Title: The Last Of Us Part II Released On: June 19, 2020 Genre: Action Adventure, Survival Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 Developer: Naughty Dog Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment MSRP: $59.99 USD/$79.99 CAD
It’s once a generation that we witness the type of game that leaves a longstanding and resonating impression on us. A game that impacts you as the player so viscerally, so wholly that it causes you to grapple with your own moral code as it intersects with that of the protagonist you are controlling. The Last Of Us Part II is an absolute masterpiece in storytelling, supported by exhilarating and brutal gameplay and an intricately crafted world that you cannot help but lose yourself in.
Lightning has most assuredly struck twice here, and undoubtedly Naughty Dog has learned from everything which made The Last Of Us a generational hit to once again create a game that will inevitably go down as one of, if not the best games on the PlayStation 4.
After a traumatic experience disrupts the relative peace for Ellie and the community in Jackson, Wyoming where she and Joel decided to settle, you embark alongside her on a perilous journey across the United States in search of justice, retribution, and answers to questions left long-unanswered. It’s a story that will not only force Ellie to come to grips with her own morality, but cause the player to also question their own.
Through their expert storytelling craft, Naughty Dog has created a deep attachment between the player and Ellie, enveloping us intimately in her story in such a way that I have rarely seen other developers accomplish; certainly not at this level. She is an exceptionally relatable protagonist, and the investment that you end up feeling in Ellie’s plight, and in her quest for vengeance, is a raw and natural feeling and one that assuredly will impact most players in their core, as it did to me. I am not ashamed to say that I found myself tearing up during The Last Of Us Part II on multiple occasions, just from the sheer emotional weight of the journey.
This effect that the narrative holds over you isn’t just because of the specific situations that Ellie finds herself in; it’s because they feel like situations that you are finding yourself in. The struggle is very concrete, and even though the game is set in a post-apocalyptic world infested with cordyceps zombies there is an undeniable mirror held up to our own experiences as people and the principles that shape our morality. Throughout your shared journey with Ellie, the narrative grapples with a wealth of very important real-world themes, which blend seamlessly into the overarching core storyline. Religion, sexuality, and gender identity are all important themes woven into the threads of the narrative.
It won’t just be Ellie that you end up invested in; old friends and new allies that you’ll meet along the way become an integral part of your journey, forging deep connections in a world where most people are out for themselves; growing from their shared experiences, and the constant struggle they find themselves faced with.
It’s a heart-wrenching, gut-punching, and generally emotionally tolling story – in the best way possible. It’s an intense and mature narrative with a lot to take in, and one that I think benefits from stepping away from time to time, simply to reflect. Much in the same way you would with an engrossing piece of literature, stepping away to reflect on how the weight of the narrative increases its resonance.
And, if the thematic overtones don’t make you reflect, the equally impactful gameplay certainly will.
Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, combat in The Last Of Us Part II is an extremely violent and intense experience. Whether you’re facing off against the Infected or other survivors, combat is never something delivered lightly in The Last Of Us. You can approach combat in a variety of ways though, depending on how you want to play, as well as what the situation warrants. I tried to engage every enemy stealthily to begin, only transitioning into a furious melee or firefight if I was spotted. Even though certain encounters may benefit from a specific approach, great care has been taken to allow the player to progress in a way they see fit, assuming they have the ammo and supplies to do so.
This is where the survival aspect of The Last Of Us Part II really comes into play; every encounter has to be measured if you want to ensure you will be prepared for future encounters. Bullets ought be fired sparingly, and the use of both stealth and found melee weapons make sure that you will have some ammunition and supplies left for whatever is over the next ridge. It’s very easy to back yourself into a corner by expending your ammo in a firefight only to find yourself woefully under-prepared for your next encounter. Everything from cloth and alcohol to explosive materials and sharp objects can be gathered from the environment to craft essential items to aid you in combat.
Whichever way you choose to engage in combat, Naughty Dog has made sure that every encounter is impactful. Stealthily sneaking up on someone and stabbing them in the neck with your butterfly knife is one of the most gruesome stealth-kills I’ve ever experienced, but there was a certain satisfaction to be had as 19-year-old Ellie casually told middle-aged men to “Shut the fuck up” before viciously ending their lives. Even the sounds of the executions are more vivid than what I was expecting. You can discern subtleties such as the blade penetrating the flesh to the subsequent spurts of blood erupting violently from your victim’s neck, resulting in a shockingly visceral experience time and again. I can still hear the sounds of soldiers choking on their blood as Ellie moves on to her next victim.
It’s quite an intense experience, and one that you will likely find yourself performing dozens of times throughout your journey, on both unsuspecting Infected and humans alike. After 30 hours of gameplay and easily over 100 executions later, I still found myself exhilarated by the gruesome executions.
To assist in these executions Listen Mode has returned from the first game, with some improvements that allow Ellie to really gain the upper hand in combat situations. The mode allows the player to hear enemies through walls or foliage, which is exceptionally useful for sneaking up on adversaries so that you can perform a stealth execution; one of the only ways to take out an opponent which doesn’t consume a resource. You’ll want to rely on this a lot, because the A.I. is exceptionally intuitive. While enemies may follow somewhat cyclical routes, any disturbance will cause them to break from their routine.
Once you’re spotted, combat becomes a very different dance altogether. Infected are extremely attuned to noises, especially the blind Clickers, and will lock onto Ellie immediately if she makes a sound. Human opponents are much smarter, and will actively work to flank the player while using varying combat methods to force you to think on the fly. The A.I. systems force the player to learn how to leverage all of the tools at their disposal, and outsmarting them becomes an exercise in learning from your past mistakes.
The game checkpoints frequently, so you are typically only several minutes away from your last save. This is considerably useful if you are the type of player who likes to reset checkpoints so they can have every encounter go exactly according to plan. You have the option to use the most recent checkpoint, or to reset the encounter to its beginning so that you can re-plan your entire strategy. For players who don’t mind a less “organic” playthrough, this presents itself as a useful feature.
The world of The Last Of Us Part II, from Washington to Wyoming, is teeming with places to explore and old-world buildings to lose yourself in. Every environment feels alive, which is an impressive feat considering it can be hard to breathe life into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Lush greens crawl across the dulled brick and concrete of buildings long forgotten, showing the time that had passed since the 2013 outbreak. Nature has begun to claim back the landscape in ways we didn’t see in the first game, creating some stunning vistas that just begged to be admired and explored.
Every visual aspect of the game, no matter how minute, has been intricately detailed. Every set piece has received so much attention that they tell their own stories without needing any collectible notes; even though there are most assuredly a wealth of collectibles that lend even more weight to the unspoken sub-narratives in the world. Every new building, room, or area feels unique, and even after 30 hours of playtime I didn’t find myself coming across re-used set pieces. Instead, each new locale presented an opportunity to further immerse myself into the world Naughty Dog carefully handcrafted.
Following along with the stories of individuals that Ellie discovers through notes that she finds tucked away became one of my driving forces throughout the game. Stories of families trying to make it through the earliest days of the Outbreak. Insight into the factions that occupy the world and some of their driving forces behind their actions. Love letters between couples separated by necessity, wondering if they would ever be reunited. Everywhere you visit has a story to go along with it; you just have to look.
Each of these stories, pieced together through scraps of paper and letters found along your journey, help to paint the picture of the world that came before Joel and Ellie. They are another integral aspect of the living world, or what’s left of it, that lend further weight to providing the game with verisimilitude; something the developers appear to have mastered to bring us an experience so close to reality that it’s almost uncanny. These stories also further entice the player to search every nook and cranny in the hopes of finding resolution to these tales that begin to affect Ellie as she recounts them.
Keeping on the lookout for supplies in every locale is critical, because supplies are used not just to craft useful items – such as medkits, incendiaries, and silencers – they are also required to upgrade your weaponry. Crafting tables are strewn throughout the world, and you can utilize them and scavenged scrap metal to improve the capacity, accuracy, damage, and other aspects of your favourite guns. You’ll amass a wealth of weaponry throughout your travels, often pried from the hands of a long-dead corpse, and taking care to upgrade your go-to gear is a satisfying endeavor. Not only does it improve the characteristics of the gun, but no attention to detail has been spared in the visual improvements as well.
Ellie also has her own upgrade paths which can be unlocked using the medicine found in the bathrooms and pharmacies of long-forgotten buildings, which allow the player to improve her passive and crafting abilities. Seemingly minor upgrades such as extending the distance that Listen Mode can reach, or increasing the number of items that are crafted from scavenged supplies, make a world of difference in every encounter. If you pay close attention to your surroundings, you can even find magazines to unlock additional skill trees.
Whereas the original The Last Of Us was a mostly linear adventure with some open environments to explore along the way, this time around Naughty Dog has exponentially expanded upon that formula to create locations that feel like their own segmented open-worlds. Rather than stopping by a building to explore and scavenge, Ellie is given entire street blocks and neighborhoods filled with abandoned houses and ransacked shops, each hiding necessary supplies and collectibles which tell the stories of lives once lived.
Traversal is paramount in Part II, with many of the game’s secrets falling far off the beaten path. Finding a crack in the wall to slip through or a dangling cable to rappel with are just some of the enticements that you may stumble across, and solving the occasional mental platforming puzzle will often reap great rewards, both in terms of story and scavenging opportunities. The game is really at its best when you take your time with it, not rushing to the next objective but really soaking in every locale.
The Last Of Us Part II is easily the most graphically impressive game that I’ve played on the PlayStation 4. The detailing is so vividly striking at points, and was further reason for me to ensure that I explored every inch of the game. Environmental effects, from how the light plays through branches of the trees, to the way rain impacts structures or puddles when it falls, and even the hypnotic swaying of leaves in the gentle breeze; have all been painstakingly detailed to be as accurate as reality. Playing on the PS4 Pro with HDR made low-lit areas notably more evocative, although they were still crystal clear even when I disabled the feature.
This attention to graphical fidelity follows through into every corner of the game. Character models are exceptionally detailed to the point that you can see every facial twitch and muscle movement through the in-game engine. This also adds further weight to the combat, as the enemies you take on genuinely look real and you can actively see them take their last breaths during execution scenes.
It’s this attention to every single small detail that makes the world of The Last Of Us Part II so real and encompassing. There isn’t a single point throughout the game where I caught myself thinking “Hey, that didn’t look/feel right” but instead found that every experience mimicked the reality that the developer worked so hard to bring to life.
A big part of what made the game really ‘hit home’ and added further resonance to the impact of both the narrative and atmosphere was the beautiful and haunting soundtrack. The music was arranged perfectly to suit every environment, and helped to set the proper tone for the complex and emotional story. The piano and acoustic guitar play key roles in the music of The Last Of Us Part II, adding substance to the heartfelt moments, eliciting fear during tense engagements, and even evoking a smile during periods of calm.
It’s difficult to really pin down where Naughty Dog deserves the greatest acclaim with The Last Of Us Part II. With most games, you can pinpoint an area where the developer excels; graphical fidelity, narrative structure, an atmospheric soundtrack, immersive gameplay. TLOUP2 manages to excel and exceed expectations in every single major aspect of game development, which has created an experience that becomes all together consuming.
Naughty Dog has a way of making us feel for all sides of the story that we are playing through; not just how it affects our protagonist. Their storytelling gives you insight into the story as a whole without being limited to what is immediately affecting Ellie. It gives the player a very cohesive and well-rounded perspective on the plight not just of your protagonist, but of the major factions that occupy the world. This is a world where everyone is struggling to survive, and where the hardest and most immoral choices may often feel like the right ones to make.
The Last Of Us Part II is by no means a short game. While the original game ran from 12 to 16 hours depending on how much time you took exploring, Part II can take up to 30 hours if you’re looking to get the most out of the experience. I am wholly impressed at Naughty Dog’s ability to craft such a compelling narrative and gameplay that kept me hooked right until the final credits. A narrative of this length and complexity, and a story-driven game that takes around 30 hours, are both exceptional achievements in game development.
When the end credits rolled down my screen, I didn’t want to leave. Even though the story had culminated into something that while wholly unexpected, resolved all of the questions that I myself as the player had, something was still scratching at me. An urge to continue to explore the world, and to discover any hidden secrets that maybe I had missed. And, what’s more, there was an urge to replay and engage with a story I had finished just hours earlier, even if only to feel its impact once more.
One of Naughty Dog’s most impressive feats in this venture, which I know is saying something after the amount of praise I’ve already lauded on the game, is the wealth of accessibility features which have been implemented to ensure that the most people can get the fullest experience from The Last Of Us Part II. Text-to-speech and audio cues have been implemented to benefit players with visual impairments, and there is a wealth of additional visual aids that are fully customizable to suit every need. In addition to completely remappable controls, there are also a number of traversal and combat-centric accessibility options which can be toggled to assist players who have difficulty with specific aspects of the game.
This is another huge achievement in development, and one that I hope will allow many more players to engage with the full experience of The Last Of Us Part II without having to sacrifice any aspect of their enjoyment.
To state it plainly, The Last Of Us Part II resonates with me deeply. It was a hugely impactful journey not simply across the United States, but through the internal and visceral struggles that we find ourselves in when we cannot let go. It’s a story not just about how love can overcome, but equally about how hate can consume. It’s a journey into the deepest recesses of the human psyche, when we are confronted with questions we don’t know how to answer, and problems we aren’t prepared to grapple with.
I’ll say it again – lightning has, unequivocally, struck twice. The Last Of Us Part II will go down in history as one of the best sequels of all time, right beside The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, and The Godfather Part II. Naughty Dog’s latest masterpiece has not only surpassed the original game in every single aspect, leaving no shred of doubt at the developer’s indomitable craft for storytelling and game development, but it raises the bar for every other character-driven narrative.
It’s an experience that I think everyone should play through, and it serves as a spectacular send-off to this generation of gaming. The Last Of Us II is a love letter to the entire gaming world from Naughty Dog, showing us that in the most difficult times, we find our true strength.
Final Score: 10/10
An emotional and impactful experience from start to finish, The Last Of Us Part II is a masterpiece of character-driven narrative and exhilarating gameplay.
The review copy of this game was a digital code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment.