In over three decades of playing video games, I cannot recall a single experience that delivered the same intensity, emotion, and depth as Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II, the highly anticipated sequel to one of the medium’s greatest story-driven efforts. This dark, brooding follow-up deftly tackles friendship, family, love, and revenge, all without missing a beat, and is told with such care and detail that it begs for multiple playthroughs — assuming your heart can handle it. Not only does it currently rank as one of the best games I’ve played this year, The Last of Us Part II could be the defining moment of the PlayStation 4’s generation. The game pushes the console to its technical limits while boldly spinning a yarn that’s equal parts horrifying and heartfelt. You may enjoy everything you see, but it will no doubt leave its mark on you.
Before I continue, let’s discuss the elephant in the room. Prior to its release, The Last of Us Part II experienced what I feel became an unfair amount of controversy based on leaked footage, screenshots, and plot beats. And while I feel the urge to address this ordeal in-depth, I want this game to exist outside of those preconceived notions. But I will say this: Naughty Dog’s sequel does not take the easy way out. Instead of delivering the same experience and slapping Part II on the box, the developers have taken these characters in a much different direction than many had hoped, and for my money, it’s nothing short of spectacular. Trying something daring, something that defies expectations while staying true to the source, will always upset people. So, please, keep an open mind before you write this off completely.
The Last of Us Part II picks up roughly five years after the first adventure. Joel and Ellie have settled into a community called Jackson, and they’ve both fallen into a rut. Unfortunately, without delving into specifics, it’s clear that a rift has developed between our heroes, and their latest dust-up involved Joel sticking up for Ellie following an encounter with a drunken bigot. Before we can learn anything further, Ellie and her good friend, Dina, head out on patrol. Just as they begin to explore what could become a serious romantic relationship, the pair receives some disturbing news: Joel has disappeared, and they need to locate him as soon as possible.
The journey that ensues could possibly be one of the darkest downward spirals I’ve ever encountered in a video game. Ellie’s long, dark journey is one of anger, revenge, and bloodthirst — and it frequently becomes very uncomfortable to watch. As she treks across Seattle in search of a group of dangerous individuals called the Washington Liberation Front, Ellie and her companion Dina face some deeply cruel and violent human beings — possibly more heinous and vile than the infected — and our heroes’ reactions to these people frequently descend into copious bloodletting. These girls know how to handle themselves, and when it’s time to throw down, they don’t hesitate.
Although the tight controls allow you to defend yourself with ease, doing so never feels “fun” in the traditional sense of the word. When you pull the trigger on your shotgun, you deliver real visceral damage to your enemies. You may blow off half their leg, leaving them screaming and wailing on the floor as they quickly succumb to blood loss — or take off their head altogether. And if you aim your pistol just right, you can shoot someone in the throat, resulting in them scrambling to contain the wound. You no doubt want Ellie to succeed in her mission, and you’ll occasionally receive that “revenge high” that typically accompanies this type of story. However, watching as Ellie savagely drags her knife across the throat of an enemy grounds the violence in a way I hadn’t expected. It pulls no punches, to a greater extent than the first.
Of course, it’s not all blood, bullets, and machete slices. As with the first game, The Last of Us Part II breaks up the action set with exploration. The areas seem much bigger in scope than the first installment, and if you consider yourself a fan of world-building, then you definitely need to slow down every now and then to smell the (infected) flowers. Not only does taking a breather allow you to take a break from the game’s penchant for graphic violence, but it also helps you understand the world a little better. Sometimes you’ll find notes from a person who fears living under the oppressive thumb of the Washington Liberation Front, while other times you’ll simply encounter a tangle of bodies with only a few environmental clues as to what, exactly, happened to them. Of course, you can push forward with the story and you won’t miss a thing with regard to the central narrative, but these little moments definitely add weight to every single thing you do.
Exploring always gives you an opportunity to stock up on your crafting supplies, which will come in handy during the many confrontations you’ll encounter. As with The Last of Us, you won’t find an abundance of materials to craft your gear, so you need to make the most of every opportunity you have. Spending five or ten minutes working out how to get into an out-of-the-way safe could mean all the difference when you’re pinned down by multiple well-armed, well-trained foes.
The system works the same as it did in TLOU, with weapon and skill upgrades tied to the components and supplements you’ll find scattered around the post-apocalyptic landscape. Learning to balance your materials with what you need at any given time involves a fair amount of strategy; for instance, do you use your bindings to craft an explosive arrow to take down that small cluster of runners, or do you save your materials and take them down one by one with your knife? These decisions matter more than you may think, as the wrong choice could ultimately spell disaster for Ellie.
Fortunately, The Last of Us Part II features a very forgiving checkpoint system. I’m not particularly great at games that force you to be sneaky, so I naturally found myself screwing things up on more than one occasion. And it’s not that Part II lacks the mechanics you need to succeed; in fact, it’s among the best I’ve encountered, whether it’s how naturally Ellie creeps around the environments to the “listen” mode that gives you the ability to track your enemies (even through walls). I just get antsy and nervous, and then I make huge mistakes. And given the savage nature of humans and infected alike, one wrong move can result in a very quick and bloody demise. So, it’s nice that the developers allow you to hop right back into the action without forcing you to backtrack too far — if at all. Ellie isn’t a superhero by any stretch of the imagination, so unless your stealth skills are on point, prepare yourself for death. It’s just part of the experience.
Although the sequel pushes the PlayStation 4 to the edge of its capabilities while delivering a narrative that will resonate with me for quite some time, the game still manages to make one misstep: its oppressive and unrelenting darkness. The Last of Us Part II will leave an indelible mark on your mental well-being, as nearly every moment is either depressing or violent — sometimes both. And while you’ll encounter brief glimpses of levity during your adventure — a moment between Ellie and Joel inside a museum ranks as one of the best in the entire game — you’ll pretty much spend the entire time running from one horrible encounter to the next.
After a while, this tends to wear on a person, assuming this sort of stuff bothers you. But watching men, women, and animals die in graphic detail eventually took a toll on me, to the point where I took a short break to play something more light-hearted. TLOU Part II probably works best in smaller doses; I wouldn’t recommend doing a marathon session unless you can handle this level of brutality without flinching.
That said, the dark and dreary nature of the plot feels earned, not gratuitous. Every swing of your melee weapon and squeeze of the trigger will affect your game, whether it’s wasting valuable ammunition because you missed the mark too many times or suffering life-threatening wounds without enough healing kits to ensure you’ll live to fight another day. Storywise, the brutality of Ellie’s actions seems to fit with the narrative and its atmosphere, even when the spilling of blood seems a little too over-the-top and intentionally disturbing. So, while I did have a few minor problems with the game’s endlessly bloody nature, it earns this darkness.
Here’s the million-dollar question: Is The Last of Us Part II a worthy sequel? Well, the answer depends on what you want from it. For me, this is the next logical progression of a story set in a world that frequently takes and so rarely gives. It’s heartbreaking and powerful, bold and daring. Although it’s cliche at this point, I do believe that people will either love it or hate it, and I doubt many will fall into that very small gray space that exists between these two extremes. I, personally, loved it to death, though I’m sure many fans will gladly tell me each and every thing this follow-up got wrong. And maybe they’re right.
Perhaps this isn’t the sequel fans deserved. But where I’m seated, it’s a very natural and organic continuation that fits snuggly into its unforgiving world. At the end of it all, you won’t find a lot of hope in The Last of Us Part II, and that’s perfectly fine. The story deserves every tear I shed, earns every moment when I needed to look away from my television but couldn’t. While other series feel the need to deliver the same experience over and over again with every installment, Naughty Dog and The Last of Us Part II dare to do something completely different, even when you wish they wouldn’t.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. A copy was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Although players will find themselves on a blood-soaked adventure that sends its characters on a violent and controversial quest for revenge, The Last of Us Part II feels like the next logical step in this story. Technically and narratively, it's easily one of the best games available for the PlayStation 4 -- if not the entire generation. Gaming doesn't get much better than this.