Naughty Dog’s first step into the apocalypse in 2013 was a thought-provoking action game with a lot of emotion behind its storytelling. The Last of Us Part 2 had a lot to match in terms of gameplay and as a narrative. The team at the Santa Monica based studio knocked every element out of the park by taking the base of the first game and enhancing everything to go above and beyond what’s expected as one of the final games in the PS4’s life cycle. This review of The Last of Us Part 2 will showcase how this sequel is a masterpiece.
The Last of Us Part 2 is available on PS4.
Story – An even wilder emotional rollercoaster
Stepping into the shoes of Ellie (Ashley Johnson) five years after the events of the first game, the narrative takes a turn as you see the world through her eyes. Her and Joel (Troy Baker) settle down in Jackson, Joel’s brother Tommy (Jeffery Pierce), and his wife Maria’s (Ashley Scott) settlement. After something tragic happens to the town and Ellie, she goes on a path of revenge against a militia based in Seattle called the Washington Liberation Front. She travels through this hostile world infested with fungal infused zombies and humans who don’t take kindly to strangers just to complete this mission. While the first game was about love, this is about hate, and it truly radiates with that fire in a way that evokes that emotion.
Much of the narrative switches between characters and time periods between the first game, similar to how the original Last of Us told its story, except with a grander scope by telling everyone’s side. I felt at times, some flashbacks felt like too much fat on the bones of the narrative, but once things concluded, I understood why the long road was better than a shortcut. The main issue with this way of storytelling came from some awkward positioning that disrupts the flow of certain beats.
Naughty Dog brings back some of its older characters that are just as irresistible and complex. Newer faces like Ellie’s friends Jesse (Stephen Chang) and Dina (Shannon Woodward) fit with their excellent chemistry with each other, and the one’s around them. Some of the brightest and most compelling moments are seeing how Ellie interacts with these fresh faces.
Meanwhile, characters from the WLF and the Saraphites, a religious cult who are at war with the WLF, have their own characters that make this story even more complicated. Abby (Laura Bailey) and Owen (Patrick Fugit) are prime examples of how the antagonists can be just as endearing as the protagonists. Then Yara (Victoria Grace) and Lev (Ian Alexander) give a voice to the Saraphites, AKA Scars, that make them human and not a group of crazed zealots. The entire cast is fleshed out and diverse in a range of representations that feel appropriate.
The performances are tremendous, with even the most veteran of actors giving their greatest performances to date. To match, the writing from Neil Druckmann, the writer and director of the first game amongst other Naughty Dog titles, and Halley Gross (Westworld) elevate the narrative to new heights that I never saw coming. The combination of writing and acting brought these characters to life. Their big moments of ambition and actions to the smaller moments like fun banter captured what it is to be human rather than a character moving from one story beat to the other.
Not all storytelling has to be direct; that was what was great with the first game and its sequel. Visually telling the world’s story is brilliantly crafted. Characters silently communicating, drawings and notes found that tell someone’s journey are all ways this world and its characters feel believable. Ellie has a journal full of lyrics, drawings, and her thoughts, making it the perfect example of how this is flawlessly executed.
The themes and overall tone are both thought and emotion-provoking. As I write, I am still digesting what I experienced. It may not be for everyone, but I like content that challenges me on multiple levels. Not only did my brain get a good workout, I felt a wider range of emotions than any other piece of content across any form of media. I went from sorrow and anger to joy and dread. I thought the first game was life-changing, but this is something else that has deeply impacted me.
Gameplay – More fluid and more brutal
Naughty Dog took the outline of the predecessor and it up to feel similar, yet different. Ellie’s movement is more fluid and feels less stiff than the aged movement of the 2013 gameplay. Some new mechanics assist in this by allowing her to jump, swing and climb ropes, and go prone. It is small but makes a difference along with the refinement of controlling her around, especially swimming, which was fairly painful before all those years ago.
One addition that is helpful, but needs refinement is dodging. At times, it worked wonderfully and others it felt janky and unresponsive, leading to plenty of unnecessary deaths.
The combat feels even more satisfyingly meatier. Punching, using the wide variety of melee weapons, or shooting people or infected has never felt so disgustingly good. Every gun has a purpose, while the blunt and sharp weaponry feels mostly the same, but are still fun when bashing or slicing people apart.
Enemies, from the various human settlements to the infected, all feel unique. New infected have new strategies, while the WLF and Saraphites use different weapons and tactics. The WLF has militarized weapons and uses dogs to sniff you out while the cult has some guns with bows along with a focus on stealth. Fighting the AI does not feel like a major step up from its predecessor, but they do present a great enough challenge nonetheless.
To make them feel more human, instead of killing faceless foes, they have names. Kill a man, and a woman may call out, “Henry is dead!” It is a gimmick, but an effective one to humanize the enemy.
Fighting infected or radical groups is not the only way, sometimes hiding or running away is the best option. Crawling through grass or under vehicles is some of the most intense stealth I have experienced. Unlike many games where tall grass is like an invisible cloak, the NPCs have actual eyes and ears, so they have a high chance of finding Ellie.
AI partners, on the other hand, feel more or less effective as they did before. A nice distraction, but oftentimes get in the way or don’t kill enough to make a difference when in a bigger fight. But the interaction when exploring with Dina or others makes it worth it, as I can listen to them, all day long.
Bosses feel as repetitive and needless as before. Except for one or two, the infected bosses feel right, but the humans take me out of it. Nothing says realism as you kill people left and right, but one person takes too many hits to die. Thankfully, this only happens a handful of times; then I move onto better moments that take away the sting from an underwhelming fight.
Upgrading gets enhanced. Before you would collect various items like alcohol and tape to create weapons like bombs or create health kits, now more options are available through the various skills trees that you discover through magazines and gather new abilities through collecting supplements. It allows for more playstyles by not giving enough to max out each attribute. This also opens up the survival elements to be greater as someone cannot become an unstoppable killing machine by having every perk.
Getting parts to upgrade guns has never looked or felt better. Whether it is enhancing your stability or upping the damage, every tweak you make changes the look of the gun, making for a more gratifyingly immersive system to give Ellie that extra edge when surviving this dangerous world.
Exploration is fairly the same by searching every corner and cabinet for supplies or collectibles like trading cards. Some of these items are quite major like weapons or holsters, but unlike the previous title, these can all be missed as some may be hidden away or locked in a safe that needs a combination, creating for different experiences depending on who went the extra mile in their searches. I became obsessed with trying to grab everything as it all felt necessary or simply injecting me with some much-needed dopamine after experiencing something that made me cry.
A nitpicky issue is that Ellie, and other characters you briefly step into the shoes of, sometimes linger after opening a drawer or cabinet before letting me pick up the item.
Puzzles may not match the smartest of puzzle games, but it is a significant jump from other Naughty Dog creations. The problem solving is smarter, rather than previous experiences of dragging the same Dumpster or grabbing a plank to get from point A to point B.
The level design has its hits and misses. While there are some massive areas that were never seen before in a Naughty Dog game, I felt they could have added more of these larger areas. For the most part, it felt about the same size I would get if I replayed The Last of Us, a number I cannot come up with as I have gone through that game so many times. The other flaw was directions were difficult to read with cues being limited, and getting lost was a high possibility. I would circle around, even the smallest of areas, and have no idea where to go.
Where the level design shines is in its verticality. With more places to climb, the ability to jump and crawl allows for Ellie to dig in plenty of nooks and crannies to find items or sneak up on enemies.
Graphics and Audio – The sweetest ear and eye candy around
The graphics and lighting make this one of the best looking games I have ever seen, especially on the current-generation of consoles. The lighting effects illuminate the most beautiful of crumbling architecture and show how gorgeous nature is when it is taking over the ruins of cities like Seattle. Small details that can easily go unappreciated or completely unnoticed wrap this gift up nicely. It is the name Naughty Dog has made for itself, and this team has gone above that reputation to deliver something magnificent.
While on the surface, it looks stunning; the animations are what takes the cake. Seeing how characters emote or how they interact with objects around them, is breathtaking. Seeing Ellie take off a piece of clothing without it clipping or how someone will cry is the next level in technology.
All of this looks even better in photo mode and all of its wild settings like altering the camera or adding a filter to capture the mood of a scene.
The sound design fits any location. The echoes of screams and gunfire in a subway, or how the boom of explosions when fighting in the forest, it is all music to my ears.
Gustavo Santaolalla (The Last of Us, Brokeback Mountain) is back to create a soundscape to capture the tone of every situation. While some elements are slight improvements or remain on par with the first game, the score soars above with its variety in instrumentation, and the emotion is evoked. The Oscar winner crafted ominous horns that will haunt me for months, maybe years, along with intense tribal percussion and the beautiful acoustic sounds that bring me back to the original game.
This game was reviewed on a PS4 Pro.