A Game of Two Halves: A Spoiler Filled Review of The Last of Us Part II

You are the star of your own life story, and everybody else – however important they may be – is just an NPC. They’re the ‘special guest star’, or a fleeting cameo that serves only to make an impact of some degree on your day. Their motivations, their desires, even their feelings are alien to you, because the reality of life is you can only walk in your own shoes.

Of course, if that concept is flipped, every single day of your existence you unwittingly serve as an extra in hundreds of other peoples’ life stories; the person sat behind them on the bus, or holding them up at the supermarket when your contactless card refuses to work. Try as we all might, none of us can truly understand the perspectives of the people we interact with day in, day out. Empathy is as far as we can ever get.

Until you play The Last of Us Part II, that is. If Neil Druckmann and his team set out to achieve anything with this already celebrated follow up, it was surely to push the old adage that there are two sides to every story. It’s a theme that was established in the original game, and one that’s absolutely crystalised here.

First time around, Naughty Dog’s take on conveying the idea that perspective can have a huge impact on how you view a story was far more subtle, focusing in on the age old battle between the head and the heart. If operating on – and, in turn, killing – the strangely-immune Ellie could have led to a vaccine for the surviving human race, it’s a sacrifice logic dictates is worth making. However, having battled through the entire game striving to keep Ellie alive, there was not a chance in hell that Joel – and, indeed, the player controlling him – was ever going to let that happen. 

Never have I been more determined to lay waste to the people standing in my way than I was when I stormed that operating theatre in the original game. As time went by, however, and my mind processed Joel’s actions from a distance, the more my certainty that I was right to willingly partake in that act, controller in hand, started to fade.

It’s almost as if the development team went on the same journey. The impact Joel’s decision would have on Ellie were she ever to find out saving her life would condemn humanity to being consumed by the virus was always an obvious starting point for The Last of Us Part II’s story, heavily hinted at in the original game’s closing moments. Less obvious – and, in the end, arguably even more interesting – is how the rest of the world would cope with that decision: The Last of Us Part II is a game where the extras from the first title – the bit-parts who were mere window dressing to Joel and Ellie’s adventure – take centre stage, and it’s a far bigger, bolder, and brighter story as a result.

Death Becomes Her

This is where Abby comes into play. Briefly thrust into the player’s hands during The Last of Us Part II’s opening opus, the game only really starts to shine a light on Abby’s tale half way through the action. At this point, your primary experience with Abby has been witnessing her and her cohorts bring about Joel’s sorry demise, played out in an intentionally unapologetic manner. Joel’s murder is gruesome, painful, and – most importantly – needed: If Ellie is to step out of the comfort and relative safety she’s found in the haven of Jackson, it was always going to require a traumatic event to spark that fire. Indeed, for the first half of the game, Abby is tantalisingly dangled in front of the player’s face as a typical ‘baddie’ – a final boss you spend days trawling across Seattle to track down, hearing snippets about her from the mouths of the people you’re about to slay as you go.

It’s a simple motivation. Abby is bad. Abby is evil. Abby needs to die. Until, all of a sudden, you are Abby.

Without warning, the special guest star becomes the lead, and The Last of Us Part II slowly drips her perspective into the ingredients, fundamentally changing how you see Joel and even Ellie in the process. This is genuinely new ground for the series, greatly expanding upon the theme of darting back and forth through time that was so brilliantly explored in the original game’s one and only piece of DLC, Left Behind

As it turns out, Abby’s father was the surgeon who Joel shot dead as he rescued Ellie from the operating table in the final throes of the original game. He’s a man the story goes to great lengths to depict as a good person, striving to do what he can for the community of survivors he finds himself in and bouncing off a rather cooler Abby in the process. We get to see his final day relayed to us not in a static cut-scene, but during a small excursion with our hands in charge of Abby’s every step.

This is a more important design decision than it might initially appear. Every single flashback within the game requires the player to take charge, even if actual interaction is limited. This isn’t a lazy way of disguising cut-scenes as gameplay, but rather an intentional decision by the developers to make you culpable. There’s not a step either Ellie or Abby take in The Last of Us Part II that isn’t triggered by a button you press. It’s a subtle but clever way of binding you to the actions of both characters; the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Ultimately, your hands are as drenched in blood as theirs, and every moment of your stay in Seattle – the second game’s brilliantly realised primary setting – comes weighted with the unshakable feeling that you’re a willing participant in the terror that surrounds you. The Last of Us Part II has a rare ability to make you feel bad about yourself, which in turn makes that inescapable early anger towards Abby melt into a desperate need to know just what made her the person she now is.

Slicing Through Seattle

As play passes, it slowly sinks in that Abby is every bit as well rounded as Ellie, and potentially even more wounded. The gameplay for both characters remains largely the same, even if Ellie and Abby’s skill sets differ slightly. Physically strong, Abby’s solo sections encourage more hand to hand combat than the stealth-led portions Ellie takes charge of, though this is nicely balanced by pairing her up with a variety of different partners whose various vulnerabilities often require Abby to be a mite more cautious. 

Nevertheless, The Last of Us Part II adopts a near identical model to the chunks of gameplay the original game made its signature; There are sections with the infected, sections with fellow humans out for your blood, and a lot of tension-building stretches of exploration, where supplies are dotted around for those who have the patience to hunt them out. As with Left Behind, The Last of Us Part II also mixes in the odd stretch where the infected intermingle with other enemy NPCs, almost acting as a demonstration of the game’s A.I.: you can either choose to intervene and slaughter all before you or, as I did, find a quiet corner and watch nature take its course with glee.

New to the mix are the ‘Scars’ – a band of survivors who have returned to simpler times thanks to the teachings of a now fallen ‘prophet’, whose words have been misconstrued over time and have turned this faction into a particularly savage ensemble. They operate in much the same way as the Fireflies from the original game (now apparently dissipated, and replaced instead with local factions intent on ruling the roost in their own particular cities), and your best bet is to try and track the paths of each sentry and take them out one by one. Whatever way you approach them, however, most encounters inevitably involve some form a scuffle when you drift into someone’s line of sight for a second too long.

For anyone who has played The Last of Us this will all seem very familiar, with perhaps only the number of combatants and the scale of the environment they patrol having shifted up a gear or two in the intervening years. 

Indeed, it’s in the implementation of said Scars where it could be argued the game makes its first major misstep. Like the ‘Wolves’ who patrol the streets of Seattle, in every practical sense Scars are simply Fireflies redressed, with the addition of whistles that, though they scare the fear of God into you the first few times, do little but reveal their position for the bulk of play. Though used heavily to depict the tone of the sequel in the game’s early promotion, in reality the Scars bring very little that’s genuinely fresh to the table beyond the superficial.

History Repeating

This is not an isolated criticism, either. When it comes to gameplay as a whole, the feeling you’re playing an extension of the first game rather than a genuine evolution is something The Last of Us Part II does very little to deflect. Having replayed the original in the run up to launch to refresh my memory, it’s striking just how similar the structure of play is here despite the intervening seven or so years.

Signposting remains as heavy as ever, with the knowledge that hopping over a wall, wedging open a door, or falling through a floor is the trigger for a fresh chunk of action. You kill everyone you encounter, you check the area for resources, and then you move on, rinse and repeat.

As harsh as it sounds to boil a game down its component parts, fairly early on it becomes clear Naughty Dog decided against taking any major creative risks with the structure of play. For those who haven’t touched the original since launch, it’s likely that will matter very little, but for anyone looking to Naughty Dog to push the genre forward, even the games’ most ardent fans would have to admit this is one box The Last of Us Part II simply doesn’t tick.

More pertinent than all of this, however, is the role of the infected. The Last of Us Part II manages to make their place in play feel somewhat unimportant. Yes, there are big set pieces where mammoth bosses loom (quite literally) large, and even a few new tricks – the infected popping out of fungus infested walls creating a nice jump scare or two the first few times around – but compared to the weight of the game’s story, dealing with the infected almost feels like a sideshow. A distraction. At times, even a nuisance. 

Moments of genuine fear feel far more sparse in the midst of this second adventure, with dealing with the infected at times verging on the routine. Deaths still have a tendency to feel unfair, and if “Bloaters” took a series rooted with a sense of realism into the realms of pure fantasy, a new stage of infection – so called “Shamblers”, who spew bursts of acid from their bodies – edges the game towards the farcical. 

The strongest moments tend to revolve around Stalkers, who as in the first adventure circle your position unseen before attacking one after the other until you’re floored – a set up they exploit with great effect in an abandoned office block early on. Even this enthralling moment feels like a faithful recap of past glories, however, rather than a signature slice of this sequel.

Dancing with the Scars

If all of that sounds particularly damning, it comes with the rather hefty caveat that nothing in The Last of Us Part II is “bad” by any stretch of the imagination. What a lack of progression on the gameplay side highlights, however, is just how far Naughty Dog is raising the bar on the narrative side.

For those who managed to avoid the story leaks ahead of release, The Last of Us Part II manages to dance a delicate balance between keeping you guessing and remaining entirely authentic at the same time. Ellie’s descent into the darkness is no surprise given it featured prominently in the game’s marketing, but the depths she’s subjected to – and the sheer class in which it is delivered – constantly astonish.

Even more credit needs to be paid to Abby’s arc. Watching her life fall apart as her support network is blotted out one by one is engaging enough, but knowing that, over the course of both games, every single person she loses meets their demise because of the buttons you’ve merrily pressed whilst sat on your sofa is fourth-wall breaking stuff. The Last of Us Part II makes you truly accountable for everyone you gunned down in the first game and every throat you slit in the second, and that’s not a trick I’ve seen all too many developers attempt, let alone pull off.

However, while Naughty Dog is not afraid to flash a mirror in front of the player’s face with gusto, it’s also capable of deploying a somewhat lighter touch when it comes to painting the picture of the world both Ellie and Abby inhabit. Just as in the first outing, snippets of conversation often heard in no more than passing add vital colour to everyone you encounter, no matter how big or small their role.

The biggest irony is, for all the heat piled onto Naughty Dog from certain quarters in the run up to release regarding the inclusion of a character transitioning from female to male, the handling of the aforementioned Lev is exemplary. Contrary to those critics, his role is not to tick boxes or to meet an agenda, but rather to allow the player to reconnect with a sense of innocence that is scarcely shown by anyone else in The Last of Us’ universe this long after the original outbreak. 

Both Lev and his sister Yara are outcasts from the Scars and as such are utterly vulnerable, but more importantly they bring a sense of purpose to Abby, both in terms of giving her a reason to fight and handing her a link to lives not yet dominated by death. The fact Lev has been ostracised from his friends and family because of his transition is deemed important only to those who wish to condemn him: To Abby, he represents someone genuine who needs help – help without conditions, without a gameplan, and without obvious reward.

The Battle

His appearance in her life casts Abby in a new light and, in turn, makes Ellie’s determination to track her down feel all the more uncomfortable. Yet, as we flit between the two characters, Naughty Dog dangles Joel’s legacy in front of us at just the right moments to revive Ellie’s anger.

Her decision to take on a-now-emaciated Abby on that beach in the game’s closing moments is inevitable, but it doesn’t make it any less painful to partake in. There’s an undoubted feeling throughout play that, had the cards been drawn in a different way, Abby and Ellie could have been as close as kin. In this universe, however, Joel’s humanity in the first outing and Ellie’s guilt at casting him out in the second have driven these two women to scramble about in the water, each one unable to land the final blow.

I can’t think of a single time in a game before where I’ve felt as connected to both sides of a struggle as this. In The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog has ripped up the rule book almost all games abide by: Any sense of right or wrong is flipped and muddied at every turn, and you’re left with a final showdown where every possible resolution you draw out in your head feels like a loss.

Unlike almost every game that’s gone before, The Last of Us Part II can be described as a game you survive and, at best, experience, but winning has no place here.

That barren, beach encounter is not the only struggle, however. Seven years on from the series’ debut, The Last of Us Part II is a game that pulls in two different directions throughout; let it be established firmly and emphatically, both the story and the manner in which it is told are the best I’ve ever witnessed in a game, and arguably place Naughty Dog at the top table within the entertainment industry as a whole. 

The writing teams behind scores of films and TV series would kill to have even a fraction of the talent that’s clearly embedded into the Santa Monica studio, but while The Last of Us Part II represents a narrative high, the structure behind its gameplay is beginning to feel like a rehash of a generation how long passed. Ellie’s tale is one that’s now been told, but it’s easy to see Druckmann has far more ideas in his locker for the future – the story of Ellie and Joel could in the end be little more than a prelude to what becomes far bigger world of woe. 

With the inevitable return to The Last of Us’ universe in the years to come, Naughty Dog will need to demonstrate it’s both aware of and capable of adapting to the way in which gameplay in third-person adventures are progressing. We’ve spent the last two games taking a step into an alternative future for the human race, but we’ve done so within the confines of gameplay that feels increasingly rooted in the past.

7/10

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