It’s been several years since players went on a yearlong post-apocalyptic trek from Boston to Salt Lake City in Naughty Dog’s swansong for the PlayStation 3, The Last of Us. It’s here where we were introduced to one of gaming’s best-developed relationships between Joel Miller, the man who lost everything he once held dear, and Ellie, the young girl who could have been the key to developing a vaccine to the virus plaguing the world. Together, their growing father and daughter like dynamic took us on an enthralling ride of warmth and darkness as the two fought for their very survival from both humans and infected alike to reach their final destination. It’s a challenging story to follow-up for any developer, but The Last of Us Part II manages to be an even more emotional journey then the first that will leave just as many lasting scars on its players as it does on its cast of characters.
Set five years after the events of the first game, The Last of Us II primarily throws us into the role of a 19-year-old Ellie, who still remains the brave, nerdy girl we’ve become attached to. Living in the safety of Jackson, Wyoming has given Ellie the ability to develop relationships with new characters, and show more of the unique sides of her personality that she has kept hidden from Joel thus far. Don’t be mistaken by these brief moments of innocence though because this is very much still the same resourceful girl that’s unafraid to speak her mind when others cross her and will fight tooth and nail to accomplish the goals she sets forward. Ellie is every bit the soldier that Joel was in the first game, but what she experiences in this new entry will rattle her to the core and affect her for the rest of her life.
While I don’t want to cover any specific plot details, the overarching theme of revenge and the vicious cycle of what creates it is at the heart of what drives nearly every character involved in The Last of Us Part II. Exploring this theme further emphasizes to me that no one in the world of The Last of Us is a hero or a villain, they’re all just survivors fighting every day for their lives and the things they cherish. Over the course of its over 20-hour-long narrative players will see how revenge consumes these characters, creating both permanent physical and mental damage in the process that eats them alive inside like the very infection that continues to ravage their world. Some will fully succumb to their darkest desires and become beings fueled only by hate, while others will fight with everything they have to escape the violence before it’s too late.
Naughty Dog’s bold narrative choices will without a doubt invoke a thorough mix of emotional responses from the audience. Compared to the events of the first, The Last of Us Part II manages to contain both the most gut-wrenching, depressing scenes Naughty dog has constructed yet, while also managing to eclipse the most heartwarming moments of Joel and Ellie’s previous journey with ease. Just like the original game, I expect the events of this latest entry in the franchise will generate a lot of discussion, with an equal mix of players on both sides of the debate.
Instead of taking place over the four seasons, the majority of Part II’s story takes place over the course of three days in Seattle. While I do miss the mixture of seasonal weather and unique settings that were presented in the first game that painted a much broader picture of how ruined the United States has become, Naughty Dog’s new overgrown concrete jungle is still a sight to behold and explore, even on a base PlayStation 4. The highlight of the art direction for me isn’t even in the larger environments, including the likes of a courthouse and a huge hotel, but the attention to detail in smaller, more intimate, apartments and homes that manage to tell a story all their own through the notes and the items that people left behind during the outbreak. I believe I easily could’ve cut down a few hours of game time through my playthrough if I decided to strictly follow the linear progression path, but The Last of Us has always been a more enjoyable experience for me when I decided to take things slow and explore the nooks and crannies of every optional building I could uncover.
While the environmental storytelling and exploration have definitely elevated to new heights, the core systems and mechanics of The Last of Us also remain fully intact, but with a few new enhancements to vary up its mix of action and stealth gameplay. Now during stealth segments, players can freely go prone to either hide under vehicles or in tall grass, but can also use the mechanic to transition into different rooms to completely throw off the incoming enemies who’ve discovered you.
The last new addition is actually to melee combat. In the original Last of Us, melee combat was simply mash square to brutally kill your enemy and was an easily abused tool to save on using bullets or other crafted resources. However, in Part II players will have to use the new dodge mechanic frequently in melee because enemies can easily stagger you out of your attacks and overwhelm you with grabs and weapons. This makes melee a more situational form of combat and forces the player to rely more on using their available suite of ranged weapons and throwables to win a firefight. Outside of these additions, players will still be keenly focused on scavenging for supplies to craft new tools and weapons they can use to outsmart their enemies and get the upper hand during the game’s various encounters.
Speaking of enemy variety, the infected have added new members to their fungal brood in the form of the stalkers and shamblers that succeed at adding more intensity and scares to Part II’s horrific encounters. The stalkers live up to their namesake perfectly, following Ellie around the environment by hiding in corners and behind walls trying to get a drop on her. Because they’re undetectable in listen mode, players will have to listen closely in their headset for their scurrying feet when they try to reposition, or quickly turn around when you hear them screech, signalling they’re about to attack. Shamblers on the other hand are a new AOE type infected that spew toxic gas from their pores that can’t be stealth killed. For that very reason, these giant pus balls were always the last infected I would kill during my encounters by igniting them with Molotov cocktails and finishing them off with blasts from my shotgun.
To further sell players the feeling that you’re killing living people in this post-apocalyptic world, Naughty Dog has given each human enemy you encounter a name and even provided them with short snippets of dialogue that can tell you about the quality of their lives or what they think of recent events when they interact amongst their companions. Their friends will call out their name if they think their missing, be shocked when they discover their body, and display visible fear when they know Ellie still nearby. One of the most brutal of these interactions I witnessed was when I used my bow to silently snipe an enemy from afar, only to promptly realize he was holding onto a dog by the leash. With the dog’s owner now killed, the poor pupper, that would not have a second thought at going for Ellie’s throat, whimpered and gently nudged at the unmoving body, refusing to leave its master’s side. I think you can guess what I had to do shortly after.
Music composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, returns as the primary composer of The Last of Us Part II’s score and delivers his same minimalistic approach, but now with a new tone to fit the game’s themes. While part 1’s soundtrack delivered on developing a feeling of bleak hope in this ruined world, Part II fully embraces despair and anger. It’s only in the brief uses of tracks by the band, Crooked Still, that players get to hear any real uplifting music with a joyful beat, even if the lyrics within still are a showcase for the game’s core beliefs.
My only nagging disappointment in The Last of Us Part II is the absence of the first game’s multiplayer component, Factions. As with any sequel, I would’ve loved to see how Naughty Dog improved on this already fun multiplayer mode that told a story of your created survivor and progressed in different ways depending on your performance. It even had social media integration that would populate your faction’s camp with the names of your friends to make losing the members of your camp even more disappointing. It’s sad to see this mode on the chopping block because it would’ve extended the life of the game for me and my friends considerably, but if its inclusion meant compromises had to be made for the campaign then I understand Naughty Dog’s decision.
The Last of Us Part II is a perfectly paced emotional rollercoaster ride from start to finish. When The Last of Us originally released in 2013 there was a lot of discussion from players in the community whether or not the game should ever receive a sequel and become a franchise, with many fearing that a second entry could never live up to the original. The jury is still out on that answer until a much wider audience gets its hands on the game, but from my perspective, The Last of Us Part II is a true sequel that matches the same quality of storytelling as the original and will stick with me as one of the defining games of this console generation.