When The Last of Us arrived in the summer of 2013 on the PlayStation 3, it was immediately met with critical and commercial acclaim. Naughty Dog, the developer mostly known at the time for the Uncharted series, seemed to have struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. Combining a road trip story set during the aftermath of an apocalyptic plague with stealth-focused gameplay, it felt like a revelation at the time. When you also consider that it arrived at the end of the PS3’s lifecycle and was pushing the system to its very limits, that feeling of importance was only compounded. In many ways, its reception and continued fervor only reinforces the paradigm shift that this game brought to the gaming world.
All of that is to say, it’s fitting that we’re now playing The Last of Us Part II almost exactly seven years later at the end of the PlayStation 4’s lifecycle. It’s almost poetic.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that The Last of Us Part II is one of the most anticipated games of all time. After being revealed almost four full years prior to its release, fan expectations and enthusiasm reached a fever pitch before launch day. The question then is: Does The Last of Us Part II live up to its unbelievably high expectations?
Well… yes and no.
While Naughty Dog continues to push the industry forward in terms of performances, presentation, and near-peerless technical craft, The Last of Us Part II’s structure is frequently hampered by its ambition, while its gameplay suffers from a lack of it.
The Last of Us Part II picks up around five years after the events of the first game, with Ellie, Joel, and Tommy living in Jackson, Wyoming, which is now a fully-functioning city. It has perimeter walls, electricity, and children running in the streets. The game introduces you to Jesse and Dina, two of Ellie’s friends, as well as the mysterious Abby, who has a group of her own. When a brutal and shocking act of violence upends the Jackson community, Ellie sets out to get revenge on the people responsible.
Let me be clear about something from the start: The Last of Us Part II features one of the most sprawling, self-reflexive, and risky narratives in recent AAA-gaming memory. Even though you played as Joel in the first game, this has always been Ellie’s story—and it does not go the way many thought it would. There are twists early and often, which frequently work to undermine player expectation and reframe conceptions of characters and past events.
The game uses a flashback structure that is brutally effective for its first ten or so hours, casting the lie that Joel tells Ellie at the end of The Last of Us in a completely new light and forcing players to reckon with it in surprising ways. However, the game switches to a sustained perspective shift about halfway through its 20+ hour journey that nearly grinds the proceedings to a halt. It picks back up in the final few hours, but there is a solid stretch of this game that feels tedious and surprisingly uninspired. The story elements presented in these middling chapters aren’t bad, but they definitely do not live up to the relentless pacing of the game’s first half.
It also has a pretty conventional angle when it comes to its portrayal of revenge. The cycle of violence and its effects on people is nothing new to popular culture, and unlike the first game’s bracing update of road trip and post-apocalyptic tropes, The Last of Us Part II plays it safe in this regard. This isn’t to say that story moments don’t land, but they tend to be a bit more predictable than not, which is disappointing.
However, the introduction of new enemy factions does create an interesting dialogue around tribalism and the biases that specific ideology entails. And while I am not the most qualified person to speak on the subject, I found its depiction of female suffering harrowing and impactful. This is rarely an easy game to play, and I hope that it inspires some equally difficult conversations among the community.
Despite its flaws, though, this game’s story should be commended for how it challenges the player to re-examine previous experiences and their personal biases towards older characters. It is not afraid to show the more unsavory sides of beloved characters, and what hatred can lead them to do. The idea of fanbase entitlement is currently running a little too rampant, and it’s always exciting to see a game that forces people to challenge themselves rather than play it safe, especially since this is a game that easily could have hedged its bets.
However, the plot’s ambition unfortunately does not extend to The Last of Us Part II’s gameplay. This game plays almost identically to the first entry: you encounter enemies, scope them out with listen mode, and make a choice between a stealthy or guns-blazing approach. You’ll also still spend long stretches of time scouring every building for precious resources and ammunition, which are still in fairly short supply even on the most generous settings.
Now, while there have been noticeable improvements to the enemy AI and the gunplay remains reliably solid, there is almost no innovation as the game progresses aside from new weapons. The skill trees and abilities are helpful but basic, mostly allowing you to do things like craft more health kits or increase your crouch movement speed. Which is to say, they usually just help you do the game’s core mechanics more effectively.
This means that the gameplay is strong throughout, but provides increasingly diminishing returns. By the last few chapters, encounters border on tedious. Chapters usually only spring to life when they encourage all-out warfare, which is pretty limited to the game’s final act. I realize that this makes me sound impatient (which isn’t entirely inaccurate), but unless you really love stealth and have the tolerance for carefully calculated attacks, you’ll likely leave unsatisfied by the lack of innovation.
One area where The Last of Us Part II undeniably shines, however, is the character performances. Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker return as Ellie and Joel, respectively, each continuing their sublime voice and motion capture work. This game puts them on their own personal journeys, but both absolutely rise to the challenge. Johnson, in particular, is once again simply outstanding, giving a more mature, layered, and raw performance than the first game. Another notable performance comes from Laura Bailey as Abby, a nearly impossible role that she nails. Without spoiling anything, her character walks a very delicate line in the narrative, and Bailey’s elemental performance is what makes it work.
Gustavo Santaolalla also returns to compose, and his eerie and atmospheric guitar pieces continue to set a perfect mood for any scene. His score truly shines in the game’s final chapters, playing on themes from the first game to close out this new chapter. It’s emotionally potent work that solidifies what a perfect pairing he is with this game’s world.
For better and worse, The Last of Us Part II is not the game many of us thought it would be. For every challenging story beat and sublime performance, there’s a disappointing gameplay loop and structural issue to hold it back.
Ultimately, none of these blows are fatal. For its shortcomings and missteps, The Last of Us Part II is a surprising and enriching sequel that compliments the original well, even if it doesn’t quite match its achievements. For those who keep an open mind and remain patient, they will be rewarded with a harrowing and brutal experience that proves satisfying in the end.
The Last of Us Part II is not for everyone. Sometimes, it wasn’t even a game for me, a huge fan of the original. It’s often an emotionally punishing experience, and even borders on sadism at times. But no matter how much hatred these characters feel, no matter what form of revenge they take, the game never loses sight of the importance of compassion and love. It’s a message that the world could use right now.