It was in the first two hours of The Last of Us: Part Two that a strange thought struck me – I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel bound to something that could provide easily digestible entertainment, I felt shaken because I suddenly had no idea where this game was taking me. Naughty Dog, Sony and those involved with crafting this narrative, pulled the rug out from under me.
That sense of unease was something that never really went away. Like grief, I learned to live with it as I crawled though crumbling apartment walls or under fences – all the while never knowing where one cut scene would take me.
The Last Of Us: Part II launched with unease as well, giving that leaks hit the interwebs and disgruntled fans took to social media voicing their distaste or pure hatred for – you name it – poor writing, depiction of trans characters and the fact that a lesbian character was front and centre.
I managed to avoid the depth of the spoilers, only brushing up against one plot point, so I was happy to go in relatively blind to experience the story for myself.
But before I get to my story thoughts, I want to mention other aspects first — the overall production of the game.
In terms of visuals, it’s a gorgeous game – from a decaying Seattle overgrown with vines to snowy mountainsides to character models, General, striking art design and motion-capture. The team of Naughty Dog continue to impress and deliver a game that’s top-notch in terms of these aspects.
Audio is just as spectacular here. I loved hearing the rain splatter against the tarps or pigeons cooing from a nearby roof and old buildings creaking. The world around you really comes alive and, to envelop you further, the musical score – somber, tense and reflective – works alongside it beautifully. Think of Hans Zimmer’s work on The Dark Knight or Joseph Bishara’s work on Insidious – it’s disconcerting, moody and cold, as well as featuring moments of warmth.
Performances and voice work is terrific, especially of the core cast – Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey, who have some pretty tough materiel to capture but do it wonderfully, often beautifully. It’s always engaging.
There are other voices that are terrific, particularly the secondary cast – Shannon Woodward, Stephen A. Chang and Patrick Fugit – but also the extras – the ones you’ll face in the world – enemies you’ll go up against as a ninja-like Ellie – who sketch out their individual selves a little. They’ll scream out the name of a fallen comrade – or even that of a doggo, DON‘T get me started – and they’ll plot against you. In my case – often successfully. Do you know how many times I got dragged out from under a car??
When it comes to the gameplay, I appreciate the openness of the game world. An open Seattle and store fronts can unlock little tidbits of dialogue or encounters, whereas combat in this open environment provides a lot of replayability to how you choose to take on enemies. It’s also incredibly tense a lot of the time – there was a lot of shambling and panicking on my behalf. Stealth and I have always been odd bedfellows.
Much has been made about the brutality of the combat and yep, The Last Of Us: Part II earns its rating, here in Australia a hard R18+. Heads are caved in, arms are broken, throats are stabbed. It certainly made me flinch on a few occasion, the violence and desperation of this people, this world, coming through loud and clear. Why we can’t choose to knock out instead of kill, say, human enemies, I don’t know. I guess that goes against the point of these people and their nature.
As a story, The Last Of Us: Part II is heartbreaking, packs a hell of an emotional punch and is relentlessly bleak. It presents the concept of the cycle of violence and revenge and has some gut-wrenching story beats along the 26-odd hour story.
In saying that, I did feel that some aspects feel contrived to get the story rolling – and in doing so, continuing the exploration of the cycle of violence feels a bit rough around the edges. Strange and inorganic.
There’s also an issue with character motivation. Some beats, in this respect, feel a bit all over the place and not in a way that works thematically or to who they were, in either the first game or the first act. That’s as much as I can say without being spoilerific.
Pacing is also an issue. Structurally, it’s a bit messy, with the second half of the game feeling like padding, like DLC content. The game has a massive list of characters and a lot of ground to cover and I feel like the narrative pull suffers in jumping from chapter to chapter.
I think the first half of the game is the strongest, establishing some meaty, weighty themes that are engaging, but I feel like, in some places, there’s not a balance between light and dark. Sometimes it just goes that step further and feels grim purely for grim’s sake.
I will say…that, for all its flaws, PART II feels like a continuation of the story, rather than a tacked on sequel that is simply a rehash. This is still the world from the first game that is harsh and brutal.
So as a story, I can appreciate it tackling the complexity of hatred and revenge – I think it does the smaller moments of humanity quite well at times and has a lot of strong sequences and set pieces – but it does stumble a bit in its execution, not quite sticking the landing when it comes to the bigger moments of, say, Ellie’s arc. In the end, I just wish it was tighter and sharper and more focused.
As a game, it can be suspenseful to play through, not just for the narrative but in some tense set pieces. Not only that, smart AI makes for dynamic encounters that pushed me forward through the environment. I came into an encounter not knowing what was going to happen and that left me thrilled and on edge.