The Last of Us Part II: The Good, the Bad, and the Impossibly Bleak

Without a moment’s hesitation, I can say that my favorite game of all time is Naughty Dog’s 2013 masterpiece The Last of Us. It’s a beautiful tale of crushing loss and survival in a zombie-ravaged future that is filled with an overwhelming sense of dread in every crevice but also manages to contain moments of unparalleled beauty. While the series could have easily ended with the first game’s heartbreaking finale (more on that later), the mega-hit was clearly always going to get a sequel. So how do you possibly follow-up the greatest game of all-time, and how will that game play out when it coincidentally releases in the midst of a global pandemic? The answer, it turns out, is quite complicated.

For my readers’ sakes, I’ve broken out the main portion of the post into a spoiler-free zone including my final thoughts and a clearly marked, spoiler-filled end section for those who have already completed their journey. Be warned, though, that major details from the original The Last of Us are fair game to be spoiled throughout and some minor elements will also be mentioned in the spoiler-free zone.

The Good

The Ending of Part I

Without spoiling too much, a lot of TLOU2 revolves around the fateful decision Joel made at the end of the original. Having fallen completely in love with the foul mouthed scamp known as Ellie, I was completely on board with his world damning choice to save the girl and doom the world, and it’s incredibly powerful to see all the many consequences of those actions and lies play out here. Part of me can’t wait to see how that hospital massacre comes across differently knowing the dominos it sets into motion.

Combat and the Scarcity of Resources

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Despite being the 7th Naughty Dog game designed around cover shooting, the combat still feels incredibly crisp and fresh here. Deciding whether to tackle a problem guns blazing or using stealth is a thrill, and the additional mobility of Ellie is a welcome change. There are two elements that really make the combat stand out – being able to pit the infected versus your human foes and the scarcity of resources often demanding you to sneakily craft in the midst of a firefight. Both add a ton of excitement and tension to every blood-soaked second. Supplies are not easy to come by at all. Seemingly every stash you find has only 1 or 2 bullets, so you’re forced to constantly explore in hopes of a big payday. This means you’ll be frequently switching weapons to ones that still have ammo helping keep combat rewarding and exciting.

Friendly AI

tlou2

I felt like the companion AI was really upped a notch for this game. Partners acted more aggressively and were way better shots making them extremely helpful throughout and causing their absence in solo sections to be felt even more deeply. Plus, friendly banter is always appreciated to help lighten the mood.

Breaking Into Shit

breakin

One of the special joys of this game was seeing an interesting building in the background and figuring out how to get inside of it. Sometimes it’s as simple as smashing a ground level window, and other times you’re solving mildly complex environmental puzzles with a rope to reach your goal. I even loved that some buildings have 50 different points of entry. Even more enjoyable was figuring out the codes to safes inside of those buildings. Occasionally, the solution can be as simple as finding a code written in hilariously large numbers on a white board that someone just so happened to decide to write before their untimely death, but, more often than not, it involves some minor mental deduction like doing math to calculate an anniversary. The rewards are typically a bunch of pills and ammo, leading me to wonder if I’ve been doing safes in the real world wrong my whole life.

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Trading Card Collectibles

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I couldn’t wait to read the hyper-detailed backstory on each card whenever I was lucky enough to find one. While collectibles can seem stale these days, there was so much effort put into these that they never got old. Now, we just need someone to design a way to actually play the Pokemon-like card game they’re built around.

The Quieter Moments

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Despite all the horrible shit going on in the world of The Last of Us there’s still plenty of beauty to be had in the simpler moments when you’re not fighting for survival. Playful snowball fights, jokes told while exploring, and peaceful moments strumming a guitar were all among the more memorable parts of my playthrough. Without the quieter moments, the more action packed ones wouldn’t have the same emotional resonance and this wouldn’t be a journey worth taking.

The Open World of Downtown Seattle

seattle

Apparently an early version of the game was entirely open world, and given how well this section plays, I have to wonder if that would’ve been a superior game. Everything from marking off points of interest on the map to exploring tons of exciting ruins with fascinating backstories, like a bank that was robbed on Outbreak Day, was masterfully executed. I kept waiting for another hub area as the game progressed, but sadly it never came.

Playing the Guitar

take on me

Multiple times in the game, you’re given a guided tour of Ellie playing the guitar leading to a tender cutscene that would’ve been enough to land this on the good list. Eventually, though, you are given the opportunity to free play the guitar, and it’s insane how well designed it is. There are many videos (and five million versions of “Hurt” by Johnny Cash) out there that are well worth a watch. For my big musical number, I decided to think about what a slightly pretentious 19-year-old me would’ve wanted to play. So, please enjoy my fairly rough attempt at “New Slang” by the Shins. That shit’ll change your life.

Photo Mode

riding in car

This is a visually stunning game, and the photo mode has a ton of features to help you capture it all. It’s just a shame that there are so many big spoilers after the first few hours that sharing any picture at all might let too much out. Stick around to the end of the spoiler section for some more of my favorite photos.

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This One Joke

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The Crash Bandicoot themed porno Dina and Ellie find early on is pure comedy gold.

Accessibility and Difficulty Sliders

I was amazed at how much time was spent just setting up the game with the right configuration before they even let you begin, and this was just part of a wider effort around making this one of the most accessible games ever. Even though I didn’t stray from my initial configurations, I know a lot of people who did, and I’m glad that players have the chance to tailor the game to their needs/wants.

Mind-blowing Animations

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Time and time again, I would catch my mouth agape with amazement at the ridiculous animations that were unlike anything I had ever seen before in a game. Even seemingly minor things like rope physics or putting a hoodie on your rain coat were so perfectly executed that you couldn’t help but wonder how crazy the devs went trying to get every little detail perfect.

Hordes

By now, our post apocalyptic denizens are more than adept at handling a zombie or two, so the overwhelming nature of hordes is deployed very effectively multiple times leading to thrilling escapes and one scene involving a fence that’s among the best and most claustrophobic set pieces Naughty Dog has ever developed.

Bloaters

bloater

Of all the enemies, nothing scares the shit out of me quite like a bloater. They are insanely imposing brutes that can kill you the second they get their hands on you, turning every carefully calculated movement into something even more tactical. Mercifully, the bloaters are deployed the most sparingly of all the infected, and that restraint makes their rare appearances all the more frightening.

The First 10-12 Hours

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There has been plenty of criticism heaped on the game for being too bleak, but during the early stages it appeared to be just the right level of depressing. Sure it wasn’t reaching the emotional heights of its predecessor, but there were a lot of really exceptional things happening from the previously mentioned beautiful quiet moments and the experimental open world area to go along with tons of relationship building that TLOU2 was well on its way to the top of my GOTY list. Unfortunately, the game peaks much too early.

The Prospect of This Being the Second Game in a Trilogy

Reading this tweet from How Did This Get Played host Heather Anne Campbell helped give me a greater appreciation of the game’s story, assuming this is indeed just the second act of a trilogy. Suddenly all the sacrifice and debts paid make a lot more sense looking at it from the perspective of The Empire Strikes Back rather than as the end of a story. Even though her actions had put me through emotional Hell for the previous 30 hours, you better believe I’d be willing to follow Ellie into the unknown again.

The Mixed Bag

The Final 1/2 of the Game

feeling

By the time the second half of the game kicked off, I was beyond emotionally drained. While a lot of remarkable things still happen, the bloat that began to creep into the first half is now beyond glaring and cumbersome. I actually found myself screaming “just end already” at several chapters.

Making You Feel Like Shit

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There were multiple stretches that each lasted 2+ hours where my stomach was just completely in knots and I felt like absolute shit about helping Ellie carry out her mission. It’s what the game is going for, and they do it extremely well. But damn if it’s not hard to maintain the motivation to keep playing especially during the current situation with the world.

The Use of Dina

dina

Early on in the game, Dina is a vibrant force of nature that serves to shine light on the very dark world. The banter between the two on the streets of downtown Seattle is thoroughly enjoyable, and her speech about her family in the Synagogue really makes you want to cheer for her and Ellie to live happily ever after. Unfortunately, Dina gets sidelined for much of the final 2/3 of the game, and her absence is really felt.

Taking Big Swings

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No matter what you think of how well they pulled off TLOU2, you can’t say that they didn’t try. The team took a lot of really big swings with the story throughout instead of just resting on their laurels, and I sincerely appreciated that, even if a lot of them missed the mark.

The Naughty Dog Formula

Between the Uncharted series and The Last of US, perhaps no company was better at making grand adventures on the PS3 than Naughty Dog. The transition to the current-gen, however hasn’t been quite as smooth. That’s not to say that Naughty Dog isn’t making incredible games still (both Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy were excellent), but the formula is definitely beginning to get a little stale, putting a ceiling on recent entries that’s merely extremely good and not masterpieces. Would venturing away from their comfort zone and making an entirely open world gave have resulted in another seminal work of art? Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

The New Infected Types

Three main new types of infected appear throughout the game – silent predators known as stalkers, massive toxic beings called Shamblers, and one very gross Rat King zombie. Of the several new zombie mutations, the stalkers are the most undeniably scary. Sure, they’re only about as strong as a typical zombie, but the fact that you can’t spot them in listening mode and that they often attack in groups makes every run-in exceptionally tense. Meanwhile, the Shamblers play as a low budget version of Bloaters that can do a lot of damage in groups but on their own are a bit of a pushover. Lastly, the fabled Rat King is a thoroughly distressing encounter, but it falls too deeply into the bullet sponge category of boss to be considered an elite baddie.

Loneliness

lonely

One of the most enduring aspects of the original TLOU is the back and forth between Joel and Ellie. Having that companionship and near constant conversation helps keep things from getting too impossibly dark. While there are plenty of chapters that pair you up with other characters, the game goes through too many exceedingly lengthy stretches where you’re alone. I know this was a conscious decision made to emphasize the darkness of Ellie’s mission, but a lot is lost by not having a friend around.

The Bad

Ellie’s Mission

loading shotgun

The ending of TLOU worked so well because despite what you think about Joel as a person, you can understand and empathize with the devastating choice he makes. Ellie’s mission, however, becomes less and less of a moral gray area the more it goes on, the more you learn, and the more searing hot vengeance you dole out. I found myself just wanting to scream at her to stop and move on 50 million different times which really makes some later game parts an absolute slog to endure.

The Pacing/Length

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I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a game more in need of edits in my life. The first TLOU clocked in at a near perfect 15 hours and almost none of that felt like it was wasted or filler. At nearly 30 hours, TLOU2 was clearly going for a significantly more grand experience, but a lot of it (especially after hour 10 or so) seems unnecessarily expanded. So many chapters are “Get from point A to point B way the Hell in the distance” and merely trimming out some of the repetition between getting to where you’re going would’ve gone a long way to making the game better. Perhaps, for example, just going through 3 stories of a collapsing hotel would’ve sufficed instead of what felt like 10. Far too often you’re merely moving quietly from place to place without advancing the story for large of swaths of time, and the sense of urgency begins to suffer as a result despite this tactic helping to emphasize just how grueling the trek is.

The Red Dead Redemption 2 of It All

If I had to think of a game that this reminds me of, it’d be Red Dead Redemption 2. Both came out with crazy high expectations on the heels of wildly acclaimed first entries that led to the hope that they could be the most heralded game ever released. Additionally, each game was also laser focused on creating the most realistically detailed world, but in doing so they also introduced a lot of tedium. Likewise, both had their high story aspirations slightly dashed by an overload of violence perpetrated by their protagonist. As a result of all of these factors, they both seemed destined for many Top 10 lists but considerably fewer GOTY recognitions.

The Level of Violence

manyhangings

The violence in TLOU was incredibly visceral and made you feel somewhat guilty throughout, but they ratcheted it up another level for TLOU2, which features new things like blowing humans’ limbs off and having to hear them scream out in pain. Most heinous of all, though, is the addition of guard dogs to the mix. Just let me pet the dogs in peace. It doesn’t have to be this way!

Final Verdict

For better and worse, this game will make you experience a range of emotions. You’ll feel awe and beauty, remorse and despair. You’ll be constantly torn by the character’s actions, and there will likely be times you won’t want to continue. It’s taken me over two weeks to write this review because my views of the game have continued evolving the more I have thought about it. As I’ve had time to step away and reflect, I’ve developed a more positive opinion of the 30 hours of Hell the game puts you through. It’s a truly remarkable achievement from a storytelling perspective, but it’s also not necessarily something I can recommend to everyone like I would its predecessor. If you love the The Last of Us and want closure, by all means play this game, but maybe consider waiting until the world’s in a happier place.

Make no mistake, this is a flawed but incredible game, and, as I look back, I think less about the times the big swings missed or the pacing dragged, and I concentrate on the dozens of astonishing little moments that a studio like only Naughty Dog could pull off. The more that happens, the more I’m convinced that I’ll be back to experience it all a second time (at some point in the far sunnier distant future), and I’m excited to see what new observations I take away from it. While the original was a game I couldn’t stop thinking about for how perfect it was, the sequel was a game I couldn’t stop dissecting in my mind for just how ambitious it was.

Spoilery Thoughts

The Scar Whistle (Good)

arrow

That first encounter with the Scars is so freaking intense. Hearing that whistle and then immediately being shot with an arrow was just unforgettable. It’s a shame that they eventually become a little more generic because those first few encounters where they’re still shrouded in mystery are beyond terrifying.

Flashbacks (Good)

museum

Given the tragic events early in the game, I’m so glad we got a chance to drop in on Joel and Ellie’s relationship journey over the 4 years between games. The museum birthday trip and magical spaceship “liftoff” sequence were pure top notch Naughty Dog. It’s the one thing in the game I never got tired of, and, despite my complaints about length, I would’ve gladly taken another 5 hours of flashbacks.

Joel’s Death (Good)

joel

As far as inciting moments in games go, Joel’s death at the hands of Abby is immensely powerful. Coming just 2-3 hours into the game, it’s also quite a shock. Begrudgingly, I expected Joel to pay for his sins in TLOU, but I did not expect it to be this soon (an assumption that was aided by some clever trailer trickery Naughty Dog did to preserve the secret). It’s the first real gut punch in a game that’s full of them, and the sheer brutality and helplessness you experience during it make it perhaps the most impactful.

Abby (Good)

climb

Given how we’re introduced to Abby, I was surprised that I ended up really liking her by the time the game ended – a development that is due in no small part to the game-stealing performance of Laura Bailey. Seeing the contrast of the other daughter on the opposite side of Joel’s fateful decision was heartbreaking, and her quest for revenge was far more understandable and sympathetic than Ellie’s.

15 hours in, I was beginning to feel extremely burned out, and did not know how I’d make it another 15 or so. While this is probably a larger testament to the pacing/length issues mentioned in “the Bad”, the protagonist switch to Abby was a welcome change that reinvigorated my quest for the next 5 or so hours until it started to suffer from the same pacing issues. Learning all of her new weapons and skills halfway through the game could’ve felt like a pain, but it was a delight.

The Assault on the Seraphite Island (Good)

seraphite

Making your way to Lev’s family in the midst of an all out war between the Scars and the Wolves damn near killed my Playstation, but it was one of the most breathtaking renderings of warfare I’ve seen in a game.

The Very Cute Baby – JJ (Good)

baby

Little JJ has adorably chubby cheeks, and I still hate Ellie a little for abandoning him and Dina to finish her quest for revenge.

Ellie the Villain (Mixed Bag)

Finding out 12 hours in that she was fully aware of why Joel was murdered and still on her quest for vengeance anyway was a major gut punch that added entirely new meaning to everything that had come before it. If you haven’t realized that Ellie is the villain of the story by the time you switch to Abby’s perspective, you will be repeatedly hit over the head with this fact for the next 10 hours that culminate in a boss battle against Ellie that’s highly reminiscent of the sneaking fight agains the cannibal leader David in the original. Maybe it’s just my paternal instincts towards Ellie coming through, but going full villain didn’t quite work for me. Even though there are times where she’s clearly upset about what she’s done, there needed to be some additional scenes about her dealing with the consequences of her actions that never materialized.

Ellie Being Immune Going to Waste (Bad)

Despite the fact that Ellie is still the only known immune person in the world, it somehow plays a fairly insignificant role in the game. I guess I was just hoping there’d be more about her dealing with being immune for so long or any other people still hoping to find a cure, but it’s barely touched.

The Ending (Bad)

fight

I kept waiting for some bit of redemption to come for Ellie or for her to realize how wrong she’s been and abandon her quest, but she sees it through even though it costs her so much. I really did just want to shake her and yell “Is this what Joel would’ve wanted?”. While she does eventually stop just short of killing Abby, given the physical and emotional toll she paid, she’ll be feeling the reckoning of her actions for quite some time. Surprisingly, I had made peace with the idea that the quest just might kill Ellie, so it was almost a letdown that she walked away from her hubris. Still, the redemption arc is ripe for part three if the devs choose to go there.

Photo Time

Thanks for sticking around for far too many words about a single video game. Now, enjoy some more of my favorite photos from the The Last of Us Part II.

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