Spoiler alert: If you have not played The Last of Us, this article will bring up major plot points from the first game. It will NOT spoil major plot points from Part II.
Playing a game about a pandemic while in a current pandemic seems rather dreary and even a bit insane. But with Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II, the ultraviolent yet cathartic price of admission is well worth it. The game thoroughly explores all of the bleakness and hopelessness that comes with a post-apocalyptic setting (as a reminder from the first game, a cordyceps brain infection wipes out 60% of the world’s population and turns them into Infected, or fungal-like zombies).
The majority of the game takes place five years after the events of The Last of Us, in which grizzled survivor Joel Miller and immune teenager Ellie traveled across a ravaged America to find The Fireflies, a revolutionary group whose aim was to restore the United States back to its former self through a vaccine. When they eventually do find The Fireflies, Joel stops an attempted surgery on Ellie after learning it will be fatal but may have yielded a reverse-engineered cure to the virus (Ellie is the only known immune person in the world).
In the process of taking Ellie back, Joel kills off a majority of the Fireflies including the surgeons that were to operate on her. As Ellie was unconscious when this occurred, she develops survivor’s guilt and an uneasiness between the now surrogate daughter and father forms. The pair travel back to Wyoming and settle down with Joel’s brother Tommy and his developing community in Jackson.
Five years on the community is now a complete town with electricity and running water that seems a world away from the harsh nomadic lifestyle the pair have come to know in the first game. But an unforeseen traumatic event that occurs in Jackson uproots Ellie from this idyllic life she has managed to find and acts as the catalyst toward her quest for revenge in the foliaged and mist-soaked Seattle. But can revenge be rationalised? Is it the only route for closure or is it ultimately self-destructive? The game implores the player to answer these questions.
“I know that you wish things were different. I wish they were different. But they ain’t.” – Joel Miller, speaking to Ellie
The Last of Us Part II is told between the present day and a series of flashbacks, filling the player in on what occurred in the years between now and then. Players take control of Ellie alongside a “Mystery Woman” who also has her life upended by a traumatic event. While it may be emotionally draining to play through such unforgiving stories (and I definitely needed a break at times while playing), a certain level of open-mindedness is necessary to understand the character motivations and difficult themes the story is ultimately trying to convey. Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker once again reprise their roles as Ellie and Joel and their chemistry has noticeably strengthened since the last game. Newcomers to the series Laura Bailey as the “Mystery Woman” and Shannon Woodward (Westworld) as Ellie’s friend Dina add a natural dynamic to the already superb voice acting from the returning cast.
The game itself feels very familiar yet miles ahead of The Last of Us in terms of its technical achievements. There is a sense of fluidity in every action that you do, and the lifelike movements you perform within an even more realistic game world make for a highly immersive experience. There is so much more room to maneuver in The Last of Us Part II and this semi-open world allows for greater player choice and creativity.
The variety of ways you can dispatch enemies or cross an obstacle are endless, and almost every building you encounter in the game can be explored. Ellie’s light frame and build allow her to smoothly platform with her surroundings and go prone, jump, and even perform aerial melee attacks. Alongside new weapons and accessories such as trap mines and combustible arrows, the player will have to utilize water, overgrown grass, cars, walls, buildings, ropes and even the Infected to their advantage.
There are a wide variety of new enemy types, most notably attack dogs that can pick up your scent and a new Infected form that is sure to frighten and challenge players. Enemy factions such as the cultist ‘Seraphites’ present a variety of unique challenges that the player will have to consider when facing them.
Some minor technical gripes within The Last of Us Part II include clipping issues preventing your progress as you navigate the world (this occurred only twice during my playthrough) along with some missed dialogue with companions that you cannot reengage if you miss the proper prompting. There are also some evident plot conveniences to get the narrative where it needs to go, but they aren’t so jarring as to disconnect you from a story that took me 27 hours to complete in the first place. With a complete playthrough going through all the content, collectibles and Easter eggs, the game could easily take up to 30 hours.
Gameplay 10/10: Perfect. Almost every game mechanic employed in the first game is improved tenfold – from player movement, use of the environment, the feel and handling of weapons, to the lifelike enemy AI that interact with each other to outsmart you. You’ll certainly be utilizing the entirety of the PS4 Controller.
Audio 9/10: A mesmerizing score from returning Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel, Brokeback Mountain). The soundtrack ranges from acoustic moments that add a bit of tenderness in a plague-stricken world to the more intense industrial sounds in nervy combat sequences. The use of real-world songs from artists like Pearl Jam and Ice Cube fit in well with the soundscape and do not feel out of place. Environmental sounds are authentic to their setting, from softly falling snow to currents of water being tread through. The sounds of shots firing, glass breaking, fire burning, and doors opening are equally precise and convincing.
Graphics 10/10: From the motion capture which accurately depicts humanlike movement patterns and facial features for the character models to the realistic swaying of vegetation and creases forming in clothing, the level of detail in the world is unprecedented for a PS4 title. The weather effects are also outstanding and set the tone in Seattle. Items in Ellie’s backpack even stay soaked when inspecting them after staying under rainfall for too long. It’s hard to believe this type of graphical detail can be achieved with a seven-year old console.
Story 9/10: The pace can lull in sections of the game as it is significantly longer than The Last of Us, but for the most part the story is just as enthralling as its predecessor. The story beats are unrelenting and keep you on your toes throughout the game’s length as the lore of the world expands.
Final Thoughts: The Last of Us has always been first and foremost about its story and the characters within it. So much so that HBO has picked up the franchise for a future full-length series. And while video games are often dismissed for their ability to tell stories the way traditional mediums like film or television do, The Last of Us Part II manages to reach and even surpass the esteemed emotional heights of HBO heavyweights like The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. It organically and seriously takes on a wide range of topics such as parenthood, femininity, love and loss, vengeance, absolution, LGBTQ issues, PTSD, and coming-of-age in a time of extreme brutality. It is an experience unlike any other, and Naughty Dog once again showcase why they are the gold standard when it comes to interactive storytelling in video games.
Photos courtesy of: Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment America