Shaun Munro reviews The Last of Us Part II…
Let’s get the big, unsurprising news out of the way first – The Last of Us Part II is another masterwork from the wizards at Naughty Dog. This sequel to the studio’s beloved 2013 action-horror classic has mighty shoes to fill given that a large swath of the fanbase never even asked for it, keen instead to forever meditate on the heartbreaking ambiguity of the original’s much-debated ending.
But The Last of Us Part II proves that creative director Neil Druckmann and his team have wisely taken their time crafting a game that, rather than simply repeat the formula of its predecessor, offers up an ambitious and risky subversion of what many will surely be expecting (and I won’t spoil any of that for you).
Yet as jaw-dropping a feat of game design and sheer engineering as it is, I still only praise it to the heavens with some staunch caveats. For starters, I cannot in good conscience recommend this game to anyone whose mental health isn’t tip-top – whether suffering with the current global situation or otherwise – because The Last of Us Part II is an almost relentlessly grim way to spend 20-25 hours; a seemingly wilful slog intended to tire and exhaust the player as much as its beleaguered characters.
I cannot remember playing a more persistently bleak game in recent times, a game which I had to push myself to keep playing in order to get this review out in a semi-timely fashion. Of course, there are wonderfully human moments peppered throughout Joel and Ellie’s journey, but when Druckmann declared that the game’s central theme was hate, he sure wasn’t kidding.
This is a consistently brutal experience in which the player will be called upon to slaughter hundreds of human beings and Infected alike. Even if you favour stealth, close-quarters combat is inevitable after a point, which hits with enough blunt force as to prove frequently stomach-churning, especially with regard to the human-on-human encounters.
Seeing Ellie shiv an impeccably-rendered human to death is treated with an unrivaled solemnity; you’ll see them bleed out realistically and let out a prolonged scream as their life ends, and maybe even hear a nearby comrade call their name fraught with concern.
Despite the accusations levelled against Naughty Dog in the past of creating “ludo-narrative dissonance” – that Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is at once an Indiana Jones-esque charmer and a psychotic mass murder – The Last of Us Part II will make you feel like sufficient garbage even when killing anonymous mooks who stand stridently in your way.
But is The Last of Us Part II fun? To a point, yes; the core gameplay has been refined considerably from its predecessor, with a mind-boggling fluidity and freedom-of-choice to combat scenarios which outclasses practically any other game of its ilk. Switch-footing from clambering around to fighting enemies at a moment’s notice is stunningly snappy and tight, while numerous features have been added to create a more subtly dynamic experience.
For instance, you can now go prone, allowing you to unleash your inner Solid Snake and slither through tall grass to evade enemies entirely. There’s also a dedicated jump button this time, owing to the game’s greater sense of verticality; as the more lithe Ellie, you’re able to make precarious jumps and navigate the game’s shockingly large expanses with an impressive dynamism.
Speaking of large areas, the hilariously “game-y” arena-style combat locales of the original game have been ditched in favour of more impressively “random” fight locations. Naughty Dog even amusingly hurls the occasional red herring at players, as many wide-open areas littered with cover don’t lead to the expected canned scuffle.
Yet again, as mechanically extraordinary as it is, this game feels virtually peerless in how seriously it takes its own violent content, and there are ultimately several hour-plus set-pieces in which players may find themselves mentally browbeaten by what they’re playing. I had to take periodic breaks and step away after a few heavy sections, because despite the game’s generally strong pacing, the especially challenging second-half can feel a bit like an endurance trial.
It’s also worth qualifying the game’s brilliance with the simple fact that its creative choices will inevitably prove divisive. Again, no spoilers here, but it’s clear that Naughty Dog took a chance to do something different rather than just give players a glowed-up rehash of the original. This is the furthest thing from a safe sequel imaginable, a game that’s alternately shocking and maddening in the places it asks the player to follow along, even forcing them to do things they may well find heinous.
But open-minded players who can at least respect the developer’s uncompromising vision will be rewarded with a game which feels entirely cohesive even with its persistent desire to challenge the way in which games are both presented and played. What’s been shown in the marketing for The Last of Us Part II doesn’t even scratch the surface, and while the story gambles won’t work for all players, it never feels less than a fully-formed rallying cry for the medium to push the envelope in exciting new directions.
It’s only inevitable that the story will be compared to myriad movies, and the film it reminded me of most – without getting into spoiler territory – is Clint Eastwood’s marvelous revisionist western Unforgiven. Similarly, this is a brutal meditation on violence, of the behaviours which drive people to kill and the way in which these cycles can or cannot be stopped.
Five years after the events of the original game, Joel and Ellie are living a comparatively quieter life in Jackson, Wyoming. But soon enough, the pair find themselves dragged into the middle of a waging war between the Washington Liberation Front (WLF) militia and the Seraphites (aka Scars), a clan of religious fanatics.
To say more than that would be to violate the most basic of critical duties. Know simply that this astoundingly multi-faceted story branches off in a splinter of different directions, spanning masses of both land and time, employing flashbacks and clever narrative fragmentations. While I think the story’s overall effect wouldn’t have been much lessened were it several hours shorter, that war of attrition against the player’s psyche is seemingly an important part of how The Last of Us Part II is designed.
There are, after all, absurdly gigantic set-pieces on offer here beyond any expectation. In addition to introducing Uncharted-style hub locations to the series, there are also a number of enclosed, multi-tiered, dungeon-style levels for players to hunker through. One sequence sees players descending down a 20-story building filled to the brim with Infected, and it represents one of the most psychologically taxing gaming experience I’ve had since playing Resident Evil 7 in VR.
It took me around an hour to make it out, by which point I was a sweaty wreck eager to do literally anything else. However, this absolutely heightened my connection to what I was doing as a player, and made me more viscerally, emotionally invested in the game than I have been in any in quite some time.
It also helps immensely, of course, that The Last of Us Part II is an aesthetically first-rate work of art, and one of the best-looking games you’ll find on any platform. Even played on an OG PS4, the game is scarcely believable to function this smoothly on 7-year-old hardware; switch on HDR and this thing is an especially eye-watering beauty.
Particle effects throughout spore-infested basements are gloriously grotty, and the various sprawling environs you’ll pass through during the game boast a level of detail far in excess of anything I could’ve ever anticipated. As for the characters, the general movement animations are virtually unprecedented in their verisimilitude to real life, while facial animations during cutscenes set a new standard as the current gaming generation comes to an end.
The visuals are unsurprisingly backed up by one of the deepest and most nuanced soundscapes you’ll find in any game. If you can dare bring yourself to try The Last of Us Part II with surround sound headphones, you’ll realise just how many minor aural permutations are tinkered with at even the slightest hint of player movement.
Returning composer Gustavo Santaolalla meanwhile turns in a characteristically moody score, while the performances of the cast – which are obviously so much more than mere voice work – are some of the most palpably human the medium has yet produced. Particularly praise-worthy, naturally, are the soulful turns by Ashley Johnson, Troy Baker, and Laura Bailey.
Admittedly by the time The Last of Us Part II finally came to an end, I was more than happy for it to be finished. With my playthrough clocking just shy of 22 hours, it’s almost exactly double the length of the original, and at a time where the industry feels relentlessly obsessed with value-justifying “bloat,” I certainly acquiesce that Druckmann could’ve succinctly said what he had to say in a few hours less.
Given that I probably spent at least a few of those hours tirelessly scavenging scrap and loot from dusted-out buildings, a pacier version of this story was surely possible, even if the ever-present upgrade tree remains as laudably streamlined and ferociously addictive as it was in the first game. Also, the groan-worthy ladder, plank, and raft sequences from the original game are almost entirely absent here, replaced instead with more nuanced environmental puzzles.
Encompassing it holistically, The Last of Us Part II is such a consistently meticulous vision that I struggled to care much about those excessive hours, even as I honestly don’t know if I ever want to put myself through the entirety of it again. The persistence of its stamina-sapping tone is so hauntingly affecting that, even as a largely one-and-done gamer, this incredible game isn’t something I have much desire to revisit.
Yet it is absolutely a vital one to be tackled by those with the wherewithal to take it on; you won’t find a much stronger understanding of character-driven narrative or mechanically precise third-person action gameplay anywhere else. Just make sure you’ve got something cute and fun to play afterwards, because you’ll surely need it.
If Naughty Dog’s singular vision won’t please everyone, the end result is at least an astonishing display of technical game-craft and cinematic storytelling. A masterpiece, if certainly one not for all tastes – and perhaps not even for all those who loved the original.
+ One of the best-looking games ever made.
+ Incredibly tight gameplay mechanics.
+ Story is bold and provocative.
+ Terrifying sound design.
+ Improves upon the original in almost every way.
– Play-time feels slightly overbaked.
– Some may find it too bleak for its own good.
Reviewed on PS4.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.