There’s an argument to be made that 2013’s The Last of Us was a game that never needed a sequel. While its ending certainly left the door open for future instalments, it concluded with a solemn and morally questionable decision that felt all too fitting for the overtly violent world the game had depicted, and it would have been extremely difficult to write a story that justified re-examining those crucial final moments. Now after a lengthy seven-year wait, The Last of Us Part II is finally upon us, and while it is unmistakably ambitious, it fails at the monumental undertaking of validating its own existence.
Five years after the events of the first game, our leading characters Joel and Ellie have slipped into a formulaic and mostly sheltered lifestyle in the quaint Jackson settlement, a safe-zone that Joel’s brother Tommy helped build alongside his wife Maria. The opening couple of hours effectively depict a much more harmonious existence for Ellie in particular, who has finally found some form of stability in her life, before tragedy quickly strikes and strips a key pillar of support from her, via a murder orchestrated by a mysterious rival group. Ellie, of course, seeks revenge on this group by travelling to Seattle with the sole purpose of killing the one who committed the execution.
Initially seeming like a typical revenge set-up, Part II’s narrative quickly blossoms into something much more experimental, jumping between different perspectives and moments in time to paint a much fuller and more nuanced picture. Even more so than the first game, it’s a story that’s rife with moral ambiguity, with its dualistic approach to story-telling painting events in one light, only to give the player a much more balanced understanding by showing another side of the conflict. While this more experimental approach mostly weaves together its disparate threads in unexpected and satisfying ways, it also results in some damning pacing issues that weigh down the experience immensely.
For the first 8-10 hours of Ellie’s journey throughout the war-torn and overgrown streets of Seattle, plot progression moves at an insufferably slow pace, making huge stretches of the game feel essentially pointless. Some of the lengthy dead-air is used to give way for character interactions between Ellie and her interchanging companions, but unlike the first game, a number of these new characters fall completely flat.
Joel is still present at times, and his interactions with Ellie often act as highlights throughout the story, effortlessly recapturing their relationship which made the original so irreplaceable to many fans. His screen time overall has been reduced significantly, however, with Ellie’s new friends filling the void instead. What’s unfortunate is that her relationships with these new characters don’t come close to feeling as believable or as authentic as her moments with Joel.
Ellie has a girlfriend now named Dina, and the game seems to work under the assumption that everyone will immediately like her without being given a reason to. We’re told that she’s formed a long-standing close bond with Ellie over the time between the first and second game, but we’re not shown any of it. Dina also lacks any sense of agency, simply tagging along with Ellie a lot of the time just because they’re in a relationship, leaving her feeling devoid of intrigue. Ellie’s other friend Jesse also fails to leave much of an impact, mostly due to his lack of overall screen time or relevance to the story.
The narrative thankfully picks up substantially in the second half, with a larger dynamic cast and plot developments being doled out at a much more frequent tempo. Even still, the issue of pacing feels pervasive later, leading to larger scenes of character growth and decisions feeling oddly rushed through. This even extends to the story’s climax, where the logic behind a conclusive character choice is swiftly brushed over, with the reasoning being barely justified.
While the story is a clear step backwards, both in its pacing and character writing, other key facets of the game have seen notable improvements. Gameplay improvements have been given appreciable consideration, both in mechanics and how the game incentivises their use. Combat still packs the same unmistakable punch that it did in the first game, thanks to the weighty animations and impactful sound design, but now players also have a bevy of new options to take advantage of.
A dedicated dodge button makes the melee combat feel slightly less one-dimensional than it previously did while also giving players a way to quickly duck out of the way of gunshots. Tight spaces in between two objects – referred to as “squeeze throughs” – also allow for additional ways to get out of immediate danger. Meanwhile, the abilities to both jump and go prone add an extra layer of verticality to combat, along with more stealth options and hiding places.
Combat arenas take good advantage of all of these systems, with their larger scopes and more seamless use of environmental objects giving many more chances to get creative with dispatching of groups. New enemy types, such as the dogs, also force the players to think on their feet, being able to sniff out their scent and lead enemies directly to them, and subsequently forcing more quick-second decision making.
Some of the most notable changes come from the Infected, which feel like a more frightening and less predictable threat than in the previous instalment, both from their visual tweaks and new variations. The eyes of the Runners somehow manage to convey a sense of malice while also seeming lifeless, and their stares can send a chill down the spines of even the most avid horror buffs. Meanwhile, the new Shamblers have designs that are as immediately grotesque and striking as the now-iconic Clickers, while their abilities and traits add another flavour to Infected encounters.
The dynamic nature of combat is immensely satisfying, but somehow the game’s pacing manages to interfere here too. The new mechanics and enemy types are drip-fed into combat encounters at an insultingly slow rate that feels borderline-patronising. The game appears to have no trust that the player will be able to keep up with such banal concepts as hiding in tall grass or under cars, unless they’re incorporated into the gameplay after several hours. What’s worse is the mockingly lenient checkpoint system, which feels like a direct knee-jerk reaction to anyone who has ever complained about a game being too frustrating. If you die during a combat encounter with a larger group, you’re not sent five minutes back to the start of the encounter, you're sent back mere seconds prior to the point where you were spotted and subsequently killed. Any air of tension that’s built up in these combat encounters immediately dissipates when it becomes all too apparent that there’s a constant safety net. It’s ironic that a game about surviving a harsh world of brutality would be so mindful of constantly coddling the player.
Anyone who decides to replay The Last of Us Part II just to get an additional fill of the fun gameplay will be frustrated to know that it features long stretches of barely interactive sections where the characters just talk, along with numerous unskippable cutscenes. Without a multiplayer mode this time around, anyone who enjoys the game primarily for the gameplay is left out to dry, as they’ll be forced to sit through hours of slow story content. What makes it an especially glaring oversight is the fact that the game goes out of its way to provide a seemingly unprecedented array of accessibility options for all types of players, but is unintentionally designed to work against those who’d ever want to play the game again solely for its gameplay.
Much like its 2013 predecessor, Part II is a technical showpiece, pushing the PlayStation 4 hardware to its limits to provide some of the most obsessively detailed and beautifully rendered environments that one can find in a modern AAA game. The sheer amount of work that clearly went into bringing this post-apocalyptic interpretation of Seattle to life can’t be understated, and Naughty Dog has yet again proven itself as one of the leading developers in the industry when it comes to visual fidelity.
While it undoubtedly matches the proclamations of being Naughty Dog’s most ambitious title yet, The Last of Us Part II is a game that also feels like it could greatly benefit from an edit. Some odd priorities, excruciating pacing, and weak character writing keep this intriguing game from being excellent, even if its gameplay and presentation have received large improvements. Upon reflecting on the 25-hour journey, there may be a point where you start to question what the purpose of it all was. Maybe it’s intentional, but for many, it’ll feel more like a meandering endeavour; albeit one with a gorgeous world and enjoyable mechanics.
The Last of Us Part II (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
Some odd priorities, excruciating pacing, and weak character writing keep this intriguing game from being excellent, even if its gameplay and presentation have received large improvements.