For anyone who was ready to eviscerate The Last of Us Part II for not living up to the original title, you’re in for one hell of a reality check. The second iteration in Naughty Dog’s generation-defining, story-driven series is every bit as brutal, intimidating, powerful, and intricate as its predecessor.
From the game’s first moments you’re forcefully shoved back into the hellish, post-Cordyceps United States, a world where a single miscalculation spells certain death, moments of light are near impossible to find, and nobody – not even those closest to you – are safe.
It’s not a game to sit back and relax into, but it’s an experience you’ll remember forever. The Last of Us Part II is a cold-blooded exploration of hate, love, and how their two spirits are intertwined.
Gameplay-wise, the game feels smooth beyond belief, often harsh, but always fair. The combat, whether you opt for stealth or a more head-on approach, is savage and unrelenting. Don’t expect to breeze through this experience; you’ll become well-oriented with the horrifying, snap-quick death animations at the hands of Clickers, humans, and other horrors en masse.
Small changes have been made to formula laid down by the first game, for example your shiv is now permanent and some crafting recipes have been slightly refined. There are new ways to navigate such as by swinging on ropes, and Ellie’s combat feels generically more agile compared to Joel’s hulking style. New enemies are introduced such as the fattened Shamblers as well as guard dogs that follow your scent trail, no doubt a ticket into many more frustrated controller throws or Last of Us-related nightmares.
Navigational cues are so subtle I’d often realise I’d been tricked into choosing a certain path without knowing it – the hints are usually environmental details that you can barely put a finger on, but just feel right. During open-world-ish moments and action sequences alike you can feel absolutely lost, but somehow a short wander always reveals the next checkpoint, cutscene, or vignette. It’s the most highly finessed, near-invisible form of railroading that I’ve ever experienced in a video game; pushes in the right direction that are so gentle players will only barely realise they’re happening.
Removing that fourth wall – the sense you’re not really able to choose where the story goes – allows the game’s more important qualities to shine ever brighter.
Which brings us to the story. Oh man, the story. Between its heart-attack inducing playable sequences The Last of Us Part II will catch your emotions like a fishhook; there’s devastation in spades but also deep moments of affection and the ever-present idea that humanity must be clung to amongst the most dire situations.
With Ellie at their epicentre, the game’s relationships are easy to become invested in, and in no way cookie cutter. The queer relationship between Ellie and Dina – the inexplicable source of so much angry online bedwetting – is nothing short of beautiful and a yardstick for how diversity should be handled in video games and entertainment media. Established characters including Joel and Tommy are expanded on in meaningful ways and the new faces are treated with the care and consideration that made the first game so groundbreaking.
Much as with the first game’s ending, you’ll find yourself grappling with the morality of certain characters and the decisions they make. A powerful example is the parallel which exists between Ellie and the game’s first antagonist, an unnamed woman, both of them motivated by a fierce and uncompromising need for justice. By undertaking Ellie’s violent quest for revenge the player must ask themselves, is Ellie any different? Are they both horrific products of a horrific world?
Amongst the ever-escalating horror, music provides a welcome relief. A cute interface which lets players strum the DualSense touchpad to play an in-game guitar has been introduced, and a select few vignettes wherein Ellie or Joel pick up the old six-string make for some of the game’s most impactful moments. Plus there’s an absolute blinder of a cover in there – but you’ll just have to find that yourself.
Outside of those moments, the game’s score plays a mostly suspense-oriented role. An extended combat sequence which has Ellie traversing a neighbourhood practically crawling with Wolves – a faction of enemy humans – is punctuated by heavy, booming synths which worked the tension to almost unmanageable levels. Elsewhere, shrill string lines will warn you of a scare to come, or sometimes amount to nothing at all.
Like I said, don’t expect a relaxing experience in any way. This is The Road, not Animal Crossing.
The sum of these parts makes for one of the most impressive pieces of storytelling and world-building you’re likely to have experienced – and thanks to a few early recap scenes, one you could easily jump into without having played the first game. The medium is almost secondary in that a feature film or TV series with these characters and plot hooks could prove just as heart-shatteringly incredible.
However, this tale’s delivery as a video game serves more purposes than one. It etches another important imprint into the cannon that video games really are the world’s newest art form, a format that’s capable of everything the classics are and then some. Second, it has you walk a mile – many miles – in these people’s shoes. How else could you properly experience the trauma, love, hate, violence, devastation and more that The Last of Us Part II entails?
It’ll hurt to play it, but this game is a treasure to be held in the highest regard.
The Last of Us Part II is out now on PlayStation 4.