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In Depth: The Last Of Us Part II

Maxwell Andrew Smales provides an in depth dissection of one of the year's most hyped releases

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Image Credit: All Images (Naughty Dog Press Pack, 2020)

Prelude, Transparent

There is no amount of my personal perspective surrounding the divisive narrative of player commentary on The Last of Us Part 2’s release that will truly alter your own.

For that matter, promising a mutual reaction to what I intend to display is a total 50/50 chance with regards to the story and what the developers have chosen for its characters. You no doubt have your own fears, wants and expectations for The Last of Us Part 2 (which for the rest of the review will be referred to as Part 2) – and with that I’m sorry to tell you that I cannot confirm that this sequel, to the initial beloved entry of Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic world, is everything you might hope it would be.

What I can do is share with you my own experience. After being one of those people who did follow what the early
critics and YouTubers were saying, I was at least glad to get the impression that Naughty Dog were telling a controversial tale. Whether they fail or succeed I will always champion a developer for taking risks, giving them a chance to express what they truly desire to share with us and maybe learn from whatever mistakes may come from their choices. I briefly bring up the fact of my inclusion in the media hype/narrative because it did in fact play a part in
moulding my expectations. It greatly altered my initial reaction to the game when keeping the views and voices I highly respect and rely on when making my own purchases in mind. Therefore, this played a relevant part in my overall experience. Even though that’s not how it should be, it is what happened, so I just wanted that transparency to be put forward before sharing my thoughts. The incredibly strong, passionate and mixed reaction that I witnessed towards Part 2 left me even more in the dark with my own expectations acting as only a flickering light bearing no true insight on this game until I played it for myself. So, I stopped. I stopped looking into it, I stopped thinking about it
and no longer cared for any other take to satisfy my own hype factor.

This review is written not as some statement on which side of the argument is right or wrong, but what the experience was to me alone. Hopefully some of you who may read this before or after playing Part 2 will find celebration in a shared perspective or a chance to see the other side. Dear readers and gamers, and lovers of all things Playstation and Naughty Dog - for me, The Last of Us Part 2 was perfect.

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Story: War

Everything in this game is deliberate. Starting even with the name – because make no mistake, Part 2 is a reaction to all the events of the first game. Many video game sequels offer a sense of inclusion to new players jumping in on a franchise later in its existence. Some sequels tell their own story separate from the journey that took place in the entry preceding it - it’s characters may be in a whole new place and a different stage in their life, offering new
levels of what may be relevant to them now.

You cannot have Part 2 without The Last Of Us and I would argue vice versa. We followed Ellie and Joel across a whole country in the space of a year in search of hope, for it to conclude with a selfish and ultimately human act of love which swept that hope away from humanity. I’ll stress that there will be no spoilers with regards to Part 2’s story, but I do mention particular qualities of its structure. If even that is spoiler enough for you then this section is an easy skip. The plot is simple, with a mostly singular motivation behind some of the main characters trajectories. Narrative
and character, however, is where Naughty Dog have attempted to strive in complexity.

It’s nothing new or particularly interesting with regards to plot ideas - in fact, when laid out like this, it’s series of events appear no different to any other revenge story told 100 times. As I mentioned before, however, it’s complexities shine within character and narrative. Two out of three of these components (Plot, Character, Narrative) can be complex but never all three, lest the story be lost within itself.

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What We're Given: Character And Narrative

Naughty Dog have written a non-linear story in a way where character progression is understood and pushed forward by a very back and forth narrative – using time jumps and flashbacks to convey the perspective and context needed to provide present day scenes with the meaning required to bear weight. This is not new for storytelling, but it’s there and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s done very well although it is a style that won’t be to everyone’s tastes. If you already know this form of storytelling doesn’t do it for you then Part 2 isn’t going
to change your mind.

For the first half of the game you’ll be traversing Seattle as Ellie in search of clues for the whereabouts of those who did you wrong. At certain points you’ll be met with flashbacks to some of Ellie and Joel’s time together across the four-year jump between Part 2 and The Last of Us. At first, I wasn’t sure why it might be doing this or even choosing these particular moments, but I let the game take me along and ran with it as intended. The glimpses into time gone by are the light relief, giving integrity to bittersweetness before the worst we know is yet to come. Alongside the pureness and beauty these flashbacks convey, there are many reminders for the gravity of Joel's final choice at the end of the first game.

The weaving narrative we return to in present day forms a harsh painting portraying the darkness and uncomfortable confusion of humanity that without the context of its purpose could repulse you. When you fixate on the deliberate brush strokes, you can see the detailed character stories bringing it together. The crawl through Seattle’s many waves of both human and infected enemies for a singular goal is gruelling, and the choice to take us away from this using flashbacks is a choice I wholeheartedly welcome, both for the lighter contrast to the present day, and their acknowledgment of past events. Whether or not that crawl is always fun? I’ll touch on that a little later.

Part 2 is an effective take on how revenge can blind and bottle neck someone into a certain way of thinking and is a damning pursuit of illustrating human flaws. There were character choices I disagreed with and voted against, but it never felt so far out of character to become ridiculous. Much of what Ellie was doing made sense to me and I understood why she pushed forward in the way that she did as the story goes on, and especially by its climax. The surrounding characters are with her to a point but when their own priorities come into play, they challenge Ellie as the player does - but this always felt plausible and true to the characters as far as we know them. The relationships here are heart-warming and honest. They're also completely un-special and I mean that as a very strange positive note. They’re normal people. They don’t have conventional defining character arcs and journeys to some climactic revelation; they’re dealing with situations in a way I personally found more believable and relatable than those aforementioned conventions we prop up as “good storytelling”. I’m not saying those conventions are wrong, only that I enjoyed Part 2’s take on the formula very much. Again, I think many will and have torn it down for this, whereas others will champion it. I came to understand enough about the characters here and appreciated them immensely - be it through smaller moments in cutscenes, or within conversation during both traversal and confrontational gameplay.

At the midway mark of this game, both a character and narrative device is forced upon you and it will either pull you in deeper or push you so far away that you may well be done with it. The same can be said in all fairness to the manner in which this journey’s inciting incident (that being what starts Ellie’s quest) is handled, but this midpoint is very much to counterweight the assumptions we may have of the antagonist. At a fairly pivotal moment of Ellie’s journey there is a grinding halt and sudden flip onto the other side of the events you have so far explored. The narrative takes us back to the brutal act that sends Ellie on her journey and retells it from the perspective of the antagonist. As far as spoilers go, I’d say that’s the biggest I intend to divulge because it’s a pretty big one and could drastically affect your feelings for the game from this point on. It’s a bold choice by Naughty Dog with regards to pacing since you are on an electric ride that’s leading to a point of explosion only to then snap you back to the beginning but this time from another point of view. It worked tremendously in its intention to hold a mirror story in place and ask you, “can you empathise with both sides?”. There are so many surprising things the second half of the game deals with and I strongly urge that you attempt to take it in through whatever means you can.

You don’t have the same context as I do if you haven’t played the game, and I’ve kept it vague because the aforementioned point simply stands as highlighting a creative choice for story structure. What’s within that structure is so far beyond this surface level acknowledgement. If you’ve paid attention to the game’s release, you know that
the fanbase is divided. I stress this point because I am leading to a full recommendation to experience Part 2, but I have to warn that you could really fall on either side depending on whether or not you like what Naughty Dog have done. The Last of Us was unquestionably perfect in its execution of character and narrative. Like with Part 2, it’s A to B plot was simple but the journey we had undertaken was a breathless odyssey leaving us to consider what we might do for the good of those we love. These titles must be compared as they are two sides of the same coin to state the obvious. Part 2 asks what we would do against those we hate. Given the character's motivation, you could still say that both of these games are in fact about love. Do with that what you will. We’re forced to consider this from all sides within the game’s narrative, and whether you can empathise with this or not will carry a huge impact on your enjoyment of this story. It absolutely, unapologetically worked and made sense for me, but I could never promise that you would see things the same way. Relevant enough to this discussion, it is this stance that is woven expertly, with top tier quality, into the game world.

Which brings us to what could be my favourite quality to Part 2.

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What We Find: World Building

There are a lot of ideas, points of view and notions that the story of Part 2 asks you to understand selflessly and productively. These beats are given to you on the main path. Those same notions are then embedded deeply and almost flawlessly within the game world, through notes, graffiti, conversations, and the aftermath of particular deeds left by certain characters. Underneath the one-woman war led by Ellie against her antagonists, we see the effects of a larger war with its pinnacle painted throughout the landscapes of Seattle, and also as literal memorials throughout its streets and within its buildings. Entire arcs and conflicts of ideology, identity and symbolism are placed here
for you to piece together.  Through this you learn to understand those Ellie is fighting against, which given what I’ve
mentioned on perspective, is a fundamental theme throughout Part 2.

As I explored, I wondered what unique little tales I would get wrapped up in - like with Ish and the community he built in the sewers that sadly perished in The Last of Us (you know?… you know). I was incredibly wrapped up in that little story just through the little notes depicting its characters and how they lived, and by Naughty Dog showing us where they lived. When you came across it all it was giddy to see how these people could make a unique little life for themselves in the most unexpected of places; It was all the while sad to find it’s present and ruined state because of the simplest little mistake. That sewer section and the story of Ish was one of the highlights of the first game for me, and there were many other awesome side stories like it within the world building to find and ponder over. That is
in fact what they were, however - side stories, all arguably in service to the multiple themes within The Last of Us. Part 2 centralises those events and nuggets of world building in service to a core theme of perspective
across the landscape of Seattle. It’s no spoiler to say that you will be facing multiple factions in Part 2. You will find those factions at war with each other as you get caught in the fray of the building chaos. All of the notes and imagery are carefully placed to display in detail these factions’ conflict and are set up to build up the events leading to the current state of Seattle in the player’s mind. We see the unsteady weight of multiple rising ideologies and peoples that both battle the status quo of the military post outbreak, and those who seek to plant their feet in soil far away from it. Learning how and why each of these ideologies clash is frustrating, tragic, and entirely consuming. Having characters you either never meet or only meet once sounds like something underdeveloped – but believe me when I say I wondered with sombre melancholy what it would be like to meet them and hear their voice, or on the other side, knew to fear them.

While the given narrative will guide you through in-fighting and chasing your own needs in spite of these factions, the world building will show you how and why these factions came to be; giving full context to a terrifying and climactic set of events – some of which are all too familiar to what we know of history and the many real-world wars it reminds us of. Like with Ish in the sewers of The Last of Us, this section of the storytelling, crafted so perfectly for us to find, was an incredible highlight of my experience. I urge that if you play Part 2, take notice and truly consider the story of war that it’s telling outside of (and in my view, kind of within…) the central narrative.

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Gameplay: Oppression

I just talked a lot about story to the point that, comparatively, my section on gameplay is a little shorter. Given I’m talking about a video game, that’s bad right? Wrong! Usually yes, I’d make a point of that being a detriment, and there are some small cases with Part 2 where this is true. Saying that, when everything clicked together so tightly and was incredibly polished and fun for the majority of my time with it, it creates a bit of contradiction. Something biased on my part within the conversation of gameplay innovation. There are so many new and interesting concepts for video games with exciting and innovative gameplay loops in current Gen, across all platforms of gaming. The list of options is long. Google it, go on the PlayStation store or steam and you will find fantastic and original IP’s littered everywhere. In Part 2… you search drawers, you craft, you sneak, you climb, you stab, and you shoot… a lot. The sheer volume of games that are doing all of these things and more, in ways far more interesting and engaging, cannot be understated; but 98% of the time, I loved what and how Part 2 was doing it.

When you are in the fight and pushing yourself to make these split-second decisions, knowing that the wrong choice could end you. It sends your heart racing. The most efficient ways to stay alive in Part 2’s encounters, both stealth and combat, is to overwhelm the antagonists. Keep moving and distracting them, influencing their movements to give you the advantage, even if it means killing a dog which hits me every time because I really love dogs.  Anytime I tried methods I used in The Last of Us I would end up cornered, surrounded and either having no chance or barely
scraping by and having to use all my healing items before carrying on. Difficult as it may be, it is possible to completely ghost past many of enemies to keep your dog loving conscience clear.

The combat is brutal and personal where every melee weapon cracks a sound of breaking bone, every flourish of Ellie’s knife sweeps with the sound of splitting flesh and flailing blood. Every move you make and shot you take has to be considerate, and when you master it, you’re in control of what I feel to be one of the most uniquely responsive and polished combat systems in a single player game. This isn’t God of War with Kratos charging straight on and annihilating monsters in his epic axe-wielding glory. It’s not Destiny with its refined first-person action. It’s ugly, it’s clunky, and it will try to drag you down and oppress you with wave after wave of enemies that will outweigh you when you let it. Honestly, it can even be a frustrating experience to get a handle on how the game feels which was a detriment to my first playthrough as I kept thinking to myself, “my god when will this fight end?!”. Then I got better. Up the scale of my surroundings and numbers I faced compared to the scenario I gave you before, and the fun to be
had with the parameters for player expression toward survival is awesome and addictively replayable. The encounters are sprawling within level design that has outdone anything Naughty Dog and many other single player titles have achieved. Then the developers keep you boxed within tension, escalating as you and your companion move up to meet your enemies head on. It’s safest to fight at a distance and out of site but when you have to you can attack with blunt or sharpened force using axes, bats, bars, and devastating hammers. It’s probably where the combat is at its simplest since you just have to mash square to attack and tap L1 to dodge. Sometimes it can seem like more of a miniature quick time event, but it looks awesome and it feels awesome. Also, gross, and a little sickening at times. It’s good stuff.

Stealth can feel a little behind the times since we’ve had such inventive innovations in its design with titles like Metal Gear Solid and Dishonored. It has the same pitfalls as many stealth games such as the sometimes-dumb AI that is
easily and laughably manipulated. If you’re spending the time to find the cracks in the system, then you’re spending less time having fun with all the ways you can accomplish the task of getting from A to B. That is for much of the time what you will be doing when boiled down and taken out of context. You are dropped in a box, you start at A and get to B. Maybe you’ll have to stealth or fight your way through some humans and infected, maybe you won’t, and you’ll be picking up plenty of supplies along the way to help you get through said potential encounters. If you’ve played The Last Of Us (and let’s face it if you’re playing Part 2, you really should have) you’re going to have a decent understanding of what you might be doing with the gameplay in Part 2. It hasn’t moved gameplay forward
to such a dramatic extent as we may or may not have expected, but it has added more flavour and polish to The Last of Us’ gameplay that to me was already airtight. Within all of this haze of blood, bruising battles and bullets
is a sound design with quality that I’ve hopefully given you a good sense of with my descriptions.

The calm and quiet wilderness is brimming with a life of its own as you as the player could close your eyes and be stunned at the immaculate details of nature that the sound team have brought to life. The heavy hail of rain is a crisp and soothing white noise spreading out from Ellie’s coat to the surrounding concrete and discarded cars. Be it the shuffled snow or splash of each step through flooded streets before descending to the grim and deathly pits consumed by the cordyceps. The frantic cries of a runner will stagger past the twitching screech of the clickers and set you at an immediate stand still. Frozen completely then by the curdling roar of the shamblers, blemished with acid bloated pores that engulf you in a burning fog. You know to run when you hear the crash and anger of the bloater, who will rip your skull in two if they catch you. Naughty Dog’s infected have sounds so distinct, that they are
recognised in an instant. It all deserves a review on its own but hopefully you can take my word so far in good faith. Cracking sound work. When fighting the humans with the extremely thunderous and perfectly renditioned gun sounds, those who witness their ally fall will cry a name in despair or anger and begin to hunt you down. It’s something mentioned in pre-release comments by the developers as something I think was intended to be more affecting than it actually is. Whether or not it was just considered a decent marketing topic, or they really did feel it would be as hard hitting as they’d hoped, I’m not sure. It’s a nice touch to the encounters you face but for me that was all, still receiving a thumbs up though.

Exploration is what feeds primarily into a lot of what I talked about before with the world building. You search these spaces for supplies, and a little underlying context to some of the things happening around you; then maybe you’ll drag a dumpster to an out of reach window of an apartment to discover what’s inside, or you’ll grab a rope and throw it over scaffolding so you can swing across a large gap. I mean it when I say, that’s pretty much it. I, however, was never someone asking for mind blowing environmental puzzles from Part 2. Those kinds of things make sense for something like Jak and Daxter or Uncharted, and sure it maybe would have been a cheeky surprise to find them in here, however a lack of puzzles was never something that was on my mind personally when I was playing through this game. It has a commitment to realism to a point that puzzles just wouldn’t really make sense for what you were doing. Traversal was never made needlessly convoluted and gamey and I for one am glad that it wasn’t included. I do empathise and understand the view of this being a missed opportunity, since I am aware of what Naughty Dog are capable of in these regards. Naughty Dog really shouldn’t have made such a big deal about Ellie’s ability to jump in this one though.

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Overall: Love Or Hate?

Coming to a head on my lengthy little talk about The Last of Us Part 2, I’ve said a lot without somehow saying all that much either. I’ve tried to give as much weight and context to my experience with the story without revealing anything because there’s hearing about it, there’s talking about it and then there’s playing it. There are a lot of spoilers and conversations out there already surrounding Part 2’s story. So, the odds of someone reading this whom all of that hasn’t reached yet are slim. Despite this, and as much as I would love to express explicit examples and reasons for why I love each and every detail of what’s been told here, I simply just want you to go out and try to experience it yourself. There are too many creative and important ideas here, and while gameplay is not so innovative compared to so many other offerings, it is just damn good fun. I found the representations of identity and purpose subtle where it mattered but hit you hard when it needed to be ugly in those lowest moments; with each and every moment carried by the narrative undercutting the one preceding it.

It’s a long game with pacing that may not be to your taste. Where I will tell you I found it perfect and did not want the game to end, some will tell you they were done by the 12-hour mark both because of length and creative choices (some before even playing the game (scoff, scoff). I haven’t even touched on the fact Part 2 is in the highest standard for player accessibility and quality of life control. All of its many different settings for you to tinker with will adjust difficulty to the ultimate goldilocks zone of your personal preference. There are adjustments to all options for audio output that you can think of; options for the deaf or colour blind are all here, fine-tuned to be as inclusive to the largest player base.

Most people will be able to enjoy this game in as close to its intended form as possible. Amid the ocean of voices giving praise or offense to this game, mine is nothing that will change yours or tell you something that you haven’t already felt for yourself. Yet it is my own take and how I’ve decided to champion this experience. I don’t believe that this is the game of the year, but it has still been one of my favourite and most unique experiences as a gamer. Was it always fun? No, but damn it if I haven’t already booted up new game plus to experience it all again and master its sprawling combat and second time around I love it all even more. If you feel the same as I do for Part 2 I hope you found enjoyment in this little treat of shared perspective – if you don’t… well… GHOST OF TSUSHIMA, CYBERPUNK 2077, VAMPIRE THE MASQUERADE: BLOODLINES 2 googles other prominent 2020 releases… you’re set.

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