The short version: a more ambitious game than its predecessor, but for the most part, more of the same. 'More ambitious' reads like a compliment, but that's not necessarily true; more risks being taken means that more of the things it tries don't quite come off. 'More of the same' reads like an insult, but that's not necessarily true either; we are talking about one of the very greatest games of all time here, after all, and more near-perfection is still near-perfection.
The long version - which I would strongly recommend not reading until you've played through The Last of Us
at the very least, and ideally not until you've finished this one too:The Last of Us Part II
is a game about a visceral, grotesque, utterly despicable disregard for human life. That was ultimately true of the first game too, and there is absolutely a case to be made that this sequel's greatest failing is its lack of subtlety about it - but then, perhaps it needed to be brutally direct. A number of the people I've seen commenting on The Last of Us
seem to think of Joel as some kind of noble figure, sometimes even a hero, for what he does at the end
, but let us be crystal clear about this: Joel's decision to kill the doctors who could have saved the human race was tantamount to genocide
. Yes, the writing of the first game was good enough to make you understand why he did it, but that doesn't mean it wasn't an unspeakably selfish, downright evil thing to do
. Maybe the fact that so many players were unwilling to condemn him for it
convinced those at Naughty Dog that subtlety was out of the question if they wanted people to actually get the point. And so The Last of Us Part II
forces us to reckon with the consequences of Joel's actions, to gaze in horror at the world he created
That's the root of the most significant difference between the two games. Much of The Last of Us
was driven by hope, Ellie cast as the symbol of a brighter future, Joel the man tasked with delivering her to the doctors that could unlock her potential and save humanity from the parasite that had doomed it. When he chose Ellie - or more accurately, chose himself and his fear of loneliness - over the rest of the human race, Joel cruelly ripped that hope out root and stem. The Last of Us Part II
reckons with what that world looks like years later, when it has become totally gripped by the tone Joel set for it
: every single person in this game cares only about those closest to them, never sparing a single thought for humanity as a whole.
And here's where we see this game through two separate lenses. The sheer, unmissable disregard for humanity here forces the player to have it at the forefront of their mind regularly, as do several new features that Naughty Dog have added to your human victims - features like calling out their friends' names in horror when they see them get murdered. More than ever, these feel like real people you're killing. That is something we see within the context of this world and this game, but it's also something we should reflect on within the context of popular entertainment as a whole - a far more interesting line of thought, and one I am absolutely convinced the writers and developers actively wanted their players to pursue. Because the immediate temptation, while you're callously executing scores of people who now have names, who scream helplessly in pain when you shoot them, who are mourned by their weeping, horrified friends, is to call this one of the most deeply evil, black-hearted games ever made - but it's not, is it? Is it even close? Why should we wait until the characters we're killing have names and voices to recognise that they're human beings? Even if we only focus on Naughty Dog's own body of work, how many people did Nathan Drake gun down without the player giving it a second's thought? Are we really expected to believe that each and every one of them deserved it? As a gamer, how many people have you killed across all the games you've played, and how many times have you ever felt guilty about it? How many unnamed, faceless corpses have been piled up across all the action films and TV series you've ever watched, and has that ever negatively affected your enjoyment, or even your mood? How often has it occurred to you to think about it before? The visceral, grotesque, utterly despicable disregard for human life that drives this game is not unique to this game, nor is it unique to gaming - we just very rarely, if ever, take the time to consider how grotesque it is. The Last of Us Part II
forces its player to confront that.
That's why the story is framed the way it is. After Joel is killed - brutally and sadistically, right in front of Ellie
- the game becomes a simple story of revenge
, Ellie chasing down Joel's killer
Abby over the course of four days, on a mission to make her and her accomplices pay for what they did
. The fact that they are former Fireflies
and were merely making Joel pay for what he did in the first place
is just the start of an endless cycle of violence and retribution
whose motion becomes painfully clear when the player is put in Abby's shoes, replaying her life over the same four days that you've just played through as Ellie. The parallels between the two are apparent very quickly; both are unstoppable killing machines motivated by bloodthirsty revenge, both are deeply caring toward those in their inner circle but happy to kill literally anybody outside it without a second thought, both are tangled up in complicated love triangles, and both their lives were both ruined the moment their father figures were killed
. In Abby's case, her father was the surgeon who would have been able to save humanity, the one who could have found a cure from Ellie, the man Joel killed first when he snapped at the end of the first game
. Ellie and Abby do have differences in gameplay and characterisation, but they are ultimately minor touches; it is unmissable how eerily similar their lives have been, and how those lives and this world has shaped them in the same way, with largely the same end result. In many stories, this would result in them realising this and teaming up, and even right up until the very end of the game you do find yourself wondering if that will happen; eventually actively wanting
it to happen at one particular point very late in the game. Yet here it just heightens the tragedy, with each action by one simply sparking an equal and opposite reaction from the other. The same is true of the various factions that populate this part of the world at this point; Abby spends the early part of her story hunting down members of a religious sect she and her fellow Wolves refer to as 'Scars', only to later find herself befriending Yara and Lev, two exiled members of the group, after all three are captured and are able to escape together with each other's help. Yara and Lev regularly correct her - the 'Scars' call themselves 'Seraphites' - and sneeringly refer to the other Wolves as 'your
people'. After the barrier between player-as-Ellie and Abby is broken and the player-as-Abby comes to see Abby as a three-dimensional, sympathetic character as she switches her inner circle from the Wolves as a group to Yara and Lev as a kind of surrogate family, the logical next line of thinking is unavoidable: I could just as easily be playing this game as a Seraphite too, and would things really look and feel any different if I were? (In this regard, the final group you encounter in the game, the Rattlers, are something of a disappointment: they're slavers, torturers, unambiguously sadistic and evil, and that feels at odds with the game's themes. Luckily, they only play a minor role in the grand scheme of things.) The numerous notes from Seraphites you can find and read, detailing all their hopes and fears and prayers, hammer that point home. This line of thinking is clear before the game puts you in Abby's shoes, too; notably, when Ellie vomits in horror over the sight of a pregnant woman she's just killed, having killed countless women before this without any sign of grief at all, the two lenses come pointedly into focus. For Ellie, why does a woman's life only matter to you when she reminds you of your pregnant girlfriend Dina? For the wider world, why is a woman's life only worth something when she's pregnant? And much earlier in the game, why did I feel so much worse when I found out the name of a dog I'd just killed than I did about killing the humans it was with? Later on, why is it so much more uncomfortable to watch Abby having sex
than it is to watch her snapping people's necks? And so on, and so on....
There are two obvious retorts here. The first is that the game doesn't actually force you to kill the vast majority of these people; it's theoretically possible to escape most of these situations via stealth. And sure, that's true, theoretically
- but let's be honest with each other here. What percentage of the total players of this game do you think actually choose that option? Of those that try to, how many succeed? Nonviolence is easily the hardest way to play this game (and is markedly harder against humans than it is against the infected), and it's a delicate highwire act where any misjudgement immediately leads to a far more dramatic outburst of violence than playing the game 'normally' does. The fact that I can even say 'normally' in that sentence and be reasonably confident that most of the people reading this will know what I mean is evidence in itself of the fact that there is a muscle memory that comes with playing AAA games, a set pattern of behaviours that we default to. The immediate thought on being presented with an area to get through is to map out the hiding places, the lines of sight, the angles of attack, the movement patterns of your opponents. Violence is baked into the entire process from the off. To handwave away the violence because it's technically
not necessarily is to misunderstand the medium, the long-established relationship between game and player, the fact that most games of this size and type are sold largely to people specifically looking for this kind of action, and the fact that to approach a game like this nonviolently is a contrarian act of protest almost by default - and that's the entire crux of what The Last of Us Part II
has to say about AAA gaming. It's a game that uses the language of other narrative mediums to tell a story about the grammar of gaming, about the way something as innocuous as a chest-high wall has a unshakeable association with gunfire that most of us simply never consciously acknowledge, let alone examine. The second retort is that this is hardly the first game to do this, and sure, it's not (Spec Ops: The Line
, incredibly, is already eight years old), but I would argue that no other game has dug so deep under the skin while doing it, nor done it to such disgusting, depressing effect.
It's a game that grinds you down, as its world visibly grinds its own characters down too. By the end of the game Ellie looks like a zombie herself, seemingly completely lost, deeply ashamed of herself and her actions as she goes through motions that she evidently believes are inexorable, even as the player feels like screaming at her that they're not. One phrase that I saw crop up a few times on Twitter before I played this game was 'sins of the father', and it stuck with me as I played through this; the only time it felt really appropriate was when Ellie chose to abandon domestic bliss with Dina and her child in favour of hunting down Abby again, destroying what could easily have been her only shot at long-lasting comfort and happiness, in order to finish a job that literally nobody other than Ellie and Tommy thought needed finishing. The parallels and contrasts with Joel's actions are unmissable. Joel threw away humanity's shot at a happy ending because he thought he deserved not to be lonely; Ellie threw away her own personal shot at a happy ending because she didn't, because her life had been consumed with guilt ever since she found out what Joel had done, because she thought she deserved misery and loneliness.
Like so many children, she tried to do the exact opposite of her father figure, and like so many children, she just ended up taking a different route on the way to repeating the same mistakes. Both paid with their lives, literally in Joel's case, figuratively in Ellie's. The game ends with her broken and alone, forever burdened with endless regret, a needless self-fulfilling prophecy. She felt her own life was not worth saving, so she made it worthless to prove herself right.
Her only redemption of any sort was her decision, eventually, to let Abby and Lev live
- a decision taken far, far too late, but taken nonetheless. This is the only faint glimmer of hope this story leaves you with; that in turning away from killing, Ellie may have finally pulled herself back from the brink, and that in leaving his one remaining friend and guardian alive, she might just have allowed Lev to break the cycle too
. I will allow you to draw your own conclusions on whether that's a statement about AAA gaming as well. (I'm honestly not sure whether I think it is or not myself - it's entirely possible that they simply wanted to say that no matter how bad things get, there will always be some kind of hope somewhere
- but the pieces are definitely there if you want to read it that way).
My one significant complaint is that there's one boss fight in this that is absolutely fucking awful, genuinely 'almost made me stop playing the game altogether' level bad; if you thought being asked to run around in circles for twenty minutes at the end of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
was unutterably tedious, then boy, I bet you can't wait until you have to do it in the pitch dark, in a room with a bunch of dead ends in it that you can't see until you're already cornered, against an enemy that instantly kills you as soon as it gets within touching distance, that always knows exactly where you are even if you do your best to hide from it, that can simply burst through any walls you choose to hide behind like the Kool-Aid Man, and oh, did I mention that your reward for damaging it is to spawn another enemy that you can't see, hear, or even damage until the first one's downed? It's not just awful to play, it's totally at odds with the gameplay of the rest of the game; there is literally no other place in the game where you need to sprint for more than a few seconds, but this fight pretty much demands that you have the sprint button held down for the duration of the encounter. The whole debacle is made even worse by the fact that a far, far better boss encounter appears shortly afterwards - this one requires stealth to get through, which is handy considering, y'know, this is a stealth game
. It's a reminder that boss fights are only ever appropriate or necessary when they amplify the challenge that already exists, which is a damning thing to be reminded of half an hour after a scene that feels like it was awkwardly cut and pasted in from a totally different game, one that I would never choose to play. (Above all else, this all reminds me of the boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution
; those were outsourced to a different company completely to develop, which goes some way to explaining why they felt so out of place. Were it not for the fact that Naughty Dog have a track record for not being great at them, I'd have suspected the same were true here.)
That aside, wonderful (as deeply inappropriate as a word like 'wonder' is for this world). A game that had me absolutely hooked for almost its entire runtime while I was playing it, that nagged at me incessantly while I wasn't playing it, and that has left me mulling over its conclusion and its message, what became of these characters and what will become of them in future, for days after completing it. I suspect it might well have changed me, or at least changed the way I think about the entertainment I consume in future. I don't quite
think it's better than the first one right now, but I do think it will prove to be the more important for me in the long run and will stay with me for longer, and those factors might ultimately tip the balance in this game's favour in the future. And hey, even if that doesn't happen, the very fact that it's even comparable at all makes it one of my favourite works in any medium by default. I can't recommend it unreservedly, because it is so unremittingly bleak and frankly anybody who reads this review and decides this doesn't sound like much fun is probably more sensible and well-adjusted than I am - but I can call it a phenomenal, epochal game.