By Leah McDonald / July 21st, 2020
|Title||The Last of Us Part II|
|Publisher||Sony Interactive Entertainment|
|Release Date||June 19, 2020|
I’ve been sitting on this review for about a week, hemming and hawing over how I want to approach it. To say The Last of Us Part II is divisive is probably the understatement of the year, but I loved the first game and want to give its sequel – which I’ve been looking forward to for years – its due. I also wanted to approach it without any preconceived notions from others. I made a concentrated effort to not know anything about this game before going into it: I didn’t see the pre-release leaks, I didn’t read any reviews or interviews, and I’ve watched no analyses. I’ve avoided discussions with others about the game; I haven’t even looked at its Metacritic score. I jumped into this game head-first the weekend it was released, poured 35 or so hours into it, and have since just been working out my thoughts.
Considering the content of the game, its themes, and how the story plays out, this review will be split into two sections. The first will cover general gameplay, level design, exploration, accessibility options, and difficulty. There will be minor spoilers for locations and NPCs, but I’m going to do my best to keep them at the bare minimum. The second half will be full of spoilers as we go full bore into TLoU2‘s story, characters, and themes. That being said, let’s dive into The Last of Us Part II.
First things first, this game is visually stunning. Naughty Dog have gone above and beyond creating a breathtakingly beautiful world. Playing on the PlayStation 4 Pro with HDR is honestly something else, and the team really pushed what the PS4 can do graphically. I did experience a lot of pop in, especially for shiny surfaces, and near the end of the game some textures would take abnormally long to load (particularly with letters), but nothing was ever so bad as to be game breaking.
One of the most important aspects of any game is its gameplay, and I think this is where TLoU2 shines. It takes what the first game provided and polishes it, with tighter controls, more satisfactory gun-play, and an assortment of tools that make each combat engagement genuinely fun. Between the staple bottle throw/molotov combo for infected and using the new proximity bombs at Ellie’s disposal, encounters often had great pay-off. The inclusion of new enemy types helped break up combat as well, and overall I found the cadence of fights very satisfying. No two instances were exactly alike, and a lot of that came down to the expanded freedom the environment offered over TLoU‘s more claustrophobic settings.
Seattle literally opens up the gameplay, and I found the way Naughty Dog introduced us to the wider world really clever. The Jackson prologue feels a lot like more TLoU, with your standard corridor setups and small interior locations. The game adds jumping to Ellie’s repertoire, opening the world vertically and making traversal less of a chore. Combined with the tighter controls, it feels like a really polished The Last of Us experience. But then once you reach Seattle, the corridor opens to a literal city with optional locations to visit, stunning vistas, and a lot more choice in how to approach combat encounters.
What’s great about TLoU2‘s level design is how well it weaves in these more “open world” sequences and your standard corridors. For the most part, even when exploring inside, Ellie has plenty of nooks and crannies to check out that didn’t really exist in the first game. Puzzle sequences still default almost exclusively to opening doors and pushing around dumpsters, but I feel far more connected to Seattle than I did the locations in TLoU. Deciding to keep the game confined to the greater Seattle area, rather than multiple set-pieces scattered across the country, makes the city a character in itself. It feels lived in (literally and figuratively). This makes for a great juxtaposition for those times when we find ourselves in smaller, more claustrophobic situations, and helps keep the pace of the game engaging. It doesn’t always pay off (there’s a very long sequence near the end of the game that overstays its welcome to the point of exhaustion), but for the most part I always felt invested in what I was doing.
The open nature of Seattle also provided a lot more fun with encounters. There were plenty of situations where I opted to just sneak around enemies rather than engage, weaving in and out of buildings, hiding in tall grass, and using distractions. Dogs added some nice tense moments to these sequences that human enemies just didn’t provide, since once they have your scent they can track you even while you’re hiding. Other times I ran in guns blazing, or set up traps to catch enemies unaware. At least two sequences let me pit the infected against humans, and those were probably the most fun of all.
On the whole I felt TLoU2 was easier than its predecessor, in large part thanks to Ellie’s knife. Unlike in the previous game, Ellie will always have a weapon to use against Clickers and Stalkers, whereas Joel had to choose between crafting a shiv to fight or to unlock doors. That choice no longer exists, as locked doors can be opened by finding a different route in, and the instant-death threat of some more powerful infected is reduced. The game compensates somewhat by tossing more Clickers, Stalkers, and dogs at you, and in the second half of the game removes your knife briefly, but it never feels quite as dangerous as Joel’s encounters in the first game.
Seattle also shines when it comes to world building. The set-pieces in TLoU made for good character moments between Joel and Ellie, but they never delved much into the state of the world itself post-outbreak. They couldn’t. We never stayed in one place long enough to know or care much about it, and the narrative drive to reach the Fireflies superseded learning about these stopover locations. In Seattle though, we get a sense of how people really dealt with the outbreak. One of the earliest examples involves stumbling over the bodies of would-be bank robbers who thought Outbreak Day would be a great time to steal some cash. We follow the lives of a handful of long-dead citizens through the notes they left for each other in the suburbs, and the prominent graffiti and posters for the government and rebel factions similar to the Fireflies litter the landscape. We can also see the escalating war between the WLF and the Seraphites and the ways it has consumed the city. Seattle is just a fantastic setting all around to bind the themes of the game together.
Naughty Dog has also made the game incredibly accessible for a wide array of player abilities. In addition to your standard difficulty levels (Very Light, Light, Moderate, Hard, Survivor), you can tweak individual settings to tailor the experience to your playstyle. Want super tough enemies, normal damage, but lots of resources? You can do that. The game lets you toggle individual settings from the easiest to the hardest, instead of wholesale. It reminds me of being able to choose easy encounters but super difficult puzzles in Silent Hill. And since you can change the settings on the fly, it really lets players tailor the experience to their comfort.
Difficulty isn’t the only place to tweak accessibility. Presets exist for those with vision impairments, hearing impairments, and motor impairments, each of which can be toggled individually to suit your specific needs, or done wholesale. I’m personally a big fan of the font colors and size, as well as the speaker locator, which puts an arrow on the screen to indicate from where someone off-screen is speaking. During some more chaotic fights, knowing where my AI partner was gave me a better sense of what was going on. It also helped me avoid being pushed out into the open, which happened way too often. Compared to Ellie’s AI in TLoU, the companion NPCs in the sequel got in the way more times than they helped. That being said, I had the options turned on for comfort, but they offer real, tangible benefits to those with disabilities, and seeing a big-budget title like The Last of Us Part II provide so much customization was great. It should be the standard, and I hope more games embrace giving players options and broadening their playerbase.
Gameplay isn’t perfect, though, and for all the improvements it makes to the first game, stealth is not one of them. Hearing feels particularly weak compared to TLoU. Just like in the first game, Ellie can enhance her abilities using pills, but even after upgrading her hearing, detecting enemies was scattershot in even some of the more confined locations. Peering around corners was inelegant, and I disliked the fact you couldn’t pull enemies into the water. I don’t expect Metal Gear Solid, but for the amount of stealth the game pushes, these would have been nice additions.
There were also several times where the contextual triangle button would not trigger. In the quiet puzzle rooms or caches, having to hit the button multiple times wasn’t an issue, but during hectic encounters, it led to my death on more than one occasion. It was a nuisance that wore my patience thin during long gaming sessions.
Pacing also suffered, particularly in the second half of the game. From a narrative standpoint, having an exhausting encounter rate makes sense – it is the post-apocalypse, after all, and we’re ramping up to the climax. But the frequent use of flashbacks coupled with enemy sequences severely hampered the pacing and left me more frustrated than entertained.
Speaking of narrative, while I personally resonated with the themes of TLoU2, I still feel its predecessor’s story and execution were overall better. We meet significantly more characters in Seattle than we ever did traipsing across the U.S., but they are for the most part unlikable or lacked impact. The game attempts to accommodate this by extending its length, but the minimalist nature of the first game did a better job connecting us to its characters than TLoU2‘s cutscenes.
Overall, TLoU2 plays great and looks beautiful. Seattle is a gorgeous city and traversing it provides a plethora of options. And while there are a plethora of motifs, symbolism, subtext and more I’d love to talk about, I’m going to stick to only the overarching plot in my spoiler discussion below.
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