The Last of Us Part II Review
Creating a sequel to one of the most striking and praised titles of the last decade was always going to be a tough hill to climb. 2013’s The Last Of Us pushed Naughty Dog’s reputation as a leading video game studio to new heights, even with their enviable back catalogue of the Uncharted, Jak and Daxter, and Crash Bandicoot series. The first game felt complete and standalone, with its ending — and lingering sense of discomfort — transfixing players long after the credits had rolled. With this in mind, The Last Of Us Part II wasn’t immediately a necessary sequel to make, but Naughty Dog has fully justified its existence with a darker, introspective continuation of Joel and Ellie’s story. This is not a rehash of crowd-pleasing scenes from the original, attempting to cash in on the series fandom. Instead, The Last Of Us Part II moves into divisive new territory which is likely to challenge and upset in equal measures. Ultimately, this game further cements the Naughty Dog pedigree across its twenty-five hour storyline, and the continued importance of character-led, narrative-driven experiences.
Five years after the events of the first game, Ellie and Joel have settled into a semblance of normal life in the Jackson County settlement. The cordyceps infection is still a present threat, but the walled safety of the township has provided opportunity for friendship, romance, and a sense of community only dreamed of by our characters previously. But as the saying goes, “'We may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with us.” When events from the previous game catch up with the Jackson County residents, the bubble of peace is burst, and Ellie journeys back to Seattle to seek revenge.
The familiar sneaking, shooting, and crafting gameplay returns largely unchanged, although controlling Ellie instead of Joel does create new opportunities in their physical controls. Ellie is nimbler and faster than Joel, able to squeeze through small spaces to find new routes to navigate around human or infected foes. To complement this comes two main updates to the gameplay; the first is a dedicated jump button, which is borderline useless throughout the game, and could easily have been left as a contextual button prompt. The worthy addition, however, is that holding down the crouch button drops Ellie to a prone position from which she can crawl, craft, or shoot from a more hidden position. This option doesn’t really get called upon until the later game when cover is scarcer and less forgiving, but when given the chance to utilise it effectively you’ll be glad of its inclusion. Despite the movement options having a minor overhaul here, the shooting gameplay feels exactly the same as the original — slightly unwieldy, with few weapons having a satisfying impact feel when unloading them into a fungally face.
A new enemy class, Shamblers, expand upon the returning roster of Infected enemy types, and these armoured brutes act as unrelenting mini-bosses as you’re pursued through claustrophobic corridors. The human antagonists of The Last Of Us Part II are two new groups: the WLF are a militarised faction partially evolved from the Fireflies, whereas cultish zealots (known colloquially as ‘Scars’ for their self-disfiguring initiation rites) use bows and arrows to stalk interlopers. These warring parties are each generally more challenging than the Infected, but their AI doesn’t seem to have been brought up to date since 2013. The easy exploitation of sentries investigating the noise of a broken bottle can feel cheap and repetitive after the first several stealth encounters, which led to me purposefully experimenting with less tried and tested methods to get some more juice out of the experience.
This isn’t to say that the gameplay isn’t solid in itself, just a little outdated when compared with the improvements in level design. The Last Of Us Part II presents larger areas (borderline free-roaming in places, akin to Uncharted 4’s Madagascar stage) to navigate around, with more enemy threats at any one time than previously seen. There’s also a greater emphasis on spreading a combat encounter across vertical levels, as multiple pathways flip the script back and forth between ‘hunter’ and ‘hunted’ effectively, and your back will always be left vulnerable without constantly being on the move.
If the gameplay itself hasn’t seen any integral changes, the graphics certainly have. The Naughty Dog engine has never been a slouch, but this iteration packs a punch beyond what we’ve seen before. Cuts, freckles, and even BCG scars build up subtle details in the character models with new fidelity, as the naturalistic reloading and scavenging animations immerse the player further in a realistic world where actions play out in real time. Having advanced five years since the setting of the original game, nature has continued to overgrow the urban environments with vines and vegetation. Although beautiful to look at, the early Seattle areas are similar to what we’ve encountered from The Last Of Us before, but moving beyond the literal concrete jungle brings in freshly exciting environments to take in.
Returning composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s score flits deftly between warmth and menace, with delicate murmurations of guitars building tension across The Last Of Us Part II’s many cutscenes. Other tone setting is achieved through the sound effects, such as the distinct non-diegetic jump-scare noises played when falling foul of an Infected nest. They’re just as potent at stopping you dead in your tracks as in the first game, and I’m pleased these iconic tones have returned despite a lesser weighting being put on the survival-horror elements this time around. The voice cast has to be the real star on the audio front though, as a stand out performance from Ashley Johnson’s Ellie finds new emotional depth in the script’s most gut-wrenching scenes. She’s not alone in this however, and is joined by a strong cast including Troy Baker’s Joel, Shannon Woodward as Dina, Ellie’s love interest, and Jeffrey Wright as the enigmatic leader of the Scars.
Co-writer Halley Gross has worked with Woodward and Wright previously on episodes of Westworld, but even if you’re familiar with that show you may not be prepared for the level of cruel, unflinching pain enacted in The Last Of Us Part II. This is a harsh world full of damaged people, and the barbarous deeds witnessed here are gruelling. It’s unrelenting to the point of exhaustion at times, but as an exploration of violence and retribution it does what it needs to do. Individual opinions will undoubtedly vary, but the argument is there for the sadism to be thematic rather than simply gratuitous, in the ever-escalating cycles of brutality which makes up an initially straight-forward revenge plot. Playable flashbacks intersperse big story beats with touching moments from more peaceful times, and this room to explore Ellie and Joel’s relationship further gives some rare moments of sweetness to contrast with the bitter present day. 2014’s DLC The Last Of Us: Left Behind saw Naughty Dog successfully realising the importance of fleshing out characterizations, so to have these moments included in the main story is a big improvement for the series.
It may not be the sequel you expected, or even the one you wanted, but The Last Of Us Part II represents another step forwards for intense and uncompromising narratives, the likes of which have rarely been explored in video games. All the hallmarks of a quality Naughty Dog title are here, and even though the gameplay itself sadly hasn’t moved forwards, the tone and plotting is fresh and well executed. Apart from the Scars, with their generic religious cult which could have been cut and pasted from any number of games, The Last Of Us Part II still stands out in a crowded industry of grim post-apocalyptic futures.
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