As one of the premier studios in video games, any time Naughty Dog releases a game it’s an occasion. The Uncharted series is incredibly popular, but their 2013 game The Last of Us is probably their best work.
The Last of Us features thoroughly thought out characters and high-quality storytelling in a detailed post-apocalyptic world filled with zombie-like enemies infected by a fungus. I’ve played through it three times and watched even more playthroughs. I can quote it like a beloved movie. To say the least, I was excited for The Last of Us Part II, which came out June 19 on the PlayStation 4.
To put it simply, the sequel didn’t quite live up to the original. However, such a simplistic statement does The Last of Us Part II a disservice.
On one hand, the game is a technical marvel. It’s so gorgeous that at times in the first few hours it was difficult to listen to what the characters were saying in cut scenes because I kept noticing all the details in the visuals. It’s impressive they got a PlayStation 4 to do that (although the fan cranked into overdrive pretty much the whole time).
Additionally, The Last of Us Part II’s gameplay is improved compared to its predecessor, where it was a relative weakness. It remains an impressive mix of strategic stealth and frantic violence, but there are more ways to move, attack and hide. If you are spotted, it is also easier to lose line of sight and reestablish some form of stealth. The enemies are more reactive in this way, which breaks away from stealth as a binary concept as seen in many other games.
Perhaps intentionally, there are a lot of gameplay scenes and areas that feel like callbacks to the first game. In this case though, they are often better versions. For example, there is a scene in the first game where a sniper has you pinned down and you have to run from cover to cover without being sniped. You are put in this situation again in the sequel, but this time it is less frustrating, faster and more exhilarating.
The gameplay creates wonderful tension and some heart pounding moments when things start going wrong. It is a definite strength and carries some early parts of the game when the story starts to drag.
The Last of Us Part II also raises the bar by doing so many things you don’t see often enough in video games. There’s a lesbian protagonist, a trans character, a sex scene of surprising detail, and a whole slew of groundbreaking accessibility options.
The game is nothing if not bold. Sometimes those bold decisions paid off in big ways. Sometimes they didn’t fully land.
The narrative and the story are really what this series is about. While the original is about a growing bond between main characters Joel and Ellie, The Last of Us Part II is a revenge story. Protagonist Ellie seeks out revenge for a traumatic experience in the first few hours of the game.
Naughty Dog does a great job of making you feel what Ellie feels. They provide the reasons for her decision-making. The game sets up an emotional premise and then delivers you the response. A person did something awful to a character you started to care for? Don’t worry, soon enough you will kill them in a grotesque way. They give you what they told you to want.
After a while though, that starts to feel manipulative, as you’re shown the consequences to those violent actions. This feels a little cheap after they put so much effort into setting up why that violent response occurred. At some point, it becomes exhausting and eventually, somewhat predictable.
Ultimately, the point is to eliminate the cut-and-dried hero/villain archetypes. The game bends over backwards to get you to dislike the protagonist and empathize with the antagonist. They want to blur those lines, especially when established characters you built a connection with in the first game are involved. The result is that most every character is bad in some way.
The Last of Us Part II is a study in how controlling a character in a video game affects how you relate to them. In this case, Naughty Dog uses that to get you to empathize with characters you wouldn’t expect to.
They then flip that on its head and make you do things you don’t want to. They want you to feel that. It’s clear those moments are intentional, but that doesn’t mean they always work.
Perhaps more of the key story beats would have landed better with more balanced pacing. It’s a 25-30 hour experience that twice fooled me into thinking it was reaching a climax only for there to be multiple hours remaining each time. By the time the game finally ends you feel exhausted, which again could be by design, but that doesn’t make it a good thing.
That’s not to say none of the story works. The more casual, routine conversation between characters in the game’s multiple flashback moments are excellent. Part II is at its best in the quiet, slower moments when they take a weapon out of your hands.
You don’t have to agree with the choices the characters made, or the suffering Naughty Dog put you through as the player, but being forced to contemplate those things is itself an accomplishment. After all, this is a video game that provokes you to think of character actions as if you were in a literature class.
The Last of Us Part II is a draining experience, but that isn’t entirely a knock against it. It is impressive the emotions the game evokes, but it’s not really an experience to enjoy.
Overall, this game does some things exceptionally well. In some elements, better than any game before it. In other ways, it feels like something you endure.
The Last of Us Part II is out now on PlayStation 4.
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