The Last of Us Part 2 review (spoiler-free)

By Oscar Dayus,
The biggest question The Last of Us Part II needed to answer was: is this a story that needed telling? The original game was concluded so neatly, satisfying so many, that a sequel was an artistic risk, if not a financial one. So: is this a story that needed telling? I'm not sure it did, but despite that Naughty Dog has crafted a supremely affecting narrative and proven its mettle once again as an industry leading storyteller.

The Last of Us Part II is, fundamentally, a revenge mission. Protagonist Ellie, now 19, is on the hunt for a dish best served cold, and the game takes a decidedly darker tone as a result. Her tale is frequently harrowing, brutal, and extremely violent - even the least squeamish will wince on a number of occasions.

Violence is seen most frequently in the game's combat, which is as impactful as it was in the original. Fights with the infected are as terrifying as before, with a greater breadth of enemy types this time around. Runners, clickers, and bloaters are joined by shamblers, which spit clouds of noxious gas, and the improved stalkers, which are stealthier (and hence more troublesome) than before.
The Last of Us Part IIThe Last of Us Part II

Fights against the world's human enemies are more varied than ever thanks to two very distinct factions: the militaristic Washington Liberation Front (WLF), which uses dogs to track your scent and flush you out from your hiding spot, and the religious Seraphite cult, which uses whistles, traps, and bows and arrows in a rejection of the pre-infection "old world". Arrows will cause you to limp and bleed out slowly, for example, while shamblers' gas clouds will obscure your vision and force you to retreat. The Last of Us Part II continually throws new obstacles your way, and it's very satisfying to overcome those on the fly.

Thankfully, Ellie is equipped with a number of new tools and techniques with which to fight her diverse cast of antagonists. She can go prone now, for example, to hide in tall grass - one of many elements Naughty Dog has transposed from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and The Lost Legacy - and she can craft new items such as makeshift silencers and different kinds of ammunition. She's also more agile than Joel: she can jump, which provides some light platforming opportunities, and she can dodge when in hand-to-hand combat, which makes such encounters less button mashy and much more satisfying. And more open environments provide more open-ended possibilities in combat, as well as more drawers to trawl through and from which to scavenge supplies.

Part II's excellent audio is a key part of combat, and of the game as a whole. Guns crackle, clickers screech, and bones snap with palpable force, and it's all accompanied by a pulsating soundtrack that's perhaps less distinctive than the original's but certainly fitting of the darker mood Part II introduces. From a visual standpoint, too, this is a masterpiece, and it certainly doesn't feel like a game arriving on an ageing piece of hardware. From emotive faces to gorgeous lighting to incredibly detailed particle effects and exemplary level design, this is such a believable and achingly beautiful world.

The stars of the show, however, are the voice and motion capture actors, which put in stellar performances. If The Last of Us's overriding sentiment was one of melancholy bittersweetness, Part II's is outright anger, and the cast beautifully convey the script's emotion. Writers Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross have crafted a haunting, devastating story with some of the best dialogue I've seen in a game, and Ashley Johnson (Ellie), Troy Baker (Joel) and the supporting cast are more than up to the task.
The Last of Us Part IIThe Last of Us Part II

It's a shame that their characters don't feel as strong or as fleshed out as the stars, and their tales are less memorable than those of The Last of Us's Bill or Sam and Henry. Instead, many of Part II's ensemble are quite dislikable - but that is, I feel, the point. This is a big, scary world filled with big, scary people. Instead, Ellie and the player take solace with our endangered inner circle. But crucially, even when major characters made wrong decisions or ones we wouldn't take ourselves, their actions were always understandable, if not agreeable. The ability to instil empathy in the player towards, at times, pretty terrible people, is a delicate balance and one Naughty Dog pulls off well.

The overarching plot takes some brave and interesting decisions, going in directions I didn't expect and touching upon issues games rarely mention, let alone tackle with the deftness on show here. Our journey through this world meanders at times, and I feel the unusual story structure has only mixed success - timelines become confused and that detracts from the moment-to-moment drama on occasions - but as with the original game the script and brilliant environmental storytelling more than make up for any weakness in the plot. Part II dramatically deepens the world, however, with even more shades of grey than portrayed in the original. If Naughty Dog does go on to make Part III, as Druckmann has suggested it may do, it has ample room for manoeuvre. Hopefully the announced but postponed multiplayer mode will make an appearance before then.

Most impressive is that there is enough humanity, more than enough heart, that the dark tone never felt overbearing, and the character arcs so complete that the violence never felt gratuitous. Brutal, yes, but never unnecessary.

And so at the story's conclusion I felt, in a strange way, a little empty. Like when you finish a good book, I didn't want to stop spending time with these loveable, despicable characters with which I had spent the last 25 or so hours.

Summary

The Last of Us Part II is a stellar experience, with amazing writing and extremely polished - if not revolutionary - gameplay. Did it wrap things up in a more cohesive way than the original? No. But did it mean I got to spend more time in this dreadful, brilliant world, with characters I'd grown to love? Absolutely - and I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.
5 / 5
The Last of Us Part II
Ethics
Oscar completed The Last of Us Part II in around 26 hours. A review code was supplied by the publisher.
Written by Oscar Dayus
Oscar is the acting editor of both TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies. He's written for GameSpot, Vice, PCGamesN, Pocket Gamer, VideoGamer, and, to be honest, too many others to name. Send him good memes, if you like.