Note: This review may contain spoilers, read at your own risk.
Another Giraffe Moment
“It’s a fucking dinosaur!” Those are the words Ellie says on her birthday when she takes a surprise trip to a museum. Going through the exhibits is a treat. Even though the facility is run down and nature has started the reclamation process, it’s still a sight to behold. Dinosaur bones are well preserved, astronaut suits look like they did the day they were first made. The information given with each piece of the exhibit is factual and to both Ellie and the player, it’s like entering an entirely different world. The banter between Ellie and her companion about the difference between dinosaurs, their size, and their lethality reminds you of conversations you once had when you were a child. And that’s the point. That realization is what makes this scene one of the most important in the entire game. For the duration of her little excursion to the museum, both Ellie and the player forget about the world outside.
Ignorance is Bliss
They forget about the gruesome brutality that the infected prey upon and kill survivors with. They forget about the harsh reality of surviving.
They forget about the gruesome atrocities they’ve had to commit just to be able to stand in that museum.
They forget about the lies they’ve told, the people they’ve hurt, and the things they’ve stolen. They forget the trauma they’ve experienced and the pain they’ve gone through as a result of the world being so broken after the outbreak. And that’s the point. Because this scene reminds both the player and Ellie of something crucial. She’s just a child. She’s a child in an adult’s world that was forced to grow up entirely too quickly and do things that no one, not even a full-grown man or woman should have to do. But not in this scene, in this scene, she’s a child, filled with wonder and amazement. She’s a child that’s trying to wrap her mind around the difference between a Brontosaurus and a Brachiosaurus. She’s a child that’s enraptured by her imagination of what it must have been like to get in a shuttle and fly to outer space. She’s just a child, and this scene does a perfect job of illustrating that.
A Sullen Reminder
But like all good things, this illustration comes to an end when Ellie acquires a keepsake at the museum and decides to put it in her bag. And when she bends over to put it in her bag, the gun that she keeps at her waist suddenly flashes into view. The nickel plating on it shining in the sunlight. The brown of the pistol grip contrasting heavily against the faded blue of her jeans. And it’s at that moment that it all comes back, all the atrocities she has committed in the name of survival. All the things she’s seen that no child should ever have had to experience. All the things she’s done that will stay with her until the day she dies.
And that’s what makes this scene so brilliant because it strips the survivor from Ellie and allows her to be a child. It allows the player to live vicariously through her and experience the same kind of gleeful enjoyment that she does. Momentarily giving a distraction from the horrors of the outside world, and then without a word, without an infected taking a bite out of someone’s flesh, it reminds you of the reality of the situation. This scene shows the duality of Ellie in a masterful way that few studios could pull off, it shows Ellie the survivor and Ellie the child, and it’s a perfect representation of the rest of the game.
The Last of Us 2 is haunting, traumatic, thought-provoking and visually gruesome. It’s the type of game that you WANT to put down because of the physical repulsion you feel after you grab someone from behind, put a hand over their mouth, whisper “don’t” in their ear, then slide your switchblade into their throat and twist it as you watch them bleed out and the light leave their eyes. It’s the type of game you want to walk away from because of how oppressive it can be after watching traumatic events unfold, especially when they involve characters that you love. But it’s a game you can’t put down because you need to know what happens next. You need to know who lives and who dies. You need to find out if you can stealth kill someone more quickly so you can avoid detection. You need to know how it all ends.
The Last of Us Part II is the single most beautiful game on console, bar none. Naughty Dog is a developer that’s prided themselves in the past on pushing the Playstation to its limits. Uncharted 2 and 3 were graphical showcases on the PS3. The Last of Us Remastered, Uncharted 4, and Lost Legacy were great reminders of their technical prowess. But Part II takes everything they’ve ever done and blows it out of the water. Realistic deformation of foliage when you’re crawling through tall grass. Water effects when you’re swimming or shooting at enemies that are trudging towards you.
The way your clothes get and stay wet when you’re trekking through the rain and the way they get stained with mud and dirt as you crawl through urban environments. Warmblood melting cold snow after you’ve killed an enemy and their blood seeps through the snow into the ground underneath. The way that glass crunches and boards creek as you walk across the floors of destroyed buildings from a world gone by. All of these and more are examples of the ridiculous amount of time Naughty Dog put into ensuring The Last of Us’ visual fidelity. Their time, effort, and attention to detail paid off in spades.
I’m normally not a big fan of music in gaming, I rarely pay attention to soundtracks and orchestral scores. The reason being, I’m a big fantasy fan, and unfortunately, the majority of fantasy music sounds so alike everything else in the genre. Once you’ve heard one track, it feels like you’ve heard them all. The Last of Us Part II’s sound design and musical offerings are absolutely marvelous. From the ambient sounds of wild animals running through the dense urban landscape of Seattle. The way that gunshots reverberate in closed environments like a bank vault that makes shootouts feel like a deafening symphony of destruction.
The score of the game is so haunting that it makes the atmosphere feel like a horror game instead of an action-adventure game. When you’re walking about in the open world listening to birds chirping and the bubbling of a brook as you make your way through Seattle, only to suddenly have strings start playing in a discordant melody your blood starts to run cold. Eventually, you get to the point that you immediately stop and crouch or go prone because you know that the change in score means enemies are nearby, even if you can’t see them. Each weapon in your arsenal has its own unique sound effects and design that function differently based on the environment and whether they’re fired in a single shot or burst fire mode. Environmental destruction sounds so realistic you might have to look around from time to time to ensure that your play space is still intact. Naughty Dog did an absolutely excellent job with both the sound and the score, ensuring that they both serve to pull you deeper into the world.
The gameplay is where you’ll find the biggest division among The Last of Us fans. Gamers like myself absolutely adore it, while others find it clunky. If you didn’t like the gameplay in The Last of Us, you won’t like it in Part II. It makes some tweaks to the established formula to make it more flexible and enjoyable to experience, but it doesn’t change the core gameplay loop. Gameplay in Part II is centered around exploration, some light puzzle-solving and combat. Exploration feels better than it ever has not only due to the smattering of collectible items throughout the game. But because of the new traversal mechanics, Naughty Dog introduced, like Ellie’s ability to jump, and swing from a rope.
Shambling over ledges, across rooftops, and crawling under enemy-infested bases feels absolutely amazing. Over time you learn the way that Naughty Dog has designed the game and its environments so you know how to look for various entry points if you want to maintain stealth while scavenging for resources. You’ll cross a small section of the country, seeing gargantuan structures in the distance and exploring them is a treat. Figuring out how to get from one level to another without using any hints, guides or visual aids feels rewarding. And exploration itself is almost always rewarded with ammunition, supplies or weapons.
Crafting and weapon modification are core parts of the game. You’ll need to upgrade Ellie and her arsenal to try and survive Seattle and its inhabitants. Whether they be infected or human, your enemies pack a punch, so crafting is a must. Through the crafting system, you use resources you find like scissors, tape, bottles, and alcohol to create tools for survival. Molotov cocktails, arrows, health kits, and more are all at your disposal provided you have the resources. So you’ll always want to scavenge.
Weapon modification is also extremely important because weapon mods give you better stability, faster reload times, and more damage. So if you’re playing on harder difficulties like Grounded, those tough boss fights will be a little easier. The weapon modding system also shows Naughty Dog’s insane level of attention to detail. Every weapon has its own firing and reloads animations. However, Naughty Dog took it a step further by adding modification animations. When you walk up to a workbench to upgrade your weapons with scrap found around the world. You literally disassemble each and every weapon before you start working on it. You unload the weapon and hear the shell casing fly out and clatter on the ground. You take the magazine out and put it on the desk, then you watch your character go to work. You see them removing grips, handles, and barrels, you see them adding quick access slings and shotgun slug loops. I’ve never seen another game with this level of detail in a feature most people gloss over in other titles.
Combat in The Last of Us Part II is a definite evolution from the first game. As I said earlier, the core gameplay loop is still the same, but the way you engage with it is different. Ellie has a new assortment of weapons at her disposal like a bow that you get in the early hours of the game. Bows are a typical weapon in gaming these days but an invaluable tool in this world full of survivors. Taking off a clicker’s head from a safe distance with a silent bow shot is satisfying. Laying prone and taking an enemy guard’s head off with a sniper rifle while hidden is a rush like no other. Watching your enemies run about trying to locate you while you’ve already moved on to another location and you’re setting up for another kill gives you a sick sense of satisfaction. You hear your enemies call out for their friends when they see or hear them being killed.
You hear the pain and anguish in their voices when they watch their companions being mowed down. It’s a reminder that your enemies are people too. Sometimes the realistic expressions are enough to make you consider whether you really want to commit to a frontal assault where you kill everyone instead of taking a non-lethal approach. There is a bit of a learning curve, however. It takes a little while to get used to the controls, the standard options have the melee and reload button in some awkward places. You’ll encounter situations where you’re laying prone and trying to switch weapons and it takes a second to put your pistol away and pull your rifle out.
Or it’ll take you some extra time to craft a health pack while you’re hiding in the grass. Some people would see those as negatives, I see them as even more proof of Naughty Dog’s attention to detail. You’re not going to be able to automatically switch from a pistol to a shotgun in real life, or bandage your arm instantly. Naughty Dog just replicated that in-game to give players something extra to think about when they’re engaging with the enemy. Combat is unavoidable in the game and it can range from extremely fast-paced to extremely tense. Especially when resources are getting low, your melee weapon is about to break and you have enemies charging at you from all sides. You feel like a survivor instead of a victim because you always have just what you need to scrape by, but only just enough to make it from one encounter to the next.
I’ll neither confirm nor deny the leaks and rumors surrounding the game. What I will say is that this is a story that needs to be experienced. Hearing about it from your friend or watching the cutscenes on YouTube don’t do it justice. This is a game that commands your attention with a haunting narrative from start to end. The core of the tale centers around love and hate. It asks uncomfortable questions both to the characters and to the player about revenge. What it’s worth, what you’re willing to sacrifice to get it. It asks you if there’s a point where you leave well enough alone and walk away, or if you keep going, no matter the cost.
Is It Worth It?
As the 25 to 30 hours of the story go by, you see traumatic events. You see death, you see slaughter, you see the pain that’s unimaginable for us in our world today. You see the remnants of an old-world trying desperately to find a way to survive in a new environment. You’ll meet many characters along the way. Some you’ll love, others you’ll hate, and a few you’ll miss after the end credits roll. The Last of Us II isn’t torture porn or an excuse to have gratuitous violence. Even though there is bloodshed in the game by the bucketload. The Last of Us Part II is a hauntingly effective character study about the human condition and the value of morality in a world without morals.