The Last of Us duology is one of the great game stories ever told, full stop.

User Rating: 9 | The Last of Us Part II PS4

I loved The Last of Us when it released in 2013. It was one of the most memorable and gut-wrenching games (or pieces of art) that I've experienced. It is difficult to believe, but Part II may have surpassed the original in the narrative department. However, in other aspects, Part II seems to have advanced very little from the first game or from the third-person action genre more generally. The game also suffers from a slightly too languorous pace, and its brutal emotional impact could have landed even more forcefully if the creators had disciplined themselves a bit and kept this to a leaner 18-20 hour run time.

Without spoilers, the game presents itself as a classic revenge flick (think Taken, for instance) and then flips the script and turns into a more nuanced meditation on pain, violence, and the gaping chasm between retribution and justice. In this respect, The Last of Us Part II shares much in common with the best seasons of The Walking Dead, which also originates in the idea of using a post-apocalyptic zombie hellscape to distill the darkest aspects of humanity and explore whether there's room for hope. The show has fallen out of favor now to some extent, but in its 2013-15 heyday, it made for some riveting television. The Last of Us Part II has comparable if not better quality -- and that's something rare in the gaming industry, where the average narrative falls far below the standard for film or television.

Naughty Dog did not play it safe on the plot front. As I'm sure you've heard, they made several controversial decisions, ones that divided the fan base and led to the ongoing flame war that has defined the user review section ever since. Personally, those choices paid off for me, and I left the game with a deeper appreciation of the first title and of Ellie and Joel's relationship, which was the emotional propellant for the original. This game achieves catharsis in the classic sense of the term, and has one of the best game endings since . . . well, since The Last of Us.

The outstanding story largely compensates for a well-tuned but somewhat unoriginal set of gameplay mechanics. This title plays like a carbon copy of the first game, with one or two "innovations" drawn from other third-person action titles like hiding in the tall grass (always stay in the tall grass!) and scent-tracking dogs. The difficulty barely scales from the fourth or fifth hour to the 25th, and the combat encounters blend together and almost all can be addressed in a similar manner: some combination of stealth, strategic use of objects like bombs, mines, or smoke, and, when all else fails, guns blazing. That being said, the controls are taut and satisfying, and the shooting controls are some of the best in a Naughty Dog title. That's been a perennial weakness for them, particularly in the Uncharted series, but somehow here I really enjoyed all of the weapons and found them to be satisfying to master. By the end, the controls become fluid and second-nature, and headshots become an expectation rather than a struggle.

Ultimately, although the gameplay feels like more of the same, The Last of Us Part II remains a must-play title and the most memorable game of 2020.