Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold
The Last Of Us Part II is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. It’s also one of the messiest and divisive too. It’s a game that does a lot right but the big flaws ultimately hold this back from its aspiring heights. The layered tale of revenge and violence loses its fluidity and urgency long before the over-long 25 hour journey coughs blood and stumbles on broken legs to the finish line.
The story this time around picks up five years after the events of the previous game. Joel and Ellie are living at Tommy’s new settlement in Jackson, Wyoming but things are frosty between them to say the least. This is a very different Ellie to the optimistic one we left behind, a girl who’s moody and holding a lot of baggage after the events that occurred at the end of the previous game.
A shocking incident early on during the opening hours of the title ignites the vengeful mission Ellie undertakes and from here, the first portion of the game sees you control Ellie as you make your way into Seattle to confront your villainous enemy. As the story reaches its dramatic peak, the narrative shifts perspective and for the second half of this 20-25 hour long game you relive the same cycle of days again but from the other side of the conflict. We won’t go into specifics here (you can read our separate story recap for our full thoughts on this here) but suffice to say it’s a bit of a mess.
Narratively, the game loses that same tight identity that made the first title so endearing. The violence and bloodshed that accompanies the much moodier and darker tone this time around only lets up during flashback sequences that are interspersed throughout. Instead of helping though, this only further exacerbates the issues with the way this story has been edited. There’s definitely a fascinating and thought provoking story here though but it feels like it’s told in the wrong order, from the wrong perspective, with an over-long script that runs out of steam long before the final credits roll.
While The Last Of Us Part II’s story lacks cohesion, it does redeem itself somewhat with the graphics. The visuals here are nothing short of stunning. The art direction, use of colour and general aesthetic of almost every single location is on-point and there’s a visible effort to fill these areas with as much environmental storytelling as possible. Houses look lived in, streets drown in green overgrown shrubbery and the far-off locations back-dropped by long draw distances and tiny details combine to make this a step-up from Red Dead Redemption 2. The art team deserve a lot of props for what they’ve achieved here.
This realism spills over to the character models too and much has been said about the violence depicted in this game before release. There are some genuinely tough scenes to watch and whether it be a knife plunging into an enemy’s windpipe or a lead pipe crushing someone’s skull, some of these moments are brutal and may even make you wince. One particular scene involving a hammer and a woman pinned to the floor had me audibly gasp and curse at how visceral the moment was.
The violence does serve a purpose though and it ties into the main theme of the game about the cyclical nature of violence and how hopeless this struggle actually is. It’s something that’s captured perfectly across the game and much like the first, these themes tie into the main narrative and help to build a bigger portrait of what’s happening.
If you weren’t a fan of the controls and gameplay the first time around, you probably won’t be fond of this one either. The Last Of Us Part II takes those same cumbersome, heavy-handed controls the first time around and adds a few extra moves. You can jump this time around which is admittedly pretty useless unless you’re high up but the prone mechanic is a game-changer.
With the world consumed by lush greens and tall grass, lying prone can help you navigate across the much-larger playgrounds of combat and stealth. That’s good too because Naughty Dog, seemingly aware of the lack of variety between humans and infected, mix things up with the inclusion of attack dogs, extra Infected types and a new human group called the Scars. The latter whistle around the area making it difficult to pick enemies off one by one while attack dogs sniff our your scent, forcing you to move from a single location.
The enemy AI is still lacking here though but the staggering amount of control over how easy or hard you can make the game in the options is certainly welcome. You can tweak the aggression of enemies, turn auto-aim on and off and just generally make life difficult for yourself as you play through. These are really nice inclusions but as a personal note, it would have been nice to see this added as an achievement in-game to give players an incentive to try out the brutal Survival mode with the difficulty cranked all the way up. Trust me – it’s not for the fainthearted.
There’s a plethora of collectables to grab through the game too and between combat sections are some light bites of platforming and puzzles – mostly involving moving dumpsters or crates around. There’s also a new inclusion of smashing windows and throwing ropes but these are largely straight forward and not too difficult. Much of the game relies on its combat and given how long the game is, there’s a lot of it to sink into.
The same crafting mechanics as the first game return and they’re largely unchanged from before. You scavenge different parts from the environment and hold X to craft everything from shivs and melee weapon upgrades to smoke bombs and Molotov cocktails. Supplements act as character enhancements which help make your character stronger while weapon parts can be exchanged for upgrades to your arsenal at workbenches.
As a side note, upgrading weapons is akin to skinning animals in Red Dead 2 so expect to sit through a good 4-8 second animation for every single upgrade. If, like me, you’ve collected enough for 4 or 5 upgrades, expect to sit there watching the gun being meticulously picked apart and put back together again and again. Alongside all that are the usual in-game button prompts that help show which doors can be opened and which items can be interacted with.
There’s no denying though that The Last Of Us Part II nails its atmosphere. Combat encounters are genuinely tense, chase sequences get your heart racing and some excellent level design feeds into this to help create a consistent feeling of progression.
It’s helped somewhat by the returning sound design of Gustavo Santaolalla. Those familiar guitar strums are back, and The Last Of Us theme has been reworked here to be accompanied by a series of atmospheric tracks that take full advantage of the low rumble of bass. This combination works well to give the game a musical consistency to the first and the voice acting is generally very good all round.
The problem with The Last Of Us Part II though comes from the elephant in the room – its narrative. There’s one moment late on during a boss sequence where you’re forced to engage in combat with a particular character and it’s one of the most uncomfortable gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time.
While it’s great the game can conjure up these sort of extreme emotions, this level of disdain really hurts the integrity of The Last Of Us Part II and turns it into the video-game equivalent of marmite – you’ll either love it or hate it. For those on the dislike side of the spectrum though, this causes every other element of the game to fall by the wayside as your motivations dwindle and you find yourself hate-playing to find out how this one ends.
The Last Of Us Part II will be an incredible game for some and a disappointing, narratively disjointed mess for others. Graphically, the title is easily one of the best looking on Playstation 4 and the level design is second to none. The art feeds into this beautifully with an aesthetic that switches colour palettes and ideas throughout the 25 hours to prevent the game stagnating.
Unfortunately all of this is undermined by characters with very little depth, a narrative that flits between personas and flashbacks with little rhyme or reason, and some genuinely unsatisfying conclusions for almost every character at the end, save for Ellie. As someone who loved The Last Of Us, Part II is a tough pill to swallow. It’s a game that asks perhaps the biggest question of all – why should I care about these characters? And that’s something this never really answers with much conviction.
All of our videogame reviews are also featured on OpenCritic