The Last of Us Part II Review: An utterly harrowing and emotional experience

Reviewed on PlayStation 4. Originally written 23rd June 2020.

2013’s The Last of Us was a formative moment for the video game industry. Its approach to complex storytelling with compelling characters in a mature narrative, rightfully proved to be both critically and commercially successful. Personally, I have always regarded it as a truly exceptional, medium-defining piece of work.

With their sequel, developer Naughty Dog have crafted a relentlessly intense offering of seismic proportion. They attempt to emulate the highs of its predecessor while progressing the story and arcs of its characters in typically unexpected fashion. The Last of Us Part II mostly succeeds in this, and though it is flawed, it is a monumental accomplishment, completely deserving of being experienced in its entirety.

It is clear from the outset that Ellie has within her a conflicted understanding of what really happened during the ending of The Last of Us, and that to some extent, harbouring this uncertainty has strained her relationship with Joel. Part II picks up several years following the events of its predecessor, with Ellie and Joel settled in Jackson, Wyoming. The inciting incident is one that will provoke anger from any long-time fan of the series, either towards the developer or not, it ensures that the player’s motivation is aligned with Ellie’s. Through her compelling pursuit of revenge, her sense of morality becomes muddled in her desperation, and at times it is fascinating to watch. Ellie is given greater complexity because of this, with the questionable actions that she takes often grounded in complete conviction. When there are visible moments of deliberation they are conveyed excellently through astounding animations that accurately capture Ashley Johnson’s impactful performance. Adjacent to this attempted character study is a storyline that discusses the relevance of perspective and the unequivocal conviction that one takes in their actions, regardless of their possibly ambiguous moral or ethical implications. For the most part, The Last of Us Part II succeeds in this conversation, forcing the player to consider the ramifications of the actions they commit when in control of each character that Naughty Dog puts in front of them – both in this game and the last. Ultimately, Part II delivers on this central conflict, but as the hinge upon which so much of the narrative hangs, it is not perhaps as layered as Naughty Dog would hope. It is an enthralling discussion nonetheless, and Ellie’s journey into the Heart of Darkness is riveting, but there are some discrepancies. Certain plot points are of wavering interest, while illogical decisions are occasionally taken by various characters, some of whom are underdeveloped, but these are primarily minor frustrations within a largely captivating narrative.

Flashbacks are used adequately to provide some necessary context while also filling in certain gaps of the story. Tonally, there is often a stark contrast between them and the present timeline, at least during the first half of the game; often when a flashback ends, I longed to return to it on the realisation of how generally miserable the main storyline can be in comparison. However, by the second half of the game I felt that flashbacks were relied on slightly too much in their attempt to elicit sympathy with some of the game’s new characters. There are also other moments of levity besides that in some heart-warming memories, such as whenever Ellie plays the guitar, or her playful interactions with other characters like Dina and Jesse. In a remarkably dreary tale, companions and side-characters do offer some much-needed shades of light. However in the second half of the game, the cast of characters we are introduced to vary in their depth and likability – I wanted to become attached to them, but I did not always have sufficient enough reason to do so. Dialogue generally feels realistic and key character motivations are explained comprehensively; there is persuasive conflict either within or between most of the characters that feature, often tying into the overall narrative and its thematic elements.

At a time when the real world can seem impressively bleak, The Last of Us Part II manages to exceed the depressing realities of the day, both in the sheer rawness of its imagery and its evocatively dark subject matter. This does not necessarily mean that it achieves those ambitions all of the time, but that at the very least, its attempts to do so should be admired. It clearly tries to make an obvious point about the cyclical nature of violence and how one’s sense of morality can become muddied when consumed by emotion. It is an enticing argument, but one not wholly original nor particularly subtle in its take or presentation. For its moral tale to work it needs to garner sympathy for the cast of characters that represent its secondary perspective, which is a difficult undertaking considering how attached fans of The Last of Us are with its original protagonists. Part II primarily accomplishes this, provoking thoughtfulness over its subject matter and meriting the vast range of emotional distress that it evokes. While you may not be significantly empathetic with Ellie’s adversaries, perhaps due to an affection for the series’ most revered characters, it is at the very least easy to understand the motivations of the people that Ellie is up against; it becomes clear that the justification for their actions is as valid to them as Ellie’s actions are to her. The narrative challenges its audience to remove themselves from their own emotional attachments and consider the moral realties of the characters they have come to love – it is a hard ask, and one that many will be averse to, but its result culminates in a provocatively mature and powerful conclusion.

Moment to moment gameplay is much improved from the series’ first outing. Gunplay and customization have been refined and given greater depth, through specialised skill trees, a more tailored approach to crafting with greater options, and better weapon modifications. Incidentally, combat flows fluidly with greater variety, while upping the tenseness that the first game brought. It is an unremittingly frantic experience; the player is constantly forced to manoeuvre through intelligently designed levels during intense confrontations with unforgiving enemies, who frequently flank you smartly, while being accurate in their attacks. This sense of desperation is especially true in harder difficulty settings where resources of every kind, including ammunition and crafting materials, are even scarcer. Companions periodically join the player, mostly sticking to themselves during combat – only rarely are they successful in helping you. Instead they can occasionally be no more than an irritation by getting in your way or inadvertently alerting enemies. New types of infected, while being gorgeously repulsive, offer greater variation in combat scenarios. I especially enjoyed a new type of infected that is virtually inaudible and thus unable to be detected through the listen mode, making them frightening to deal with as they silently hunt you. Similarly, factions like the ‘Seraphites’ are distinct in their tactics, often only using haunting whistles to communicate while they slowly but silently stalk the player. At times, the game can feel more survival horror than anything else – a direction that fits exceptionally well and one that I hope the series leans into even further, if Naughty Dog decide to develop a sequel. The way in which violence is depicted can be disturbingly relentless, both in its arresting imagery and its sheer frequency. It is grotesquely visceral and rarely enjoyable. This visual depiction of the narrative’s thematic crutch accentuates its allegory to a certain degree, while contributing to the game’s excitingly shocking and hectic gameplay. Although, while its message of the hypocrisy buried within perpetual violence is easily conveyed, the fact that the game forces your compliance within this cycle of brutality is hypocritical in itself. If anything, it further puts the point across to the audience, but simultaneously risks losing any kind of nuance, possibly distilling the obvious moral lesson that it is so desperately trying to teach.

Levels are designed smartly, frequently placing the player in mini-open worlds (to varying degrees) which are well thought out with multiple routes and ample opportunity for exploration. Collectibles, locked safes, and other items of interest are regularly hidden past cleverly designed pathways, taking you through routes previously unseen. At times it is easy to feel disorientated as you explore the game’s extensively detailed environments, but eventually its subtly guiding design will always eventually lead you back towards where it wants you to go. Abandoned shops and buildings, sometimes home to infected or armed groups, regularly employ wonderful environmental storytelling. Be it through walls dirtied with messages composed in blood, or written notes left in derelict apartments explaining the noticeable mess, there are little stories littered everywhere. Along with how collectibles and resources are scattered throughout the levels, it is another admirable example of how the game actively rewards exploration.

Gunshots, stabbings, and the cries of tormented infected beings all sound hauntingly real. The sound design is painstakingly actualised, further encompassing the player with Naughty Dog’s grounded depiction of an apocalyptic America. Members of the factions you fight against call out the name of each other in agony as you take them out, humanising the player’s antagonists, but not beyond a certain extent. Gustavo Santaolalla returns with another exceptional original soundtrack, providing a more varied but similarly distinctive collection of pieces that suitably reflect the tone of the game. The distinctive finger-picking guitar tones of his previous work are here in abundance, delivering a consistent and emotional sound throughout. Lowly, intense tracks amplify the uneasiness during combat, while slower, more melodic pieces beautifully compliment more nuanced scenes.

Undoubtedly an incredibly well-made game, The Last of Us Part II is remarkably polished in every aspect; it is a momentous technical achievement, and surely the best-looking game on PlayStation 4. The animation captures the vividness and nuances of facial expressions stunningly, accurately delivering the subtleties in mostly excellent performances. Occasionally, delivery of voice lines from enemies felt notably askew, but the acting is otherwise largely impressive. From overgrown downtown city areas to claustrophobic metal corridors, the game looks remarkably realised. Its world is perhaps detailed beyond that of any other game I have played; intricacies are clear in models and environments through impressively rendered textures and objects, while lighting and shadows appear strikingly realistic. More often than not, I took my time walking through the world instead of rushing through it so that I could appreciate the amazing visuals.

I completed most of my first playthrough with all the difficulty settings set to ‘hard’, and while it was not especially gruelling, I felt that most of the time it provided an optimally balanced challenge. I am looking forward to playing through the game again on ‘survivor’, though unfortunately, unlike the last game, this mode of the same name does not disable the ‘listening mode’ which I always found to heighten the intensity of encounters when switched off. It must be said that however, that much like the accessibility settings, the difficulty options in The Last of Us Part II are fantastically extensive, offering an assortment of ways to tailor the experience beyond anything else available.

In many ways, The Last of Us Part II exemplifies how far the medium has come while continuing to push it further. Naughty Dog should be commended for their ambition alone, though it must be said that it does not quite emulate the enduring legacy of its predecessor. It is marred by occasionally inconsistent writing and characters that are not always convincing – but these are not necessarily significant hinderances. Its failings bring it short of the overall quality and flair of the original, but only marginally so. The story is an enthrallingly complex one, though perhaps without the depth that Naughty Dog intended, the narrative that Part II presents is heart-breaking from the outset, refusing to slow down right until the very end. It may not completely follow-through on its promise of allegorical contemplation, but its attempt at doing so succeeds more than it fails. It is not always a particularly enjoyable experience either, but it doesn’t have to be – nor should it be. Instead, it achieves its focus of rousing your emotions as you consider an argument that grows more compelling the longer it goes on. In almost every way, The Last of Us Part II is an utter triumph. It is a wholly relentless, harrowing experience, ultimately worthy of its namesake in every regard.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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