Reviews

The Last Of Us Part II: Review – It Really Is The Game Of The Year

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II recently picked up ” Game of the Year” at The Game Awards, amongst other awards, and it’s safe to say that it deserves that honour. Here’s our review on The Last of Us Part II.

This Review has been a long time in the making, I know. When I first played The Last of Us Part II, like many of you, I was a little overwhelmed. In a way, The Last of Us Part II suffered a similar pre-launch fate to Cyberpunk 2077; it was woefully over-hyped and many of us went into the opening segments of gameplay expecting to be quite-literally blown away.

TLOU2 also suffered a launch date delay which undoubtedly exacerbated things. It made me anxious, yet all-the-more excited. I am yet to play a Naughty Dog title I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed and if they needed a few more months to perfect things, that was fine with me! I also, somehow, managed to avoid major spoilers throughout my first playthrough back in June. I’ve played it again, since then, too.

The Last of Us Part II
The Last Of Us Part II Concept Art / Credit: Naughty Dog

Now, I have decided to boot up The Last of Us Part II on my PlayStation 5 and dived right into a Grounded Mode playthrough.

RELATED: The Last Of Us 2: Haptic Feedback Supported on PS5

This review is being written about six hours into that, after two complete play-throughs.

The Last Of Us Part II Is A Masterclass Of Narrative Design

Firstly, I think it goes without saying that whatever you think about the The Last of Us Part II narrative… It was expertly designed to surprise players, subvert expectations, and get the most out of it’s characters.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that The Last of Us Part II is my favourite game this year, nor my favourite narrative. However, the way the story of TLOU2 is told is truly magnificent. Right from the start, we are introduced to a dual-protagonist narrative which hinges on the idea that perspective is everything when it comes to how people experience their world.

Joel, Ellie, and Tommy all feature in the opening sequences and very-briefly bridge the gap between the end of The Last of Us and the start of the sequel. However, after barely an hour we are introduced to a completely new set of characters. It’s the first of many curve-balls and leaves you guessing right from the off.

As you begin to learn who Abby and her friends are, why they are in Jackson… Who they are after… You’re hooked. Not only do you fear for Joel and Ellie, in disbelief that anything bad could happen to them, you also want to know Abby’s side of the story. Her determination is palpable. From her first conversation with Owen, she feels real. What The Last of Us Part II does perfectly is the avoidance of having a villain.

The Last of Us Part II
Abby, via Model Viewer / Credit: Naughty Dog

Abby may seem like a villain from Ellie’s point of view, but the same could be said about Joel from Abby’s point of view. Neither are portrayed as a villain throughout the opening sequences of the game. Of course, it goes without saying that what Abby did to Joel was brutal. However… This twist is exactly what The Last of Us Part II needed after the woefully predictable narrative of The Last of Us.

The Last of Us was in no way a bad game, but it was hardly surprising. There were little things, like Sam turning, but there was nothing on a comparable scale. Being re-introduced to Joel and Ellie living ” happily” in Jackson, something big had to happen to shake-up the status quo. Thankfully, it did.

The Last of Us Part II threads the parallel storylines of Ellie’s Experience and Abby’s Experience perfectly to create a gripping narrative that balances the motivation of selfish revenge and the consequences that come of that.

The only issue I have with how Naughty Dog have constructed their narrative for The Last of Us Part II is that the shocking revelation of Joel’s Death happens so early. Although, I am still myself undecided on how I truly feel about this… I find myself both annoyed and understanding at it’s placement.

The sequence of events that leads to Joel’s death starts during an Abby Section of the game. You know that she is in Jackson looking for someone and instantly your mind suspects it may be one of the Miller brothers: the only two main male characters we really know at this point. However, when she runs into Tommy and Joel and they begin to work together… I found myself a little taken aback, doubting my own suspicions. Perhaps I was wrong? Abby hasn’t done anything that would suggest that she’s a villainous character after all.

The Last of Us Part II
Ellie, via Model Viewer / Credit: Naughty Dog

When things turn… Joel’s fate is left up in the air and we re-join Ellie in her search for Joel and Tommy. Like everyone else who liked Joel, you fear the worst but hope for the best. The next few moments playing as Ellie are emotionally charged and all-the-more intense for this. It is, arguably, one of the best parts of the game despite it being short and largely uninteresting. It makes you sit on the edge of your seat, anxious and concerned, with a lump in your throat.

We all know what happens next… Even if you haven’t played The Last of Us Part II, the controversy caused by this scene in-particular has been a talking point since it’s launch. My issue with it all is that, if you look at gameplay playthroughs, this moment happens at around two-to-three hours into the game ( depending on how long you decide to wander around in each area for, of course). I understand why it comes so early in the game; it’s a shocking moment that allows the rest of the game to attempt to subvert our perceptions of Ellie and Abby. As Ellie continues down her path of revenge, we start to see her in a negative light. Similarly, as we start to see Abby’s story we begin to understand why she did what she did.

However, part of me feels that we should have seen more of Abby’s build-up to her killing of Joel. Naughty Dog wants you to think Abby is the villain and, in a way, should have been expecting the kick-back they got. Obviously, some people took it way too far… But, for the most part, the outrage people felt was intentionally created. It then almost feels as if the rest of Abby’s story is back-peddling… “Oh, she’s not actually this evil because Joel killed her dad first”.

After two playthroughs and six months, I still find myself conflicted on this pivotal moment in The Last of Us Part II. Perhaps that is the whole point of it, though. The Last of Us is a cross-generational masterpiece that has stuck with players for years… Part II isn’t any different.

Can we talk about Yara and Lev now, though? Almost.

In The Last of Us Part II, both Ellie and Abby are consumed by revenge. Abby’s comes first, with her murder of Joel, whereas Ellie’s comes later as we follow her on the hunt for Abby. Both these storylines have each character killing the loved ones of the other and makes for a truly compelling duel between the two. However, the latter stages of Abby’s storyline are the best parts of The Last of Us Part II and shouldn’t be ignored in the overshadowing controversy of Joel’s death.

The Last of Us Part II
Photo Mode Shot by Kyle Wilson / Credit: Naughty Dog

Ellie’s story, both in The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II is self-centred and narrow. It symbolises her immaturity and impulsive nature, but does little to explore the world created by Naughty Dog. Ellie only ever focuses on what’s immediately in-front of her and her own motivations. This reinforces her position as a flawed protagonist, something which isn’t touched on as much in The Last of Us but is definitely still there.

Abby, however, if nothing else, has allowed Naughty Dog to explore the world of The Last of Us outside Ellie’s personal bubble. Abby-too focuses a lot on what’s in front of her own motivations, however, she has a better understanding of expectations and responsibility that Ellie just doesn’t fully understand. This isn’t to say Abby is perfect, she isn’t by a long shot. However, she at-least tries to be a good person when faced with the opportunity to help others.

As an older character, her experiences influence her actions and her world-knowledge is one of the drastic differences between her character and Ellie’s. She suffers from a lack of forethought, same as Ellie does, as both chase their own revenge. But, through the section of her storyline with Yara and Lev we learn that she’s not as bad as we all thought.

Abby is a former firefly, after all. With this association comes all the feelings from The Last of Us, how Ellie holds them in such high regard. We know that they’re trying to do something good, and Joel’s selfishness stops that. Despite her misgivings, Abby still holds that motivation to do good throughout the remainder of her storyline in The Last of Us Part II. When she realises Yara and Lev need her help, she goes out of her way to do her best for them.

It may take a while to get there, which is my biggest issue, but eventually we see the complicated nature of both Abby and Ellie’s characters. They are deeply emotional, strong, complex protagonists that ultimately feel human. The way Naughty Dog use narrative design to achieve this is astounding and well-worth all the awards it has won.

Each New Character Only Builds On The World Created In TLOU

Abby isn’t the only new character in The Last of Us Part II. Naughty Dog have, with every secondary and tertiary character, delivered a fantastic array of personalities through brilliant characterisation which all help to further build the world established in The Last of Us.

On Team Ellie, Dina and Jessie are the two stand-out additions. Both Dina and Jessie are fiercely loyal to Ellie, helping her on her quest for revenge with little question. On Team Abby, Owen and Mel are the two most prominent characters of her supporting cast. Both are there to help Abby on her hunt for Joel, however they often question the situation. This, again, highlights the age difference between Ellie and her friends in comparison to Abby, Owen, and Mel. The phrase ” young and reckless” comes to mind and, perhaps, is fitting to this situation.

The Last of Us Part II
Dina, via Model Viewer / Credit: Naughty Dog

What it comes down to is the selfishness that comes hand-in-hand with a naivety and lack of experience. Ellie doesn’t fully realise her responsibility to her friends and Jackson, whereas Abby does realise her responsibility to her friends and the W.L.F. Then, we see Abby continue with her quest for revenge despite those questioning it and the consequences speak for themselves.

These additional characters do more than add context to the actions of the protagonists, though. They are all also deeply complex, with their own motivations and agency which help drive the narrative forward and keep you guessing about how things might play out.

I may not have a particular character I hate in The Last of Us Part II, albeit I don’t really care for Manny, but I do have favourites…

Okay, now it’s time to talk about Yara and Lev.

To put it plainly, Yara and Lev are fantastic. Not only do they help to facilitate Abby’s character development, they also introduce us to the wider world created for the The Last of Us series. Through this pair, we get an insight into Seraphites. This religious cult is largely an antagonistic force throughout The Last of Us Part II, however, through Yara and Lev you quickly learn that the conflict between the W.L.F. and the Seraphites is counter-intuitive to human survival and ultimately doing more harm than good.

The Last of Us Part II
Lev / Credit: ArtStation

Lev is perhaps the most relatable character in The Last of Us Part II. Despite his own traumatic experiences he continues to attempt to see the good in people, yet still finds enjoyment and wonder is the little things. He is used to manifest Abby’s guilt for her actions earlier in the narrative and also acts as a fresh reminder that there is hope in the world still.

That being said… Lev is also used to highlight that the world we live in today is drastically flawed. While playing, I felt bad for Ellie sure… But I wasn’t really emotionally invested until Lev. Lev is being hunted and is hated purely for wanting to live. It is a harsh, but important reminder, that these parts of human society exist still. The fact that his introduction caused so much outrage is reason enough for his inclusion.

The Last of Us Part II is grounded in exploring human emotion and showcasing the human experience. Lev, much like Ellie and Abby, is a part of that experience. His story is one that deserves to be told and highlights both the best and the worst of our society.

Although I think that short gameplay sequence prior to Joel’s death is the most intense, Lev’s return to his home on the Seraphite’s island is by-far the most emotional. Lev arrives at his home desperately hopeful that he can see and save his mother. He runs off ahead of Abby so we only find the aftermath of their encounter. Rather than act with love and compassion, as we would expect any mother to, she lashes out at Lev.

She is so staunch in her Seraphite beliefs that she has turned her back on Lev on the sole basis that he wants to live life as a man. It is a truly heart-breaking revelation that is capitalized on by Ian Alexander’s stellar acting performance. Coming away from this moment, I was met with a flood of emotions. It also, in a way, helped me to understand Ellie’s storyline.

Much like Lev has lost a parental figure, Ellie has now lost hers. Ellie has someone to blame, though, which is a key difference in the two experiences. Ellie’s reaction and hunger for vengeance is rooted in pain and suffering. Lev has experienced the same thing, if not on a much larger scale, yet he has no one to blame. Thus, he blames himself. Although I can’t speak from any first-hand knowledge, I imagine that this experience is one shared by a lot of men and women. It is also an experience that everyone should be able to relate with, even without that first-hand knowledge and experience.

The Last of Us Part II forces you to dwell on the best and the worst of the human experience and our society. For better, or worse, you are pulled deeply into the emotional trauma brought about by loss, revenge, abandonment, hatred, and love.

Graphically, The Last Of Us Part II Is Near-Incomparable

I think this one goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. The Last of Us Part II looks fucking incredible. From the character models to the environmental details, everything is almost the best it can be. Obviously, some graphical improvements can be made… But when you take into account that the title was made to perform on a PlayStation 4, you can make appeasements. In terms of fidelity, it outshines every other game of the year on the platform.

In addition to this, The Last of Us Part II is a welcome return to realistic character animations that I find are often missing from a lot of games nowadays. Whether you’re playing as Abby or Ellie, neither of them can jump abnormally high or scale a seemingly unclimbable wall. Each melee attack feels laboured and impactful. It all works towards reinforcing the grounded nature of the world created in The Last of Us and reflects the fact that the game is rooted in real experiences and emotions.

The Last of Us Part II
In-Game Screenshot from Kyle Wilson / Credit: Naughty Dog

It’s also worth expressing particularly that the environmental work done by Naughty Dog is truly incredible. It may not be an open-world game, so it doesn’t suffer from the dangers of having too much empty space, but each location is packed with detail and character which helps make the world seem alive. The Last of Us Part II is larger in scope than The Last of Us and thus contains a wider-array of settings which all feel wonderfully different from one another.

Even without what could be defined as ‘ Ray-Tracing technology’, the lighting in The Last of Us Part II is outstanding.

I know this isn’t strictly about ” graphics”, but the way the player and characters interact with the environment in The Last of Us Part II is something a lot of other titles could learn lessons from.

This comment goes hand-in-hand with my praise for TLOU2‘s character animations, in a way, but it’s the little things that set it apart from the crowd. The way they leave footsteps and trails in the snow, for example… Or how the long-grass reacts as you crawl through it. Even the way the weapon strap hangs from the gun you’re holding. All of these little details and animations are well-thought out and make you truly feel that you are a part of the world you are experiencing.

The Semi-Open World Areas Are Underutilized, Though

I know, I know. Like I said, no one’s perfect and The Last of Us Part II isn’t any different. There area few semi-open areas in the game which invite the player to explore their surroundings and tackle the problems their own way. Much like a lot of what features in this game, it’s The Last of Us enhanced to the next level.

The only issue with this, particularly the earlier segments in Seattle is that I was left wanting more. There are a few side-activities and areas to explore asides from the main objectives and storyline, but they don’t seem to offer any real reward. They’re time-killers that offer interesting tid-bits of information but in no-way do you need to do it and you’re not really missing out if you continue with the main storyline.

That being said, The Last of Us Part II isn’t an open-world game so I found myself a little indifferent on the matter. With the game already being wonderfully deep and complex, it’s a minor issue. Still, that being said, I would have liked to have seen more from all these character-specific narratives that cross over with Abby and Ellie’s stories and experiences.

It Also Suffers From ” LotR Extended Edition Ending” Syndrome

When I talk about “LotR Extended Edition Ending” Syndrome, allow me to explain… Just when you think Return of the King is over, there’s another scene. Then, you’ve seen Old Bilbo and you think that’s it. Right? Bam. Another ten minutes. By the end of it, you’re almost tired of it ending and it leaves a strange sour taste in your mouth.

The Last of Us Part II suffers from the same thing, despite it’s ending being drastically important.

( It’s A Thing, Trust Me… )

When we see Ellie and Dina at the Farm outside of Jackson, with JJ, I thought that was it. When we see Ellie’s PTSD, I thought that was it. When we see Tommy come back to say hello to them, I thought that was it. When I saw Abby and Lev searching for Fireflies, I thought that was it.

In all honesty, I was waiting for things to end on a cliff-hanger that sets up an Abby-Lev focused Part III. But, life doesn’t always work out how you’d hope it too and The Last of Us Part II’s ending perfectly represents that. It also highlights Ellie’s flaws and near-psychotic nature.

In those pre-ending scenes, she’s happy. She may not have killed Abby, but she made it out alive when she probably shouldn’t have. She has Dina, and JJ, and Tommy… She’s alive. But, that isn’t enough. The final hours of the game reinforces the thematic premises from the earlier moments: revenge is poisonous and ultimately bad.

The Last of Us Part II
Photo Mode Shot by Kyle Wilson / Credit: Naughty Dog

We know Ellie is desperate, but her continued pursuit of Abby and their final confrontation almost seems too far to those of us on the outside of it all. It reinforces how much Joel’s death damaged Ellie and helps to further deconstruct the notion that she is “the good guy”. Like I said at the start of this review, “the idea that perspective is everything“.

By the end of The Last of Us Part II, Ellie isn’t the person we thought they were at the start and neither is Abby.

However, A Few New Mechanics Keep The Game Fresh

That being said, the gameplay throughout The Last of Us Part II is on par with the best games and keeps it exciting and fun to play. Although the core gameplay is largely the same, there are a few moments where new features took me by surprise. For example, the segments when you play the guitar. Sadly, not many titles utilise the Dualshock’s touch-pad. When it is used, I am happy. It’s really that simple.

Playing the guitar is not-only fun to do in The Last of Us Part II, it’s also hugely symbolic of Ellie’s relationship to Joel. When she returns to the farm in the final scenes of the game, without a few of her fingers, she realises that she can no-longer play. In a lot of ways, this is one of the only things she is left with from Joel.

Ellie threw away almost everything for a shot at revenge and came to the realisation that revenge isn’t the answer. The guitar-playing mechanic might seem a pointless addition early on, but it’s symbolism is a testament to the storytelling implemented throughout The Last of Us Part II.

The game also features updated combat mechanics that are fine-tuned to represent the difference in physicality and experience between Abby and Ellie. They are subtle differences which are highlighted by the unique weapons they use, but it does a lot in helping to make each character play differently. Playing as Abby isn’t just a reskinned experience… She’s stronger, trained with firearms… More of a soldier, as her background would suggest.

People outraged with the decision to give The Last of Us Part II the Game of the Year award seem to forget that there’s more to a game than just it’s story. TLOU2 plays exceptionally well in combat, stealth, and exploration and is driven by realistic physics which only enhance the experience.

It is also worth noting that the crafting and upgrades system from The Last of Us is back in greater depth. There are now multiple skill branches that relate to different aspects of gameplay. For example, we can see there is a Survival branch… The inclusion of multiple disciplines forces you to manage your resources more efficiently as you play. This is especially true on harder difficulties.

The crafting system is not too different, but if it isn’t broke… You can craft items and consumables on the fly and improve weapons at Workbenches. On higher difficulties, these items are all-the-more useful and their inclusion brings a degree of strategy to the title.

It Isn’t Perfect, But It’s Damn Good

I don’t think I will ever be able to fully surmise how I feel about The Last of Us Part II and I commend anyone who can. It’s a rich, detailed, emotional experience which is meant to create more questions and answers.

The Last of Us Part II is a masterpiece in every aspect. It’s storytelling is unparalleled. Graphically, it’s a testament to every concept artist, character and environmental artist, and level designer out there. In terms of gameplay, it’s an incredible achievement for motion capture artists, animators, and programmers.

It also goes without saying that the starring cast of voice actors and performance capture artists are at the top of their game and without them, The Last of Us Part II would be half as special.

RELATED: HBO’s The Last of Us Series – A Discussion

Troy Baker as Joel, Ashley Johnson as Ellie, Laura Bailey as Abby, Jeffrey Pierce as Tommy, Shannon Woodward as Dina, Victoria Grace as Yara, Ian Alexander as Lev… There isn’t one performance throughout which isn’t truly exceptional.

The Last of Us Part II is a must-play title for anyone with the chance too. It isn’t just one of the best video games of 2020, but it’s one of the best video games in history.

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