Major spoilers ahead.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, 2013’s gaming phenomenon, stole into hearts and minds unlike any game before it, crafting a thought provoking, complex story around it’s solid stealth/action game-play and horror dynamic. It certainly goes down as one of my favourite games of all time, and I’m not ashamed to admit this, is one of the few games that had me so emotionally invested that I cried when it’s tragic, bittersweet and conflicted ending came.
So seven years later, and we have the long awaited sequel. What’s new? What’s the same? And how do we find our favourite characters Joel and Ellie after the first game’s gut punch of a cliff-hanger ending? There was obviously a lot of hype surrounding this game – and even some leaks, which I dodged, thankfully – and like many sequels that arrive long after their predecessors, there was always going to be joy but also scepticism and it’s very much one of those games where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
So, which wins the day? Joy or scepticism.
The Last of Us: Part II is, on the surface, a familiar experience; while it’s not devoid of innovation or ignorant of the need to change things up, on the whole it is incredibly similar to the first game. In basic terms of the game-play and how it’s structured, there’s not that much new here. It feels like The Last of Us with a new coat of paint. Take from that what you will but I was immediately struck by how comfortable and familiar it all felt. I know people bash the game-play, and sure it’s a bit clunky, but I really like that about it. I commend Naughty Dog for it. It allows for tight, exciting and stressful encounters, which make up a lot of the game, and it really helps immerse the player in what’s going on. It takes what made the first game so thrilling – the almost panic-inducing combat/stealth encounters – and doubles down on it, and why shouldn’t it?
I’m making it sound like a carbon copy, which it’s not; there are tweaks of new content in The Last of Us: Part II that keep it fresh enough; the areas where the combat encounters take place are more expansive, making them a veritable playground for whatever your poison is, sneaky shivving or guns blazing, and they feel natural and emergent; I often found I would try to go in sneaky, make a mistake and end up in a shootout, but then be overwhelmed and have to sprint away, health draining, to hide and regroup. The enemy AI, while nothing particularly advanced, felt smart enough to be able to flush me out or pen me in, making me think on my feet time and time again. I didn’t die often in these encounters, but I had so much fun tackling them on the fly, trying to work out the best plan and then having my plan shot to pieces. New additions such as going prone to hide in long grass, or being tracked by sniffer dogs, really helped to amp up the tension and excitement and these sequences were so rewarding when I managed to pass them. Elsewhere, there are some new, slightly more in depth crafting elements, new enemies and a segment of the game where an open world structure is teased, allowing you to explore a fairly large chunk of Downtown Seattle, but it settles back into the linear, focused groove later on.
One thing that is definitely different here is the graphics; The Last of Us: Part II is breathtaking to behold. I have never in my life seen such exquisite character models and facial animations. The attention to detail is staggering, not just on the characters but things like clothing physics and how realistically ropes and cables move is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They’re astonishing. That’s where a lot of the joy in this game’s presentation is found, small details. If you zoom in on a mirror, Ellie will squint back at you, or if you flash your light into another characters face, they’ll flinch away from it. They’re minute, trivial things, but it all helps in creating an immersive, believable world. Naughty Dog haven’t been big and brash when it comes to this stuff; on the surface, you might be forgiven for thinking it was the first game, but to look deeper in both aesthetic and game-play, you’ll find plenty that wows. I like that they didn’t feel the need to overhaul that much; I think they wanted the story and how it plays into people’s memories from The Last of Us to be the thing that really grabs you, and I think they succeed.
I think there are some really fascinating, bold choices made in regards to the narrative and the continuation of both Joel and Ellie’s story. It was the thing that made the first game so special, so whatever direction Naughty Dog went, they were bound to ruffle some feathers. The Last of Us: Part II’s story is complex and intricate, uninterested in pandering, it examines it’s characters through a lens of heartbreak, vengeance, and memory. Everything is linked to how we remember those who we have lost. The first time we control anyone, it’s Joel. It a brief scene of him and his brother Tommy riding back to Jackson, but its a nice reminder of what it was like back in 2013 to play as our hero, but at the same time, we’re reminded exactly what Joel did to get where he is at this point, and of the consequences. He reveals the truth about Ellie and the Fireflies to Tommy, who is shocked but promises to take it to his grave. Fast-forward four years and we’re now playing as Ellie, and we see the strains of her and Joel’s relationship, but also the blossoming of one between her and Dina, a new character who Ellie has feelings for.
It’s here where The Last of Us: Part II surprised me: just as you’re settling into playing as Ellie, a new character, Abby, is introduced, and you play as her for a short while, flipping between the two until the story intersects, when it’s revealed that Abby and her group are after Joel, and in an emotional and shocking scene, Abby beats him to death in front of Ellie’s eyes. Though Joel’s death wasn’t entirely unexpected, it was powerful, upsetting and a perfect way to kick start Ellie’s journey.
And so, we guide Ellie along on her quest for vengeance, a journey of three days interspersed with flashbacks that shine a little more light on how her and Joel’s relationship has developed over the past four years. She’s accompanied by Dina for much of this and I really liked her character, and how she allowed Ellie’s softer, more human side to show. They have a nice dynamic which becomes complicated when Dina falls ill, revealing that she is pregnant. Playing as Ellie feels great, and she has some brilliantly exciting set piece moments, but narratively, it’s a bittersweet experience. Her interactions with Dina contrast nicely with the flashback segments; even though I was constantly being reminded of Joel and Ellie’s relationship, not just through the flashbacks but also the gameplay similarities, it never felt like nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. It works to ease us into something new while keeping us close to the memory of the first game, hammering home the stakes at play for her as a character, what she is striving towards but also what she is potentially giving up, as she cannot move on from the past.
Naughty Dog make probably their boldest narrative decision about half way through the game, returning control to Abby, and seeing her experiences over the three days. But wait a minute. I’ve just spent fifteen hours tracking this woman down. She killed Joel, who wasn’t just important to Ellie, but important to me. How am I supposed to be immersed in her story when I resent her? Isn’t she the villain? But this game isn’t really interested in heroes or villains, I realised. Even though I disliked Abby from the off, not for any reason other than she was getting in the way of me playing as Ellie or Joel, I think the genius here is that was clearly the point. Despite giving you control of her in those initial introductory moments, much of her character and her motivations are kept vague, which allows her to remain distant, and cold. When you’re eventually made to play as her again, she certainly takes some getting use to, but the game does a brilliant job of chipping away that cold exterior, delving into who she is and why she did what she did. The structure follows the same pattern as Ellie’s segment; three days, interspersed with flashbacks. There’s a little overlap with the story you’ve already seen with Ellie, and, importantly from a game play perspective, Abby has all new weapons, even new abilities to learn, and collectables to find. This helps tremendously in making her feel different to Ellie in terms of keeping the game fresh and engaging, but in terms of the story, the way Naughty Dog explore her character, makes her so vitally similar. I’m not actually sure how they did it, but I think I preferred Abby over Ellie. To take a character, who at the start of the game, mercilessly murders Joel, and who we don’t really get to know until fifteen hours in, and to make her a well-rounded, empathetic person who I cared about is just terrific writing. She’s helped by a stronger supporting cast – Lev in particular – and the game goes to great pains to show her as a caring, yet conflicted character. In her flashbacks, Abby’s motive for killing Joel is revealed – her father was one of the doctors whose job it was to operate on Ellie, and who Joel killed at the end of the first game and this fuels her drive in the early parts of the game. Later on, Ellie kills two of Abby’s friends: her ex boyfriend, Owen, and his pregnant girlfriend, Mel, and this once again sparks Abby into a revenge quest. But this time, she isn’t the same person she was and when Ellie and Abby finally cross paths – I loved that you had to have a boss battle against Ellie – Naughty Dog remind us what this story is all about – forgiveness and remembering the best of those that you loved so you can move on with those that are still there for you. In Abby’s case, it’s Lev who convinces her to let it go, to not continue on this path of never-ending rage, and it feels authentic to the experiences that you have gone through as the character; it feels like growth. And it takes help from the other characters, the new ones – Lev and Dina – for Abby and Ellie to see that they can still function, and have a purpose other than violence and rage.
The beauty of these characters is in their humanity and how similar it truly makes them; is Abby any different than Joel or Ellie? Their lives have all been consumed by rage and vengeance, each of them driven forward by a seemingly unquenchable desire to get those who have wronged them, but we’re constantly reminded that pain can be a vicious cycle, especially if we’re always looking outward for the next chance to inflict it, but in the end we’re only hurting ourselves and the memories of those we have lost. I’ve read some criticism of the narrative, that it can’t possibly hope to enforce this viewpoint of forgiveness and letting go, when it makes the player engage in violence, basically fuel the vengeance of these characters purely by playing the game, but I’m not sure that I agree; by having Abby and Ellie intersect, by blurring the lines of good, bad and even necessary, we as the player are allowed to see first hand the effect all of this bloodshed has on the characters. We go through every horrible encounter with these two tired, angry, devastated women who don’t know what else to do, but by the end learn that there is more than this to their lives, if they can just forgive, if they can just remember that some beauty and humanity remains in their broken world. It’s not an easy lesson by any stretch, but by sharing game-play between them, it created, for me at least, such a fascinating element of poignancy, and nuance. One of the final encounters has Ellie, beaten and bloody, track Abby down, who herself has been strung up on a cross. Ellie frees her, and the two fight. But there was such a powerful feeling of despair here, for me and for them. And that’s where the overarching narrative works; despite the game making me kill all of these people, making me shoot dogs and claw and scratch through all of these stressful, scary encounters, by the end, I’m shouting at the screen for them to stop, I wanted them to stop this futile cycle of vengeance and pain, because I cared about both Abby and Ellie, and I had seen them suffer enough. Despite the emotional agony it put me through, I loved this bit; very much like the previous fight between the two it forces us to question our actions, and our motivations. Ironically, I died several times because I did not want to go through with the button prompts which made me inflict more pain and suffering. People can talk about The Last of Us: Part II as glorifying violence, as an exercise in futility about characters that have no hope or don’t learn from their actions, but I have never before in my life experienced a game that makes me look at violence in the same way as this did. While some may think it’s message is at odds with its insistence on vengeance, I think that it succeeds in ways most other games don’t. The structure of the game informs the narrative; through the cyclical nature of the plot, we’re re-treading things seen before, not exactly but close enough, and this reinforces the themes and the characters and even real life, the pattern of human existence and how it makes us who we are, or more specifically, warns us about who we are in danger of becoming. I think Naughty Dog have really pushed the envelope with this game from a narrative perspective, very much like they did with the first.
I’ve not really touched on the negatives here, and it might sound trite, but I don’t think there are any that really impact on the experience. There are a couple of characters that I didn’t care for as much as the game wanted me to – Jesse and Manny – and I also thought for much of the game that the structure was a bit clumsy, but the longer I thought about it, the less I felt that was the case. I think the structure works in keeping the game surprising and it perfectly helps the thematic comparison of the two main characters, to see them side by side as they work towards their own goals, and keeping that duality of the two is much more important than anything else here, and in the end, I really liked that it kept the characters in sharp focus.
It’s certainly not perfect, but like it’s predecessor, it is a defining, important, narratively driven experience. Full of nuance and deep, complex emotional content, The Last of Us: Part II is a brave and fascinating sequel, one that surprises and shocks, but not just for the sake of it. It asks challenging questions, and doesn’t pander, but it does this by somehow keeping the heart and soul of the characters and their tragic stories alive. And it doesn’t break any gameplay mould, certainly not, but what is here is really satisfying. It had that down the first time, and it smartly reinforces everything that made the first game great. It is that familiarity that makes it so good, I think. It urges us, like it does it’s characters, to look at what and who we are, where our decisions are taking us, to embrace the good that is in front of us. It doesn’t ask us to forget the best of the past, but it does ask us to learn from the worst of it. The Last of Us: Part II is a more than worthy sequel; it’s superior in the obvious ways – aesthetically and performance-wise, but that is second-hand to the exquisite way they have crafted a sequel that feels and breathes the heart and sadness of the original. It is the same, but different, exploring the themes of loss, guilt, memory and forgiveness in a deeper and braver way than the first game did, and that is saying something.