The Last of Us Part II sequel is a game that I had a lot of trouble with and not because of its difficulty. I've previously shared a personal experience outside of the game that made part of the combat mechanics incredibly difficult to work with, which can be seen here, but after recruiting some help - the deed is done. There were many parts to this game that are nuanced beyond the standard "is it fun" question, which makes this one of the hardest reviews I've done in my 17 years of working in games. So how does it stack up to the first? It doesn't, but that's not a bad thing.
Before we dive into the sequel, there's a small disclaimer. This game is not meant to be fun, it's meant to be uncomfortable, gritty, and downright hopeless sometimes. It's designed to get under your skin, make you want to put the controller down and walk away. It's designed to make you feel crippling doubt and - at times - a spiraling sense of anxiety. There are some stories out there that aren't meant to have a happy ending and this is one of those tales. It's not a "good" game, and that's the best thing Naughty Dog could have done for the continuation of this series.
The Last of Us Part II is a continuation of the PlayStation 3 story that so many fell in love with, though this time around it's Ellie that is center stage. The second game improves a lot upon the original in many ways, and fell short in others, but overall it is an incredible journey that almost feels like a genre of its own and is a perfect experience for those looking to get lost in a story. Just know, it's a story rife with complexities that may need some additional time to digest.
One thing I love about this sequel is how it balances the importance of caring about others, especially in an environment as bleak as this world setting. It's just as important to love and care for one another as it is to ruthlessly slash someone's neck out of survival necessity. It's this juxtaposition between light and dark that is designed to keep the player on their toes, and that rapid shift between the two spectrums is an emotional trip that sometimes felt like too much.
In the sequel, Ellie is older, wiser, and much more jaded. She's no longer the daughter figure in the background, she's a young woman that has seen a lot of loss in her short time of being on the planet and it's that loss that drives her forward even when the world seems like it's dead-set on crushing her within its grasp. Part II did a phenomenal job at fleshing her out as a character and making her human. We saw a glimpse into her as a person with the first game's DLC, but it's in the sequel where here humanity truly shines. She has friends, she has lovers, she has family she wants to protect ... she has people to lose.
Gone are the simple threats of zombies. The dangers have been upped exponentially as warring human factions clash and anything remotely moving seems to want the player dead. The element of the militant WLF and the religious zealots seen with the Seraphins adds an entirely new element of choice, decision, and the power of deciding who lives and dies, and it's in that newest addition to the game that really crawls beneath the skin. Much like in real life, these factions are truly convinced that their way is the only way and they are ready to kill in order to prove it.
This new level of danger was made much more apparent when it came to taking down certain foes. It's easy to kill something that no longer looks human, but there are many that Ellie must face that have personalities, goals, dreams, opinions; there are so many that Ellie must kill - brutally - that truly drive home that this is not a "fun game." This is guttural, this is the power of this-gen graphics as well with blending the lines between what's real and what's not.
I've mentioned before about the neck-snapping and why I had such an issue with it in relation to a real-life experience I've had with this exact scenario. As I mentioned in that coverage, I never expect developers not to do this mechanic, it's powerful when done right, but at times it seemed almost over-used. In this game's setting, that's just one aspect that is purposefully designed to make players feel uncomfortable: there's no safety found in the distance provided by shooting off a gun. This person's life is in your hands, literally, and that sort of decision weighs on the player if done correctly. And oh, boy, did Naughty Dog do this correctly.
That level of violence is one of many ways that players will see the manifestations of living in a world like this and truly becoming someone that can and will survive. As the game progresses, Ellie begins to look more tired, more worn. The weight of the world is on her scarred shoulders, she becomes more and more unkept as the blood of those she's been forced to kill continues to pile on. She's not the sassy youth with a pure heart that we first met. She's grown into a character that the world shaped and what happens when that world is not kind? This. This happens.
We've all known that Ellie's main objective in this game is about vengeance, that much was made clear in the very first trailer. That drive for justice comes from a deep-rooted place of fear, a fear that continues to alter how she perceives the world. In that drive for vengeance, she becomes obsessed with killing one particular person. This kill, in her mind, alleviates the guilt she feels over a past event that we aren't going to disclose here for two reasons: 1) It's a major spoiler, 2) Sony explicitly stated that we can't share story specifics in their embargo. We can only talk about the story once the game launches, so we will be updating this portion then. But that drive gave her a hyper-focus, almost a shield to guide her and help her deal with her grief. In her mind, she's justified, but the player is given a glimpse at how others see her outside of her own goals: ruthless, cold, and almost sociopathic in how she kills.
With so many new characters introduced, which is understandable given how much time has passed since the first title, I was excited to dive in and form a bond with these new faces like I did in the first game. This is one area where the sequel fails to meet the perfection of the first game and honestly? I expected exactly this.
The Last of Us, the original, made characters feel for the characters, feel attached in a way that made it easy to forget they weren't actually real. We saw the bond form and grow between Ellie and Joel and there was a closeness felt that lasted long after the end credits rolled. While Ellie does have amazing relationships in this new adventure (and no, her gay relationship did not feel forced, or "SJW" or anything silly like that, it very much felt natural), there almost seemed to be too many of them to really formulate the deep bond felt in the first journey. There were bonds, absolutely, and there were heartfelt moments of love, heartbreak, and hope, but they - to me - always fell just a little bit short of meeting its full potential, an issue that the first game did not face. That being said, the characters I did meet, though not the same level of devotion I felt in the original game, were incredibly done and to be fair, the first title nailed the narrative in a way that is so unique, it would be near impossible to top that.
Where the sequel fell a little short in terms of connection, it soared in terms of mechanics. Upgrading items in-game is so much easier and more fluid, making it fun to continue learning new mechanics and adjusting playstyles in conjunction with the current setting. Stealth, heavy assault, a mix; there are many ways to take to this game past a certain point. The first game, this is where it fell short with me. I loved the original, but the mechanics could have used a lot of work. Naughty Dog took that feedback and made those exact changes I wanted to see in the first game, and put them wholeheartedly into the sequel, and it was the best thing they could have done.
One thing that the second game does better than the original is the locations. The first title was beautiful, but the second one is downright stunning. There are so many quests that require players to truly explore the tiny details in certain areas, and every single detail was well-thought-out and beautifully done. While not a true RPG, RPG fans will be absolutely in love with how many nooks and crannies there are to explore, and the intricacy of being able to interact with everything truly makes this immersive experience that much more so.
The Last of Us Part II is equally brutal, lovely, heartwrenching, and almost numbing. It's a game that, for me, recquired me to take a step back and "right" my mind. It makes you feel in the moment, which for a game like this with such heavy themes is terrifying at times.
Overall, while The Last of Us Part II did fall short in several key ways in relation to its predecessor, this is a game that is stunning and will absolutely cement itself as one of those tales that will always keep a special place in the hearts of gamers for a long time after its launch. It's an incredible continuation that stood on its own legs, for better or worse. It's a stunning game we can't recommend enough, just know that it will affect you in ways you may need to prepare for.
The Last of Us Part II arrives on June 19th exclusively on PlayStation 4.