I’ve rewritten this sentence five times at this point. When I first got into this gig of sharing my thoughts on video games, I was told to never start a review by discussing the actual writing process. And yet I can’t think of anything else. I just finished The Last of Us Part II about twenty minutes ago and it’s no accident that I’m leaping straight into the review.
Some things just can’t wait and I wanted to talk about it while the impact was still fresh. It’s difficult to really discuss The Last of Us Part II, and not because it’s the sort of game riding into town on the smash-hit success of an excellent first entry and the cliffhanger that bookends it. It’s difficult to talk about it because…it’s such a personal experience. It’s a game that doesn’t pull its punches, forcing you to confront some very uncomfortable themes and ideas as the narrative unfolds. The Last of Us Part II is not a game that wants to hold your hand and tell you that everything will be okay, just the opposite in fact, and if you’re willing to hear it out then you better prepare yourself for one of the best video games I have ever played.
Which is a hefty statement, I’m well aware. But it’s also one that I stand behind with all my might. Very few games manage to so intrinsically link their themes, characters and gameplay into one cohesive unit with the phrase “Gameplay Is King” often thrown around by game designers who know how story and mechanics often clash. Hell, Naughty Dog is liable for committing this non-sin themselves, sacrificing realism to allow players to do all kinds of impossible nonsense as Nathan Drake. The Last of Us Part II draws in all these elements together in a feat of design and narrative direction that is utterly stunning to behold. Every instance of combat is integral not only to the plot but to the character’s personal journey, every cutscene shedding some new light on the gameplay. Brutality, violence, trauma, survival and obsession are the most prevalent themes within The Last of Us Part II and it feels like the designers were crafting every conversation and every headshot planned and built with one of those in mind. Everything in The Last of Us Part II serves a purpose, nothing feels superfluous or overlooked.
Which is probably why the story of the game holds up so well: It’s a tale that needed to be told. Which sounds obvious, given the shocking ending of the first game. Yet beyond that surface-level observation, The Last of Us Part II feels like a necessary journey for Ellie, Joel and the cast of characters caught in their wake. The game opens with one of the most compelling inciting incidents in recent memory and continues to ride that high all the way until the credits roll, never losing traction or sight of what makes it so important to both the player and characters. Which seems like a good enough time to mention how enthralling the performances are, as can be expected from Naughty Dog at this point.
Ashley Johnson is just remarkable as Ellie, bringing a hardened maturity to a fourteen-year-old that had to grow up in a world where nothing is fair and bullets run the town. Beyond the setup, which is about as basic as you can get, the character writing shines with the relationship between Ellie, Dina, Joel, Jesse and every other character feeling genuine and honest. Managing to be both an emotional gut-punch, an exhilarating adrenaline ride and a poignant character study, The Last of Us Part II tells one of the best stories you’re likely to find in the medium.
Which is tremendous considering how much meat it has on its mechanical bones. It could be argued that the original game was slightly thin when it came to gameplay, and while the general form of combat, exploration and light platforming feels very iterative of the first game, it’s propped up by an expanded list of combat options and some wonderfully complex level design. Ellie isn’t a powerhouse like Joel so it makes sense that she plays so much differently to what we can look back on now as a tank of a man in the original.
With more movement options combined with levels that make better use of verticality and AI enemies that are strikingly effective, combat feels more desperate and tense. Once your stealth is eventually blown (don’t kid yourself, it’ll happen) you’ll be taking into account how enemies move to flank you, suppressing your position and even locking down potential escape routes. While the gunplay feels as suitably clunky, loud and imprecise as it should to really drive home the value of your ammo and the actual combat arenas certainly having a tense fight or flight angle to them, it’s the enemy AI that stands out as utterly remarkably in making every encounter matter. My favourite little touch is how foes will call out the names of their friends and grow suspicious if they don’t respond. Having every enemy actually have a name makes you feel more than a little guilty when you shove a switchblade into their windpipe.
I could dedicate a paragraph to pointing out some flaws in the game but honestly, none of the bad I’ve seen can truly derail the good. Ammo feels a little too easy to acquire on the normal difficulty and clickers still being able to one-shot Ellie from full health still doesn’t feel grand. I’ll also admit that I wished there were more dynamic encounters that involved both humans and infected; they do show up in the game but never within a capacity that felt satisfying given the potential that could be had in said scenarios. Yet those are nitpicks at best. I would be missing the fungus for the mushrooms if I had to genuinely complain about those things or pretend they detracted from the overall experience. They’re easy to shrug off when everything else is set at such a high bar. This isn’t even going into the more technical aspects of the game which looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous while never dropping in quality or consistency. It’s obscene how beautiful The Last of Us Part II looks, and if this one of the games that are helping to sunset the era of the PlayStation 4, it does a damn good job of it.
The Last of Us Part II is a monumental success of a sequel, delivering everything you could want in the follow-up to one of the most beloved games of the previous generation. Which isn’t to say it won’t be divisive, I can foresee a future where plenty of folks are incredibly angry with the direction Naughty Dog takes in this game. Yet they don’t matter in this review because as far I’m concerned as The Last of Us Part II is an achievement in narrative design, technical prowess and emotional honesty in the most brutal fashion possible. This is the farewell that the PlayStation 4 deserves: A painfully beautiful experience that should be played by anyone even remotely interested in the medium of video games.
The Last of Us Part II is an exceptional experience from beginning to end, uniting its gameplay and narrative into a cohesive unit while also delivering some of the best writing and acting seen in a video game to date. It is undeniably one of the best games I’ve ever played.
Last Updated: June 12, 2020