The Last of Us Part II Review — A History of Violence
Tense, heartbreaking, and profound, The Last of Us Part II is an affecting examination of consequences and a masterful sequel by Naughty Dog.
**Editor’s Note: This review, while being largely free of major story spoilers, does mention some of The Last of Us Part II’s second half that changes the perspective of what players experience in-game. I felt this aspect of the game was important to address in order to highlight the direction of the story and tone that Naughty Dog chose with The Last of Us Part II and to better inform what to expect from the game. However, other than that, the rest of the review will try to be as vague as possible regarding some of its larger story moments and reveals to avoid spoilers.**
The ending of The Last of Us, which saw Joel raid a hospital occupied by the Fireflies in order to rescue Ellie, ultimately left players with a question–rather than a definitive statement–of whether his actions were the right ones to take. Saving Ellie’s life was a result of their growing bond, but also came with a heavy cost for the rest of humanity. More importantly, the ending cast Joel’s actions in a different light and was willing to let the player make their own judgments about what had happened and where things could go from there. The ending, more or less, put a period on an emotional story about love and compassion, while forcing players to reexamine how they ultimately felt about Joel’s actions, whether they were noble, reckless, or otherwise.
The Last of Us Part II, by comparison, changes that period to an ellipsis and forces an entirely different read on the events of the first game. Picking up from where Joel and Ellie’s story left off was never going to be an easy task, let alone trying to wrangle the complex emotions of the first game, especially in its final moments. However, calling it “Part II” feels like an appropriate extension of what Naughty Dog was trying to accomplish with this title. On that part, the studio has crafted a game that doesn’t just build off of its predecessor in every way, but puts it into a very different, challenging context.
For a multitude of reasons, The Last of Us Part II is probably one of the most complicated games that I’ve ever had to review. Like many others that loved the first game, I initially was hesitant about what a sequel to The Last of Us could add to its story, given how Joel and Ellie’s journey was told so effectively by Naughty Dog. Then there were the leaks in April that revealed several of the game’s major story beats months before its release, some of which I had (unwittingly) ended up seeing, and the resulting fallout of internet backlash and discourse about those reveals. Then there are the real-world situations surrounding it, from the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic, to a current political and social climate fueled by tension, division, and hate. Though The Last of Us Part II is obviously removed from the circumstances that we’re facing right now with very different contexts, there are moments where it doesn’t feel too far off either, making the game’s similarities to the current state of our world feel even more prescient.
The polarized response to the direction of the story in The Last of Us Part II, in many ways, speaks to the strengths of its writing, performances, and its overarching themes. Initially described as a game about “hate” by director Neil Druckmann, The Last of Us Part II definitely reflects those emotions once players begin their initial quest for revenge as Ellie. But by its end, The Last of Us Part II encompasses so much more than that. Though the game often shows people at their absolute worst through violence and cruelty, its moments of humanity and levity save it from becoming the worst version of itself, in a lot of ways. Whether you’ve seen the leaks beforehand or not, The Last of Us Part II is an experience that can only be fully understood by playing through it for yourself to come to terms with what it has to say.
There is a lot to unpack from the story that Naughty Dog tells in The Last of Us Part II, both thematically and emotionally. Sometimes that’s to a fault as the game’s story is dense and complex when taking it all in, compared to the precise, focused storytelling of the first game. Part II’s unique narrative structure twists players’ expectations at every turn, and in a lot of ways might warrant a second playthrough to fully grasp it. And as much as Part II manages to tell a captivating story over a much longer experience than the original game, it often loses grasp of the many narrative threads and themes it is trying to pull at once. But long after I’ve rolled credits on the game, seeing where Ellie’s path of vengeance winds up hasn’t left my thoughts for days, and likely won’t for some time to come.
Picking up about five years after the events of the original game, The Last of Us Part II shows what happened once Joel and Ellie reached the end of their journey across America. After reconvening with Joel’s brother Tommy in Jackson County, Wyoming, Ellie and Joel have made a life for themselves in its survivor encampment. While the Jackson community has established itself as a safe haven in the midst of the post-apocalypse, Joel and Ellie haven’t been on good terms in some time once the truth is revealed about what happened at the hospital in Salt Lake City.
After a brief introduction to the idyllic Jackson community and a few new characters that play a big part in Ellie’s life, such as Jesse and her partner Dina, the wheels of The Last of Us Part II’s story are set in motion by the arrival of a group of survivors led by Abby. After a violent confrontation with Abby and her group, Ellie is left physically and emotionally devastated by the encounter, and begins a plot to track the group to their base in Seattle, Washington to settle the score.
There is obviously much, much more to the plot of The Last of Us Part II than that, but it’s difficult to truly reveal what ends up provoking Ellie’s search for revenge without completely spoiling the context for the rest of the story. Even the trailers and gameplay footage since its reveal have had to dance around some major events that set-up the entire premise of the game and to hide its biggest reveals. That said, what sets The Last of Us Part II apart from what initially seems like a simple “revenge story” plot is a major perspective change that alters the course of the story dramatically, and provides a clearer picture of the “cycle of violence” that defines it as a whole and its characters.
After playing as Ellie for the first half of the game where she and Dina venture out to Seattle, a major turning point leads to a perspective change for players in the second half of the game by playing as Abby. By switching perspectives midway through the story, The Last of Us Part II not only completely recontextualizes what happens in the first half from experiencing Ellie’s point of view, but also reframes the events of the first game entirely. Gradually players uncover Abby’s role in the story, while also highlighting Part II’s larger theme of portraying flawed characters that don’t neatly fit into black-and-white moral archetypes. For all intents and purposes, Abby is the “antagonist” of the story, making it remarkable that the second half of the game is able to show her in a much deeper, more empathetic way. For a character that players are almost immediately meant to hate, Abby’s story proves just as compelling as Ellie’s, which is a testament to Naughty Dog’s writing and Laura Bailey’s performance of her character.
The narrative and emotional weight of The Last of Us Part II does much of the heavy lifting for what players will experience in its 20-30 hour journey, alongside its standout performances from Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, and newcomers like Shannon Woodward. However, the devastating and enthralling story of Part II is also backed by its tense, dynamic gameplay that consistently engages players to fight for survival. While Ellie and Abby both have their own unique feel to them–Ellie being more agile compared to Abby’s more strong-armed approach to encounters–The Last of Us Part II makes a number of refinements to the series’ stealth-oriented gameplay that is incredible in motion.
This is especially compounded with the diverse range of enemies that players will encounter throughout the game, human or otherwise. The Infected–humans mutated by the cordyceps fungal outbreak–once again are a major threat, and The Last of Us Part II introduces a few new variants of the Infected alongside the infamous Clickers and Bloaters. There are also the two main human factions that players will face throughout the game, the pseudo-militarized Washington Liberation Front (colloquially known as WLF or “Wolves”) and a religious cult known as the Seraphites (or “Scars,” who unsettlingly communicate by whistling). Notably, these two factions are at odds with one another throughout the game, leading to some situations where players (as Ellie or Abby) are able to use these opposing factions against each other to their advantage.
Whether fighting off Clickers or hunting down Wolves or Seraphites, the combat and moment-to-moment gameplay of The Last of Us Part II is undoubtedly satisfying and a big improvement over the original game. But perhaps more noticeably than its predecessor, Part II delivers a much more brutal approach to combat and violence, as a means of both upping the intensity of encounters and making the player reflect on their own actions. Enemies are killed and eviscerated in far more graphic detail, and taking out an enemy will often have their companion shout their name or call out for them if they’ve gone missing.
This intention of humanizing the enemies you’re facing is undoubtedly chilling, and Naughty Dog went the extra mile in making the player feel tense and uncomfortable with the combat in Part II. However, while the violence in Part II at first is meant to be unsettling and brutal, I can’t help but feel that it begins to lose its meaning when every encounter leads to essentially a bloodbath. In the major story moments where violence is impacted on the characters we know and are meant to sympathize with, the brutality and callousness of it absolutely works and reinforces the story’s theme of violent actions having violent consequences. But when faced with a group of enemies that stand between you and the next objective to move forward in the story, killing them in cold blood begins to show the seams where Part II’s narrative ambitions run against the limitations of using horrific violence to make a point. Part II makes us feel and mourn major character deaths (of which there are many), while also leaving Ellie and Abby with a heap of bodies behind them.
Much like the original game, players will have to utilize stealth and careful resource management to navigate Part II’s series of environments, which have notably been expanded from the original game. Taking a cue from the more recent Uncharted titles such as Uncharted 4 and The Lost Legacy, The Last of Us Part II features more extensive open areas that not only give the player flexibility in how to approach incoming enemies, but give far more room to explore, gather supplies, and witness more of the story through its world and setpieces.
With Part II, Naughty Dog has outdone itself with some of the most meticulously crafted levels and environments that I have seen in a game. This is especially the case once players reach Seattle with Ellie and Dina, which is easily one of the biggest, most impressively detailed environments that has appeared in a Naughty Dog title. From venturing through lush forests, to wandering the overgrown streets of downtown Seattle, The Last of Us Part II utilizes its spaces to an exceptional degree to make exploration and discovery not only crucial to surviving, but as a way to enhance its storytelling. Granted, these environments can be detailed to a fault; there were several points where I sometimes found myself unclear where to go next and would accidentally backtrack. But thankfully, the game will help point you in the right direction if you end up getting lost, and sometimes it’s for the better to appreciate the intricate details strewn throughout each area.
Likewise, the signature world-building and environmental storytelling that made The Last of Us so memorable is on full display in Part II. There are ample opportunities to explore different rooms filled with their own stories of the people who once lived there. Some of them are harrowing, some of them are poignant, but they’re never uninteresting and give a huge incentive to more thoroughly explore each environment. Going off the beaten path has always been encouraged in The Last of Us, and Part II draws on the strength of its environments and subtlety to create an even more richly-defined world.
By the end of The Last of Us Part II, I came away from it experiencing some of the most powerful, emotional moments that I’ve ever seen from a video game, let alone any other story told in another medium. Naughty Dog’s long-awaited sequel has the kind of raw storytelling that comes only a few times in a generation, and the fact that the studio was able to pull this off in a follow-up to the original is a feat in and of itself. From the perspectives of Ellie and Abby, The Last of Us Part II succeeds not only as a dark and haunting story of revenge, but as an examination of consequences and redemption. While Part II sometimes falters in its delivery of extremely heavy subject matter, it also proves itself as a poignant exploration of human emotions and all their extremes, whether that is hate, love, or anything in-between.
Like the journey for revenge that its main characters seek, The Last of Us Part II is often bleak, complicated, and doesn’t provide easy answers for its challenging moral questions. In a lot of ways, The Last of Us Part II will make you angry, it will upset you, and it will break your heart as much as its glimpses of warmth and humanity will lift your spirits. It is a challenging game to play at times; there were several points where I felt completely overwhelmed by what I was experiencing. But the raw emotions and storytelling heights that Naughty Dog reaches with The Last of Us Part II are worth seeing through to the end, as hard as it may be to get there.