What would you do if you had a loved one whose immunity to a deadly virus meant she had to die in order to develop a vaccine to save the world from a horrible pandemic?
The way Joel responded to this at the end of The Last of Us is the jumping off point for The Last of Us Part II. The sequel to Naughty Dog's critically acclaimed 2013 game is an even better, though much darker, game that attempts to come to terms with the consequences and fallout of Joel's decision to let Ellie live.
Set a few years after the first game, society is in ruins as it was before, and there doesn't appear to be any hope for a cure for the Cordyceps virus that turns people into zombie-like creatures covered in fungal growth. However, in Part II, Joel and Ellie have managed to find a home among a community of people living in Jackson, Wyoming. They're all attempting to live a semblance of normal lives. So normal, in fact, that Ellie is even starting to explore her romantic feelings for another girl, Dina, and starting to imagine a future with her.
Things are about as regular as they can be in this post-apocalyptic world until a group of people from an organization known as the Washington Liberation Front show up. It's at this point that the game really gets going, and what starts as a story about simple vengeance turns into a more complicated tale that will make you reconsider your perspective on what's happening. That's about all I can say plot-wise given the strict embargo restrictions on this game, but after after 30-ish hours of riveting, emotionally-draining gameplay, here are my takeaways from Naughty Dog's masterpiece.
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The game feels like an HBO drama series
It's basically a truism that every year brings new games that are more realistic looking and artistically closer to movies and TV shows, and Part II takes this up a notch. It's not just the gorgeous way in which the lush Pacific Northwest foliage, ruined Seattle cityscapes, and emotive faces of the characters are rendered in this game, but it's the story itself.
Naughty Dog might be the gold standard in the world of video games when it comes to crafting a captivating story, including gems like The Last of Us and Uncharted 4. There were times when I was playing that I felt like I was watching a TV drama series. No wonder this game is actually in development to become an HBO show. Incidentally, one of the co-writers for this game, Halley Grossman, was a writer on HBO's Westworld.
Some games make you want to hit X and skip over the cutscenes, but not Part II. Every time a cutscene started, I just put down my PlayStation 4 controller and just watched. There isn't any wasted dialogue, and you never feel like you're just waiting for something to happen. Every scene is infused with emotion and reveals critical bits of information about a character's backstory, their motivations and mindset.
The cutscenes in Part II are all so well crafted, from the dialogue to the way they're shot. There's an extended sequence early in the game in which you're following three groups of characters who eventually all meet up, and the way in which the short scenes pivot from one group to another heightens the tension and helps develop a sense of foreboding that the story is coming to an early key juncture. There's also a scene involving Ellie and a companion in which the two jump into a car and attempt to escape from some enemies that feels like it's straight out of an action movie.
The music adds to the cinematic mood, whether it's the warm acoustic strums of a guitar -- a key connection between Ellie and Joel -- or the unsettling score that instills an impending feeling of dread right before frightening encounters with infected runners and clickers in dark, abandoned buildings. The pulsating electronic beats during combat sequences make you feel like you're in a thriller. The Last of Us Part II's fights often made me think of Blade Runner, though it was actually more akin to the music from the TV series Mr. Robot, as it was a composer from that show, Mac Quayle, who was responsible for these musical sequences in the game.
Familiar mechanics with refreshing touches
Many of the game's mechanics will be familiar to you if you played the original The Last Of Us. You can throw bricks and bottles to get the attention of enemies, you can build health packs, bombs and other items, and you can upgrade your weapons at work benches and improve your skills.
You can also break glass windows with the aforementioned bricks and bottles (as well as by shooting at them) to get into places that are otherwise behind locked doors. Enemies also have guard dogs, which can be particularly hard to shake off. You can hide from enemies, but the dogs can sniff your trail, so you'll have to be extra stealthy when trying to avoid them. Ropes are another new element in Part II: If you're having a hard time trying to escape from a location, there might be a rope lying around that you can toss over an object to either climb or use it to swing somewhere.
In the first game, Joel would sometimes find comic books lying around that he would pick up for Ellie. In Part II, Ellie will frequently find collectible superhero trading cards. You'll also find notes lying around that give you a sense of the people who have passed through the abandoned buildings you're exploring or reveal codes for safes that you can unlock to get supplies.
The game will test you emotionally
This game is emotionally taxing. After every three-to-four hour session I dedicated to the game, I felt exhausted. Everything from the graphics to the dialogue to the way in which the cutscenes have been shot does an incredible job of conveying an array of emotions that the characters in this story experience -- mainly love, hate and fear.
Flashbacks are a powerful narrative device and produce some of the most emotional parts of this game. There's one in particular in which Joel is seen taking Ellie somewhere special for her birthday. It was a touching experience and spoke to the deep connection that Joel had developed with the girl who has become in effect his daughter. There are other tender moments between Ellie and Joel, often involving a guitar. In fact, one of the neater things you get to do in this game is actually strum a few chords.
There are truly terrifying segments, too, especially late in the game, with scenes in hospital basements, underground tunnels and other abandoned buildings with such dim lighting and heartbeat-quickening music that makes you feel truly your life is in danger.
The main emotion that drives the majority of the narrative, though, is the desire for vengeance. I can't reveal the catalyst for Ellie's quest for revenge, but I will say that it consumes her as the game goes on, and you'll wonder if she'll ever relent despite how self-destructive it becomes in the end. It's what makes the game so compelling but also unsettling.
You'll also feel empathy for some new characters who weren't in the first game. By the middle, I was feeling conflicted about some of the things Ellie was doing, and by the end I pitied her but also felt frustrated and unable to comprehend her actions at times.
This game is not for the squeamish
It's not just the bloodiness; it's also the look on enemies' faces. It's bodies you see. It's the bloodied and beaten faces of characters that you love. It's the grotesque bodies of the infected, especially the new enemy called shamblers. Above all, it's the violence that you will commit, especially later in the game. The game teases at times early on that Joel's brother Tommy and even Joel himself had done terrible things to survive and protect or avenge the ones they love, and before you know it, you'll be following in those same footsteps.
The characters in this game are very diverse
This game might be one of the most diverse ever made by a major publisher. The main character, Ellie, is a woman who is lesbian. Another new character in this game has big, brawny arms and a much more masculine look than might be expected from a leading female character. Dina, Ellie's love interest, is a Jewish woman. Another of Ellie's companions at times during her journey is an Asian man. There's another new character you meet later in the game who's transgender. With the gaming industry not often hailed for its diversity, this game is a triumph for representation.
The game will make you question your perspective on the story
This is at the core of The Last of Us Part II's narrative, and there's so much that I'd like to say about this, but I can't. As I mentioned previously, the story is driven by Ellie's desire for revenge, and the lengths that she goes for vengeance will make you question her actions. I often felt hesitant to commit the violence that was required to finish out a combat sequence and proceed to the next stage of the game.
The game is excellent but left me unsettled
Overall, I thought The Last of Us Part II was an excellent game, but by the end I felt extremely unnerved. Again, there's practically nothing I can say about the latter half of the game, but I'll try to convey a bit about how I felt about the end.
It wasn't necessarily a bad or wrong ending given the narrative direction of the game, but as I said above, I was very frustrated with Ellie by the end. Honestly, I'm not sure if I should be frustrated with Ellie or with Neil Druckmann, the director of the game, for continuing to drive the painful revenge plot forward after it had already exhausted me, as it likely will others.
There were a couple different moments near the end where I thought the game could have, and maybe should have, concluded, but instead, Ellie kept going. Perhaps it had to end this way, because that's just who Ellie is -- that's how much she had become hardened by the violent and cruel world in which she lived. Perhaps it wouldn't have been true to who she was if she didn't try to finish what she started, consequences and body count be damned.
Maybe what we see in the final moments is the only way the game should have ended, but The Last of Us Part II left me feeling dispirited and pessimistic about human nature and how the world can break a person.