships make sense, not just with each other but with their own queer identities. As a gay man, it is absolutely wonderful to finally play as a queer protagonist that is so relatable and well-written in a AAA game, let alone in this specific experience that is created so thoughtfully and heartfelt. Well done, Naughty Dog, and thank you for finally proving that you can always be inclusive, even when the stakes are this high.
The Last of Us Part II is an unforgettable journey that perfectly continues Ellie and Joel’s story in a way that is meaningful and heartfelt. Not only does it meet the very high expectations that the original set, but it exceeds those expectations by going deeper with character moments and making you feel more connected to its horrific universe than ever before. It moves from intense, visceral, blood-pumping horror to quiet, tender segments with such balance, grace and continuity that it could almost be considered a fine art. It feels like everything Naughty Dog has ever achieved and learned, has led to this remarkable milestone in game design.
The Last of Us Part II will be looked back upon as not only one of the best games of this generation and best games of all time, but as one of the most captivating experiences – across all forms of media – ever created.