Back in 2013, The Last of Us floored gamers with its tale of a grieving father working to smuggle a young woman across a post-civilization America teeming with human monsters infected with a fungal disease. It was a story of redemption, an examination of the human need for connection and family, and, in the end, an exploration of what we will do to protect the ones we love, both physically and mentally. It was a terrifying and emotionally devastating masterpiece of interactive entertainment that elevated the medium as a platform for dramatic and intimately human storytelling.
Fast-forward seven years and writer/director Neil Drukmann — along with plenty of collaborators at Naughty Dog — has revisited this plague-ravaged world in The Last of Us Part II.
The new game picks up where the original game left off, with Joel and Ellie attempting to settle into a peaceful village of survivors in Jackson, Wyoming. But while the pair’s relationship has grown and matured, there’s a tension, too. Ellie knows Joel is keeping something from her.
That something is, of course, what happened at the end of the first game. The reason the duo had been travelling across the country was because Ellie had proven herself immune to the fungal infection. There were doctors in the west who could potentially create a cure from her biology, and Joel needed to get her there. But when the scientists finally got a look at Ellie, they discovered that researching a cure would kill her. Joel discovered this, and — mentally unable to lose another daughter-like figure in his life — murdered all the doctors while Ellie was unconscious. He never told her what he did. She woke up in the backseat of a car, still wearing her hospital gown.
That’s all you need to know heading into the second game. And I’m not going to say much more about the plot here. I managed the unlikely feat of sheltering myself from pretty much all of the game’s promotional material leading up to its launch, which meant every one of the many plot twists and heartbreaking character revelations that came during my epic 38-hour first play-through (yes, I’ve already started a second) elicited the shock that was intended. This is an experience worth preserving for anyone taking the time to read this review.
What I can safely say, however, is that the sequel packs an emotional wallop just as powerful as that of the original. But whereas the first game was about how a lost young woman and broken middle-aged man found family in each other, the sequel has a darker tone. It is about thirst for revenge. Through parallel stories we see how love and loss combine to create a toxic stew that can’t help but lead to further tragedy. An eye for an eye, inevitably, makes the whole world blind — unless someone chooses to stop the cycle.
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The result is a game that is at times unexpectedly and horrifically violent. The look of anger and desperation on protagonists’ faces as they fight enemies both human and monster is haunting. And when the camera is close enough you can actually see the life leave the eyes of the people they kill as they suffocate, their necks are snapped, or a shiv is jabbed into their carotid artery.
What’s fascinating, though, is that The Last of Us Part II is in fact a sharp statement against violence. There are times when you absolutely will not want to touch the attack button, even though you feel like you must, that justice, loyalty, and love somehow demand it. It is an affecting reflection of the world and times in which we live. The question is whether the game’s heroes will be able to see this tragic flaw within themselves before it’s too late.
There are plenty of additional themes at play beyond vengeance and forgiveness. The Last of Us Part II boldly — yet subtly and naturally — champions progressive causes. Not just same-sex relationships, which the series originally tackled in the excellent The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC released for the original game, but also the timely topics of fascism, racism, and gender identity. These aren’t exactly the sort of subjects the medium of interactive entertainment is generally known to take on, but Naughty Dog approaches them with thoughtfulness and grace. Suffice to say this is a game interested in communicating ideas, rousing our emotions, and making people consider (or even reconsider) their beliefs.
Clearly, there’s some serious narrative heavy lifting going on, and it’s done on the backs not just of the writers, but also an outstanding cast of voice and performance capture actors led by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, who reprise their roles as Ellie and Joel, respectively, and veteran video game voicer Laura Bailey, who bravely steps into the challenging role of series newcomer Abby (you’ll need to play to learn more about her).
Just as important to the story is the game’s world. The Last of Us Part II provides an unparalleled virtual rendering of a post-civilization landscape brought to ruin by both monsters and men that is swiftly being reclaimed by nature in all her glory, including abundant wildlife and verdant vegetation.
Equal parts eerie and beautiful, it feels as though every centimetre of the environments we explore has been crafted with purpose. The ruined homes, apartments, stores, and offices we walk through aren’t just loot caches to be raided for crafting resources and ammunition, but miniature stories that we can discover by putting together the pieces of what happened years ago through the hastily scrawled notes, human remains, and dusty artifacts that we find. Even the soundscape — dripping water, flapping bird wings, a brilliantly minimalistic acoustic score — plays a key role in setting tone and establishing milieu.
So engrossing and rewarding is the act of exploration that its interruption by action and combat would almost be unwelcome if it, too, weren’t so compelling. And by compelling I mean tense and terrifying.
Much like the original game, encounters come in two types: infected and humans. Fighting the infected is a rush. One wrong move and you’re dead. Ellie might be immune to spores, but even she can’t survive a mushroom head ripping out her throat. That means employing stealth and strategy based on the type of creature you’re facing. Some are blind but fast. Others are slow but hard to kill. All are lethal. Keeping quiet, setting traps, and listening for movement are vital tactics that grow and evolve as our protagonists learn to craft new types of items and ammunition.
Humans, on the other hand, require different strategies. They tend to appear in larger numbers, have weapons they can use from a distance, and are smarter, communicating with each other and employing flanking manoeuvres. And then there’s morality to consider. Do you really need to kill them? These people with friends and families of their own, who use each other’s names, talk about mundane things, and express sorrow and anger when they discover you’ve killed one of their comrades or dogs? Sometimes it’s your call.
Which brings us full circle. The Last of Us Part II manages the none-too-easy feat of imbuing video game violence with meaning. Its combat is thrilling and darkly addictive, but this is a story about how violence changes people and rarely solves anything. The consequences of killing are made abundantly clear over and over again until, by the end, I simply no longer wanted to fight. I wanted to put down the controller as though it was a gun for which I no longer had any desire to use.
That’s a neat trick, Naughty Dog. And one hell of an encore.