“The Last of Us: Part II” was my most anticipated video game coming into 2020. For those that are unaware, I declared the original “Last of Us” to be my new favorite video game of all-time as of two years ago. “The Last of Us: Part II” has also proven to be an emotionally tasking game to review. Because of the nature of its divisive plot and the controversial spoiler leaks a few months back, many people online will target or pan the game as they already have. I cannot say I am surprised by this as all of the delays of this game’s release date would result in something along those lines.
But enough background on that front. As someone who was planning on playing this game regardless and as someone who cherished the original “Last of Us” as much as I did, where do I stand on my feelings for “Part II” and was it worth the seven-year wait? Am I with critics such as IGN and so forth who are showering perfect scores across the board or am I with the audiences who feel a bit polarized and dissatisfied with the final result? My answer to that question after all this said and done is that I see where both sides are coming from. If it sounds like I am saying yes and no, that is because I am.
There is no denying on my end at least that Naughty Dog has proven time and time again with providing high quality gaming experiences and smooth gameplay mechanics as the “Uncharted” franchise and original “Last of Us” handily illustrate. “The Last of Us: Part II” comes equipped with noticeable improvements in gameplay, namely navigation (more platforming, crawling under furniture, squeezing through tight spaces) and defensive combat (dodging, explosive arrows that blow your adversaries to bits), that are more than welcome additions.
The level design demonstrates variation and experimentation with ease. From the internal remains of a skyscraper to a river including multiple flooded buildings, the ingenuity behind the level design is impressive. New types of infected enemies are introduced, namely Shamblers, which are a cross between a one-hit Clicker and a grenade that activates once killed. The artificial intelligence on the zombies and human enemies remain relentlessly persistent and assertive in defending their posts. “Part II” retains much of what made the gameplay in the original game standout.
The outstanding listening mode from the original is still present here with a few more additions of its own. Now, some humans have a dog patrol alongside them to detect whatever scent trails you leave behind. So that adds a layer of challenge to your stealth abilities as you will have to remain on the run and be careful to not cover the same terrain your scent trail is. Yes, the companion AI is guilty of not doing enough in times of trouble. There was one time two of my allies were way behind me not doing anything. But for the most part, your companion AI will still help you like they did in the original.
“Part II” is consistent in retaining its prior entry’s strengths with its gameplay while also adding more beneficial ones in the process. Obviously, the graphics, motion capture work, environmental details, in-game facial animation, and all-around visual presentation are still of the high-caliber quality that we have come to expect from Naughty Dog. This company always pushes the PlayStation hardware to the limit to exert its full potential and the end result speaks for itself. Between this and “Uncharted 4”, imagine what their next work on the PlayStation 5 is going to look like.
When it comes to this game’s narrative and characters however, “Part II” is a noticeable downgrade from the cherished original. After the original “Last of Us” provided what is arguably the greatest narrative ever told in a video game, I expected something much more rewarding from the seven-year wait between installments then what we actually got. Rest assured, there will not be a word about spoilers regarding what happens in the plot of the game’s 30-hour campaign. However, I must disclose one important detail that some media outlets consider spoiler territory, but I respectfully disagree.
Obviously, the game’s premise involves Ellie, voiced by Ashley Johnson, embarking on a journey to Seattle to exact vengeance on a group that took away someone very valuable to her. And despite the advertising for this game being Ellie’s adventure, which is what I wanted the whole time, she is only in it for about half of the game. The other half is devoted to a new character in the narrative who is on the opposite spectrum of Ellie and you are forced to play as whether you like it or not. A highly misleading bait-and-switch on the player base very much in the veins of “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty”.
And without revealing anything about who the person is in question, I personally thought we spent way too much time playing as this character. Not only do these sections drag the already troublesome pacing of the narrative at hand, but the way they introduce this character within the first quarter of the game destroys any chance that most of the audience will be able to relate to the character in question. I will give them credit for at least trying to humanize someone that we otherwise would not give the time of day on, especially considering what they do early on.
They at least give them a backstory and why they decide to embark on the personal journey they are going on. In my opinion, they even insultingly give them better weapons and abilities than they do with Ellie, which is a decision I am sure most people will not agree with. They certainly do their best to make you try and like these segments more. They even have said person play with a dog more times than Ellie ever does. But for me personally, in order to pull off such an ambitious tactical move, the narrative needed some serious re-editing to remove the non-chronological order in which it tells its story.
If we knew about this character’s backstory beforehand as opposed to finding out in the second half of the game, the intended effect would bring much more people on board. Maybe audiences would have been less likely to review bomb it if they handled the storytelling differently on that front. And that is too bad, because there are still some great personal and human story bits here that I wanted to see in a sequel to “The Last of Us”. Some of the best story bits are coincidentally flashbacks involving Joel, voiced by Troy Baker, and Ellie’s surrogate father-daughter like bond with him.
The game tackles some critical story beats that I wanted addressed here after the events of the first game. Namely the consequences of Joel’s decision to save Ellie rather than save mankind, or the reactions from the few folks Joel trusts with confessing his actions to the Fireflies. It also further expands on Joel and Ellie’s relationship, whether through bonding moments such as Joel teaching Ellie how to swim or through further concerns and doubts Ellie has over what Joel told her about the Fireflies. Those particular elements are handled with the thought and care that they deserve.
Furthermore, I also liked anything related to Ellie’s romantic relationship with Dina, voiced by Shannon Woodward, who is basically her chance at the next Riley, her previous girlfriend in the “Left Behind” DLC. I am actually impressed that we get to spend as much time with Dina as we do, because I was led to believe that this would not be the case. But through fun little character moments such as Ellie and Dina getting in a snowball fight with some rambunctious kids or the pair discovering a secret marijuana plant and getting it on, Dina proves to be a charming and worthy companion to Ellie.
I would have been much more satisfied with the narrative as a whole had it focused on the one half of the game that I actually wanted, as opposed to the other half that no one asked for. What makes this artistic decision all the more disappointing is the fact that this choice was being favored by Naughty Dog in the main game over the inclusion of any multiplayer options in this game at all. And this is honestly the biggest mistake this game made overall for me. I did not play the online-exclusive multiplayer in the original “Last of Us”, as I only play locally offline. Just my style personally.
Regardless, the inclusion of multiplayer (whether online, offline, or preferably both) is always appreciated to help extend the life of a game. And as much as Sony deserves credit for bringing us some of the best single-player experiences of this generation, namely “Horizon Zero Dawn” and “God of War”, I cannot help but feel let down that there was not at least local cooperative multiplayer in the main game or anything along those lines. The eighth generation of gaming is guilty for not doing enough with good local multiplayer games, with the exception of “Rocket League”, and that feeling carries over here.
While it sounds like there is no more story DLC for “The Last of Us: Part II” planned at all, there is talks that Naughty Dog might work on a new “Last of Us” multiplayer experience in the near future. However, I would not hold my breath on it. As it is though, “The Last of Us: Part II” was at least worth the wait as a game. However, I would not have waited seven years for this to be the final result. And with the story decisions they make with the game’s final two hours or so, I am highly uncertain on the future of this franchise and if there even is going to be more games after this.
Overall, “The Last of Us: Part II” succeeds because of the strengths in its dynamic gameplay, strong specific story beats, and the craft and expertise put into its highly polished production. This is a very violent adventure that we are tagging along on. The combat is definitely intense and brutal, yet it feels right at home in the harsh world that this franchise establishes. But when it comes to the replay value and the overall execution of its narrative on offer, at least for me, this highly anticipated sequel comes off as something of a missed opportunity.