A quick disclosure, I was a huge fan of 2013’s The Last of Us and was extremely excited to see where the story would take us. TLOU was a monument of the single player narrative that I have come to enjoy over my 25 years being active in the gaming community. However, I had no idea that The Last of Us 2 would fracture a player base the way that it has. A quick look over any popular gaming blog or YouTube channel gives you an idea of what I’m talking about. You’ll see 50% titled “Biggest Disappointment” and the rest titled “Greatest Game of the Generation” and a majority of these are going strictly off of the story and whether or not it was an appropriate choice for the character development that Naughty Dog was working toward. I’m not here to tell you that either of these are wrong, but I am here to tell you that this is a game that you should experience as soon as possible.
Due to the reliance that The Last of Us 2 has on pivotal story events that occur early on in the game, I will not be going into detail on any major plot events or spoilers. These moments are best experienced in game.
The Line of Departure
The story picks up roughly five years after the events of TLOU and we find Joel and Ellie struggling to maintain their relationship after the emotional cliffhanger where we were left in 2013. For those that haven’t played it, a quick summary:
The world was turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland following the outbreak of the Cordyceps Brain Infection, which is essentially a type of fungus that takes over the brain. Ellie is immune to the infection and a revolutionary group known as the Fireflies believes they can use her to create a cure. Joel is hired to smuggle her across the country. Over this journey the walls Joel has put up around himself, after the death of his daughter during the initial outbreak, slowly breakdown and the relationship between the two transform from smuggler/cargo to surrogate father/daughter. After finally meeting up with the Fireflies, Joel learns that Ellie will have to die for the cure to be created. Naturally, this is unacceptable and he proceeds to murder everyone (armed and unarmed) standing between Ellie and himself. Ellie was unconscious for the bloodbath and has to rely on Joel’s recollection of the last few hours. The final shot shows doubt drenched over Ellie’s face as Joel tells his version of the truth; that the Fireflies were wrong and there was no cure.
A World in Shambles
We are quickly dropped into a visceral world that seems much more acrimonious than anything we’ve seen before. The outstanding character design shows the toll that the world has taken on the characters with every crease on their face. It’s difficult to find any amount of happiness in any of the characters. We encounter a few fleeting moments of emotion that could be construed as something other than depression or despair, but these moments are fleeting and disappear almost as fast as they begin. Every character feels like they’ve aged decades and the palette chosen by Naughty Dog feels like we’ve stepped into the severe depression that is reality of TLOU2. The environment, though absolutely stunning at every turn, is covered by torrents of fresh snow and obscured by thick clouds of winter fog.
Within the first hour, we become acutely aware that silver linings do not exist in this universe. There is very little happiness or hope, just a mindless existence that these characters wander through each day. Just over an hour into the game, we are treated to what is, in all honesty, the most schismatic plot event in the last decade of gaming. From this point, we are thrust into a tale about hatred, revenge, and the destruction brought by sacrificing those most important to you in the pursuit of either. Throughout the game my mind automatically began drawing parallels to titles such as Metal Gear Solid V and, much more than that, Moby Dick.
This style bleeds through every pore of the game, from each and every character, to the expertly crafted level design. Hatred is a central theme and TLOU2 is not afraid to let you know it. I sincerely believe that TLOU2 is quite possibly the ugliest game ever created and I mean that in the most positive way.
This time around, Ellie is the primary character as the entire story focuses on her emotionally and mentally accepting after dealing with a severely traumatic, life shattering event. Just as in TLOU, Ellie has a smaller frame and is more agile than her heavyweight counterparts. She is not able to go toe to toe with more than one enemy at a time without extreme risk, and when struck she easily gets knocked around. Her saving grace is her ability to quickly dodge and counter with her switchblade.
In what was a surprise to most, a brand new character was introduced to the series and serves as the yin to Ellie’s yang. Abby is the 2nd playable character and, without getting knee deep into spoiler territory, has an incredibly complex history with Joel and Ellie. When standing next to Ellie, she is an absolute powerhouse. She is a trained soldier and sports the muscle tone to boot. It’s best to compare her to Joel from TLOU. She can shove enemies around with relative ease and can take a hit without loosing much ground. Heavy weapons are tossed around and her hand to hand fighting results in a trail of corpses with shattered bones and cracked skulls.
Call Me Ishmael
This tale of revenge and redemption seeking is structured so that the primary portion is spread out over three days. We play this portion twice, once as Ellie, then again as Abby. In many cases this would come across as an overplayed cliche, however this time around I believe it’s been altered enough to give a fresh take. In TLOU2 both Ellie and Abby are at low points in their lives and they both demonstrate very few redeeming qualities throughout the story. At several points throughout the story, both Ellie and Abby could very easily have been used as hero or villain, and that’s part of the reason I absolutely love this game. Both are running on pure emotion and in many cases are being strong-armed, physically and emotionally, into diving further into the abyss. Logical decisions are not being made and I don’t believe this to be the fault of the writers. I believe it to have been an intentional choice to show their current state of mind.
In Ellie’s case, every step she takes leads further down a lonely, broken road. Whether it be by guilt or by those closest to her, she feels compelled to continue in an effort to dig herself out of the hole she has found herself in. Throughout the progression of the story we vividly see this written across her face and resounding loudly within her voice. Ashley Johnson’s performance as Ellie is absolutely perfect in every aspect. Most of the quickly made quips and sarcasm that made her so likeable in TLOU is gone and has been replaced with anger, rage, and a sadness not usually seen in this medium.
Abby falls onto the opposite end of the spectrum. Her descent is directly caused be her own actions. In many cases throughout the story, Abby makes decisions based on her own selfish reasons. Now don’t get me wrong, these are negative character traits, but also human ones. I’ll be the first to admit that I was not interested in playing as Abby when she was first introduced. I was here strictly for Joel and Ellie and wanted nothing more than the reconstitution of their relationship. However, Abby grew on me after playing through her story for the first few hours, and yes I realize I am in the minority with this one. Knowing her background and subsequently seeing her make these poor decisions, makes much more sense logically. In all honesty, I wish there would’ve been some more character development on the front end of her story. If there had been, I fully believe Abby’s reception would’ve not been the disaster it was right after launch.
The Devil is in the Details
Overall game play has remained largely the same as the original. An over the shoulder viewpoint that divides it’s time between combat, exploration, and skulking around in the shadows. The controls are tighter than TLOU and, with the new addition of being able to low crawl through high grass it is extremely reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid V, and that is in no way a bad thing.
In addition to the new addition of low crawling, the stealth game play has been redefined and is much more user friendly. Movement and traversal feels much faster, meaning that combat flows more naturally. Another welcome change is the dodge mechanic that while simple, creates a drastic difference.
In an effort to deepen exploration, the expansion of environmental puzzles was fantastic to see. Based off of ideas from TLOU, such as searching the immediate area for clues (namely safe combinations), a few extra items have been added in. One small example was the use of a note telling the author’s coworker that the combination is the date that another employee was named employee of the month. You then have to search the environment for the records. In the grand scheme of things, this is incredibly small, but it does create a layer of realism to the world. I can honestly say I wish this had been done a few more times, possibly with more depth. I’m not saying it should been on the same level as the Uncharted series, but a few more puzzles that involve more than searching the desks around the safe for a haphazardly stored combination. One item that was brought over from Uncharted 4, albeit in only a fraction of the sense, was the climbing rope. In TLOU2, the rope is only accessible in certain areas and only for a few brief moments at a time. It adds, once again, another layer to certain puzzles that creates a sense of freshness to traversal. Again, I wish it had been incorporated more-so and perhaps with little more freedom of use throughout each area.
As with almost every area in TLOU2, the improvements to the enemies are astounding as well. Throughout each encounter, all human enemies converse, work together, and refer to each other by name. This is especially noticeable when an enemy discovers the body of their best friend after I’ve lodged Ellie’s switch blade into his carotid artery. They scream their names, react with genuine emotion to their bloodied corpse, and respond with unbridled rage when they narrow down your location. This is also true of their canine counterparts. All of this, in addition to the upgraded AI, makes for truly remarkable enemy encounters that play out differently each time you go through them.
There are a few instances of enemy encounters that incorporate both human and infected enemies. These moments were absolutely fantastic and having the ability to play one against the other is something that the first installment truly lacked. I can honestly, as much as I loved this, it did come off as disappointing since there wasn’t more of these spread throughout the game. One in particular stands out as the area was bathed in dim red light. Only being able to see the outline of enemies closing in on your position, you hear the faint sound of the infamous clickers in rooms nearby. A quick toss of a brick or glass bottle into the human’s direction results in a bloody ambush that you can actively participate in. The soldiers run blindly around corners to escape the infected, only to be met with a silenced head shot or a savage attack with a bladed weapon.
One thing is for certain, at least for the human enemy encounters, is that the brutality has been sharply increased to reflect the overall tone of the game. Ellie snatches life from each enemy without any hesitation. A successful stealth kill results in Ellie gripping the enemy in a headlock before wrenching their body around and slipping her blade into their throat. The enemy then falls to the ground, drowning in their own blood, gurgling as it pools around them. One downside to this, however, is that the stealth kill animation remains largely the same through the entire game. It does get rather old after a while. The visual can be hard to watch if you are at all squeamish or not fond of realistic violence. For those reading that prefer a more realistic take, TLOU2 has it in spades. Enemies burn alive screaming as their skin chars to a deep black color, firearms remove large chunks of flesh and muscle, and in some cases enemies fall before you begging for their lives as you cave their skull in.
The Pitfalls of Ambition
Now all of this is not to say that the game is perfect. There are plenty of items that left a smear on the overall experience. Several instances of major character development are out of sync with the character building up until that moment and honestly seem like the writers went a step too far with how far you could push these characters before they become disliked. The addition of several new infected types throw off the already built infection timeline established in TLOU and on top of that they do not require any additional strategy to defeat. There is a one time only enemy that serves as a boss fight later in the game. The build up to the fight was expertly handled, but I do feel as if the enemy design would’ve worked better in Dead Space or something along those lines.
However, my chief complaint is the way that Naughty Dog marketed certain portions of the game. There are a few instances of what I would consider outright lies regarding some of the more controversial topics in the game. In fact, one of the earlier trailers demonstrates a scene between two major characters having a conversation, however in the released version one of those characters is so far removed from the story that it’s painfully obvious this was done to ensure that the story was kept tightly under wraps. I understand the motivation and reasoning for this, but I absolutely do not agree with the execution.
The End of the Road
TLOU2 is not perfect. There are numerous things that could’ve be incorporated more effectively and there are many things executed perfectly that many players will not enjoy. However, there are a treasure trove of things that were expertly crafted and many I didn’t even get to include in this brief review. Things such as drastic improvement on the semi-open level environment, the jaw dropping scenery, the silky smooth crafting bench animations, and the insane amount of accessibility options just to name a few. On the technical side, the game is an absolute marvel. Weather and it’s effect on the surrounding terrain are beautiful and I only noticed several small glitches throughout my 20 hour play time.
The journey itself was, to say the least, emotionally exhausting. This is not a game that I will play several times a year. This is not a game for those looking for a happy ending. This is not a game for those looking for an inspiring story of redemption or love. This story, simply put, is a torture-filled journey through two character’s own personal Hell. Again, the story is most definitely not for everyone, but I highly recommend at least giving this one full play through before making a final decision. As with any divisive title, this is one that should not be passed over.