Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 4 Pro
Note: this review contains major spoilers.
Ellie: “swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true.”
Joel: “I swear”
The Last of Us ended perfectly.
Naughty Dog’s post apocalyptic classic is fondly remembered for ending on a lie. In a nihilistic and brutal game that felt like playing an interactive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, writer Neil Druckmann left players with a bittersweet but cathartic conclusion. When Joel delivers Ellie to the militia group The Fireflies because she is the only known person in the world immune to the deadly cordyceps virus, he realizes they intend to perform an operation on her to extract a possible vaccine but it will come at the cost of her life. Joel shoots dead the surgeon and flees with Ellie. When she awakens, he lies to her about what he has done in the memorable final lines before the credits roll.
It’s a beautiful, satisfying conclusion to one of the finest games of the past decade.
Joel and Ellie are beloved characters in the modern pantheon of narrative-driven video games but there wasn’t necessarily an outpouring of enthusiasm at the news that a sequel was being made. I don’t think anyone doubted that Naughty Dog could deliver a compelling or worthy new chapter to The Last of Us. It’s just that we all know that Joel morally made the wrong choice and a game exploring the consequences of that lie could only really lead to one thing.
Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for The Last of Us Part II to deliver its inevitable, emotional gut punch. Years after the events of The Last of Us, Joel, his brother Tommy and Ellie now reside in a commune in Jackson, Wyoming. When Tommy and Joel go out on patrol and rescue a young woman named Abby from a horde of the Infected, she turns the tables on them and with the help of her own allies, she pistol whips Tommy before summarily executing Joel. Ellie witnesses Joel’s final moments but is also beaten and left for dead. Thus the stage is set for The Last of Us Part II. Ellie, with her partner Dina in tow, make for Seattle, hoping to track down Joel’s killers to get their revenge.
Seven years in the making, The Last of Us Part II shows every bit of spit and polish in its production values and world building that have made Naughty Dog one of the pioneers of the narrative driven, action-adventure genre. TLOU2 continues their fine work in pushing the medium forward with ambitious storytelling that draws challenging and demanding performances out of their cast of voice acting talent. Naughty Dog’s eye for small details in their animation (facial ticks, subtle body language etc), sound design and visual effects are also ever-present in this game. The Playstation 4 may be seven year old hardware and we are on the cusp of seeing a new generation of consoles arriving but I suspect TLOU2 will remain a high watermark for production values and visual effects for some years yet.
So far, so good.
A smartly crafted revenge story that furthers the TLOU narrative would be a welcome, if not predictable journey to undertake. What makes TLOU2 an entirely different proposition is Naughty Dog’s surprising willingness to upend the table halfway through the game and not just ditch the player’s involvement with their beloved protagonist Ellie, but flip the script entirely as they actively work to make you root against her.
The second chapter of TLOU2 tells the story of Abby Anderson – a character who is originally only identifiable as Joel’s killer. It’s the most high profile bait-and-switch of a protagonist in a big budget video game since Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (which producer Neil Druckmann cited as an influence post-launch). This narrative twist, which is highly antagonistic towards players who are fully invested in Ellie up to this point, is a bold gamble and I admire Naughty Dog’s willingness to take the story down this path. As we begin to colour in the details of Abby’s life, you develop a connection with her character, empathize with her plight and begin to see Ellie and Joel’s actions in new light. All this and in the back of the player’s mind we know that the story is leading down a path where eventually Ellie and Abby will cross paths and Ellie has nothing less than bloody vengeance on her mind for Joel’s murder.
There are plenty of fair and well-written critiques of how successful or unsuccessful Naughty Dog has been with its storytelling in TLOU2 and how you can interpret the politics and themes that underpin the narrative. I don’t think the game does anything that makes it beyond reproach. But I also believe the developers are striving for a level of story-telling ambition, character development and screen writing quality that is virtually unmatched amongst other big budget titles. After TLOU2, spending five minutes with Ghosts of Tsushima and Final Fantasy VII: Remake (the two other big budget, story-driven titles released around the same time) is enough to remind you that most video games are emotionally stunted and vastly underdeveloped when compared to their contemporaries in film, television and literature.
The character development and portrayal of relationships between characters is one of the biggest high points in TLOU2. I can’t think of any other game that charts the development of a romantic relationship in the way TLOU2 gives us with Ellie and Dina. We see their courtship, their physical connection with one another and even their life in domesticity. Likewise, a key relationship in turning player opinion on Abby is her unexpected friendship with the ex-cultist Lev. There are countless other interesting, well crafted connections between characters in TLOU2 also – Abby/Owen, Ellie/Joel, Abby/Manny to name but a few. Genuine and meaningful human connections are the secret sauce to all the modern Naughty Dog titles.
Given the unexpectedly topical nature of its ‘world turned upside down by a global pandemic’, playing The Last of Us Part II during the age of COVID can be uneasy at times. Even if you weren’t directly affected, most people would have endured some type of lockdown and likely feel brow-beaten by the relentless amounts of bad news in the real world. Turning to The Last of Us Part II for entertainment, its worth noting that the game is a long-running 30 to 40 hours and often times feels dark, bordering on nihilistic with its portrayal of violence and hatred. I wouldn’t fault someone for choosing to sit this out one because the timing doesn’t feel right. For what its worth, I think TLOU2 earns its darkest chapters and thankfully, the game has moments of lightness and levity that reminds us what its all for. The chapter about Ellie’s birthday that is set in a museum and involves a rather unique rocket launch sequence is definitely some of that Naughty Dog magic at work.
Given the uncommon length of this adventure (close to double what you’d normally expect from a Naughty Dog game), its pleasing to see the developer make so many strides in polishing and improving its already excellent stealth and combat gameplay. Improved enemy AI, new weapons and wider, more expansive locales all help elevate the moment-to-moment experience. Some of the set pieces and boss battles are genuinely scary and absolutely thrilling. TLOU2 has its roots in sci-fi horror and the encounter with the Rat King in the hospital will surely go down as one of the most tense and riveting boss battles I’ve played of any game this generation.
Naughty Dog should also be acknowledged for the expansive range of accessibility options they’ve added for difficulty, subtitles, audio/visual settings etc. All told, I believe there are over sixty different permutations to make TLOU2 the ideal experience for each individual player. That is an effort well above industry standard that deserves to be commended.
The first Last of Us game was the perfect swan song for Playstation 3 and an exciting harbinger for what was to come. The same can be said for The Last of Us 2. It’s an incredible technical achievement on the Playstation 4 and I believe what this sequel accomplishes makes it one of the flagbearers for the future of narrative driven games.
The ending to The Last of Us 2 is not conclusive. I’d say its far less conclusive than the original and leaves much for the player to digest when the credits roll. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the harsh, twisted and morally bleak descent that Ellie spirals down in this game but over time I realize that I kind of like that about it. There aren’t any easy answers. No tidy bow to gather up the loose ends. It is what it is.2