This review will discuss plot points from both the original The Last Of Us and the current game. So consider this a major spoiler warning for both titles!
Ellie (Ashley Johnson) and her one-time father figure Joel (Troy Baker) are now emotionally estranged. Despite being the only known member of the human race immune to a virus that wiped out the majority of the world’s population a quarter century beforehand, Ellie embarks on a mission of revenge to a flooded Seattle. She finds that the city is slowly being taken over not only by Mother Nature, but by two warring factions of survivors who don’t take too kindly to trespassers. And, of course, they all have to contend with the many monsters that were created by the fungal Cordyceps plague.
Released in 2013 on PS3 (then remastered a year later for current gen), The Last Of Us isn’t just one of the best releases of the last decade, but it’s one of the best games ever made. The mix of horror and stealth – plus developer Naughty Dog’s trademark cinematic quasi-playable action scenes – were fantastic enough. Yet the real draw was the story and characters. By the end of the game, you understood why bereaved father Joel decided to slaughter his way through a hospital full of ostensible good guys when he discovered that his unconscious surrogate daughter Ellie wouldn’t survive the surgical process that would lead to a cure for the virus. In an ending for the ages, the final scene had Ellie asking to know the truth of the story she has been told (that a cure couldn’t be found, so they left in peace) and Joel – understandably, unforgivably – lies.
It’s a devastating final beat, morally ambiguous and tragic on every level. You could argue that such a perfect ending meant that there shouldn’t be a sequel.
And now that Part II is here, you could double down on that assertion more than Joel did on that lie. Not that I didn’t like this game, but Jesus Christ did it make me scratch my head in places.
It says something that I could see how beautiful the game looked through my frown. Whether it’s riding through snowy Wyoming, or swimming past the flooded ruins of Seattle, the game is breathtaking to take in. The ageing PS4 hardware is pushed to its limits with best-in-class lighting and environmental effects, not to mention the fantastic motion capture work that allows the absolutely excellent cast do their thing. Ashley Johnson’s intense, raw performance as Ellie is so good, it papers over the numerous cracks in the story that are only apparent when you’re out of her orbit. It’s the There Will Be Blood of mo-cap performances – which also quite literally applies to the gameplay; this sequel is not shy of showing all the ways a human body can be shot, sliced and eaten.
In terms of updated controls and combat, it’s more a redux than a sequel, with moment-to-moment movement being not too far removed from the 2013 original, bar the addition of jumping and dodging. Yet this isn’t too much of a criticism, as the simplicity of the controls means a full return to a world reset by the plague.
It’s not quite a repeat experience in terms of mobility and aesthetics, however. Yes, the emptied cityscapes and ruined apartment buildings Ellie traverses are reminiscent of the first game’s Boston and Pittsburgh sections, but the additional verticality is noticeable, and Naughty Dog has ensured the five years that have passed in the game’s world have added more than cosmetic wear and tear. Roads have been ripped open by cascading flood water, trees and vines wrap around everything from bus stops to crumbling skyscrapers, and the Cordyceps fungus has congealed into Rob Bottin-style growths.
Out of that growth comes most of the game’s horror. There are only a few new enemy types, but when one of them tears out of a fungi-riddled wall and tries to eat your face, the lack of variety won’t matter. Of course, this being a modern apocalypse, the real enemies are the humans Ellie will be facing. The Wolves – the Washington Liberation Front – are at first the main antagonists, but then it becomes apparent that the cultish, atavistic Seraphites are just as dangerous.
Yet the real hostile territory to be faced when playing is, sadly, the story’s wayward structure.
As said, the original ends on one of the all-time great beats. The ellipsis created by Joel’s lie infers many questions that point to how a sequel’s story could unfold – how can Joel keep the secret? What will Ellie do when she finds out? Naughty Dog has obviously decided none of that matters, so the answers to both are hidden in fleetingly playable mid-game flashbacks. Ellie’s world-saving immunity is also strangely barely ever commented on in a way that impacts the story, save for a brief revelation that is glossed over by another character’s pregnancy.
Which is where most eyebrows will be raised, and stay raised. Personally speaking, with it being the sequel to a beloved masterpiece, plus with the impressive and truly AAA+ treatment on display, I really, really, really wanted to love this game. Instead, I merely respect what it sought to achieve, whilst being left hesitant over whether to experience it again. The gap between this love and respect is down to an overly-long story that is even more badly structured than one of the hollowed-out Seattle skyscrapers you have to fight through.
Without wishing to spoil things too much, the game reaches a thrilling crescendo, hitting a moment of absolute tension – before stopping dead and not only rewinding back several days to a parallel storyline, but switching to a perspective that many will find, shall we say, divisive. It’s telling that other AAA franchises that pulled such a switch – Halo 2, Metal Gear Solid 2 – abandoned these stunts for their next (superior) instalments, so it’s strange that Naughty Dog felt they should attempt a fanbase-alienating idea that Kojima and Bungie abandoned almost 20 years ago. Of course, it’s intended to humanise an enemy, and show a different side to the struggle, and that is admirable. Yet it sucks all dramatic tension out of a narrative that was already concluding, and to be frank on first playthrough I found myself not really caring, despite eventually becoming impressed by the escalating bombast on display. A vertigo-inducing skyscraper traversal sequence and an escape from a wooden village set ablaze are visually astounding and thrilling, yet hollow to endure. This is simply because they lack any sense of drama due to the way the story is presented, with the player longing to return to the main narrative and already aware that characters have a meeting with fate scheduled elsewhere. That aside, the fact is that starting a new story at the exact moment another one is climaxing is an odd, odd choice in terms of pacing.
The problem may also be with putting theme ahead of story and characters. Whereas the first game was at its base propelled by the journey from the east coast to Utah, Part II is guided by what director Neil Druckmann says is an exploration of “the cycle of violence” – that is to say, this is clearly thematically driven, not people or plot driven. This creates an emotional disconnect with the player and character, as instead they are both in the service of a story tethered to the pre-ordained and almost academically assigned beats of a theme. To use an example that means going back to the Kojima well: yes, Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons Of Liberty had (and has) intriguing ideas to dwell on, but does anyone talk about such ruminating without caveating how the game presented those ideas to the player? No, because when the dust has settled and all the think pieces have been written, they’re better to pontificate about than to actually play. One need only to look at Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line – a stealth contender for the most influential game of the last decade – to see how a storyline and gaming experience can be intertwined in order to deliver emotional and intellectual impact. By presenting information to the player at the same time as it is divulged to the character in-game (regardless of how cruel that reveal might be), it is possible to then see the fascinating disconnect between what the character thinks they’re doing versus what they actually are doing – and all, of course, while you’re doing it for them. It’s a unique feature of gaming that you can simultaneously progress the story, the theme and the character arc.
Here, the people Ellie murders as part of her revenge are not fleshed out until the perspective switches, thus robbing the main character – and therefore the player – of any knowledge about what she’s doing. I get what they were going for, but honestly, as a player if you’re being dragged along by a story, it just doesn’t make for a great gaming experience, especially with a rote “revenge is bad” theme that has been told through the ages. Such a message could have been summed up more succinctly than the ten hour side quest you’re given here, or presented in DLC much as the lovely and tense Left Behind story was for the original game. That the sequel regains its momentum with a reversion in perspective and leads to a genuinely emotional final confrontation should tell Naughty Dog not to fuck with the formula.
I was also going to talk more about ludonarrative dissonance like other pseudo-intellectual game reviewers. But, frankly, it’s the apocalypse. You’ve got a flamethrower? You got mindless hordes? You wanna get nuts? Come on, let’s get nuts!
So, that all said, is this actually a good game? Yes, it is. Like that other flawed stealth actioner with a compromised narrative, The Phantom Pain, it’s great to play in the moment, especially if you can stomach the places the story finally goes and the graphic way it wracks up the bodycount (one arrow mod, coupled with the oppressive grey palette in places, leaves enemies splattered in a way that bizarrely reminded me of the fourth Rambo film). What praise it does deserve without caveating, however, is for finally breaking the glass ceiling in terms of juggling a predominantly female lead cast, and also for being a rare blockbuster in any media that showcases mature LGBTQ+ relationships defined neither by unrequited longing, nor any tragedy derived from societal rejection of those relationships.
In closing, The Last Of Us Part II has a story, performances and gameplay that almost live up to the original and expands upon it in unexpected (if divisive) ways. Whether the structure and pacing issues get in the way of your immersion in the game is another matter, but hopefully come the subtly teased Part III Naughty Dog learn to let their characters do the talking, instead of resting it on tired themes done better elsewhere.