It’s not without irony that The Last Of Us Part II got delayed from its May release due to a viral outbreak. Fortunately we’re not being turned into savage mushroom controlled monsters due to COVID-19, but I’d go as far as saying as an audience we can probably relate a little more to the events in the game. Right at the end of the last generation Naughty Dog wowed with their ability to craft a dark, depressing yet hopeful and emotional story that arguably tipped the medium over that line from entertainment to art form. It could have been left ambiguous at the end of the original, but with the success it wasn’t long before a second part was revealed, although it’s been a bit of a wait – 3 and a half years since that announcement – to finally get hands on the follow up and discover what was in store for the surrogate father/daughter combo. We guessed it would be tragic and would tackle some tough issues, but does it manage to still deliver a tight and heartfelt story with the weight of expectation sitting on its already heavy shoulders?
Set 4 years after the original, Joel and Ellie have settled into a routine life in Jackson – a township of survivors in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness. They pass the time patrolling the land, clearing runners and clickers that stray too close, and largely enjoy the fact they’re not being hunted or attacked every 10 minutes. It looks a good life on the surface, but there’s something off between the pair that’s apparent from the get go. There’s a distance, shared looks, stilted conversation… it’s not quite the relationship of the past. This being a continuation of the story started in The Last Of Us (hence the Part II moniker) you can bet things are going to go south at any point, and big style too. That’s as far as we can go with the story to keep it spoiler free, though events transpire that force leaving Jackson and heading out to Seattle where the majority of the 30 hour long game takes place.
We need to talk about Seattle because it’s almost a character in itself that underpins The Last Of Us Part II. It’s not fared well over time, and has definitely not been helped by the strategic bombing to try and control the virus spread. A lot of it is crumbling and collapsing, it’s mostly been picked clean by survivors, nature is winning in the fight for land, and it’s prone to heavy rain and flooding. There’s so much going on with the environment that there’s something distinct to look at with every turn, and as the story progresses the weather and landscape combine with the buildings to structure the mood of the game. With a mix of free roaming and funnelled progression it’s not all running through basements either, there’s plenty of outdoor exploration and opportunity for some epic scenery photos. If basements are involved though, at least they also have a distinct character and no two look the same. The variety of locations in the city is impressive, and that varies even more as you come across the camps of the incumbent militia the WLF (wolves), and their zealous foes the Seraphites (scars).
In The Last Of Us Part II the meat of the action comes from the combat. Whilst the ludonarrative dissonance criticism levelled at the Uncharted series is something the studio hasn’t really worried about, there’s none of that here to reduce the immersion. The killing is integral to both the character development and messages being conveyed throughout the story, and this means Naughty Dog have taken things in a much more brutal direction. Each encounter with the enemy – human or infected – is a battle for survival, and it’s always hard fought. Whether going for stealth or head-on (which isn’t recommended), the result is visceral and not for the squeamish. Melee weapons are vicious whether sharp or blunt, shivs will stab and rip throats, bullets puncture holes in bodies, limbs can be shot off leaving the victim to bleed out screaming for help, and place a trip mine and you’re likely to see a torso sans arms and legs. All of this is accompanied by some of the most realistic grunts, smacks, squelches and splats from the speakers to ram home the effects. Some of the later weaponry is even more horrifying with well placed shots that can vaporise the unsuspecting. It seems like it ramps up through the game too, and allows the level of bloodshed to become normalised, sometimes with companions commenting on the destruction left behind.
The danger effect is amplified by the details embedded in the encounters. Human enemies shout their fallen comrades names and then appear to become more focused on taking you down; flanking and unpredictable patrol routes leave little room for slipping away unnoticed once things have kicked off; and getting hit doesn’t just take a bit of health, it knocks you flat and winds you. Get hit with arrows and you’ll need to remove them to stop your health draining away, all the while taking a hit to movement speed and accuracy. There’s a realism baked in that subtly forces caution and planning for every enemy that’s come across. Deciding to take a pot shot at a lone runner might mean accidentally triggering a swarm of clickers heading in for their trademark one hit kill, though it also works as an advantage as it’s possible to send them attacking groups of WLF to decimate the numbers and cause distractions. The Cordyceps infected sort of take on the role of the hordes in The Walking Dead for The Last Of Us Part II – they’re there and need to be dealt with, but they’re almost the natural state of things and part of the scenery of every day life now. Letting your guard down is a bad move though, they’re still lethal and have enough different types to keep you on your toes.
Help is at hand though with the crafting from the first game returning so that health kits, molotovs and traps can be built on the fly, and new skill tree and weapon upgrade features are available too. There’s no classic “player level” to worry about to get to them, or XP involved in any way, simply finding enough spare parts enables adding improvements to the guns, or grabbing pills allows access to new skills. As with all these things, spend wisely as there’s not enough in the world to buy everything. In another brilliant bit of detail, improving a gun will have you make the changes specifically at a workbench and alter the appearance to reflect what’s been done. Finding the right type of scrap in the city is intuitive too as the pieces are always somewhere logical like rags in a laundry or health snacks in a vending machine. In fact, the only things that are sometimes in odd places are the collectables, and that’s just to encourage more exploration. Fail to search out every nook and cranny and that can mean missing out on some key backstory pieces and even an A-HA song cover musical interlude, played by you on the in-game guitar using the direction stick and touch pad.
The Last Of Us Part II offers up more in the way of environment puzzles than before, and throwing ropes, moving ladders and relying on gravity soon becomes second nature. It also adds investigation type puzzles where it’s about finding a combination to a safe or figuring out what’s happened from the state of a room. That latter isn’t a mode by the way, that’s just what happens when walking into somewhere new and starting to deduce that things have gone bad due to the blood smears and direction they lead in. Despite a heavy leaning towards environmental story telling, there are always documents to find and read that flesh out the scale of the tragedy that’s befallen the world. I’d say there’s about an 80% chance that when you pick up a bit of text you’re going to exclaim out loud as it adds context to something atrocious that’s taken place. It’s hard to convey just how grim this is in parts, and that it layers on despair and futility pretty much relentlessly. Weirdly, despite the interplay between characters in gameplay, and the cutscenes that tell the core tale to make you feel closer to the major players, it’s actually the notes scattered around the world that bring the gravitas and elevate it to make it feel more human.
Of course, some text on a screen can’t do the full job of creating the world, so that’s left up to the ridiculously good game engine, excellent audio design, industry leading motion capture, and first class voice acting. Combined they deliver a visual and aural treat that’s really hard to top. The Last Of Us Part II is not content with just being gorgeous, it continually delivers breathtaking scenes that beg for the use of photomode, and can leave you wondering at times how they’ve squeezed all this detail onto the PS4 alongside an HDR and 4K presentation. Then it lets audiophiles dive into the options and tweak all manner of settings for surround, headphones and TVs including speaker positioning… and all of this can be done during the boot sequence so you don’t need to delve through menus once the game has started. That would be a big miss though as this has the most comprehensive set of accessibility settings I’ve ever seen. Whether you’re partially sighted, have impaired movement, need to remap buttons, have to slow down the combat, or have any one of a hundred other specific requirements to make this comfortable to play; it’s probably there for you. This should be the standard for accessibility options from now on.
With no hesitation this is the sequel the original deserves. It picks up where the last left off and runs with an emotionally charged study of cause and effect, choice and consequence, and with an aside in how frames of reference adjust morality and justification. The Last Of Us Part II twists and turns its plot as it sees fit, leading you on a tense journey whilst dropping breadcrumb hints before revealing a truth or two, and managing to never leave you feeling unsatisfied. It’s compelling and compulsive gaming from a studio currently doing its best work, and backed by a platform holder not averse to giving its creatives room to breathe. It might hit too close to home for some with the current pandemic, but that coincidence should be overlooked and it played for what it is… a simply brilliant piece of interactive storytelling.
The Last Of Us Part II is out now on PS4 for around £45 physically, £55 digitally.