Reviewed on PlayStation 4
This review contains *minor* story spoilers
Video games have the ability to challenge players in a number of ways. They can test our speed and reflexes in games like Tetris or Dark Souls, they can test our wit in games such as Civilization, and once in a while an ambitious game comes along that dares to challenge the way in which we think about video games and what they are capable of as a storytelling medium. The Last of Us Pt. II from developer Naughty Dog is one such game.
Hidden underneath the trappings of a fairly traditional stealth action game is an experience that pushes the boundaries of storytelling in gaming. It defies expectations and dares to tell a tale unlike anything I’ve ever played. And while the execution isn’t perfect, it succeeds in giving us one of the most unforgettable stories in the history of gaming.
The story picks up a couple of years after the events of the first game, with Joel and Ellie having settled down in the small town of Jackson, Wyoming after their traumatic cross country journey. They’re living a relatively peaceful life (for the apocolypse that is) alongside Joel’s brother Tommy, his wife Maria, and a community of fellow survivors including new characters Dina and Jesse. They spend their days tending to crops, trading with visitors, and going on patrol to take out the occasional infected that strays too close to town. Jackson is a charming town full of life, and as you walk it’s streets, it’s easy to forget the horrors that lurk just beyond it’s walls.
The tranquility of their walled sanctuary is just a facade though, and you know that it’s only a matter of time until the dark truth of the outside world comes knocking at their door. And inevitably it does, in the form of a sudden and violent attack that leaves the community shaken and sends Ellie out into the world to try and hunt down those responsible. Her journey will be long, it will be violent, and it will forever change the lives of everybody she knows and loves.
As I sit down to attempt to put words to my feelings, having just completed the game, it’s difficult to know how to begin. The Last of Part II is a brutal, powerful work of art, and approaching things like how the game controls or how the crafting system works seems almost trivial, even though those things are important when writing about an interactive experience. What I will say about the gameplay is that it plays more or less how you remember the first game playing. Nothing has been fundamentally changed although they’ve fine tuned it to make the stealth more satisfying and the combat feel less frustrating. I definitely found myself having more “fun” with the gameplay than I did in the first installment.
But even though this is a video game, and things like how the combat feels or the upgrade system works absolutely matter, those things are secondary to me next to the writing, the characters, the music, and the world building. For myself, I come to a game like The Last of Us for the storytelling. I play a game like this to be fully immersed in another world and experience an incredible story, and developer Naughty Dog is at the top of their game, creating a living, breathing world better than just about any other I’ve ever seen.
The way in which these artists have managed to create this believable world is nothing short of stunning. Every overgrown street corner, every boarded up corner store, and every abandoned home is meticulously detailed. No matter where you look you’ll find small touches like a desk set up to paint Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, or a child’s bedroom with a stack of PlayStation 3 games collecting dust on the shelf. You buy into this world because of these details and all of the time and care put into creating them.
The amazing world-building is one half of the storytelling equation though, the other side of the coin is the writing and performances in the game. It’s difficult to talk about what makes this game so special without getting into spoiler territory, but let me just say that the writers have done an outstanding job of not only creating a cast of characters who feel believable and real, but also characters that you truly care about. The harrowing situations that Ellie, Joel, and company go through only works if you care about whether they survive or not, and I was completely emotionally invested in their tale from start to finish.
I’ve seen a few discussions about The Last of Us Pt. II saying that it’s a game full of terrible people doing terrible things. And while it’s true that there are some truly awful people in this story,I would argue that most of the characters are more nuanced than that. I think that the brilliance of the writing is that it shows that most people aren’t as black and white as they might seem, even if they’re your so-called enemy. It’s easy to put people into two boxes for “good” and “evil”, but that’s not how the real world usually works. People are more complicated than that. These are people in unimaginable and terrible situations, doing what they think they need to do to survive and protect their friends and family, even if the things that they have to do can sometimes be awful and violent. It doesn’t absolve them of their sins, but I don’t think you can paint them all as monsters.
And when I say “awful”, I absolutely mean it. The Last of Us Pt. II is probably the most brutally violent game I’ve ever played. There were moments that I wished I could look away because of the terrible things you see and are forced to do. There were several scenes of such unnerving violence that they left me disturbed by what I had seen, and I would tell folks who are sensitive to extreme violence, without hesitation, that this is probably not the video game for you. But I will say that the violence isn’t just there to be shocking, the developers have a message that they’re trying to convey and the brutality is in service of that story.
As intense and unflinching as the violence can be through most of the game though, I was surprised by the number of scenes throughout the game which were beautiful, tender, and truly heartwarming. In fact some of my favorite moments in the entire game are the ones in which the game steps away from the bloody carnage for a few moments to remind us that for as awful as this world can be, there’s also beauty to be found. Even among all the horror of the apocalypse.
The game’s creators also do a fantastic job of subverting the player’s expectations of what kind of story they’re going to tell. Whatever direction I may have thought they were going to take with this story beforehand, what they ultimately did was something I never would have expected. It’s a unique story and I applaud them for taking chances instead of telling what could have been a fairly unoriginal revenge tale. I was repeatedly left stunned and surprised by the choices that they made, and right up until the very end I had no idea how things were going to play out.
It also needs to be said that the performances by the actors in this game are nothing short of brilliant. Some of it is undoubtedly due to advances in performance capture technology which makes the characters seem more real than ever before, but also I think that when you get actors this talented and have them perform their scenes together as opposed to recording individually or remotely from their own studios, it makes it so much more believable. The performances are full of small little moments between characters and subtle expressions on their faces that really goes far in selling the emotions of the scenes.
The entire cast deserves kudos for their work, but I think Laura Bailey in particular gives an absolutely knock out performance as Abby, a new character introduced in the sequel who in my opinion absolutely steals the show. I think people will be talking about this character for years to come and I’m sure Bailey’s name will come up quite a bit during awards season at the end of the year.
If there’s one significant criticism I had of the game it would undoubtedly be the length of it. Like Uncharted 4 before it, I feel like the game would have benefited from trimming at least a good 5 hours from it. I have nothing at all against lengthy games, but there are only so many empty office buildings you can search and desks to rummage through before it wears thin, and the pacing suffers a bit because of it, particularly towards the end of the game. The feel like the last segment of the game could have been significantly shortened, if not removed altogether. Ultimately the story that they took 30 hours to tell would have probably felt better in 25 hours instead.
When we began writing reviews for Mega Dads, I tossed around the idea of forgoing scores entirely for the sake of putting the emphasis on the opinion itself. Video games are pieces of art that are as complex and nuanced as any other. How do you walk through the Louvre and say “I give Winged Victory an 8.5” or listen to a live performance of Yo-Yo Ma and declare it a 9? I ultimately lost that argument and here I sit trying to assign a number to a game that is so much more than just the sum of it’s parts.
When The Last of Us Pt II was first announced I wondered not only if they could ever pull of a satisfying sequel to what was in my opinion one of the best games of all time, but also whether creating a follow-up was even necessary. After finishing Part II I can confidently say that not only does this game live up to the brilliance of the original, but it honestly feels more like the second half of a puzzle, rather than an addition to the first game. They are two parts of a whole, and I now cannot imagine the one existing without the other.
It’s a story about the dangers of giving in to hatred and anger, and about the beauty that can be found in the small moments of life, even when everything else around us seems grim and hopeless. It’s a game that will stick with you long after you finish it, even if the emotions that linger are difficult or uncomfortable. And that’s okay.
The game can be both breathtakingly beautiful and gut wrenchingly ugly. It is mechanically an improvement over it’s predecessor yet the gameplay can feel dated at times. It features some of the best written and developed characters I’ve ever seen in a game, yet they overstay their welcome and the final third of the game drags on too long. The Last of Us Pt. II isn’t perfect, but art isn’t supposed to be. That’s not the point. The point is to make us feel something. And they’ve done that better than almost any game I’ve ever played.