While I will endeavor to keep this review spoiler-free with respects to The Last of Us Part II, I make no promises about the original game. But if we’re being honest, why on earth are you, dear reader, even reading this if you haven’t already played Part I? Stop reading now, close the browser, and go find a copy of the The Last of Us for either PS3 or Remastered on PS4 and play through it before you even think about coming back here.
Are you back yet? Good…
In my opinion, The Last of Us, the original, was the single finest game of the PS3/Xbox 360 console generation. Naughty Dog snuck it in right under the wire the summer of 2013. It was sandwiched by a few months between the official announcement of the PS4 in the spring and its release in the fall of that year. With everyone salivating at the next-gen tech and waiting with bated breath on its promise, Naughty Dog had found a way to eke every last pixel out of the PS3 to make the most visually stunning game of the era. They wrapped the beauty of the world around a story that was heartfelt, heart wrenching, and gorgeous all at once. The Remastered version of the game would appear just a year later, updated for the hardware of the PS4. The best game of the last gen probably sits in the top five of this gen as well.
The Last of Us is all about the story. Ultimately the main plot line is one of a journey. Yes, there are zombies, and villains, and scarcity of resources in a post-apocalyptic world to manage. But really it’s just about a little girl who acts tough growing into the maturity to actually be able to cash those checks her mouth has long been writing. It’s about a grizzled old man chipping away at the walls around his own heart, breaking down the code of rules which have kept him safe thus far. It’s about the development of these two along the long and winding road laid before them. But it’s all about the story, because what surrounds the story is a fairly straightforward gameplay experience.
My colleague Sean calls out the gameplay in much harsher terms than I would use, but he's not entirely wrong. In his words, “the combat, stealth, crafting, survival horror, and exploration have all been done better by older games.” And while he readily admits these aspects “are extremely well done,” he also concludes, "there’s nothing groundbreaking” about the mechanics. But I think Sean's admission in his very first sentence is where he cheated himself—the part where he “remembered why I’ve only ever gotten a few hours into it and resorted to watching Lets Plays.”
If you don’t play through this game, then you're never really going to open up that opportunity to let that story resonate. Even if the gameplay mechanics don’t excite you, recognize that they were crafted seamlessly enough that they won’t frustrate you either, and you can waft your way through the motions of executing them to drive your own journey through the narrative that Naughty Dog is trying to tell. Moving the joystick forward through a simple walking and talking scene puts you in the shoes of the protagonists in a way hitting play on YouTube never will be able to do. And the pace of actually directing the characters forward from cutscene to cutscene is labored—to the point that it provides the space to get lost in that world if you're the one actually behind the controller, but surely just bored by it when you’ve simply tuned in to someone else's stream. Watching The Last of Us disconnects you from the actions, and slows down the experience to one that can’t hope to be as captivating as living through it by playing.
Because beyond that main plot line are the other narratives that weave their way in and out with every chapter, the stories that surround the story. Stories you might miss if only half-invested in a stream versus driving the game camera along the world and locations that spell them out. Because while Joel and Ellie might be on their journey, they do so through a world that is scarred and bears the wounds all too poignantly. Sometimes this world reveals itself via its ashes, in long abandoned and forgotten places that once were alive but have seen tragedy run its course. The fates of the inhabitants of those that lived before the fall reveal themselves in the hollowed out shells of the homes you pass, the carcass of a society, and morality, that has been forgotten. The fates of those who survived, even if only for a little while, also unfold in their new settlements built on top of the infrastructure of that forgotten one. Sometimes it plays out by the scrawls on a note left behind, sometimes its scrawled across the walls in blood. But every location, every chapter, every place not only serves as the route by which our heroes make their way to the end of the first game, but they all reveal their own histories if you care to stop and observe.
This is where we pick up the sequel, both in time and place. In and surrounded by the stories of that larger world. The opening cutscene is Joel confessing to his brother about the choices he made at the end of the first game. We start to establish that there are no heroes in this brave new world. Every action is a shade of gray. It’s not that everyone is depraved and evil, but when everyone’s staring down the barrel of a gun at one another, one person’s struggle for liberty and life becomes another's tragedy of loss and death. The difference being who pulled the trigger first.
The conclusion of the first game pits Joel and his desperation to save Ellie at odds with a chance to save the world via her sacrifice. That little girl had wriggled her way into a void in his heart vacated when he lost his own daughter many years prior. Now her sacrifice could produce a cure to the Cordyceps virus that has ravaged the earth and created this zombie pandemic. But Joel couldn’t let the one life he loves to slip even for the benefit of the many, though to be fair to Joel in an unfair world he had been jaded by, he probably hadn’t seen much good or reason to justify the sacrifice for the sake of the many anyway. So Joel basically murdered his way out of a heavily fortified hospital, killing doctors and soldiers alike, dooming humanity from ever realizing a cure, but saving the life of a child he had grown to cherish as his own.
"Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences."
– Robert Louis Stevenson
These are the types of choices that set into motion all the mechanisms of The Last of Us Part II. One crew kills a member of another. The other seeks and exacts their revenge, only to begin the cycle anew with every party aggrieved and seeking their pounds of flesh. Two tribes at war in an unsteady peace, one misstep later and both are right back at each others throats, filling up the morgues with comrades and friends, neither willing to shoulder any blame for whatever it was that did reignite the powder keg in the first place. The original was a game that didn’t need a sequel. Until, that is, we got this sequel which rightly turns everything on its head. We’ve moved beyond two sides of a relationship and now get the perspective of two sides of a war.
You will be given perspective in this game beyond the narrow-minded focus of the predecessor. This is not just Joel and Ellie’s journey this time around. You will go to war with the WLF, kill many members who stand in the way of your revenge, even slay their dogs, only to later wander through their own barracks and realize they weren’t just a gang of murderous thugs but tended to children in a school tucked away in the belly of their compound. You will see the kennels where the pooches just want to play fetch, a world away from the bloodthirsty monsters they appear when charging at your hiding place teeth bared. You will be ambushed by the religious zealots, the Seraphites. You will hear their whistles as they coordinate their assault without words and flank your position and later read the scribbled notes that unfold why desperate souls would be drawn to them in the first place.
The purpose behind The Last of Us is to tell the story. It was true in the first iteration and remains the central driving force of Part II. In other games the point of playing might be in the simplicity of the buttons you mash to progress but here the gameplay serves more to envelop you in the world it crafts around you. While again not making any claim to be groundbreaking, the gameplay of Part II is entirely functional, it is done extremely well, and it does expand on that from the first game. Skill branches are introduced and the powerups can be leveled via linear paths along a handful of disciplines. You can invest points into weapon handling, stealth, crafting, etc., as you would prefer to help your playstyle. You can approach many of the various checkpoints in whichever way you prefer—sneak past with stealth, pick off enemies one at a time, go guns blazing. It’s up to you, but you will always be challenged by a lack of resources if you choose the latter option.
The weapons you use also have significant upgrade options, from stability and accuracy perks to adding scopes, larger mags, or even upping the stopping power. The arsenal is largely similar to the first game, but the bow ends up taking a much larger role in this one. Each weapon is powerful enough to get the job done when used at a range and scenario that plays to its strengths but also balanced just so that you will never mistake your character for Superman. Challenges must be approached intelligently, you will never be able to run in with overwhelming force.
The gameplay will move at a familiar clip. Exposition in the cutscenes will move the game forward to exploration of the next chunk of world, oftentimes with navigation puzzles. Maybe you need to boost up a wall with a companion, maybe you need find a path to cross a divide. It’s familiar, but also much more understated than the first game. I felt Part II was much less puzzle heavy than Part I was. While there were challenges presented, it wasn’t nearly as reliant on manipulating a ladder or floating pallet to get past every last section.
This is all presented in an expanded world. While the imagined geographical space covered is actually much smaller, each individual locale is much more built out. Part I started in the Quarantine Zone of Boston and finally ended in a Hospital in Salt Lake before an epilogue tacks you back to Jackson. This game ditches the cross country trek and restricts itself to Jackson and Seattle. Even the 800 miles between the two is glossed over in a cutscene, but once there every location map that stitches together to make up the respective cites are so much bigger than those earlier settings.
This game, however, is still played somewhat on rails. Even in the increased play spaces, you will need to get to points A, B, and C to pass a given level. Between those points are hollowed-out buildings and side paths that often are entirely optional to explore. In a very early level, collecting intel in downtown Seattle, the game almost takes on an open world feel in that playground. But once the objectives are met and you progress past the gate of next checkpoint it does settle back down into the more linear experience.
If we’re being unkind we would label certain stretches of the game as a walking simulator. There are portions where there is basically a whole lot of nothing going on, but this time serves as something much more than filler. These are the moments when, as the player, you are given the time and space to marinate on the the characters, the world they inhabit, and development of their own journeys therein.
It is all presented in that classic Naughty Dog style and attention to detail. It’s not just the size of the world that builds the narrative. It’s not just the detail in the backstory of even long-dead corpses you cross paths with. It’s not just the gorgeous overgrown scenery that brings it all to life. It’s the way Ellie steps out into the rain and the droplets start collecting on her jacket. The way she will pull up her hood against that rain to protect herself from the elements until the next time she steps back indoors and lets her hair out again. It's the way she extends a hand to brush along a passing obstacle as she walks by. It’s the seamless transitions from gameplay to cutscenes and back again. It’s the micro economy from act to act as cuts and bruises add up on the character models over time, and the macro economy of how those characters grow up and fill out when jumping back and forth between flashback scenes years earlier. And is is absolutely the superb voice acting and direction of the characters from start to finish. There is loving detail in both the performances of the characters and eerie last detail of the world they inhabit.
The Last of Us is all about the story, and the difficulty is certainly not there to get in the way. Overly generous checkpoints means you're always making progress. Lack of resources means you will be constantly tempted to abuse that with quick reloads whenever you waste too many bullets on a single target or miss that stealth headshot and instead alert the next group to your presence. The enemy AI is actually quite good when in battles, it’s just that the lack of resources makes these battles too costly to regularly engage in.
You will often be joined by companions across the various acts. Occasionally companion AI will block doorways and get in the way. Frustrating but usually fleeting. For the most part the AI companions have great situational awareness. You don’t need to coordinate or order them around. They simply follow your lead on their own autonomy. Stealth kill an enemy with another around the corner, they’ll clean it up for you. Open fire and opt to forgo the element of stealth, they’ll jump right into the fray too. There’s never a complex (and inevitably frustrating) system of commands to learn in order to direct your companions. Their own intuition in reacting to your moves works seamlessly.
This is a game about story, but not one about meaningful choices. You suffer consequences throughout from decisions you never had the agency to make. Just like the grave decision Joel concludes Part I on, the actions in Part II are scripted and unavoidable. You were never given the option not to save Ellie. You never had a choice to sacrifice the one to save the many, or save the one and suffer the cost. But the game did a good enough job of crafting that story. I was never conflicted about the outcome.
That becomes the primary challenge for the sequel. You control the characters but move them through pre-scripted actions that only have the appearance of choice. Then you have to suffer those consequences, but if the stories and motivations are not presented perfectly so, the risk is that the experience is cheapened by paths you would have preferred to walk a different way. And this time the narrative revolves entirely around that cause and effect, something that was more ancillary in the first.
This time the story is much less one relationship set against the backdrop of saving the world and much more heart of darkness with the foreground of revenge. The first game touches on the brutality of a post-apocalyptic world, this game lives down in the mud in it. But even in that mud, you are just along for the ride. Should you torture this one to extract the info they are loathe to give up, or simply let her die and walk away? Will you abandon a friend to keep a laser-focused path on that vengeance or ally yourself with them and try and work together to make sure everyone gets home alive, revenge be damned? These decisions are not yours to make. They belong to others that you might only follow.
And therein lies the rub. Everything is about the story, and when that tale is one that resonates so deeply like the original did in Part I, then all of the blemishes fade away. But if that narrative is not as sufficiently compelling, then you start to realize that the checkpoints are too generous; that I don’t actually have agency in the outcome; that the crafting and survival aspects are really very basic; that the enemy patrol patterns are just patterns to be exploited; that once you’ve had the jolt of the jump scare the first time, every other playthrough will have that same jump at that same moment but likely lack the scare. There is more simplicity in the beautiful journey and two people finding themselves in Part I. In Part II we move to a much more complex tale of how revenge can make monsters of us all. We sit down at the banquet of consequences, but unless the narrative did its job to invest us in those choices the payoff would taste cheap. The verdict…
If Part I was a masterpiece of storytelling and games as art, then it is hard to make light of what’s on offer in Part II. It extends the gameplay, make small adjustments that largely work for a better experience, expands the world with new locations that are even more detailed than before, and brings the loose ends from the first back home to roost. But even though it is marginally better or at least an extension of the first experience in just about every way, how lost you are willing to get in this new tale really comes down to how intimately that tale resonates with you. And as far as scope and breadth of the story Naughty Dog is trying to tell, they have stretched much farther in their ambition this go around.
For me, it only just misses the mark of the first. The choices the developers make to drive the narrative are both brave and bold, and they largely pull it off. There is just that single sliver of disconnect for me, when I can't shake the feeling that I wish I could have taken the road less traveled at certain forks. But that becomes a personal feeling in the end. One that another player might come to quite the opposite conclusion if they, like me in the first game, fully supported the direction those controversial forks took. I supported Joel's action to save Ellie in Part I. Had my own calculus swung in a different direction, I might not have been as enamored with the first as I was and am.
Ultimately, I can't call this game perfect, but I can call it compelling. I can say it is an absolute joy to play. I can say it is a natural extension of the first one which was best in class, but takes the story into an entirely new direction, taking a very different path. And here we are, the very end of another console generation, PS5 dropping their games reveal as this review goes live, and Naughty Dog throwing another Last of Us into the conversation as the best game of another generation. This game is all about the story because that story unfolds underneath many layers of authenticity crafted from the actors behind the character models, tiny details in the locations and settings, a labored pace that never feels dull even when it crawls, but gives you the time and space to settle into the skin of who you are controlling. It is not perfect, but it has to be considered another masterpiece.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...