“It can’t be for nothing?”
That question from Ellie towards the end of The Last of Us (TLOU) couldn’t feel more poignant, given those who wondered if creating a sequel for it was ever essential. The first instalment was an absolute monster of a hit – a post-apocalyptic behemoth inspired by The Road and 28 Days Later, delivering a perfect balance of engrossing gameplay and high-level storytelling. To top it all off, it brought a genuine emotional depth that’s quite rare in gaming.
Given the production delays and a troublesome build up to the sequel’s release, the gargantuan question hangs: Can Naughty Dog match its previous entry’s success?
The story picks up four years after Ellie and Joel’s journey across America, which has been ravaged by an outbreak of a cordyceps virus on mankind. Fans of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth may remember that cordyceps is a fungus that intrudes an insect’s brain. However, in this case, it turns humans into zombie-like creatures known as ‘The Infected’. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, The Infected aren’t the only ones posing a threat, as most of the human survivors are just as much of a hazard to your survival.
Following the first game’s events, our protagonists have seemingly settled into a more balanced style of living, until an event unfolds that will send Ellie on a journey fuelled by anger and revenge.
This time around it’s Ellie that steps into the leading role. Whilst Joel in TLOU felt weighted in his delivery, Ellie is more of a scrapper in fights, and has bags of pace to be able to get away from tricky situations rather than be forced to face them head-on.
The CPU for the human adversaries has been upped since the last game. Here, they hunt you down relentlessly, either with the occasional help of sniffer dogs or by using different sets of tactics (dependant on what group you encounter); all of which add new challenges in terms of understanding your enemy’s behavioural traits. That’s not to say that The Infected aren’t still an issue to deal with, as some that are newly evolved (though unseen in the first game) are as spine-chilling as ever. How you deal with all these enemies – be it going for sneaky stealth kills or all guns blazing – is equally satisfying.
In terms of play time this is Naughty Dog’s lengthiest game to date (clocking in at around the 20- to 30-hour mark, dependant on your playing style). Besides getting into confrontations, you are given plenty of time to explore the game’s expansive locations and go looting for desperately needed supplies. Gun-modding and upgrading your abilities have also been given a makeover but you won’t be able to max any of these out the first time around, encouraging you to do so in New Game+.
Graphically you won’t find many games as visually satisfying as this; the sheer amount of intricate detail that’s gone into every area of this post-apocalyptic world is astounding, using the PS4’s powers to its maximum capacity.
Adding to this is Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting soundtrack. Returning for the sequel, Santaolalla has given us a fresh take on the score; providing darker and more uncomfortable tones, which is perfectly in keeping with this story’s harsher themes.
Speaking of themes, with the first game based around love and loss, The Last of Us: Part II focuses on revenge and the cycle of violence. There’s a huge emphasis on the fact that there are no true heroes or villains here; a lot of the emotions you feel towards these characters will be based on your own perspective, as opposed to the narrative steering you in that direction. Without going into spoiler territory too much (congrats to anyone who managed to avoid them!), it’s a relief that even within its dark and violent setting there is room for some beautiful and tender moments that bring a sense of balance when it’s most needed. There are a handful of divisive plot points that are going to undoubtedly challenge some audiences but credit to Naughty Dog and its commitment in striving for innovation when it could have easily played things much safer.
As director Neil Druckmann commented after the game’s leaks back in May, you must play this game and experience all of the emotions on display yourself to build a true understanding of it.
Emotional and harrowing. Ground-breaking and tragic. Unsettling and cathartic. The Last of Us: Part II is an immersive masterpiece that will not only go down as a defining moment in captivating gameplay and design but, significantly, incorporates complex and emotive storytelling that would be impressive over any form of media.
The Last of Us: Part II is available now, exclusive to PlayStation 4.