An unexpectedly timely return to the fungal-zombie infested USA, The Last of Us Part II picks up a few years after the end of the last game, once again delivering a story in which the biggest problem is not the deadly virus gripping the world, but the ways that people are treating each other during it. Building on the emotional narrative core and tight survival gameplay of its predecessor, The Last of Us Part II excels in every way, taking the next leap forward for story-driven gaming. Beware of MAJOR SPOILERS throughout this review.
Set roughly 5 years after that fateful conversation on the outskirts of Boston, The Last of Us Part II immediately makes it clear that Joel’s (Troy Baker) slaughter of the Fireflies and subsequent dishonesty to Ellie (Ashley Johnson) have had lasting consequences. The pair, having grown into an uneasy father/daughter dynamic in the first game, are here distant and uncomfortable around each other.
Though not immediately confirmed, Ellie’s coldness and Joel’s attempts to reconnect with her suggest that the secret has come out at some point between the two games. Everything seems set for a emotional journey of redemption and forgiveness. And then Abby (Laura Bailey) comes into the story.
With the gruesome introduction of its second playable character, The Last of Us Part II swerves from the road to redemption and into a quagmire of warped morality and waning humanity. With Joel dead, Ellie’s opportunity to forgive him dies too, leaving her with nothing but rage, grief and frustration, and only one direction in which to vent.
The Last of Us Part II challenges the player to do the hardest thing in any conflict: see things from the enemy’s point of view.
At first, the revenge quest unfolds pretty traditionally, with Ellie John Wick-ing her way through Abby’s crew (a private militia calling themselves the Washington Liberation Front) one by one, becoming ever more violent as her need for vengeance consumes her. Then, just as things seem to come to a predictable head, The Last of Us Part II pivots, and pivots hard. Throwing the player back a few days, and into the shoes of the woman who murdered one of PlayStation’s most beloved protagonists, no less, part two of the story casts new perspectives on the events so far. Moreover, it challenges the player to do the hardest thing in any conflict: see things from the enemy’s point of view.
Abby’s journey mirrors Ellie’s so strongly that at times it can feel excessive. Not only does she also thirst for revenge over the brutal killing of her father, she’s also involved in a love triangle that includes a pregnant woman, and experiences character-developing flashbacks in an aquarium (a not so stark contrast to Ellie and Joel’s museum trip). The narrative similarities do their trick, and as Abby’s story unfolds, revealing that her father was the doctor who was to operate on Ellie, before Joel murdered him, it forces a change of perspective. She goes from the easy-to-hate woman who brought a golf club down on Joel’s head, to a scared kid, who lost everything in one senseless act of violence.
The message is clear—Ellie and Abby are two sides of the same coin, but its one of those joke coins where both sides are heads.
The themes of violence begetting violence and an eye for an eye leaving everybody blind are further underlined in the bloody war between the WLF and a cult of deadly archers and religious fanatics called the Seraphites. This macrocosm of the central conflict is experienced mostly through Abby’s story, and serves to show her (and the player) that endless revenge is a zero-sum game. With the introduction of Yara (Victoria Grace) and Lev (Ian Alexander), runaways from the Serapahite camp, Abby begins to realise that the so-called enemy is as human as she, acting only out of fear, anger and self-preservation. At the same time, the player can’t help but have similar thoughts about Abby.
Making a core element of a combat-heavy game the idea that endless violence is bad was always a risky move—more on that in a bit—but it is one that pays off immensely. It’s not until control reverts back to Ellie, at the far side of Abby’s emotional arc, that it becomes clear: her drive for revenge and venomous hatred now seem futile and ugly. Having walked a mile in the “antagonist’s” shoes, the player has managed to do what Ellie is still struggling with—perhaps not forgiveness, but understanding. It is a supremely satisfying ending, one that subverts the typical revenge structure with nuance and delivers a thrilling, emotional story that easily matches the intensity and impact of the first game.
It is endlessly fun charging into packs of infected, swinging left and right and smashing fungus-covered skulls like a damn Cordyceps Terminator.
As with the first game, a huge part of what makes the characters so endearing and the story hit so hard is the exquisite acting and performance capture. Ashley Johnson does an incredible job of ageing Ellie up, balancing her unfiltered rage with smaller character moments with Joel’s brother Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce), her blossoming love-interest Dina (Shannon Woodward) and Dina’s ex/baby daddy, Jesse (Stephen A. Chang). While Joel is killed off early in the game, he appears in several flashbacks throughout, giving Troy Baker plenty of opportunity to deliver more of the engrossing soft-spoken performance that made him so beloved in the first place.
Coming in fresh and having to make a strong impression quickly, Laura Bailey is perhaps the biggest surprise of this game. Taking Abby from the monster who murdered Joel to a sympathetic and even likeable character was no easy feat, but Bailey’s vulnerable and conflicted performance pulls it off. It helps that her supporting cast are equally engaging: Abby’s ex-boyfriend Owen (Patrick Fugit) and his new, pregnant girlfriend Mel (Ashly Burch) are among the more likeable WLF members, contrasted by their cruel and militant leader, Isaac (Jeffrey Wright). Ian Alexander and Victoria Grace are both great as wide-eyed outsiders, unfamiliar with the ways of the world, and excel in their respective portrayals of a trans boy ousted from his community, and his sister doing everything she can to protect him.
While narrative is a huge part of any Naughty Dog game, and especially the Last of Us series, it would all be for nothing if the game was a slog to play through. Thankfully, the excellent combat system from Part 1 returns as scrappy as ever, and with plenty of new features. Stealth and gunplay have both been tightened up, with the ability to go prone offering more options in evading and sneaking, including hiding under trucks or crawling right up behind someone in tall grass. Encounters also encourage improvisation and experimentation with the expanded and streamlined crafting system. For the most part, both Ellie and Abby play pretty identically here, with the only major difference being their loadouts (it’s so much easier to like Abby when she gets her crossbow).
In melee combat, the two protagonists feel more unique. Smaller and nimbler than Joel, Ellie’s style is very guerrilla, using her environment (now much more vertical thanks to the new jump button) and tactics to pick enemies off, or dodging under an attack to retreat to safety if things get too hot. Abby has all the same skills, but plays like more of a brute. It’s unclear if she is actually stronger than Ellie, or if it’s the psychological effect of her insanely muscular arms (a result of her endless physical training for revenge on Joel), but it is endlessly fun charging into packs of infected, swinging left and right and smashing fungus-covered skulls like a damn Cordyceps Terminator.
There are few things more terrifying than creeping around a dark office, only to have a Stalker spring from the shadows with a guttural shriek.
Further cementing the immersion is just how beautiful (and disgusting) everything looks and sounds. Pushing the bounds of what a PS4 is capable of, The Last of Us Part II is easily the best-looking game to come out of this console generation. Seattle, where most of the action takes place, is a stunning patchwork of crumbling buildings, wild forests, thrashing shores and claustrophobic tunnels. Each environment is visually distinct, and offers plenty of space for sneaking around enemies or fleeing from clickers, all to the moody melodies of Gustavo Santaolalla’s unsettling score. The infected themselves also sound fantastic, and there are few things more terrifying than creeping around a pitch-black office building, listening intently for the scuffles of Stalkers, only to have one spring from the shadows with a guttural shriek.
As mentioned above, the risks taken in The Last of Us Part II, while applauded here, were not universally well-received. Many of the criticisms levelled at the game are steeped in misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, and are therefore not worth addressing. Aside from them, almost all of the legitimate complaints boil down to the same two moments: Joel’s murder, and Abby’s lack thereof. The former is easy to understand—gratuitous character deaths lost The Walking Dead a lot of viewers—but difficult to justify. After all, Game of Thrones remained popular up until the final season, despite regularly killing main characters, and Joel’s execution certainly wasn’t worse than the Red Wedding.
Which leads into the second point. Several criticisms have been levelled at the narrative team for taking the choice of exacting revenge out of players hands, and even turning the plot into a lecture on violence that seems directly aimed at players. Forgetting that The Last of Us (and most narrative games) didn’t give the player a choice as to how it ended either, the idea that the themes of the game are attacking its own target audience is completely missing the point. There is a difference between telling a story about the futility of endless violence and revenge, and decrying violence in games, just as there is a difference between Joel slaughtering the Fireflies and the company advocating for mass murder. Given the fact that Naughty Dog make a living peddling entertaining violence to the masses, this point should be self-explanatory.
As steeped in controversy as it is, and also technically not the last exclusive to grace the console, The Last of Us Part II still manages to be an incredible swan song for the PS4, exhibiting the very best in gameplay design, graphical quality, narrative ingenuity and motion-capture technology, The survival gameplay is thrilling, with encounters that Ellie and Abby barely scrape through alive, with one bullet left in the chamber, and the story is experimental, surprising and deeply affecting. With all the weighted expectation of following up one of the best video games ever made, The Last of Us Part II soars, matching its predecessor across the board. It’s the Godfather Part II of video games, and a hell of a masterpiece to close out the generation on.
Verdict: 5/5 Paddles