Review Copy provided by Sony. Reviewed on PS4 Pro.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But in The Last of Us Part II, developer Naughty Dog’s gruesome, provocative new stealth thriller, it’s paved with obsession. That theme has been dissected in some of the greatest works of the mass media age, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, yet this new entry in The Last of Us franchise manages to feel fresh, due in large part to its cast of fascinating characters. They inhabit a world that feels both familiar and alien, while the complexity of their motivations prevents the narrative from growing stale. All of this rests inside a considerable technical and game design achievement. Sprawling, unrelenting, but always fascinating, The Last of Us Part II is a disturbingly effective fable.
Five years after the events of The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie thrive in the relatively idyllic settlement of Jackson, Wyoming, alongside familiar faces like Joel’s brother, Tommy, and new ones, like Ellie’s girlfriend Dina. But a surprising chain of events propel Ellie and Dina to Seattle, where they seek explanations and closure.
But Seattle is fraught with danger. It’s a cauldron of factional tensions embodied by the conflict between the militant Washington Liberation Front, or WLF, and the Seraphites, the mysterious religious sect pejoratively referred to as Scars, after their distinctive self-inflicted facial wounds. Neither faction takes kindly to trespassers, and won’t hesitate to kill Ellie or Dina on sight. And, of course, this world is still populated with the mindless, flesh-eating Infected, who are greater in number and variety than in the first game.
Forgive my plot summary for being somewhat vague, as major surprises come early in The Last of Us Part II and continue throughout its runtime. While it’s best to avoid mentioning plot details, it’s worth highlighting the way Naughty Dog have woven themes of trauma, loss, and hatred into a cohesive story. It’s also a touching account of queer love, and the quiet strength of the relationship between Ellie and Dina is key to its emotional resonance. These moments are brought to life with commendable voice acting. Particularly worth noting are the effective, understated performances of Shannon Woodward and Stephen Chang as Dina and Jesse.
The impact of this story isn’t hammered home in flashy cutscenes, but slowly builds, as the character’s motives unfold through a tight narrative structure. The linear plot is accompanied by memories and flashbacks that fill in crucial details, and key moments are sometimes repeated from multiple perspectives to great effect. Writers Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross have made a number of bold narrative choices that are sure to prove controversial, and some have already dismissed the narrative out of hand based on misinterpreted leaks without context.
But if you approach The Last of Us Part II with an open mind, you’ll find its most arresting narrative moments justified within the context of the game’s thematic structure. This is a parable about how cycles of hate are perpetuated by fear and misunderstanding, and compounded by tribalism. Conveying that sentiment is prioritized over resolving any individual character’s story arc, but it’s hard not to feel that was the correct decision by the game’s end, even when its pacing is compromised by a number of false endings.
Its message never feels preachy, but it can be cumbersome. Some of the environmental storytelling is very heavy-handed. The world is filled with notes to collect and read, but they often feel like characters relaying their life story to an invisible audience rather than actual notes that real people would write. Likewise, much of the incidental dialogue is lacking, with chattering enemies who seem to only want to talk about how cult-like their cult is, or how devoted they are to their cause. But these heavy-handed moments only stand out because so much of the main story path dialogue in The Last of Us Part II feels true to life.
The combat will be familiar to those returning from the 2013 original, but there are a number of crucial changes that give The Last of Us Part II its own identity. Melee has been revamped and feels much more substantial as a result. The addition of a dodge maneuver requires players to read enemy behavior and wait for an opening rather than attacking at will. It’s simple but satisfying, although some melee encounters that function as boss fights can go on a bit too long.
Gunplay has also been overhauled with a number of new long guns and pistols. The classic 9mm can now be suppressed by crafting a silencer, and Ellie can craft new types of ammo for her weapons. Bullet drop with rifles and the bow feels more natural. The Last of Us never prioritized completely firm gun controls. There’s a bit of sloppiness, with lots of sway and recoil. But the relatively loose feel gels with the realism of this world: this is not a game about a badass supersoldier who can hold a gun perfectly still at all times, and perfectly compensate for recoil. It’s not the tightest gunplay, but it’s not trying to be. That being said, the aim acceleration felt slightly off, and though I tried lowering the sensitivity, it never entirely fixed the problem.
Each gun has its own feel (shotguns are especially satisfying), and the relative scarcity of ammo demands that players constantly switch weapons. Playing on the default difficulty, the provision of ammo was just right. There were a few close calls where some of my weapon’s ammo stocks ran out and I had to improvise. But there’s an overabundance of crafting supplies. Much of The Last of Us Part II involves scavenging dense environments, and I pretty much always had enough materials to craft another healing item or molotov cocktail. It’s not a dealbreaker, but the wealth of these items did hamper the tension.
The level design of The Last of Us Part II is masterful. There’s a wide variety of environments found in Seattle, from hollowed-out street corners and dilapidated hospitals to flooded city blocks with concrete islands. They’re all exceptional playgrounds for the game’s mix of stealth and combat, more filled with vertical space, intersecting passages, and shortcuts than ever before. Many of these areas have objects that can be crawled under while prone to hide, and it’s a delight scoping out every nook and cranny for extra supplies.
Taking a page from the recent Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, there’s an openness to many of these levels that’s satisfying after the very linear nature of the first game. Especially towards the beginning, when Ellie and Dina explore the Seattle Quarantine Zone, the game can almost feel like an open-world. Players are given the choice to explore as much of this area as they want, complete a number of optional objectives, or get on with the main plot. Much of the main plot remains linear, with clear goals for progression, but the maps Ellie explores are larger and filled with more incentives to explore.
Rewards for exploration range from new weapons, holsters that allow Ellie to keep multiple guns equipped without having to use the backpack, and instruction manuals that provide new branches for her skill tree. And yes, you heard that right: there’s an RPG-lite progression mechanic that allows players to choose upgrades for Ellie, ranging from more health to an expanded Listen Mode range. She can also upgrade her weapons at a workbench, where each upgrade is wonderfully animated and results in clear changes to the weapon’s body.
The Last of Us Part II’s encounter design is more of a mixed bag. While many encounters are thrilling, sometimes they feel too repetitive, especially towards the middle of the game, where players will find themselves facing groups of the same human enemies or infected in a row without enough variation in the terrain. Towards the very end of the game, this is remedied by new enemy types, including some more heavily-armored human foes. But these encounters made me wonder why these enemy types didn’t show up earlier—they would have added a great sense of variety to the game’s sprawling runtime.
And about that runtime: it’s nearly twice as long as the original. Expect to spend anywhere from 25 to 30 hours on the campaign—my final runtime was about 29 hours. It’s exceptionally long for this kind of single-player experience. For the most part, though, it justifies its length with thrilling set-pieces and tense story beats. When it’s all over, replay value is added by a New Game+ mode and a Chapter Select menu. Still, the lack of multiplayer stings. The Factions online multiplayer was my favorite part of the original, and while Naughty Dog have promised a new take on Factions eventually, it won’t be a part of this game.
It’s worth touching on the advancements to enemy A.I. in The Last of Us Part II. It’s a huge leap over its predecessor, and while still imperfect, there’s tenacity and persistence to these enemies that constantly ratchets up the pressure, making the player feel hunted and always under threat. Enemies will call for their allies and investigate if they sense something strange, travel in groups to track disturbances, and spot the player when they’re nearby, even when hidden in tall grass or prone.
Friendly A.I. is another story. There are several points in the story when Ellie will travel with a companion, and while they can often deliver a helpful killing blow or support fire, they sometimes seem to move around at random, and, in rare instances, can force the player out of cover by trying to occupy the same spot. They’re undetectable by enemies, which is probably a sensible design decision, as getting detected because of your ally running out of cover would be seriously annoying. But it’s still a bit immersion-breaking to see hostiles ignore the trespasser right in front of them.
Every element of The Last of Us Part II is visually stunning, but particular attention should be paid to the world-class animations. This is the finest system of animation I’ve seen in any game, seamlessly blending movements from one moment to the next with remarkable fidelity and realism. It’s incredible to see Ellie climb up a ledge, grab an enemy, and take them down without a single unnatural motion. This is achieved using the state-of-the-art motion matching technique, previously found in titles like Ubisoft’s For Honor.
Geometry, lighting, and textures are all fantastic, and I was especially taken aback by the quality of material work here. Fabrics look properly rough, leaves have a smooth sheen, and animal pelts are wonderfully fuzzy. It’s not just the technical wizardry that makes these visuals so impressive. The art direction is equal to it, with a strangely beautiful vision of decaying cafes, moody city streets, and foreboding rooms covered with masses of overgrown, otherworldly fungus. That’s all running at a mostly-locked 30fps, with only very occasional blips in the frame-rate.
Another praiseworthy element is the spectacular sound design underpinning the action. It’s always challenging to build a clear mix, but the position of each enemy and effect is just right, with a plethora of calibration options available, both for home stereo and headphone users. Rifles sound off with a satisfying crack, silenced pistols gently snap, and arrows land with a satisfying thud. The minimal score by composer Gustavo Santaolalla gives the scenery plenty of breathing room, accenting with solemn plucks of banjo or guitar rather than insisting on grand, swooning emotion.
The lives of the sad, desperate characters featured in The Last of Us Part II are ripe with dramatic irony, blind to the hate and suffering their skewed senses of justice have created. That same irony can be found in the bizarre online slanging match bleeding into nearly every comment section and social media thread about this game, where spoiler-crazed keyboard warriors spew bile at a game they haven’t played because of a story they’ve yet to experience. Perhaps the contents of this review are just another cry into the digital void, but I still implore you to make your own mind up about The Last of Us Part II. For my money, it’s a thoughtful work, full of creativity, clever writing, and impressive game design. As it did seven years ago, The Last of Us is again offering a console generation its somber swan song. It’s a hell of a tune.