When I finished The Last of Us in 2013, I had to take a moment to process the story and especially the ending. Not only did that game become my favorite game of all time but it fostered conversations on morality for months to follow.
Actually, conversations about that ending are still happening. The ending of TLoU is one of the best in video games, period: it left an opening where the story could continue or end forever– so good that I never wanted The Last of Us, Part II. Then, when a reveal trailer closed out PSX 2016, I cried as we saw Ellie covered in blood and playing her guitar, then later a glimpse of Joel. I couldn’t believe that Naughty Dog was going to continue this story…
TLoU set an extremely high bar for video games in general for 2013, so the sequel had a lot to live up to. I had confidence that if any studio can meet or exceed a high bar, it’s Naughty Dog — demonstrated with the Uncharted series. Now that I finished The Last of Us 2, I can say that it didn’t meet or exceed the bar. It took the bar, bent it in, threw it across the room, and crafted an entirely new bar.
TLoU2 is going to change how story telling is executed in gaming. It’s as if Naughty Dog looked at gaming as an entertainment source and handpicked what gaming can do that no other form of media can without minimizing some level of immersion. Being able to control a character creates a level of embodiment for the player that movies, television, animation, comics, and books can’t do quite as well. In video games, it’s harder to passively engage in a story like you could in television and you can’t inject your own imagination into it the story like you can in books. In video games, you become that character for as long as you’re playing. In TLoU2 we have to sit with empathizing with characters that make morally grey decisions and execute actions that we wholeheartedly disagree with. We’re forced to listen to characters that we might hate. Without giving away specifics, the way Naughty Dog told this story is brilliant.
It’s so brilliant that it’s going to be divisive. The game made me feel uncomfortable, anxious, suspicious and all things I kind of don’t want to feel during a real-life pandemic. I sat through scenes that made me feel dread, despair, and yes, hate. People are going to hate The Last of Us, Part II because it’s not easy sit with morally grey themes and have empathy for characters who make us angry or sad. TLoU2 explores the darkest themes of humanity and forces us to understand them. I may not agree with the hate this game is getting, but I understand it. I just ask that you take the time to understand why I love it.
Regardless of your discomfort with the games decisions, there’s no denying that the way Naughty Dog connects you to characters and their development is top tier. Overall, I was more interested and connected to characters in the original game than I was to the new characters introduced in TLoU2. There were characters in the original game who I met for a few minutes that I felt more connected to than most of the new characters I spent hours with in this game. I didn’t feel as much pain as when we lost characters in The Last of Us. To be more specific, I cried over four characters in the original game and maybe one or two new characters in the sequel. Despite the characters not being as interesting to me, every character is still layered with depth and serves a purpose in the story. Every character has their own individual stories that doesn’t start or stop with Ellie or Joel.
Every cinematic cutscene flowed seamlessly into gameplay and vice versa. The pinnacle of this is when you’re traversing and fighting through an area against various infected while dodging the most formidable sniper you’ve faced. Then when you finally push up on the sniper the camera flawlessly flows into a jaw-dropping cutscene. This creates a heart-pumping adrenaline rush with every second of the game; at any moment, even during a combat sequence, a story altering moment can play out. I was never ready for the pivotal moments because they happened quickly, swiftly, and unexpectedly.
The seamless transitions between cutscenes and gameplay were complimented by graphical fidelity and high quality level design. TLoU2 starts with a snow-filled environment, so I tested the attention to detail very early on. I made footprints in the snow, progressed, waited, and went back to see if my prints were still there. They were. My breath was later taken away by gorgeous lush forests with grass blades moving to the direction my crouched body was moving toward. Then waterfalls crashed over a flooded city as my hair and raincoat were soaked even when I finally reached dry ground. Mud stuck to my clothing and blood spewed all over the ground and on my skin. When I drew blood, my face was filled with rage and sometimes it softened up as if I was finally snapping out of it.
Special attention was given to facial animations, as character’s facial expressions displayed a range of emotions, where words didn’t even need to be spoken. There is so much attention to detail that no location felt the same and every facial expression spoke volumes. Even locations I visited multiple times like the Aquarium felt different every time because of the outstanding lighting effects and musical score transforming to the overall mood of the scene.
When I was traversing these environments, there were multiple paths I could take to get to the same place such as a thin crease in the wall to squeeze through, or an opening underneath a truck that I needed to crawl under, or an underwater path giving me the opportunity to get to the other side and behind an enemy. The levels ranged from small and almost claustrophobic areas where you had to run, gun, vault, and squeeze through tight areas to fight ravenous infected, or large open areas that you needed to crouch through tall grass to avoid getting detected. The level designs not only compliment combat but also exploration.
Exploring areas in TLoU2 doesn’t just treat you with breathtaking scenery but you also find cool Easter eggs from The Last of Us or other Naughty Dog titles. Then there are notes detailing information about people who used to live or who settled into the location you’re exploring and their experiences with the outbreak, other factions, or the military. This level of environmental story telling is still done extremely well but I did feel it was stronger in TLoU (e.g. boatman Ish). However, the notes did help us learn more about the new factions introduced in this game: The Wolves and The Scars/Seraphites. I just missed being hooked into the journey of a character that I only met through a note.
When you’re not taking in gorgeous environments or reading detailed notes, exploration is rewarded by scrounging up crafting supplies, upgrade manuals, and finding cool collectibles (coins and hero/villain cards). Considering the areas were a lot more open than the original game, I sometimes felt bogged down by the gameplay loop of searching and looting, and, at times, it made the game’s pacing feel slow. I’m sure this is a self-imposed issue because I want to platinum this game. Even though it became redundant and drawn out, exploring is rewarding because there’s always something to pick up.
This brings me to the puzzles. Gone were the days where Joel needs to find a plank to bring Ellie across water because now she can swim! The Last of Us 2 even pokes fun at this. Moreover, this game no longer relies too heavily on finding a ladder or plank to get above this high area or across this gap. I mean, it still happens but it’s not as pervasive. Instead, Naughty Dog implemented some cool survival horror (e.g. Resident Evil) influenced puzzles where you’re required to observe your environment to find a code on a letter or scribbled on a wall. I love puzzles like that.
The combat is very similar to the original game in that you’re given various firearms (shotgun, pistol, bow, melee weapon, revolver, rifle) and materials for crafting items (health kit, Molotov, explosive trap, and melee mods). Then there’s upgrades to your weapons such as improved stability, fire rate, magazine, scope, etc. You can also find training manuals to improve combat including a weapon holster to make it easier to move between long and short guns, improved stealth, weapon output, or increased health. TLoU2 adds upgrades to craft a silencer for your pistol, fire rounds to your shotgun, or explosives to your arrows. A crafting and upgrade system that was once intuitive is now very much polished. Even seeing the different upgrade parts added to a weapon in the workbench looks and sounds damn cool (click, cock, and clank).
The gunplay feels far less janky than it did in TLoU, but it’s not silky smooth. It’s slow to create dread and anxiety when fighting infected, as a survival horror game should be. We don’t want it feeling like Gears of War, because that would make it an action game. What this game does adopt is some good ole’ Metal Gear Solid mechanics such as crawling to floor and taking enemies out with your silenced pistol. You can also run and dash to the floor in a pinch or dodge away from enemy swings. I am so happy that stealth takedowns are controlled with triangle to grab and square to kill, instead of tapping triangle to grab and holding triangle down to kill as it was in the original game. This made the choice to hold up an enemy hostage or take them down much easier to manage.
Similar to MGS the AI are smart in that they can detect you from far away and when they see a dead body, they go on high alert. Enemies don’t have a predictable path they patrol and some enemies operate in stealth. The way each faction fights is very different. The Wolves have high end firearms and dogs to track you. Scars/Seraphites whistle to communicate with one another and use stealth tactics to take you down, usually with a bow and arrow. When you’re not fighting human enemies, you’re fighting various types of infected:
- The runners have their vision and run toward you fast if detected.
- The clickers are blind but have super hearing and will detect you if you straggle too long.
- The shamblers are big but slow and they spew out acid if you’re too close or when you kill them.
- The bloaters are big tanky infected that throw acid toward you.
- The stalkers operate in stealth and will hide behind cover and inch in toward you for a bite.
For a survival horror game, the resources are plentiful, which is why I think both this game and the original game are best played on Survivor. I might like the challenge this mode offers in adding to the survival elements of this genre, but the game is still enjoyable regardless of the difficulty. No review should go without noting that this game feels like it’s accessible to everyone. I hope more games can use these accessibility options as a model moving forward.
If you hesitated to play The Last of Us Part, Part II because you were spoiled, I can assure you no spoiler is taking away from how brilliant this story is told. Even watching cutscenes or a playthrough on the internet is too passive of an experience to fully grasp the intention and purpose behind this game. This game is worth immersing yourself in, but prepare to feel uncomfortable. Thank you, Naughty Dog, for creating a story that forces people to hone into their empathy. 4.75-5/5 Bibles.