"If I ever were to lose you, I would surely lose myself".
The haunting words from Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder will sit with you long after you complete the game for the first time. The Last of Us: Part II is an emotional journey that will captivate both newcomers and those of us who have been waiting for the best part of a decade for a sequel.
In all honesty, The Last of Us was a rare occurrence in a lot of ways, but mostly in that fans were not clamouring for a sequel, the first instalment had a perfect ending. For those who are unfamiliar, a quick synopsis:
With the world ending in 2013 due to a virus that is ravaging the world, society has crumbled, and zombies are everywhere (May hit a little close to home at the moment, sans zombies). In the chaos of the outbreak in Texas is Joel. As he & his brother (Tommy) try to flee the pandemonium, his daughter (Sarah) is shot and dies in Joel's arms. 20 years later, he works as a smuggler and is tasked with smuggling Ellie across the country to a militia named the Fireflies.
We find out that Ellie is somehow immune to the infection and as they traverse the country fighting zombies, bandits, cannibals and more, they bond through the shared pain of their survivors' guilt.
Joel slowly begins to see Ellie as his surrogate daughter. At the end of the first game, we discover that Ellie is the key to developing a cure, but it would kill her. This is unacceptable to Joel and he murders dozens of people to save Ellie, who has become his sole reason for living. When Ellie wakes up, Joel claims that the Fireflies had found many other immune people but were unable to create a cure and that they have stopped trying. On the outskirts of Tommy's settlement, Ellie expresses her survivor guilt.
At her insistence, Joel swears his story about the Fireflies is true.
We step back into this horrifying world five years later with Ellie still learning who she is, but still full of that same anger that we later learn is directed at Joel having found out about his lie. This world is a dark place and it has not gotten any brighter since we last experienced it. People will do everything to protect their loved ones, but they have forgetten what it means to be human, an almost endless cycle of violence has become the norm.
This soon hits home for Ellie when Joel is brutally murdered by the daughter (Abby) of a Firefly that Joel killed to save Ellie years earlier. Ellie then sets out on a revenge mission to hunt down Abby and her friends. I will not go into the journey that takes place from here much, mostly because it is something that you need to experience yourself for the full effect, instead I will go through some of the main elements of the game as a whole.
For me, the story and characters are the main draws for this world. These characters are so brilliantly written that even when they are doing appalling things, you are rooting for them.
The acting in The Last of Us: Part II is in my opinion, the best ever seen in a video game format.
Ashley Johnson, in particular, is amazing in her portrayal of Ellie. Every forced smile, the moments of unbridled rage and the beautiful moments with Dina in the music store show the baggage that Ellie has. Johnson walks the line between fragile and teak-tough perfectly. I recommend you watch the video below for that scene from the music store that is easily missable in game but is truly poignant.
Troy Baker plays the pain of Joel flawlessly, he is struggling with Ellie pulling away from him and the pain it inflicts on him is devastating to watch. It literally hurts to see his now aged face grimace when Ellie rebuffs him. The flashback to the museum trip they shared is particularly beautiful and hurts all the more given the breakdown in their relationship.
As mentioned earlier, the world is now a horrible place but graphically, this game offers the best graphics that have ever been seen on a console, I found myself just stopping to admire it multiple times.
It is an absolutely beautiful game no matter the environment. The climactic battle between the WLF and the Scars on the Seraphites' island is a particular highlight for me. The only downside of this is that while I have a PlayStation PRO, it really struggled with the demands placed on it. I would turn up the volume to drown it out and then have a heart attack thanks to a sudden Clicker attack. I imagine we will get a remastered version down the line for the PS5 that will remedy this, but it is not a major issue for me.
Naughty Dog has positioned itself as one of the leading developers in the world, especially for someone like me who values storytelling and character stories as the biggest part of a game. With this in mind, they made the wise decision not to change the gameplay from the original too much, things are a little more polished in this aspect with enemy AI evolving all the time as you stealthily take them out one by one. The combat is also incredibly realistic and not for the faint of heart.
Shotguns, crossbows, and knives are all used to devastating effect with the brutality ramped up to match the post-pandemic world. It fits perfectly with Ellie's revenge mission but sounds of bones shattering & screaming from enemies will almost want you to go the stealth route where possible, the game is that brutal in its violence. That is not a bad thing, just a reality of the world, every single kill and action weighs on Ellie and she carries it all. It helps insert you into the shitshow the world has become.
The gameplay moves along nicely with upgrade branches that allow you to make real choices on your preferred method of playing the game. You are constantly on your toes and the gameplay does a fantastic job of ensuring the action neither lags nor feels forced.
The game takes some real risks in terms of the storytelling and for me, they largely pay off. Just as you are making some real progress and edging closer to finding Abby after picking off her circle (which is taking a growing toll on Ellie as she is willing to sacrifice more in her pursuit of vengeance), the game throws a huge curveball at you and you play a large portion as Abby, learning her story and what drove her to murder Joel.
Abby has a redemption arc by helping Lev, a transgender teenage boy struggling with who he is, save his sister and they then grow close as they battle through the warzone that Seattle has become. The parallels of both Abby & Ellie's stories are easy to see and it becomes clear that they are two sides of the same coin.
There has been a huge backlash against Abby online (a lot of it superficial and frankly boring) and the fact that Naughty Dog forces us to play as the woman who murdered Joel but, in my opinion, it gives a much more rounded view of the world. Horrible things are happening to everyone, it is just the perspective that changes.
By the time, the ultimate showdown happens, I was genuinely conflicted on who I wanted to win. Abby won me over. Both of these women are incensed by the pain that has happened to them, justifiably so but neither is capable of seeing that they are simply perpetuating the violence that has become their life by hunting each other relentlessly.
The Last of Us Part II is a masterpiece.
There is no escaping the fact that The Last of Us has become a massive selling point for Sony, and I would be incredibly surprised if another instalment did not arrive given the revenue it would generate for the PS5 and their upcoming battle with Microsoft. Every facet of this game is improved upon from its predecessor. It is an exciting journey from start to finish with beautiful graphics, amazing actors, and incredible gameplay.
More than anything, it is a beautiful exploration of the strength and vulnerability in the human spirit. Naughty Dog's penchant for storytelling has become legendary with this latest instalment.
The only minor flaw for me is the secondary characters. Besides Lev, I found the majority of secondary characters forgettable, even Dina despite her warmth and the humanity she brings to Ellie. That was just my experience and is the only criticism that I have.
Overall, I was genuinely exhausted on completion; it takes so much out of you but it is completely worth it.
Games and their stories have always managed to reach me emotionally more than any other format and The Last of Us Part II has done that better than any other game in 25 years.
It is truly the game of the year and possibly the best title of this generation.
Stay safe people, Aidan out.