The Last of Us Part II does the one thing I needed it to do: justify its existence.
I was in the middle of a four-year break from video games when Naughty Dog’s stealth-action game launched in 2013. But, after graduating from college in 2016, I realised that if I was going to make a living as a writer, I needed to find something to write about. I dusted off my PS3, bought a few used games I’d heard good things about, and started catching up.
The Last of Us was one of those games. In the year that I left college, got my first full-time job, and watched the United States burst into flames, The Last of Us – and more specifically, the bond between its lead characters and its powerfully ambiguous ending – convinced me that games were not just an effective escape, but worth paying attention to; that I could love their characters and find meaning in their narratives.
So, for me, The Last of Us Part II needed to have something to say that would enrich the first, not detract from its power. It’s difficult to talk about how exactly TLoU Part II does that without spoiling some of the game’s best surprises.
But I can say that the events of TLoU Part II are intimately connected to the conclusion of the first game, and that Naughty Dog masterfully extrapolates the consequences that would follow a human being who acts like a video game character.
As this game begins, Ellie witnesses brutal violence exacted against someone close to her. Her quest for revenge leads her from the Wyoming mountain town where she and other survivors have carved out a life of peaceful routine, to a war-torn Seattle, where rival factions – a brutal cult and an anti-government militia – vie for control.
Ellie’s journey is enriched by the conversations along the way. TLoU Part II includes the best (and most) character work that Naughty Dog has produced thus far. The time in between combat, as characters talk, and joke, and bond, is the draw here as much as any firefight.
Both of my playthroughs clocked in at around the 30-hour mark, and on my first time through I thought the game was overly long. But, on a second playthrough, I appreciated the character-building benefits of the game’s length. That surplus of dialogue does mean that not all conversations are winners, but the vast majority work.
They also benefit from a stellar cast. Ashley Johnson brilliantly highlights the ways that the 14-year-old Ellie we know has changed to become the 19-year-old version we meet here. She masterfully brings out the playfulness of young Ellie, and leads with the awkwardness of an older Ellie, less comfortable in her skin, more self-conscious.
The extended cast, including Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Patrick Fugit, and Ian Alexander are likewise excellent, and Naughty Dog’s best-in-class performance capture work ensures that every nuance makes it to the screen. Add in that load times on a base PS4 rarely lasted longer than a few seconds, and TLoU Part II is a technical achievement as much as it is a narrative one.
(Of course, much of what The Last of Us Part II manages to pull off is a direct result of a labour force engaged in heavy periods of crunch. I loved this game. It’s visually impressive, and the fidelity with which human faces and gestures are rendered adds to its emotional power. But added graphical detail isn’t worth the human cost of extended periods of overwork. Overwork is not the same thing as hard work.)
As she hacks her way through Seattle, Ellie has new weapons and abilities that lend combat and stealth an increased dynamism. She can now go prone, sneaking under trucks and through tall grass. In flooded areas, she can swim around vision cones, coming up for air and blood. New devices, like stun grenades and trip mines, further increase the range of possibilities and strategies.
While players spent much of the first game finding ladders and fetching palettes to progress, TLoU Part II fills each moment with more interesting objectives. There are fascinating letters to read, and I never got tired of studying environmental cues to figure out combinations for locked safes.
The Last of Us used boring busywork as a means to an end, a skeletal structure on which it hung the sinew of character development. The Last of Us Part II still uses these in-between times for conversations, but now the actions you’re accomplishing are more interesting. Sometimes, as in the case of this game’s set pieces and chase sequences, they’re even thrilling.
Most impressive, though, is the game’s capacity to make porous the boundary between story and combat. Naughty Dog’s pre-release statement that each enemy in the game would have a name initially seemed like a gimmicky bullet point. But, a combatant calling out, “Ashley, on your right!” really does make the world feel more cohesive, as if the story of factions at war is rippling through the ranks of each patrol you fight.
Naughty Dog’s goal to humanise the throats that Ellie slits plays out in overarching ways, too – ways that are impossible to talk about without spoiling the game’s second half. Suffice to say, TLoU Part II boasts one of the more interesting structures I’ve seen in a triple-A game, and creative director Neil Druckmann’s comments that he wanted the player to feel like the villain flatten out the nuances of what’s actually going on here.
The thing is, though, just like its predecessor, TLoU Part II is elegantly unsatisfying. It doesn’t have a villain – a main, one-off, cartoonish Big Bad to focus your ire on and weave a storyline around. What it does have is structural daring and a resulting emotional punch. No game has tied my stomach in knots and hollowed me out like this. I suspect it will be a long time before another game does it again.
Largely on the basis of its grim and gritty marketing, there’s a widespread perception that The Last of Us Part II is ‘misery porn’; that it revels in inflicting unrelenting suffering on its characters. And while there is pain and trauma in this story, there are also moments of tender love, of characters making grand gestures to show they care, and doing small things to lend support. Ellie’s guitar, gifted to her by Joel, plays a pivotal role in many of these scenes.
Despite minor issues with the game itself and major frustrations with Naughty Dog’s leadership, The Last of Us Part II is a 30-hour gut-punch of a game, and I’m glad I got to play it.
Format: PS4 (tested)
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release: Out now