Before I start my review, I just want to let you know that this will be completely spoiler-free. I’m going to discuss certain story details and key gameplay set pieces, but I’m going to try and avoid giving away anything as best as I can. Once everyone has had a chance to play it, I’ll do a spoiler review and talk about all the crazy stuff that happens. The Last of Us Part II is just something that has to be experienced. I’ve honestly never played anything like it. There are just so many intense and beautiful moments that shocked and thrilled me that the less you know about it before you go in, the better.
The Last of Us was and still is a game that is near and dear to my heart. As a father myself, Joel and Ellie’s story touched me. The experiences they shared together throughout the course of the original game were heartbreaking. As they tried to survive in a world overrun with infected, they bonded and Ellie filled that hole in Joel’s heart that had been empty for so long. Protecting her became the most important thing to him, no matter what the cost, and as I played as Joel I embraced that role of protector. The Last of Us Part II builds on that idea of “do whatever it takes to protect those you care about”, but it isn’t as sentimental. TLOU II is about revenge and being so blinded by it that you are putting those you love in danger. It actually takes some pretty big risks with its story that will leave you with your jaw on the floor. I didn’t always agree with the characters’ motives here, but then again, I didn’t agree with certain character motives in the first game. Over the course of TLOU II, Ellie and other characters do some unspeakable things, but I always found myself trying to empathize with them and their story progression felt natural to me. Every story has two sides, and that’s what makes this game so special. It challenges your perception and encourages you to look at the story from all angles.
The first game had an excellent presentation, with brief screens of black to indicate the beginning and end of cutscenes, but Naughty Dog and director/writer Neil Druckmann have outdone themselves here. TLOU II is consistently breathtaking. There are no load-times that I noticed and even saving your game takes seconds to do. Motion-capture technology has come a long way and these characters feel like real people. Tears slowly roll down their cheek and bruises stay on their skin after vicious beat downs. The entire cast is phenomenal and everyone does a remarkable job. Little details like Ellie pulling the hood up on her coat when she walks out into the rain or built up snow on your coat slowly melting when you go inside a building. Pulling off stealth kills is a bit off-putting because of how real the enemies look. They grimace and squirm in pain and their faces look disturbingly real. Animations are fluid and everything in the world has weight to it which brings it to life. The PS4 is being pushed to the limits here and I honestly have never seen a better looking game before. TLOU II’s graphics even surpass the gorgeous God of War, which is no small feat.
Once the story does get under way and we gain control of Ellie for the first time, it’s made very clear that she can more than handle herself now. We saw a taste of her skills in the original game’s DLC ‘Left Behind‘, but here she has grown up to be quite the killing machine. She isn’t the young girl we remember from the original. We do get glimpses of that funny, comic book loving fourteen-year-old that she used to be in flashbacks or the things she says while walking and talking with NPCs, but she isn’t the same. The path that Ellie’s story goes on takes a toll on her mental and physical state, making her increasingly more violent and angry, even towards the people she cares about. She will delve into all kinds of cruelty to gain closure.
Combat is a huge step up in terms of how it looks and feels. Melee combat is gruesome and visceral. Shotgun blasts can blow limbs off of enemies, causing them to crawl around and scream out in pain. Ellie carries a switchblade that has infinite uses so you no longer have to keep crafting shivs for quick stealth kills (or to open locked doors). Tapping R1 will quick swap between available weapons. You can throw bottles and bricks at enemies and follow that up with a brutal instant-kill. Ellie can be knocked back when hit by bullets, causing her to fall on her back. Arrows can now get lodged in your body, forcing you to hold R1 to pull them out and receiving a bleed effect that causes damage over time. Stealth is king here though, and most of the time you’ll want to sneak around. Bullets are scarce, so anytime you can quietly take someone out, the better. Sneaking is much more involved now since Ellie can jump, crawl, and even swim (yep she knows how to swim) allowing her to jump out windows, crawl through tall grass and swim underwater to get the jump on her enemies. The new additions to combat play great, and there are some amazing set-pieces for you to put these new-found tools to work. The only mechanic I found unreliable was the dodge. Pressing L1 to dodge incoming attacks doesn’t always work when you need it to which makes some fights later on where you only can use hand-to-hand combat much more complicated than they need to be.
Since there is so much more freedom with movement, level design gets a massive upgrade. There are sections of cities where you’re on a horse or driving a boat and you can go to any area within reach to look for supplies Areas are much more larger and dense, just demanding to be explored, which leads to some very non-linear gameplay, especially during combat. You can smash windows to get inside locked rooms or throw rope over scaffolding to swing across gaps to previously unreachable areas. Exploration can net you some pretty nice rewards, so definitely take the time to search every area thoroughly. Because of this new found freedom you have though, enemies are much more plentiful and there are way more spots for them to hide that you’ll need to watch out for. I can’t stress it enough that you really need to pay attention to your surroundings. Enemy A.I. has been improved as well. A new faction called ‘The Wolves‘ will call out to other members of their group every so often to check in. If you’ve killed one of them, they’ll actively search for that person, even calling out their name. If they do find the body, they’ll yell out and warn everyone else in the vicinity. The Seraphites (or Scars), are a cult of religious fanatics that use whistling to communicate. This puts you at a huge disadvantage because you have no idea what they’re saying to each other. It’s also damn creepy.
While the humans provide a challenge with how crafty they can be, the infected make a terrifying return as well. They were intimidating on the PS3, but they come to life on the PS4 in ways that will make your skin crawl. New additions include the Stalker, which is a much more agile version of infected that will peek around corners and actively try to avoid you to gain an advantage. Shamblers on the other hand are bulky like the Bloater, but being near them causes corrosive burns to your skin. You can use the infected against other human enemies. At one point, deep in an abandoned subway, you’re being hunted by human enemies. Nearby Clickers lurk about. Throwing a bottle near an enemy set the Clickers off and the two groups started battling it out, while I just sat back and watched the carnage unfold from a safe distance. Each fight sequence feels organic and could play out a dozen different ways depending on how you approach them. In between these sections of open-ended combat, there are heart-pounding moments where dozens of enemies fill the screen, and all you can do is run.
In order to keep up with the increasingly difficult enemies, supplements for character upgrades and materials for weapon modifications make a return. Gun customization remains the same, with you being able to add reduced recoil and increased clip size to weapons you find, but watching Ellie upgrade her weapons in real-time looks bad ass. Supplements for character and skill upgrades though are vastly different here from the original. There are now five different skill trees to put your resources into, as long as you find the training manuals to unlock them. There’s Survival, Crafting, Stealth, Precision, & Explosives. Stealth is extremely useful because there is a perk that allows you to craft a silencer for your pistol. The silencer only has three uses before it breaks, but this can be upgraded in a skill tree as well so you can use the silencer up to five times for some much needed stealth kills. You can even craft your own normal and explosive arrows now. There are so many options to combat that you have to make sure you use your materials carefully. It might be a good idea at the time to craft some molotovs, but you might not have the materials to craft a first-aid kit you desperately need. The variety here is staggering.
At times, the overwhelming amount of violence these characters inflict on each other can be exhausting, but The Last of Us Part II does have some quiet and beautiful moments peppered throughout. Taking part in a snowball fight, playing guitar or pretending to be an astronaut and just being a kid helps alleviate some of the tension. It brings some extra depth to the characters and these sequences were always a nice surprise. I always had a feeling in the back of my mind that something terrible was waiting just around the corner, but I couldn’t help but smile during these moments.
In the end, The Last of Us Part II is a masterpiece and I want to give a huge thanks to Sony Interactive Entertainment Canada for providing me with a review code. It takes some bold risks with its story and goes to some very dark places that will definitely make you feel uncomfortable, but it expands the world on display here and fits well with the first. If you’ve played the original (and if you haven’t, go play it right now), you should be quite familiar with that type of uncomfortable. It’s these moments though that made the game so engrossing for me and it all builds to one hell of a climax. The new combat additions feel great, the story is full of twists and turns, and everything meshes together to create an unforgettable experience. I can safely say it’s one of the greatest games I’ve ever played and it sets the bar pretty high for whatever comes next from Naughty Dog. Absolutely do not miss this one. – NVJ
The Last of Us Part II releases on June 19th, 2020
PS4 review code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment Canada