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The following review is free of story spoilers for The Last Of Us Part II. But due to the nature of the game, those hoping to experience it completely fresh may want to read ahead with caution, regardless.
The Last Of Us Part II is bleak. It is soul-crushing and, at times, too uncomfortable to continue on. In many respects it is the natural continuation of the violent world introduced in The Last Of Us, where the grim weight of existence was often too much for the characters to bear, but they did because they were driven by the hope of a better world. In this sequel there is no hope - only survival. At any cost.
Prior to the game's release, director Neil Druckmann spoke at length about how the sequel would deal with themes of rage and revenge. Undoubtedly, the story of The Last Of Us Part II will polarise fans long after reaching its conclusion. After 25 hours of play time and days of reflection, I'm still not sure how I feel about it. But I know that it will prove to be one of the most discussed games in recent history, bearing whatever caveats that title brings.
Five years have passed since Joel lied to Ellie about the Fireflies' plans to kill her in order to create a cure for the infectious fungus that has decimated mankind. Five years since they settled down in the makeshift town of Jackson, Wyoming. And in those five years, the relationship between the pair has gradually eroded away.
Ellie is now a young woman who lives her life on the outskirts of society, but who joins the frequent patrols that aim to clear and secure the town's perimeter of threats to the burgeoning populace. She has forged new relationships - chief amongst them the headstrong and mischievous Dina, another of the town's residents and capable peacekeepers, played with marvelous nuance by Westworld's Shannon Woodward.
As much as The Last Of Us crafted a complex affinity between Ellie and Joel, their story was very much inclusive of each other, with other characters relegated to orbital roles. In Part II, there is a much wider cast that developers Naughty Dog have integrated into the narrative, so as to make them feel mostly (note: mostly) natural. The obliterating emotional range of all the actors on display though is worthy of praise, especially that of Ashley Johnson who turns in a powerhouse performance as Ellie.
What is going to polarise people so much, I believe, is the way in which this story plays out. The overarching tale of revenge and the unfurling repercussions of different character's actions, while resolute in their concept, are told almost backwardly. You are asked to identify with characters that have done atrocious things within the first few hours, who can then never fully atone themselves to the audience through their actions, if indeed they're even seeking redemption. If time was spent building towards these acts through exploring backstories and displaying motives first, I think it would have been a much richer experience.
To the game's credit, there are a lot of memorable moments to glean from the story. Most notably in a number of flashback sequences scattered throughout, as well as some easily overlooked interactions during the numerous exploration portions in the game. That's not to say the main thrust of the story - the moment to moment beats - is sub-par, though. Indeed, the portrayals of even bit-part characters are sublime, and it's easy to swallow the 'why' of the script. It's just that the 'how' has stuck in my throat too much to ignore.
There's no denying that The Last Of Us Part II takes risks. Introducing a wide-ranging cast of ethnicities and orientations was, sadly, always going to be counted as a risk when considering certain audiences. What I love about these characters and their depictions, though, is that they never feel like they're there to tick a box - as can be the case in other games, movies and TV. Everything is a level playing field - who these characters are is ultimately incidental to what they do and why they do it. Anyone looking for supposed 'agenda-pushing' won't find it here. But while the game palpably pushes the envelope of representation very well for the medium, the odd pacing constantly undermines the strength of the story being told, and those brought in to tell it.
The darker world that overtures the story is one that would put even the most macabre of post-apocalyptic timelines to shame. Death in The Last Of Us Part II is treated so matter-of-factly that killing your human opponents quickly turns from a giddy thrill into an incredibly distressing task. Stealth kills earn themselves a special mention. With a tap of the triangle button Ellie can grab an unsuspecting foe from behind before dragging them to a secluded spot and plunging her knife into their throat with no more than an eyelid batted.
What makes these encounters so traumatic is both the way they are delivered, and the clarity of the achingly gorgeous graphics. You see every inch of the knife enter and exit the neck, dark blood oozing out of the new wound as Ellie's victim helplessly gurgles their last breath, often clawing desperately for air. Ellie remains unphased, only affected by the effort she had to exert to accomplish the task.
Playing on a PS4 Pro, The Last Of Us Part II is already at the apex of what the current generation of technology will allow, and will doubtless look even better on the upcoming PS5. Its version of Seattle has grown green and lush, with foliage reclaiming the crumbling concrete skyscrapers after 25 years of human abandonment, and there are times where standing still to appreciate the natural elegance of what the city has become is far preferable to advancing the foreboding story.
The gameplay itself is only a marginal improvement over The Last Of Us, and still plays second-fiddle to the story. Players are able to make use of a number of key skills - like scaling up ropes, smashing windows and most importantly, the ability to jump and vault. This opens up levels with a new verticality reminiscent of Naughty Dog's other blockbuster title of this generation, Uncharted 4. But more importantly, it feels like the kind of 'bigger and better' inclusion you'd expect from a sequel.
A lot of the optional exploration requires finding hidden paths and following them using your intuition. Some encounters, too, take place in the ruins of Seattle's once-thriving downtown area, meaning players can move up and down throughout multiple floors with relative impunity to get the drop on unsuspecting foes.
While stealth is unreservedly the primary approach for enemy encounters (usually, it's better to slip past them undetected using your heightened listening ability) the arsenal at your disposal is usually more than enough to deal with threats - bearing in mind that it's incredibly easy to become overwhelmed. It's better to run and live to fight another day, than it is to die like a dog for no good reason. Being the kind of masochist who simply has to explore every last corner of a map, though, I found myself more often than not ruthlessly hunting down enemies so as to find each collectable, crafting item and piece of ammunition before moving on.
You can now also brawl with some human (and lesser infected) enemies, which makes combat feel more fluid than before. Assuming you can get it right, that is. Getting up close to an enemy can instigate a sort of quick-time mini-game where you must dodge and weave their attacks in order to open the opportunity to counter with your own. Tapping L1 at the right moment will send an opponent's wildly thrown fist or makeshift weapon effortlessly over your shoulder, before a tap of the square button instigates a brutal attack of your own. Wrapping a rusted machete into an enemy's midriff is scarcely more satisfying than when it's the result of a short scrap for survival, and its outcome is rarely more inhuman to live with.
The new bestiary of enemies in The Last Of Us Part II opens up a welcome challenge for veterans of the first game. Dogs are used by opponents to patrol some areas, and their ability to pick up on your scent means you can never get too complacent with your hiding spot as you quietly work out your next moves. There are also the Shamblers - a new type of infected that spews noxious clouds of acid that burn their victims alive, unless you get out of the way. Like Clickers, they are blind unless you aggravate them or stumble into their paths; but mixed with a group of Runners they can quickly become lethal if provoked, especially on the higher difficulties.
You'll also have a suite of new abilities to pour experience points into over the course of the game. A few different skill trees - such as Survival, Stealth and Precision - can be unlocked by finding field manuals around the environments, and spending supplements which must also be scavenged. While they may have been touted as encouraging players to lean into their own, distinct playstyles, these abilities amount to not much more than marginally enhancing things like your accuracy, movement speed and crafting ability. Some are useful, though. For example, I put a lot of points into Stealth, because I found myself using the all new pistol suppressors to deal with foes from range. Upgrading meant I could get more shots out of one before it broke, and I'd have to find more materials to craft a new one.
Crafting things on the fly - like molotov cocktails, health packs and arrows - remains much the same as the last game, but weapons benches have had a nice visual overhaul. It adds nothing to how the game plays, but does help deepen the sense of realism that you're being fed throughout.
Despite this new sense of accessibility, - 60 settings enabling audio or sight impaired players to experience the game with things like high contrast visuals, and contextual audio and vibration cues - the game does still suffer from the banal and repetitive nature of its predecessor, in that it's gameplay is still just a means to an end for advancing the story. General exploration leaks into encounters and back again repeatedly over the course of 25 hours, so much so that everything begins to blur some two-thirds through. Towards the end I found myself subconsciously willing the game to hurry along as I passed through set-piece after set-piece of essentially these same two processes.
What I find myself contemplating the most after finishing The Last Of Us Part II, is that much like the game's story, I'm still conflicted. It's a game of several fundamental improvements - breath-taking graphics, mechanics that are a joy, outstanding performances across the board, and the sense of a deeper world having been built upon. But there's still the glaringly obvious issue of the story's wonky pacing, and what you actually do to advance it. As a video game sequel it ticks all the boxes of being bigger and better with more to say. But as a story, as an experience following one of the most critically acclaimed tales ever told in this medium, it sits uncomfortably on a knife's edge, waiting for the passage of time to pull it one way or the other.
The Last Of Us Part II is out on June 19th for PlayStation 4. PlayStation 4 code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Sony/Naughty Dog
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