The Last of Us Part II is masterfully crafted and painfully bleak: Review
Outstanding character work and voice acting save this sequel from being swallowed by its own darkness.
It is with a heavy heart that I assign The Last of Us Part II an outstanding review score. As a stunningly designed and animated stealth action game, it is well above average. As a character study, acting showcase, and dialogue-writing masterclass, it is beyond compare. As a treatise on the human condition in the distant wake of a world-changing pandemic, it's a huge bummer. For all of its strengths, it's difficult to recommend this game to anyone who is sensitive to violence or trauma. It is, to put it frankly, a bit much in that regard, especially considering the state of the real world upon its release. People hoping for some sort of respite for Ellie and Joel after the events of The Last of Us will be sorely disappointed, as this entry takes the post-apocalyptic bleakness of the first installment and elevates it several degrees.
Naughty Dog has made no secret of the fact that TLOU2 is, at its core at least, a revenge story, and in order for a revenge story to function, something terrible needs to happen. Joel and Ellie are no strangers to acts of heinous brutality, as demonstrated in the first game, and as the inciting action of Part II, their karmic debt comes due. The way in which this happens is not entirely unexpected, but it is still a bold, likely quite divisive direction to take with the franchise so early in the sequel's runtime. As a result, Ellie, voiced remarkably by Ashley Johnson, sets out on an all-consuming journey for what she deems justice. The mission takes the now young-adult-aged Ellie from the home she has established in Jackson, Wyo., to the West Coast via Washington state, opening up the game's setting to a Seattle reclaimed by the lush undergrowth and flowing rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
Gameplay feels mostly like a more polished version of what it was in TLOU1: a split between stealth action sequences where the player needs to outmaneuver and neutralize groups of enemies, preferably as quietly as possible to conserve resources, and walk-and-talk character conversations during more environmental-exposition and resource-scavenging-focused segments. The most notable improvements from the first game, from a gameplay perspective, are added controls for things like jumping, crawling, and dodging melee attacks, and more interesting and varied enemy AI.
As Ellie seeks her vengeance, just about everyone she encounters along the way is hostile, and Ellie has very few qualms (some, but not many) about being hostile right back, no matter who she's dealing with. So many deliberate parallels are drawn between Ellie and her main enemy — the term antagonist doesn't feel right, because Ellie, racked with grief, is in a very real sense the antagonist of her own story — that the shaky morality of Ellie's endeavor can feel a bit overemphasized, and the plot devices that bring her and her quarry's stories together can border on farfetched. But the moment-to-moment character development and line deliveries are so effective that every beat still feels wholly earned. The game, by granting nearly equal narrative weight to the goals of Ellie and the person she's seeking, does an excellent job of showing the emotional toll on both sides of the primary conflict and demonstrating how cyclical violence can make villains of anyone in the eyes of their opponents.
Other plotlines in the game, including a bloody war between a Seattle-based paramilitary group called the Washington Liberation Front and a cult of technology-shunning religious zealots who call themselves Seraphites, also drive home the idea that villainy is in the eye of the beholder. One subplot in particular hinges on members of opposing factions teaching each other some lessons about mutual understanding (all while still killing a bunch of other people).
The problem with this sort of storytelling, despite its undeniable emotional impact, becomes the fact that there's no one who is in the right. Everyone is just wrong for different, opposing reasons, and arguably to somewhat different degrees. The game feels, overall, like a very pessimistic view of the capacity for otherwise decent human beings to do unforgivable things when pressured, and moments of growth and understanding are present but sparse. It's a story that desperately thirsts for forgiveness and humanity in a desert of anger and hate, and while the few droplets to be found are especially sweet as a result, the places between them are challenging to traverse. The state of mind the game demands is a rough space to inhabit for the better part of 30 hours, but the quality of the product makes it worth the emotional price.
Sections where the player gets to fight infected — almost an afterthought throughout Part II despite the inclusion of some interesting new breeds and infection stages — feel like nice vacations from the guilt of murdering people who are standing for various things that have little to do with Ellie and her mission. The hyper-violence perpetrated by basically everyone against basically everyone else, in gameplay and in cutscenes, is by design both numbing and unsettling in a way that drives home just how far gone some of the characters have become.
Some of the bonding moments between Ellie and her love interest, Dina, are relative pinpoints of light in an otherwise thoroughly grim ordeal, and Jesse, Ellie's friend and the third corner in Dina's love triangle, also provides some valuable camaraderie. Some is the operative word in both cases, because while those relationships are sources of happiness for Ellie, there's certainly plenty of tragedy intermingled there as well. But when she's present, Dina is often a welcome supportive presence for Ellie, and by extension the player. In general, the game's representations of gender roles, queer romance, and LGBTQ discrimination feel harsh — as everything is in the collapsed society of its world — yet conscientiously and equitably written by the authors of the script.
Perhaps most importantly to fervent fans of the original game, moments in which Joel and Ellie interact and reckon with the fallout of their previous cross-country journey and its violent end are at least very cathartic, if not exactly the most warm and fuzzy scenes. The entire voice cast does superb work throughout the game, but Troy Baker in particular deserves every accolade possible for his heart-wrenching performance as Joel. Through this central relationship and the many others that develop around it, the desperate importance of love, friendship, and parenthood are shown to be vital components of the larger story's focus on the futility of revenge and the cost of losing oneself to it. A