Set 25 years into the zombie apocalypse, The Last of Us Part II picks up after the emotional cliffhanger ending of the first game, which saw the grizzled smuggler Joel lying to his surrogate daughter Ellie about killing a team of scientists who were synthesizing a vaccine. Ellie is the only survivor known to be immune to the mutated cordyceps fungus that has infected the majority of the world’s population, but she would have died as a result of the synthesis.
It’s been seven years since developer Naughty Dog and publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment released the original The Last of Us, a console generation-defining PlayStation 3 title that has been heavily influential to the current trend of cinematic, story-focused games. Now, in The Last of Us Part II, Ellie finds herself on a revenge-fueled rampage against a militarized community called the Washington Liberation Front, becoming increasingly ruthless and challenging the player’s ability to empathize with her actions.
The sequel is much more ambitious than the first game. It fully utilizes the PlayStation 4’s upgraded hardware to render beautiful and meticulously crafted environments that immerse the player in a gritty, infection-ravaged Seattle.
Each combat encounter is sprawling and allows for a variety of strategies aside from pure stealth. There are several new enemy types that require players to think on their feet, such as the attack dogs that rely on scent and the infected that silently stalk from the shadows. Other improvements to the gameplay include increased mobility, which allows the player to escape scenarios by jumping across gaps, crawling under vehicles and hiding in tall grass.
The violence — against both humans and infected — is brutal and realistic. Gunfights are disorienting and every bullet fired feels like a last resort. Each enemy killed takes a toll on characters and players alike; each death feels regrettable but necessary. Unlike Naughty Dog’s flagship Uncharted series, which treats violence with a cavalier attitude, The Last of Us Part II deals with its lasting consequences and the trauma that comes with it.
The high points of The Last of Us Part II come as a result of incredible performances from the actors. Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker reprise their roles as Ellie and Joel, joined by a cast of interesting new characters such as Ellie’s friends Dina (Shannon Woodward) and Jesse (Stephen Chang), and her foil Abby (Laura Bailey). The characters’ depth and on-screen chemistry is faithfully captured by Naughty Dog’s stunning facial animation and motion capture, which is rivaled only by that of Rockstar Games in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Also returning for The Last of Us Part II is Academy Award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla, whose classical guitar score is simple yet memorable. Combined with satisfying sound effects that enhance combat and ambient audio alike, the game’s stellar sound design not only contributes to the atmosphere, but also allows players to use directional audio to pinpoint enemies while sneaking.
Another commendable aspect of The Last of Us Part II is its robust accessibility options such as audio cues, vibration cues and single-hand controls. Naughty Dog has given users a level of customization that is unheard of on console games, allowing gamers with disabilities to craft a playing experience that is most enjoyable for them.
Although the game is a technical marvel in every respect, it fails on a story and character level due to its meandering structure. While the first game’s story was taut, simple and straightforward, The Last of Us Part II extensively uses flashbacks and parallel storylines to conceal motivations and take tangential narrative detours. This makes it difficult to empathize with many characters and works to further confuse players.
These negative aspects are exacerbated by the game’s pace. It begins as an enjoyable slow burn but drags on in the final act. After too many false stops, the ending feels appropriate but ultimately unsatisfying.
Despite its lack of narrative focus and its emphasis on dramatic tension over careful plotting, The Last of Us Part II pushes the envelope of its medium. If it fails to be a console definer like its predecessor, it’s because the PS4’s catalogue has no shortage of well-written, cinematic games that owe their lineages to Naughty Dog.