There are times when I struggle to find the right words to express how I feel. It took me some time to figure it out, but eventually, I think I have a good sense of why. Words can’t properly describe how you feel. At best, they can provide an indication or provoke a feeling that might be similar.
The only reason words even have an impact is because the listener will automatically connect their meaning to emotions relevant to them. If you think about happier times, you might remember that time you went to the lake with friends. While a nasty confrontation with someone important to you might make you feel sadness. The creation of this review has been one of the most challenging and personal tasks in my ‘career’ as a game journalist. Because, when it comes to The Last of Us — and I think this counts for many of us — I feel. So damn much.
A beautiful lie.
The first game, in the now two-part series, came as somewhat of a surprise to me. While Naughty Dog was busy creating the very well received Uncharted games, they suddenly had another stellar looking title. When it comes to atmosphere The Last of Us is a stark contrast with the Uncharted series. Whereas Uncharted might come off as ‘cartoonish’, The Last of Us could only be defined as ‘gritty’. The game was grounded in realism, even though it took place in a post-apocalyptic world. Its graphics were some of the most advanced we’ve seen on the PlayStation 3. Its stealth gameplay was smooth as butter. But its story… its story managed to hit an emotional mark with so many, that gamers around the globe have universally labeled it the “defining game of the last decade”. Admit it, you too shed a tear when Sarah died in Joel’s arms. Or when we left Tess behind, when we said goodbye to Henry and Sam, or when we met with a Giraffe. God, this game was heavy.
The Last of Us delivered a complex, layered narrative that — similar to an episode of Breaking Bad — had a genius build-up to impactful and emotional scenes. Like a crescendo, the game ended when the bond between Joel and Ellie peaked. Still, it ended as gritty as everything else in its world; with a lie. The exact impact of this lie remained a mystery, which was key in its delivery. “I guess no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape your past.”, Joel replies to Ellie, noticeably touched when she hands him a photo of Sarah (his late daughter). This line of dialogue near the end of the first game made me realize, Joel knew that lie was going to come back to haunt him sooner or later and that the cost would be more than he could bear.
Cause and effect.
In The Last of Us Part II, we meet up with Joel and Ellie five years after their dangerous journey across the post-apocalyptic United States. Now living in Jackson, Wyoming, both Ellie and Joel have aged considerably, in both looks and character. While the community they take part in is flourishing, they are not. Visually troubled and scarred, our two ‘heroes’ live a rather stable life; even though the constant threat of the infected is looming. Ellie, now a young adult, is sporting a large tattoo, covering her bite mark. She is immune and no one is supposed to know. The tattoo’s artist was her first real girlfriend. Yep, Ellie is gay and living on her terms. Joel, on the other hand, seems desperate. He no longer has a grasp on the situation. Having said that, when the two are separated for a routine check of the land surrounding Jackson, their past finally comes back to haunt them. Their relationship, once again, is forever changed.
This pivotal moment in the narrative of The Last of Us Part II sets Ellie on a path for revenge. She’s destined to track down and kill everyone responsible for her grief. Along her journey, Ellie is confronted with the physical and emotional destruction of her actions. We get to experience how Ellie is the cause of moral conflicts that will make you reconsider right or wrong. As the narrative progresses, we also get to witness how Joel’s actions from the first game shaped Ellie’s character traits. But most importantly, we also find out how it shaped that of her victims. What some critics will undoubtedly label as an endless spiral of revenge, in my eyes, is a tale about cause and effect.
The wizards at Naughty Dog.
My summary of the game’s narrative is unable to deliver the emotional impact it had on me while playing. And I will never be able to without spoiling key moments. As stated in my intro; I acknowledge never being able to fully wrap up the complexity, maturity, and the daring themes the narrative touches — like Ellie’s sexuality and the physically strong portrayal of female characters — with words. They wouldn’t do it justice, and you would rob yourself from one of the most profound, unique gaming experiences to date. But it’s all there, and, as a fan, it’s everything I hoped it would be. It has the same, if not greater, emotional build-up and impact as its predecessor. Filled to the brim with nerve-wracking twists and turns. It’s simply the most mature gaming experience to date.
Graphically, the game is beyond stunning. The details visible on the character models are out of this world; skin pores and imperfections, natural-looking hair, and even facial expressions like you’ve never seen before. I remember at one point in the game, I had Ellie positioned underneath a broken window. A stream of rain was dripping just on top of her head. She slightly leaned forward, clearly annoyed by the fact she was getting wet. What I was witnessing on screen struck a chord of disbelief. Was this pre-rendered? Is the PlayStation 4 really capable of processing all these details in real-time? How can graphics of this fidelity be combined with the large-scale maps, impressive weather effects, and player interaction with the world, all while maintaining an impressive steady framerate? The wizards at Naughty Dog know how to make magic happen. But even the most complex tricks take time to practice…
How do you want to be remembered?
Early in the game, we’re introduced to a new character. This character — while brand new — plays a major part in the overall story-arch of both The Last of Us games. Abby, as she is called, is never mentioned by name in the first game. And to me, that was a quirk I had difficulties overlooking. Abby takes center stage in the sequel, and while her character is fully fleshed out, she still comes out of nowhere. Her place in the universe is that of an ingenious, yet plain McGuffin. While her addition does not negatively impact the story of The Last of Us Part II, it often felt as if she could have easily been replaced, or left out entirely. The same can’t be said about other supporting characters. Ellie’s friends, Dina and Jesse, as well as Joel’s brother Tommy, all play their part in Ellie’s journey.
That journey unfolds in a truly beautiful world. From the peaceful mountains and woods surrounding Jackson to the overgrown ruins of Seattle. We’ll take Ellie across treacherous new environments, battle against a new faction of survivors (the Scars, who will hunt you like prey with bows and arrows) and terrifying new evolutions of the infected.
While the game’s strong suits are its story and presentation, its gameplay struggles to keep up. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not necessarily saying its bad. However, the game manages to raise the bar in so many ways, it’s a bit disappointing that it doesn’t manage to do the same with its gameplay. As a result, the game’s stealth formula remains largely unchanged. Sure, there are some new enemies — like dogs, ‘Shamblers’, ‘Runners’, and a new version of the ‘Stalker’ — which will require you to slightly change tactics.
However, while interesting on paper, these innovations are not what the game will be remembered for, years from now. Combat, in general, feels dumbed down; confrontations require less trial and error. Ellie now permanently carries a switchblade with her, so the need to craft shivs to save yourself from Clickers is gone. Other new additions to her arsenal are mines. I kind of expected the dogs to be able to sniff these out, but alas, they couldn’t. That might still be the case on higher difficulties than standard, but I haven’t found the time to test that.
Endure and survive.
Ellie’s abilities can also be upgraded by finding supplements. By doing so, she will increase the effectiveness of her medkits, and learn how to craft suppressors, among other things. Ellie is also capable of evading various incoming attacks by pushing L1, making combat easier, but also a bit more dynamic. Before you realize it, confrontations become somewhat predictable and tedious encounters, halting you from experiencing more of the amazing narrative.
The game’s ‘puzzles’ are also nothing out of the ordinary. Your progression is often halted because the exit is closed off and requires a bit of exploring before you can continue. Whether you need to find gas or a way to remove an obstacle blocking your path, its excessive use becomes dull, really quick, and thus a cliché. Like the first game, there are also safes to crack containing additional resources. The combination usually is not far off, but if you’re wearing headphones, you can also crack the code by listening to the sound the lock makes while turning. Nifty!
Early in the game, exploration is similar to how it’s pulled off in Uncharted: Lost Legacy. You get to freely roam around in a large, almost open-world-like, map. At one point, the way the player needs to travel in order to progress the story is clearly marked. Yet, by venturing off the main path, you’ll be rewarded with additional resources, upgrades, and lore. I thought it was a pity this never re-occurred later in the game.
Raising the bar.
Impressively, Naughty Dog has implemented a wide range of accessibility options to ensure that as many fans as possible have an opportunity to experience the game. While some of these options can lower the game’s difficulty, others are meant to help with vision, hearing, and motor accessibility. Even going as far as to offer full control customization!
All things considered, The Last of Us Part II is another generation-defining experience. While its gameplay might leave room for improvement, its complex, layered narrative and graphical presentation manage to raise the bar for years to come. Like its predecessor, its mature narrative carries an emotional impact unseen in other forms of entertainment and touches controversial themes with confidence. Its ‘gravitas’ can be felt for hours after putting down the controller, and up until its conclusion, it will leave you yearning for more.