The Last of Us Part 2 had a lot to live up to. Naughty Dog closed out the PlayStation 3’s generation with what many called a masterpiece for both narrative and character building. Now, seven years later, Neil Druckmann and the team at Naughty Dog have returned to revisit Joel and Ellie’s story.
The Last of Us brought us on an emotional, gritty ride that dissected the bond between a man and his surrogate daughter as they travel cross country in a post-apocalyptic world. The dynamic between Joel, a smuggler, and Ellie, a young girl immune to the Cordyceps Brain Infection, felt authentic and gratifying as the two became closer. It marked a high point for Naughty Dog, demonstrating an ability to craft an unparalleled experience.
I never believed we desperately needed to see more from Joel and Ellie. The Last of Us Part 2 comes at a time when the real world faces a pandemic of its own. Through an odd reflection of the challenges humanity faces today, Naughty Dog offers a cold look into a post-apocalyptic world that feels all too real.
There are certainly also a few hitches with this title. Certain gameplay elements hinder it from breaking through the ceiling laid by the original. However, The Last of Us Part 2 demonstrates storytelling of a caliber very few developers have been able to deliver in the past.
Settling in Jackson, Wyoming
The Last of Us Part 2 picks up five years after the conclusion of the first game. Joel’s onslaught against the Fireflies in a bid to rescue Ellie from going under the knife of its medical staff has strained the relationship between the two. We find Ellie and Joel living a relatively peaceful life in Jackson, Wyoming, with Joel’s brother Tommy and his wife Maria.
Ellie is now 19 years old and has become entangled in a growing and prosperous community filled with new faces. She understands who she is and has become colder and more calculating through her experiences. A budding romance between her and a survivor named Dina has begun to emerge. Ellie has also developed a friendship with Dina’s ex-boyfriend Jesse, who frequently joins her on patrols. Joel is older and grayer, but is naturally still protective over Ellie.
Life in Jackson has become rather peaceful. That is until an unexpected even falls upon the community, setting Ellie on a journey for revenge. The Last of Us gave us flickers of hope, like a flame shining through the boarded-up windows illuminating the dilapidated structures littering the United States. For Ellie, that flame is quickly snuffed out, causing her to travel to Seattle, Washington for retribution. Ellie’s path is paved by raw emotion and bloodlust.
The Last of Us successfully told a morally gray story. It urged players to reflect on the decisions made by Joel and Ellie. In the case of The Last of Us Part 2, Naughty Dog has excelled in showcasing moral ambiguity. As Ellie is our protagonist, it’s easy for us to look at Ellie as the righteous character. However, as Christopher Vogler writes in The Writer’s Journey: “Every villain is a hero of his or her own story”. The Last of Us Part 2 is a shining example of this.
As I began to pull back the layers of this game, I began to grasp the drive and ultimate desires of those on Ellie’s hit list. The game’s central antagonists are multidimensional. It continuously made me question who was right and who was wrong, or if anyone was right in the first place. Naughty Dog builds sympathy for its cast of characters as all show vulnerabilities, adding a lot of texture to their dynamics. Through environmental storytelling and cutscenes, perspectives are altered and you grow a greater appreciation of the cast. No character is underutilized, as every one of them is fleshed out in unpredictable ways.
The Last of Us Part 2 does not shy away from being bleak and grim. It puts players in uncomfortable situations and pulls them through tense, heart-pounding encounters. However, to break up long-lasting harrowing moments, the game incorporates scenes brimming with emotion. I was left with relative ease during those beautiful tear-jerking moments, before being pulled back into the game’s ultra-violence once more.
Welcome to The City of Flowers
The Last of Us Part 2 is largely centered around various hubs of Seattle. As a former quarantine zone, Seattle has become a battleground for two warring factions. In one corner stands the Washington Liberation Front (WLF). In the other corner is a union of religious zealots known as the Seraphites (Scars). The hostility between the two has boiled over as they fight over resources, land, and conviction. In the middle, the looming threat of the infected is constant. Mutated victims of the Cordyceps Brain Infection continue to plague the environments.
Seattle is a large area, and Naughty Dog has implemented a slew of new traversal mechanics. Playing as Ellie, you’ll notice a great difference in how she controls versus Joel in The Last of Us. Ellie is faster and more agile. Ellie is able to swing and climb ropes to ascend or descend from higher areas. I was also happy to know that five years later, Ellie has indeed been taught how to swim. There are instances where Ellie will travel by horse or by boat throughout the story as well.
Naughty Dog spent a lot of resources to create a dense and incredibly detailed cityscape. The game features some of the largest environments created by the studio. I found myself being constantly drawn to the particle and lighting effects as they filtered through holes in the walls or through the leaves of a tree. The environments begged me to keep pulling up the game’s Photo Mode to take a quick shot.
That being said, with no navigation cues on screen, I did find myself being disoriented when traversing some of the larger areas, finding myself at a few dead ends.
The Last of Us Part 2 also features really thoughtful pieces of practical problem-solving. Cracking the code for a safe can often lead to having to put yourself in the shoes of the survivor who set the code. Finding alternate ways into a building with a locked door also encourages players to think: “If this was real life, I could do this. Can I do that in the game?” A prime example of this is breaking a window and throwing a rope out to swing to a nearby open window, in order to bypass a locked door.
Strike hard, strike silently
As you fight your way through Seattle, you can have Ellie take the stealthy approach, or go in loud with various weapons and throwables. The enemy AI is surprisingly intuitive. Naughty Dog has brought realism of enemies to a new level. After silently killing an enemy, I hid in an abandoned shop and watched as his WLF mates patrolled the area. One called out: “John? John?” She eventually realized one of her own had fallen, and quickly came to his last known location. It wasn’t before long that she called out to the others and notified them that an intruder may be nearby as they put their guard up.
The new infected also adds another layer of strategy. In addition to the standard Clickers, Bloaters, and Runners, Stalkers are introduced. Stalkers are a stealthy infected type that will strike when you’re least expecting it. Shamblers are another new addition that spews poisonous gas from its body. Each enemy type requires a different strategy. My anxiety shot through the roof during the game’s many intense enemy encounters.
The way Ellie approaches combat can only be described as primal. The force she uses as she swings an axe into an enemy or stabs an opponent after silently grabbing them can make you wince. Shooting an enemy in the head or limb is met with a gruesome sight of blood and bone. None of the violence is meant to feel gratifying in any way. More often than not, I felt guilty in disposing of the enemies in such horrific ways. Unfortunately, that’s what’s needed to survive in this world. It leaves you feeling hopeless and anxious during each encounter.
Shooting mechanics have never been Naughty Dog’s strong suit. The Last of Us Part 2 does so much right by its fluid character controls and animations, but shooting never feels as precise as it should. Even by the time I was near the end of the game, I still felt hindered by the game’s aiming. It partially goes back to the enemy AI and the unpredictable nature by which they move and shuffle as they hunt you. Just as I lined myself for a perfect headshot, they’d duck for cover or turn around to look in another direction.
All that said, there are many opportunities to completely ignore combat and sneak through areas.
Becoming a hoarder
Crafting plays a substantial role in the moment-to-moment gameplay. Searching drawers goes beyond finding collectibles as materials can be used to craft silencers, arrows, ammo, and health kits. The UI of the crafting and inventory selection menu has been cleaned up and refined since the first game. Animations are incredibly detailed when switching between weapons as you place a gun in its holster and grab a rifle that is hung on Ellie’s shoulder.
The game shows a keen eye for detail when getting into the minutiae of upgrading your weapons as well. At a workbench, you’ll see Ellie tinker with pieces of collected scraps to add scopes, grips and more to weapons. It’s an unnecessary but appreciated element that many other games gloss over.
Ellie’s abilities can also be upgraded to help fit your playstyle. If you prefer the more stealthy approach, you can use supplements found in the world to unlock new skills. Picking up various Training Manuals will unlock new skill branches. These small upgrades are balanced so you never feel overpowered, but you’re still improving your overall performance and abilities.
The Last of Us Part 2 will undoubtedly be divisive to some. It’s determined to make players face unthinkable acts of violence in many ways. Naughty Dog also wants to twist the expectations and perspective of players, placing moral ambiguity in the center of its enthralling narrative.
I was of the mind that The Last of Us was a phenomenal one-and-done experience. However, I firmly stand by the notion that The Last of Us Part 2 is a must-play continuation to see how the characters evolve and grow. Certain combat mechanics and scope of the environment could be more refined. That said, Naughty Dog has continued to raise the bar on cinematic storytelling, and further propelling the gold standard of third-person action-adventure games.
The Last of Us Part 2 will be available on June 19 on PlayStation 4.
A PlayStation 4 copy of The Last of Us Part 2 was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment Canada for review purposes.