Developed By: Naughty Dog
Published By: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Reviewed On: PS4PRO
When I finally thought I had enough to sit down and write this review, coincidentally I got a Facebook notification reminding me that seven years ago on June 7th I preloaded The Last of Us. Being a huge fan of the Uncharted series and reading the early reviews only got me more impatient to dive in and experience the game for myself. As optimistic as I was back then I knew that it was going to be a good game and it turned out to be such a great gaming experience that I double dipped when the PS4 came out just to go through the whole journey again. It really requires no explanation as to how to much of a gaming phenomenon The Last of Us has become over the years.
When the sequel was revealed at the PlayStation Experience 2016, I admit I had goosebumps. At the time I just loved how understated the trailer was with Ellie singing ‘Through the Valley’ reflected with the remnants of carnage around her. I was excited but also wondered how they could possibly top what was already such a beloved and fantastic experience in the first game. Unfortunately, in the era we are living in leaks happen and whatever that was out there got dissected by the masses. It was strange to watch this unfold as there was so much information flying around that a lot of people were quick to condemn mostly because they disliked where the game was heading based on the leaks. There were even notable ‘personalities’ jumping onto the discussion train throwing around some surprising viewpoints that really rubbed people the wrong way.
I did not fail to see the irony in how a game that had a more adult story and themes spark such controversy and outcry from the public to the point where people were actively canceling their pre-orders. I know that it is not the first game to do so but still for me, judging, dissecting, and just condemning something without first experiencing it in its entirety does such an insulting disservice to the hard work that was put into it by the developers. I admit I read some of the leaks, but I did not spoil myself completely not because I did not like how it was going but I was more upset by how everyone else was reacting to it. So, I stopped, waited and finally with the help of the incredible and generous folks at PlayStation Asia, we were granted an early review code. Just to be clear, I thought The Last of Us was a great game. Despite all the controversy and leaks, The Last of Us Part II managed to surprise me and surpass any sort of expectations I had for it by improving almost everything from the first game and taking some really fantastic storytelling risks that pay off in a monumentally emotional way. This will be a non-spoiler review.
When You Are Real, You Don’t Mind Being Hurt
The Last of Us Part II picks up four years after the events after the first game where Joel rescues Ellie from the Fireflies. They have now made a home in Jackson in a safe and thriving community and playing their part to maintain the status quo. As harsh as the world has become on the outside, the community in Jackson somehow finds a way to stay civilized. The thing about life though is no matter how safe you feel at home, life will always find a way to remind you that the world is still out there. On a routine day just like any other, a tragedy befalls the community where one of their own is taken in very shocking circumstance and Ellie takes it upon herself to find those responsible for this senseless act.
It starts out as a revenge story with players controlling Ellie to help her fulfill this mission that she has set upon herself but along the way the story unfolds with brilliant and masterful depth in the characters themselves and the world around them. Ellie has grown up and changed a lot from the younger character that she was in the first game. She is a lot more independent and headstrong but has also developed a vulnerable side of herself due to reaching that part in her life where romantic relationships are becoming a more prominent part of her life. It has been no secret that Dina is playing the love interest for Ellie and their relationship is for me quite sweet as it really did not feel like it was forced. The chemistry between both characters is just very natural. Tommy also makes a return and is finding newfound purpose away from the Fireflies in Jackson. There are other side characters like Jesse who even though with less screen time still provide a memorable impact. There are so many more characters that you will meet along the way that are just as memorable as Henry, Sam, or Bill with just as much depth if not more that will stick with you. Even Joel who is very much older now is still a protective, loving presence that we all know and love and is just such an essential part of the cast and Ellie’s journey. What really makes it extra special for me is how the performances of the characters is just so nuanced and effective in making me absolutely drawn to them.
I also really bought into the world-building. Like in the first game there will be collectible items like letters and notes strewn about the world for players to discover that provides a window into a point in time for things that have happened or are still happening. They managed to take it a step further by also inserting that into the factions that you will encounter and create a complex layer into understanding them and their history. This also ties into the environmental storytelling that really makes the places you explore feel lived in.
In my opinion, the factions you encounter in the first game feel more generalized. The FEDRA is the military who is in control and oppressing the Quarantined Zones and the Fireflies are revolutionaries trying to re-establish the government. The smaller factions like the Hunters are always there as evil scavengers and along the way, there are side characters you meet to kind of flesh out how other people like you in the story are coping with surviving in the wild. In this game, they expand and combine both experiences and then blend them together elegantly. The main factions that players will encounter in the game are the WLF (Washington Liberation Front) and the Seraphites with the WLF seemingly taking the mantle of the Fireflies but have developed an agenda of their own. The Seraphites on the other hand operate like a faction that is more alike with religious fanatic groups. At first glance these both factions seem to be just the typical “bad guys” but a lot more is revealed during the game where the lines get blurred.
The game tackles a lot of themes with the most obvious one being revenge and the hurricane of destruction that accompanies it. Being obsessed and how in the pursuit of getting what we want may it be out of love or anger we tend to scorch the earth sometimes not knowing the difference. The world is an incredibly unforgiving place and the concept of home and family is hard because even your own flesh and blood might not be the family you envision them to be. To be lucky enough to find hope and a home and be able to keep that for yourself is rare because when you are damaged it never feels like it will last. It is about trying to fit in because you are tired of always being on the outside looking in. You want to be a part of something, anything that makes you feel like you are not alone but then you realize how much you have to give up to just even have an attempt at it. It is about wanting faith or having a purpose but then following blindly until you don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like anymore. It’s about having hope and people you think will save you but being so naïve to the fact that there will never be a guarantee that the world will fix itself even with the best of intentions. Having pain, anger, and rage that sticks with you and drives you forward because you want better for yourself but it starts to consume you until you become it and you just can’t let it go no matter how hard you try leaving you with crippling regret in the aftermath. Choices, consequences, and collateral damage. Does it even matter who gets hurt down the line? Has it ever mattered? You just live with it after all isn’t that the lesson life gives you over and over again to remind you? You can hold on to that one inch for as long as you want to even until it makes you bitter, but it might not even change anything. How would you ever know what is it you are supposed to do to deal with anything? Oddly enough for some reason I even felt some themes explored are a response to a question that has plagued the Uncharted series, isn’t Nathan Drake essentially a serial killer?
The first few hours playing the game I felt it was alright, it’s The Last of Us and up to that point it was as great as I thought it was going to be. Then the more I played the more uncomfortable I felt due to the nature of the game and how there are some themes that I identified with on a personal level. Even with so much said there is still more that needs to be unspoiled and experienced first-hand. The storytelling direction that Naughty Dog took with this game was a very risky one that not everyone is going to like it, they might even find ways to absolutely hate it. I appreciated greatly how it affected me to the degree that it did and in my opinion, it was one of the finest storytelling I have experienced in a game ever.
It Takes But One Candle To Dispel The Darkness
If you thought since we are at the end of the PlayStation 4’s lifecycle that we have probably already hit the ceiling on how good graphics can be in this generation somehow the masters at Naughty Dog have managed to outdo themselves once again with phenomenal results. Even from the trailers revealed thus far, the facial animations for the character’s themselves have painstaking detail that truly captures the essence of the performances even when there is no spoken dialogue like a loving gaze from one character to another. The detail in character models especially when hurt with scrapes, bruises and cuts that reflect correctly and lasting you know for continuity purposes which I appreciate because I pay attention to stuff like that. For example, a character who was hung by her neck showing the bruise for the rest of the game. The clothes themselves look a step above from the Uncharted series with realistic creases, tears and feel like they have actual weight to them. Even the horses look better than the ones in Red Dead Redemption. There are so many tiny details like your character walking to the edge of a high spot and the game reacting to her vertigo by letting you experience it. I mean that might seem completely unnecessary but that just shows the level of dedication to detail. I almost even forgot to talk about how the lighting in this game really feels like just a step above any other game right now and the HDR is just glorious. One section that really blew my mind is when you are running through a pitch-black jungle using only a torch and it was atmospheric as hell and so incredibly terrifying.
The environments also play an important part due to how affecting it can be when done right. The first game had fantastic environmental storytelling and that is continued here with beautiful and desolate locations. I like to explore and appreciate like a tourist and that may be weird for a game that is set when the world ended but I just can’t help it due to how well designed it is. I find myself imagining constantly the people that would have lived in the places you go to. Walking into an apartment and seeing fresh tomatoes growing in the window or reading a letter held by a decomposing body on how he wished he could get some medicine to his family but falling short. Even the way that a building is falling apart with nature taking over just feels so graceful and beautiful. It made me feel how without people it’s all just stuff and how little all of it ever matters when things go south. Also, I chuckled seeing a boba shop.
There are a lot of other minor details that are just a joy to experience like the way grass and foliage just sway in the wind or move while you crawl through them. The way water trails and falls off a sign up above when rain is pouring or even the way the water moves when you wade through it. Really cutting-edge stuff here when it comes to water effects. Even the fire effects just feel so alive with one example being if an enemy accidentally steps through the fire they actually start lighting up too. I know that has been done before but just the degree and timing of it happening just feels so damn natural. The condensation on glass effects is just unbelievable. One detail that I really wish was in-game was during a cutscene when a horse steps on a piece of ice in a creek that shatters it. I really thought I could replicate it in-game but man if that did happen, I would have lost my mind. One of my favourite pieces of detail in the game is during the bits where you upgrade your weapons. They don’t show the whole process, but the way Ellie takes apart weapons and affix new upgrades to them is just beautiful in motion. The most interesting thing about how all of this comes together is that the game is so well built that at times I did not really realize it. At one point right before a chapter ended I had a moment to look back and realize that I had actually traveled quite a significant distance around the city of Seattle vertically and horizontally without any loading screens at all. Aside from the initial load when you boot up the game or from a save file even when you must restart, the loading is so quick it’s almost magical with how amazing the game looks.
Now when it comes to the fighting segments the facial and character movements are so fluid and visceral, much more so compared to the first game. This is the most apparent when confronting enemies in hand to hand combat where the facial animations of the enemies or Ellie reacting to each move, hit and dodge motion is so amazing to the point where it actually is a distraction for me at times. There are some games that attempt to convey violence to an excessive degree but there is always the danger it ends up looking and feeling cartoonish but the violence that is on display here especially up close is so gruesome and uncomfortable but never ever feels like it is in danger of falling in that trap.
All of this is also possible due to the amazing sound work that compliments every encounter, cutscene, or scripted event. The voice work is as immaculate as expected with excellent performances by the actors. The sounds of gunshots are thunderous, and the noise arrows whizzing past you make or hitting their mark is satisfying. Fighting hand to hand using a weapon with the accompanying grunts, shouts, and the crunch of hitting an incapacitating deathly swing on the enemy is brutal. The pulsing music that accompanies every encounter that echoes a heartbeat does its job spectacularly. Environmental sounds like rain, leaves rustling or even vehicular sounds pop and if you have the right surround sound setup really immerse you in the experience further. The soundtrack from composer Gustavo Santaolalla is just breathtaking and enhances every single scene to perfection. There are also musical performances in the game that just make you feel something special.
Only When Weak May I Carry My True Strength
One of the biggest complaints I have heard over the years about the gameplay in The Last of Us is how if you just strip it down to just the gameplay segments, remove the storytelling and scripted events that the gameplay is actually nothing special. In my opinion, the gameplay in The Last of Us Part II is definitely a step up from the first game. They just made what was good even better by refining it but before I get ahead of myself lets just talk about Ellie first.
Ellie controls just as good as Joel did from the first game with updated animations. Running around, climbing sneak and etc plays very smoothly. By default, Ellie is equipped with a switchblade that she uses for melee encounters. Like the first game, along the way players will be able to pick up pipes, hammers and etc so you can take out enemies faster than your switchblade would if you did not stealth kill them. I’m not sure if it was a bug but one time I tried to break into a car to get a collectible but was just scratching the windows hilariously with Ellie’s switchblade but never encountered that problem again. Moving on, Ellie will be able to equip two weapons with usually one-handed weapons in one slot and two-handed ones in a different slot. With exploration and luck, your character will be able to find holsters that will enable the player to have two slots each for easy switching. The weapons that Ellie will be able to find range from the semi-automatic pistol, revolver, shotgun to a rifle and bow. Each of these weapons that Ellie finds can also be upgraded at workbenches throughout certain points of the game using parts found from exploration. Some of the upgrades include raising the damage to having a larger magazine capacity which does help players survivability in the long run. Aside from weapons, Ellie is also able to craft medical kits to heal herself, traps, and bombs. Like the first game to be able to craft these items players would need to explore and gather the necessary resources as it is incredibly rare to get these items whole.
Ellie also has skill trees that enhance her character in different ways. In total there will be five skill trees for Ellie. Players will start off with the Survival tree and the other trees can only be unlocked by finding training manuals in the wild. Be warned that these training manuals require players to explore as much as possible as most of them are found in optional areas. It is incredibly beneficial in the long run due to the upgrades Ellie will acquire. Using supplements (like parts), players can upgrade how effective medical kits are, or how efficient Ellie can be in crafting arrows and bombs. Some upgrades also include increasing the capacity for items so make sure you explore and find those manuals. As shared before, players might not be able to fully upgrade all weapons and unlock all skills on one playthrough.
Besides scavenging for ammunition, crafting resources, supplements, or parts, players will also be collecting trading cards for Ellie like the Savage Starlight comic books that Joel collected in the first game and this brings me to how exploration has been expanded. First introduced in Uncharted 4, players will be visiting semi open-world hubs that has discoverable locations. In the recent State of Play, the large area that Ellie rides around on horseback is one such area and like what was shared, there are new exploration options for players. These areas are one of my favourites as it is entirely up to the player whether they want to explore them or not because the discoverable locations are not places you tick off a checklist. It is entirely possible for players to just head towards the directed areas and misses out on the optional areas entirely as sometimes Ellie herself will drop a hint but other times players will need to explore themselves and find notes that point you in the right direction. There are some areas that just require you to be perceptive enough to realize that you can get to that blocked off area if you look hard enough and it usually pays off because there is always something interesting to discover. Items such as additional supplies, training manuals, weapons, safes, and some side stories that really flesh out the world can be found in these optional areas. One of my favourite optional areas is a music store where Ellie finds a guitar and proceeds to perform her rendition of a familiar song. If you find that music store, do yourself a favour and walk in, I promise you are going to love it as much as I did.
The way that players experience encounters with enemies in the game has also been upgraded and refined. The biggest aspect that has noticeable improvements is how much more viable stealth is now. When taking on enemies, Ellie can duck and crawl through grass or under some vehicles to get closer to them to take them out with a stealth melee attack without alerting the others. You can even take a high vantage point and take them out one by one with the silencer attachment but what really makes the stealth immersive for me is how smartly human enemies react to whatever is unfolding in every encounter. There is always the inclination to find a good spot to take out all the enemies one by one smartly. What I really did not expect was how realistic the enemies try to find you. Instead of the typical response once enemies discover someone getting assassinated, they almost always find you in record time or even know exactly where you are but here the timing of it just feels so right because they will slowly narrow down where the attacks are coming from until they find you. The tension ramps up now that dogs are added to the mix who can smell your trail and will slowly track your scent unless you distract them or take them out immediately. I appreciated the intelligence because of how dynamic they force you to play even in stealth. I especially loved taking out the Seraphites stealthily due to how atmospheric their whistling is when they communicate orders. They slowly narrow down vectors depending on how they sense where the attack is coming from until they see you directly then it’s a full-on assault. They will then seek out cover and try to flank you every chance they get so you can never stay in one spot at any time. You must move and find pockets to attack and survive and on higher difficulties with limited resources and bullets, it can really feel stressful. I also love the little detail of Ellie falling on her back when she takes a direct shot while crouching. It just adds to the immersion and tension more.
When it comes to the infected enemies most of them do make a welcome comeback. Runners and Clickers will come after you relentlessly when they sense you. Stalkers are almost the opposite of Clickers whereby they do not attack you head on but will run away and hide. If you are patient enough you can actually see them scurrying around trying to sneak a peek but it also can result in hilarious moments as when you sneak up on them they get surprised and come after you. Stalkers may seem harmless compared to Clickers, but in groups, they can tear you to shreds. The new infected Shamblers are akin to Bloaters but instead of just hurling toxins, they now spray toxins from their bodies when they get close. The infected are still a very real threat so players will really need to tread carefully especially on higher difficulties.
Now the gameplay might be better than ever but one thing that I am happy to share is how varied and comprehensive the accessibility options are for The Last of Us Part II that it is staggering. There are over 60 different accessibility toggles and sliders for players to turn on and off that suits best for their playing experience. You can even play through the entire game entirely by sound. There are audio sounds that will alert players of items or enemies in the scanned area and will even have unique sounds depending on their location that is above or below you. The game will also use audio cues and vibration to help direct players to the direction they need to be going when the time comes for traversing tight areas or jumping gaps and in assisting combat. The control scheme is also fully remappable. I know my colleague is going to be excited that there are options for a colour-blind person like him that will really assist and enhance his playing experience.
For players interested in the difficulty levels, when starting a New Game, they range from Very Light, Light, Moderate, Hard & Survivor. I played through the game on Moderate difficulty and Moderate+ on my second time around and it was just nice as I could enjoy the story, but some players might find it to be too easy. Once unlocking New Game Plus however players will gain access to a new Custom difficulty mode. There are five different sliders that players can adjust that vary from how much resources are available, how much tougher enemies will be, how much more attentive enemies are in breaking through stealth, and how tough Ellie is. Players will be able to mix and match to get the exact experience they want, and the best part is you will be able to tune the difficulty while playing although that will require a restart. For those worried, Grounded difficulty will be coming in a patch sometime soon together with customizable Permadeath options for the Custom difficulty.
Early on I mentioned that there were some complaints about how the gameplay in The Last of Us was nothing special with some professing its average and even some going so far to say that it is bad. I do feel that from start to finish if you didn’t like the pacing in the first game you might have a problem with The Last of Us Part II, although I do feel that in a way the developers try to accommodate the impatient by giving them an option to just focus on pushing forward instead of exploring but with the drawback of losing out on some things. Some of you might even feel like the pacing is a little off in the beginning but I urge you to just push on as there are a lot of deliberate choices in this game that might not make sense at first glance. There is something for everyone here with exploration, difficulty adjustments, combat refinements, and more. The game is longer than the first one as well between 25-30 hours, I personally clocked in on my first playthrough at 36 hours. There were rumours that there is going to be a multiplayer segment called Factions but that might come later, and I honestly cannot wait to try it as I had so much fun with the first one.
What I Absolutely Loved
- Story – Starts out simple but then gets darker and more complex. Everything about how the story plays out is so masterful.
- Ellie’s Book – I love how the developers also chose to let a lot of unsaid things for the player to learn from reading Ellie’s notes. It is a genuinely nice touch.
- Combat – Gruesome, visceral, brutal, pulse-pounding, and uncomfortably violent.
- Soundtrack – I mean what else can there be said about the incredibly talented Gustavo Santaolalla. Perfection in execution.
- Characters – Watching characters old and new growing and having more depth and dimension to them is just really satisfying.
- Exploration – I really enjoyed the freedom in exploration in some areas and how subtle discovery is. It never feels like a checklist, but I still wanted to seek out more.
- Graphics & Detail – Graphics and details are of the highest quality here. I really cannot wait to see how The Last of Us Part II is going to look on the PS5 and how Naughty Dog is going to top themselves with the next game they develop.
- Accessibility – Having so many accessibility options is a tremendous effort. And for me personally, if there is one game that anyone needs to play regardless of circumstances, it’s this one.
- Easter Eggs – There are a lot of Easter Eggs for players to find. Some that I found was the pallet, PlayStation 3 consoles, Uncharted 2, Jak & Daxter and I am sure there are a lot more.
- Photo Mode – I took so many photographs because there are so many stunning landscapes, architecture, details, and more and I cannot wait to be able to share when the game finally releases.
What I Wished Was Better
- Bugs – I mean I can just say nothing but with the global pandemic going on I am sure it is not easy to coordinate work. There are just small graphical glitches and bugs that will be ironed out, none of which really impaired my enjoyment of the game.
If I Were To Lose You, I Would Surely Lose Myself
This year has been a legendary year with how much tragedy and challenges that have happened in an almost unbelievable concurrent fashion. The world basically ground to a halt due to a global pandemic and social media has never been more used especially now where everyone is coming together to affect powerful change. But on the other hand, social media can also be the source of backlash and unfavourable opinions due to how easy information is passed around now. It can easily change excitement to outrage. With the leak controversy, the outcry about force-fed agendas, unwanted representations, and more, you could say it has been a trying time for Naughty Dog.
I can understand how as a fan being so invested in something brings out a lot of expectations that need to be met. With that being said I do feel that there also has to be respect afforded to the creators for taking the risks they want to take and telling the story they want to tell simply because it’s theirs to tell. I just have a very good feeling that when players finally get their hands on this game, they are going to wish they went in blind.
Even with all the hype and good or bad attention that The Last of Us Part II has gotten, I think that many people just expected The Last of Us Part II to be as great as the original was. I know I did. What if I said that in spite of everything that I have shared in this review, that there is still so much more for players to look forward to? To discover, experience, and most importantly feel on their own.
Naughty Dog took a huge risk in deciding to tell the story they did and there are so many ways that it could have failed. I mean how do you improve on something that was so close to perfection the first time around? They could have played it safe and with their track record created something that will still be regarded as a good game, but they took a risk, and I for one am so glad they did. To push the medium forward is to take risks and Naughty Dog have successfully done just that.
The experience of playing this game for me felt emotionally confusing, reflective and transformative throughout the journey due to how effortlessly and ruthlessly efficient it made me invested and care about what happens even with characters I never expected I would be. My wife who although loves playing the Sims and co-op games with me at times does not consider herself a gamer. She would occasionally stop by and look at what I play and move on, but I realized that she started to be invested in what was happening too even from a distance. That for me just sealed what a special game this is. Bring on the HBO show I say. I strongly believe that The Last of Us Part II is going down in history as one of the best games of any generation.