It’s quite the task to discuss The Last of Us Part II without spoiling anything. This review will attempt to dissect Ellie’s journey as vaguely as possible. I hope to explore the game’s narrative, themes, and characters in another article at another time.
I’m gonna be honest, I am a huge fan of the original The Last of Us. I had ridiculously high expectations for The Last of Us Part II when launch night arrived. I harbored strong feelings towards Ellie and Joel, but I didn’t believe their story required further exploration.
Does The Last of Us Part II need to exist? Well, after I finished the game and the credits rolled, I had mixed feelings about the whole experience. It took me a couple weeks to really solidify how I felt about the game. Let’s jump into my spoiler-free The Last of Us Part II review.
Driven by Violence
The level of violence in The Last of Us Part II is uncomfortable and often revolting. It’s shocking in the early stages of the game, and then, as the game continues to pour more on you, it begins to normalize. Several-dozen, dismembered zombies and humans later, I grew numb without realizing.
I started wrapping up the game’s narrative and decided this game was too much; that it went too far. Honestly, I wanted to give up on the game altogether. Even so, I powered through and then it was over. Was the violence showcased in this game worth it? No. But that’s the point. It’s supposed to make the player feel uncomfortable about what they’re doing. It fits the narrative Naughty Dog has created and pushes the theme of hatred forward. You’ll find out what that means once you’ve played a few hours or so.
Cut Spleens and Cutscenes
The gameplay in The Last of Us Part II is immediately recognizable to players who played through the first game. This game takes what you know and adds more depth, reworking mechanics while leaving others alone. You can now “go prone,” which basically means you can crawl on your belly to further avoid detection. You can do almost everything while you’re prone, including using every weapon in your arsenal. It’s this console generation’s equivalent of realizing you can finally use your sword while riding Epona in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It’s going to be difficult to go back to the original game without this feature in it.
Ellie can now also jump when you press a button. This mechanic is mainly for traversal, but it can also be used to dodge some attacks (not the best way, but it sort of works). If you really want to avoid damage, the newly-added dodge is the best way to do this. You can dodge almost anything during combat if you get the timing right. This is just as welcomed as going prone, making encounters much more fluid and satisfying. Dodging is required, especially on the higher difficulties where enemies are more intelligent and resilient.
As for weapons, there are several additions which I won’t go into. What I will say is that there are more upgrades to weapons and quite a few more character skills this time around. You can pick up training manuals that add more ability paths, each with their own set of related abilities, such as stealth and explosives paths. It’s likely that you won’t unlock them all on your first playthrough or even your second. This adds a whole other level of customization to your first playthrough.
Crafting is also back, with some welcomed additions, such as arrows. The amount of resources that are available will depend on the difficulty level you pick, which can be changed and customized at any time in game.
The best way to play The Last of Us Part II is on the two hardest difficulty levels. The game’s AI is programmed to throw more at you: they check around obstacles, look under vehicles, and flank you. There’s an added layer of suspense and danger, especially on Survivor. If you can handle it, I’d recommend playing on Survivor for the optimal experience.
You’ll be spending a large number of hours in combat, discovering new ways to maim and kill, but this game isn’t just about killing things and getting better at it.
Cutscenes are back, but they’re not always as obvious or jarring. They’re interwoven into the gameplay so seamlessly that there are times you don’t realize that control has been taken away. Part II is the closest that games have come to blending the medium with the film medium. Gameplay and cutscenes are still pretty distinct, but they coexist so much better than in the first game.
A Tale of Many Zombies
At first glance, The Last of Us Part II’s story isn’t that complex. Without going into detail, I’ll just say that it’s a revenge story at its core. If you look back at the first game, the story wasn’t that complicated either. The Last of Us is about the characters and their interactions, their relationships. What Naughty Dog really nails is how the story is being told through the characters, environment, and the actors’ performances.
Even the way that the world is designed tells a story. Some areas are more subtle, with the placement of bodies or the way props are placed. Other levels are more in-your-face about what happened there. Make sure to explore the environment to pick up extra resources and items. Collectibles are back, as well as documents that reveal side stories and also supplement the plot. They’re optional but provide interesting insight into the game’s world.
I felt some things that I’ve never been made to feel while playing any game. The feelings of anger, loss, and numbness hit me hard at different points in the game. There were a couple of times I had to take a break from playing just to process some of what happened.
The performances in particular are a huge highlight in how the story is presented. Every actor brings their best in realizing Ellie, Joel, Dina, and the rest of the characters. The animators in particular deserve high praise for translating the actors’ work into even small movements and expressions.
The meat of the narrative is experienced through Ellie’s eyes; her thirst for revenge comes into direct conflict with her sense of identity and her desires. There are some bold shifts in Ellie’s character, with further insight into her past and what brought her to where she is in Part II. Joel is softer in this game, but the repercussions of his actions aren’t far behind. Everything that took place in The Last of Us has consequences, and nearly every important thread is addressed. You’re most likely not going to be happy with some of the events that take place, but this game doesn’t care.
Although some of the new characters, Laura Bailey’s in particular, are incredible, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson have a chemistry as Joel and Ellie that can’t be outdone. There’s something so uniquely dynamic and interesting about their relationship; it’s further pushed and complicated in this sequel. Some of the biggest character payoffs come from the interactions between these two, just like in the original game. I have to say though, Shannon Woodward as Dina is my favorite addition to the cast. There’s color added to the game that only she and her character could bring to life.
Overall, the narrative of this game is bold and often unpredictable. It has a lot to say about humanity’s worst but also about its best. It’s a story that’s well worth experiencing at least once through.
So Pretty You Could Frame It
The Last of Us Part II is one of the most gorgeous, detailed, and best-running games I’ve played. Once the game loads your save file, there are no load screens while you play. Some are disguised by crawling through gaps or in-world events, but they’re seamlessly woven in.
There’s not much negative I can say about the graphics or performance of this game on the PlayStation 4 Pro. I don’t think I experienced any frame rate drops or really any problems with performance. There were several glitches that I ran into, but they were only visual.
I have to say that some of what Naughty Dog accomplished with character models is insane to me. Video games are pretty sneaky about having some things happen off screen because they’re so difficult to animate. In Part II, muscles tighten up and glisten with sweat in a way that’s almost too realistic. This is the first game where I’ve seen a shirt being taken off without any clipping or weird visual quirks.
As for the environment, I added some extra hours to my playthrough just by taking in the amount of detail in everything. Where other developers would create one or two items (such as a lawn chair), sprinkle them throughout the game, and call it a day, Naughty Dog decided they’d make five to seven different versions for just one area.
This has to be the single most detailed game that exists up to this point. Nothing out there compares; nothing comes even close. You may spend just a few seconds in one area and miss most of what is there. This amount of quality and polish isn’t necessary. The game would still get the message across if there was less to look at, but it adds so much more depth and realism to the world. It’s no wonder this game got delayed several times and took over half a decade to make.
A Score to Settle
The Last of Us has one of my favorite soundtracks in gaming. It sets the tone for the original game and presents some memorable themes as well. With Part II, Gustavo Santaolalla is joined by Mac Quayle, who wrote scores for TV series such as Mr. Robot and American Horror Story.
Sadly, this soundtrack is lacking the magic that the original had. There are more atmospheric songs than I would like, and while these songs enhance the game experience enough, there are fewer high points here. It’s a decent soundtrack, but I wouldn’t say it’s that special. There is one song that plays during the credits that you should stick around for, just a heads up.
I could spend a while ranting about the sound design in The Last of Us Part II but I’ll just say that it’s visceral and potent. Every weapon has a distinct sound that you will begin to recognize as your play time begins to add up. Striking enemies with any weapon produces some of the most satisfying, yet horrific sounds I’ve heard in a game.
The environment isn’t to be beat in the sound department, with whooshing gusts of wind, the sounds of insects and birds, and water crashing or smoothly trickling. My favorite sound has got to be the crunching of snow underneath Ellie’s feet.
Enemies also scream in agony, slowly choke on their own blood as they die, and call out their comrades’ names as they see them perish. You can easily gauge where enemies are located or what direction they’re rushing you from as well. It’s better with headphones than with a surround system.
The Last of Us Part II Is Crushing
This is a journey you’re not going to forget; it’s one that’s going to stay with you for a long time. There are some questionable decisions that characters make, but it serves to show the unpredictability and flawed nature of human beings. The exploration of humanity through a more pessimistic lens may be overbearing for some players, but it’s appropriate given the story that’s presented. This game wants to ruffle some feathers, and that’s okay.
The Last of Us Part II is one of the most complete, ambitious single-player games I’ve played. And despite all the doom and gloom, it’s fun as hell to play. If you’ve played the original, this is a must-play game on every level. If you haven’t, go back and play the first game. There is a short recap in this game that catches up new players if you really don’t feel like waiting.
There are a few personal nitpicks about the story that I can make, but they’re nothing that make the game any less amazing. When it comes down to it, The Last of Us Part II is the most near-perfect game I’ve played. Go out and get yourself a copy if you haven’t already. And maybe some tissues; you will probably need them.
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