There will be no story details in this review. More in-depth thoughts will follow in a forthcoming article.
Naughty Dog faced a formidable challenge in following up their generation-defining masterpiece, The Last of Us, as the swan song for the current generation. It would be easy to simply rehash what worked about the last game with the benefits of modern technology but Naughty Dog‘s ambitions ran deeper than that.
The Last of Us Part II is not a brand new story in this universe, it is continuing the story of the original game. It deals specifically with the consequences of that game. If you thought the original game was brutal and devastating and emotionally raw, imagine that world in the wake of Joel’s actions. A world where one man decided the fate of all humanity, choosing Ellie over a cure. A world without any hope left. Where the only sense of warmth and humanity is locked in the past, fading memories that we cling to for comfort.
This story pulls no punches. It makes tough, bold decisions that may anger some fans but are the right decisions for this world and the ideas being explored. Anything else would have been pandering and cowardly.
The game makes full use of Naughty Dog’s technological advancements since the original game, bringing extraordinary levels of detail to the characters and the world surrounding them, offering emotional layers that were impossible to convey with PlayStation 3 graphics. We see old characters in whole new ways thanks to these stunning graphics.
Immersing the player in this world is crucial to forging a stronger emotional investment in the story and the themes being explored. The game does not rely on beautifully directed cut scenes to get the point across, it is ingrained in the gameplay itself.
You will pass through vast wooded areas and then sprouting out of the grass, almost like a piece of the vegetation itself, is a bus stop or a traffic light. Nature had already begun reclaiming these man-made spaces in The Last of Us, now it has fully assimilated the old world as it’s own. The areas are greatly expanded from what we experienced in the original game, much like the semi open-world environments of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, it offers a greater degree of freedom to explore and approach solutions your own way. This reduces the number of cut scenes required to break action and set up the next sandbox area, instead, each section is massive, allowing moments to occur in-game rather than as a cut scene, letting these dramatic moments and character beats breathe more, and feel more natural. It helps everything flow together beautifully.
This approach also pays off in the way it executes scares. Having the freedom to create moments in-game offers more options for really catching the player off guard.
Getting around this vast, unwelcoming world has been similarly improved upon. Traversal is now more dynamic and varied, taking many welcome cues from this generation’s Uncharted titles. You can jump over to ledges, squeeze through gaps, swing on ropes, and even go prone to better aid your stealth efforts. Even the basics like running, crouching being walls, or hopping over waist-high barriers have more weight and fluidity. It all plays a part in making you feel like you are physically interacting with this world rather than being artificially boxed into a set style.
That sense of weight carries over to the combat, where the original game often had frustratingly imprecise aiming mechanics, even during the calmer moments, this game has corrected that. As characters move slower and more naturally, aiming feels more focused. You will aim as well as the situation demands, if you have a bead in an unaware enemy, you have time to get the perfect shot, if you have a Clicker running directly at you then you have a solid centre of mass to aim for, if a Bloater (or perhaps worse?) is bearing down on you then you might start firing wildly and miss more than you hit. But your hits and misses are dictated by your emotional state at the time rather than an imperfect targeting system. It is such a subtle tweak but adds so much to the gunplay.
Melee combat has also been tweaked. Now you can more freely dodge enemy strikes rather than having a button that helps you push the enemy away, and when an enemy is dazed from too many hits, you can perform an instant kill. Even with Clickers, who used to only be vulnerable to weapons. This allows for more strategy in your hand to hand combat encounters, which is crucial as the game is very tight-fisted when it comes to ammo drops. This is a world that has screeched to an almighty halt, the Fedra is no longer a presence in this region, so no one is mass-producing ammunition anymore. You need to think about what you are doing at all times because otherwise there will be long stretches of the game where you have no weapons and a lot of formidable enemies to get behind.
Every blow you land or shot you make feels like it has an impact, the way NPCs react to these hits feels more authentic and visceral. The violence is horrifically detailed; the character models and their animation are so realistic that you can see the expressions change on the face of people you stealth kill. A look of pain and shock and panic and fear washing over them as the life fades in their eyes. Killing is not fun or gratifying in The Last of Us Part II, this is not Doom, killing is a grim necessity. A matter of life or death. A decision you have to make but not one you enjoy. A decision you have to make over and over. It can take a toll, in all honesty. But that is not a flaw in the system, it is very much a feature.
However, unlike its predecessor, where you were often locked into confined encounters that needed clearing out in order to progress, stealth is a very real option in many parts of this game. You can conceivably sneak around enemies and avoid killing them altogether, a benefit of the expanded sandbox layout of these maps.
The game utilises stealth mechanics that the standalone The Last of Us DLC, Left Behind, introduced, where you can use sound to draw Clickers towards human enemies. Sometimes you won’t even need to work hard for it, if a human opens fire on you in an area overrun by infected, they will be swarmed. It is a touch that makes the world feel that little bit more believable, the rules feel consistent.
To aid your abilities in combat and stealth, the upgrade system has been simplified but expanded. It is a linear progression system rather than the more broadly customisable approach of the predecessor. You can only upgrade one thing, to unlock the next you need to keep earning upgrade points. To deepen the overall experience, there are now extra upgrade paths to choose between, including stealth and explosive options, that let you build things like silencers and explosive arrows for your weapons.
The game’s sense of pace is reassuringly on par with Naughty Dog’s previous opus, knowing when to take its time, to allow moments to breathe, to simply let scenes be about the characters over narrative momentum. Punctuating that are relentless bursts of terror, some of the most terrifying moments found in any game and other more drawn out examples of interactive anxiety attacks as you slowly make your way through a perilous area. There is a fluidity to the pace, where it can move from one thing to another and feel completely natural.
The Last of Us Part II is as bleak and violent as advertised but it is not without warmth or humanity, there are some genuinely beautiful and tender moments punctuating the misery and trauma. These experiences accentuate each other.
While not a lot of character details can be discussed here, as it would potentially spoil the surprise of any new or returning characters, I do feel the need to draw particular praise towards Ashley Johnson’s work as Ellie. Johnson has more than earned her moment in the spotlight here, she brings an otherworldly performance to the game as an older, more worn down Ellie. Layers of trauma and resentment have built a callus around her, like an armour made of scar tissue that she uses to protect her from the outside world or from letting others in, but shades of the girl we knew and loved seven years ago still breakthrough from time to time. Troy Baker, similarly, gives a career-best performance as Joel offering new shades of vulnerability to the role even in a more supporting role. These are beautiful, nuanced performance and among the finest to ever grace a medium that has already been blessed with some world-beating acting this generation.
The Last of Us Part II takes you into the heart of darkness, within and without, and provokes the player to feel things and confront ideas that the action-horror genre rarely dares. Even it’s predecessor only flirted with the sort of ideas that The Last of Us Part II explores, elbow deep.
The Last of Us Part II is a bleak, courageous work of art from a studio working at the absolute peak of their power. They have been experts of cinematic cut scenes for a long time now, this might be the first time they have made a game where the storytelling and core themes are also effectively communicated through the game itself.
An unparalleled masterpiece, there has never been a game as deeply, as hauntingly, as viscerally engaging as The Last of Us Part II before and perhaps there will never be another like it again. As I closed the game, thinking back on the things that I had seen and the things that I had done, perhaps there should never be another like this. I am not sure I am prepared for what could come next.
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