The Last of Us Part 2 Review – Duality in many forms
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release: 19th June 2020
The Last of Us was a good game. But was it interesting, ambitious or unique? Arguably yes but at the same time, not really. Focusing on a classic post-apocalyptic setting, a father-daughter relation and a road trip through the whole country, it certainly offered a compelling experience and great dialogues but nothing was unique or even ambitious. It delivered a playable movie, a great playable movie but an unsurprising one. So, with Part 2, Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann tried to do something different, something so artistically inspired it took me off guard.
4 years after the first game, Part 2 centers about Ellie and her journey of revenge. I won’t go into many details beyond the prologue but in exchange I will spoil the first 2 hours heavily. Joel dies, that’s clear for almost everyone at this point. Killed by the new character Abby, it’s Ellies choice to revenge her dad and become the justice this world is lacking.
And hence, her journey begins, at least for everyone not immediately put off by the fact one of the most central pillars in the game just died. Yes, The Last of Us Part 2 isn’t about the father-daughter relation the first one celebrated so heavily. Instead, it asks itself what this franchise is, what this franchise can offer and what a sequel should be. Instead of catering to fan expectations and delivering the same but unsurprising experience everyone wanted it opted for something so much more interesting. This intention is made clear as day in this Prologue but also throughout the game. Ellie isn’t the good girl always making the morally correct choices nor is she an actual heroine anymore. Still, many fans still hold on tight to her choices or even call the game bad for antagonizing her. Because, Ellie’s revenge isn’t nice, nor is ist justifiable. It’s a focused act of excessive violence. It asks you if you’re still ok playing her. An interesting narrative choice by itself considering what context this game is tinted in through the first one.
!Spoiler Warning for the next three paragraphs!
Unfortunately, Ellies’ 12 hour long campaign is, well, too focused in my eyes. It’s so focused that it lacks almost any kind of interesting narrative ideas or character development except the obvious, making it a stale but intended experience. Especially day 1 suffers from this and the almost cookie-cutterly unsurprising dynamic between Ellie and Dina.
Where The Last of Us Part 2 takes off the most, both for the haters and myself, is the second half. By going the unconventional route of actively trying to unwrite itself out of the moral corner it put itself in. Instead of letting Ellie kill off Abby after her campaign and calling it an okay experience yet again, we’re presented with a deep, perfect and emotional characterization of a character so similar in nearly every single aspect that it spans a fascinating duality over everything. After all, this world doesn’t have good or bad sides, nor is it objective. Everything’s subjective and for many, Ellie’s world seems like the antagonists, just how Abby seems to be for Ellie.
Nonetheless, Apart from this duality that is introduced into almost every aspect from here on out, The Last of Us Part 2 does so much more. While it tells a fairly unsurprising story if you merely put down the central story beats on paper, it offers some of the most compelling, well-written drama I’ve ever seen in a AAA game except Red Dead Redemption 2. It successfully presents itself as a flat revenge tale before actively reversing its own writing, not because it’s cool but because it makes sense to properly show the duality and create an experience that feels fresh from any angle, even a structural one.
On the other hand, The Last of Us Part 2 also infuses the gameplay with way more meaning and possibilities than before. While still being a mix between the third-person shooter known from Uncharted and a more stealth-oriented design, Part 2 clearly profits from the added scale the PS4 brings to the table compared to the PS3. Offering the biggest areas I’ve ever seen in a Naughty Dog game, it finally delivers a good blend between all its different playstyles, clearly allowing the player to tackle encounters with far more freedom than ever before. Because of this freedom, the game feels so much more engaging to play because its stealth focus finally works flawlessly with the added enemies and more vertical environments.
At the same time, the gameplay is also the area that conflicts the most with the vision of the game, on a superficial level. Before its release, it got often marketed as a game that wants you to feel uneasy and bad but especially in the infested encounters, this is the opposite. It’s actually a far more accessible experience as you don’t have to craft special items to kill clickers and the AI is far more lenient in every form. It also offers you far more ways to battle your enemies due to the bigger maps with more hidden tunnels to lure enemies in and spots to hide.
Naturally, there’s also the layer of realism laid over the whole game, with humans in particular. When engaging them in stealth, enemies will often call out their dead buddies or even dogs by name (though those can repeat quite a lot), sounding clearly put off and sad by the sight you presented them with, before trying to find you with a clear rage known from Ellie’s revenge. The Last of Us Part 2 tries its hardest to contextualize the world and your actions as brutal and offputting as they really are. While some players see this in an attempt to make the player feel bad, which also is due to the marketing and tweets of the team, I perceived it as a tool to create a certain atmosphere. Ellie’s campaign in particular sees her facing off against the way more human Wolves faction. Since the game also wants to show the brutality and single-mindedness of Ellie’s rage, all these actually impressive attempts at passive characterization of your enemies is meant to criticize Ellie in this world. As you are the player, this can of course be projected onto you but The Last of Us Part 2 is far too linear and focused on its characters to really make room for that in my eyes. So it remains one of its most powerful and technically impressive achievements in AI and storytelling that actually doesn’t conflict the gameplay. Ellie decided to become this brutal beast, you may amplify it with decisions to kill more people than necessary. Still, the game criticises this action with the intervowen dialogue which makes absolutely sense.
Last but not least, I want to acknowledge how well Naughty Dog blended the gameplay and story together this time, better than ever before at that. The more cinematic parts in particular create great moments that are genuinely dangerous and require at least some skill from the player to complete rather than simply being cutscenes you can control. This is partly because nearly all things you gotta squeeze through or else require a different input rather than a “one button for all” and the enemies or dangers can quickly kill you at that.
Nevertheless, the technical side of things brings all aspects of the game truly together. From the realistic, almost overly detailed enemy AI interactions, animation technology and sheer graphical fidelity, The Last of Us Part 2 is truly breathtaking. Naturally, the fact it still runs on the base PS4 is another fact to be baffled by. Just taking a closer look at the locomotion systems driving the character movement and interactions already reveals how advanced their technology is, even in an age where delivering seamless animations becomes a bigger and bigger focus. While the environments may not be as flashy or the action as catchy as in Uncharted, it impresses by the level of detail and love every single piece in the houses and destroyed Seattle got. The Last of Us Part 2 is an impressive looking game that actually profits in every way from its visuals as it builds itself around the realistically depressive atmosphere it so dearly invokes.
When I saw the announcement for The Last of Us Part 2, its trailers, its hype, leaks and ultimately its title on my PS4 dashboard, I didn’t know what to expect but I wasn’t hyped or very interested in it. Too little risks and interesting ideas were taken and presented in the first to truly make an impact for me. Yet after having completed it, something called respect, love and surprise clearly built in me towards this piece of entertainment. It’s a game that deserves to be called an artistic piece as it wants to challenge you with its clearly subjective vision. A vision I haven’t seen in any other Naughty Dog game nor in many other games except Red Dead Redemption 2 in the AAA hemisphere. I can’t agree with any criticism have towards it and how the debate around it almost exclusively ignores the game and its writing in the context of itself. It’s great from nearly every angle and could only be critized for its sometimes very direct way to deliver some characterization of its rather flat side characters. Part 2 isn’t trying to meet your expectations, it realized how utterly pointless catering to your fanbase can be for art. So, it delivered something so much more meaningful and I’m happy to have played it.
[A Review Code was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment]