by Ian Ford
The first Last of Us game was one of those rare experiences that managed to transcend its video game roots and stand alone at the pinnacle of entertainment storytelling. Throughout the course of its 15 or so hour runtime we followed Joel and Ellie, the games main protagonists, on their cross-country road trip in search of a vaccine to cure a terrible blight that had all but destroyed humanity.
By the end we had cried, laughed… ok, definitely cried and been left haunted by Joel’s fateful decision to save Ellie and lie to her about the nature of her immunity to the Cordyceps fungus. The story was over, and it was perfect. It didn’t need a sequel and at times seemed to actively resist any notion that it could be followed.
But here we are seven years later, and Naughty Dog have dropped The Last of Us Part 2 onto my still traumatised brain. The question is, is it as good as the first game or is it an unnecessary step in a story that was never meant to be a franchise?
The Last of Us Part 2 Story
Nobody could deny that one of the best parts of the first game was the epic story of Joel and Ellie’s desperate trek across post apocalypse America. During the course of their gripping, poignant, and bleak tale the surrogate father/daughter relationship developed into one of the most beautiful bonds ever seen in video games. This was made all the more poignant after the first act gut punch of Joel’s daughter dying, an act that left him older and more bitter in the sequences that follow.
The Last of US Part 2’s story is no less gripping and at times is uplifting, moving, and absolutely heart-wrenching as the many layers of the game’s narrative pull you along towards a stunningly finale that will be talked about for many years to come… although not always favourably.
So I don’t spoil what happens in the game for those who haven’t played it, I’m not going to go into too many of story’s details. This is a game where you need to experience every minute of the journey for yourself with no expectations or pre-conceived ideas. Yes, the story is at times incredibly bleak (just like the first game) but it swings for the stars with its narrative punches and rarely misses.
The story begins about four years after the end of the first game where we meet an older and still immune Ellie as she sets out on a quest for revenge. Like Joel in the first game, the years of living on the edge of a society tipping into oblivion has made her angrier and more pragmatic about violence and killing. Gone are the feelings of trauma and remorse she felt when killing the psychopath David in the first game, replaced with a steely determination and a cold pragmatism that the cycle of violence she has found herself in is, just like the infection, a part of post-apocalyptic life.
The Last of Us Part 2 is littered with brutally tragic moments that hit all the more harder because you often instigate them. But that’s the real beauty of the game. You are compelled to empathise with the characters despite disagreeing or even being repulsed by what they do.
The Last of Us Part 2 Characters
As already mentioned, I’m not going to spoil the story in this review. All I will say is that as you progress through the 25 hours or so of the game (yes it is longer than the first one) you will see Ellie take sides in a war fought on the streets of an almost unrecognizable Seattle, meet a string of new characters who’ll either help or (as is more often the case) hinder Ellie’s progress, some real gut-punching twists and turns, and the return of Joel as here surrogate father figure, who, unlike the first game, is definitely a support act to Ellie’s star turn.
Actors Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker are pitch perfect as the world-weary duo and their damaged relationship drives the early hours of the story. The pain Joel feels is palpable as he battles with Ellies love for him and her burgeoning need for independence as the secrets of the first game tumble around them. And Ellie is compelled to find revenge later in the game when her world is turned upside down by a brutal act that will make even the strongest gamer shed a tear.
The supporting characters are of an equally high calibre. Shannon Woodward brings charm to the character of Dina and her joyous attitude shines through a world filled with darkness. Laura Bailey of Mary Jane and Kait Diaz fame, is also stunning in her role as the game’s main protagonist. To say too much about her character would reveal too much of the story, but she deserves to win every video game acting award available.
All the characters in The Last of Us Part 2 have purpose and are nuanced in the way they act and behave. Criticising any of them would do a disservice to a great cast and script written by writers at the top of their game.
The Last of Us Part 2 Gameplay and Game Mechanics
In terms of gameplay, Naughty Dog have taken everything good about Part One and added intriguing gameplay mechanics that elevate an already great experience. By focusing on the conflict between the warring Seattle groups, the game naturally branches into uncharted (if you can forgive the pun) territory without feeling contrived. The game lasts a good 10 hours longer than Part One but not once in my play through did I feel like time was dragging (unlike in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4).
That’s not to say the Last of Us Part 2’s gameplay is widely different to the first. You’ll still solve conflicts with the familiar trio of action, stealth, and puzzle solving but little things like being able to jump provide new ways to move around and avoid danger. I’m not overstating when I say that the addition of a jump button is a game changer and increases the excitement level up to eleven. Stealth is still the main mechanic for tackling enemies but the extra tools now at your disposal give you options that you didn’t have in the first game.
Variety can also be found in the way Ellie and Joel are controlled. Ellie is more nimble these days and can jump, climb, and swing to reach new places or avoid enemies. Joel, on the other hand, plays very much like the older man that he is — creaky and slightly sluggish. That’s not to say either character is a pain to control. A lot of thought has clearly gone into how to nuance each control scheme without impacting on the overall gameplay experience. In fact, it is a joy to navigate with both characters around the dilapidated streets of Seattle.
While on the subject of the games main setting, it’s only fair to praise the developers for the level of detail they’ve crammed into the game’s locations. The graphics looks stunning, especially on a PS4 Pro, and on more than one occasion I stopped playing just so I could take a look around at some of the breath-taking vistas within the game. The dilapidated offices and apartment buildings of the first game are still here but are joined by overgrown streets, shopping malls, and skyscrapers. The environments are now more multi-layered adding another dimension to gameplay as height becomes a factor in how enemies and puzzles are tackled.
The Last of Us Part 2 Controversy and Verdict
While I thoroughly enjoyed my time with The Last of Us Part 2 and cannot recommend it highly enough, it would be remiss of me to not tackle some of the controversy surrounding its development and storyline. I won’t comment too much on the LGBTQ issues other than to say that Ellie is a gay character. This wasn’t hidden in the first game (or, in particular, the Left Behind add on). Yes, some areas of society have been outspoken in their negativity about this and some countries have even banned the game. That’s up to them. At the end of the day they will be the ones missing out on something truly stunning.
But I do want to talk story.
Before the game even came out, there was a negative buzz swirling as the story leaked online and rumours about what happens to Ellie and in particular Joel sprung up across social media circles. I’m not going to spoil the story for you, but I will refer you to my previous comments — this game is both brutal and bleak.
That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. During my time with the game I felt a wide range of emotions that I have seldom felt anywhere else. Yes, I was angry and at times incredibly sad. But that’s the point of this game. It isn’t trying to give you an adrenalin rushing like Modern Warfare. It isn’t trying to recreate the intricacies of a game of football like Madden (or FIFA depending on where you live in the world and what you consider to be football). Its power is in the characters and the situations they find themselves in. Nothing in The Last of Us Part 2’s story is there for any other reason than to make you feel something and think deeply about what is happening. But that’s why we bought the game at the end of the day. To be drawn into an emotional roller coaster that forces us to confront the nasty things in life… while having fun.
So, strap yourself in, make sure you have tissues nearby, and prepare to be enveloped in a stunning world that is both brutal and beautiful because The Last of Us Part 2 is an amazing experience and a true 10 out of 10.
WRITTEN BY Ian Ford