The Last of Us Part II is an exhausting experience, mostly for the worse.
There were several parts of The Last of Us Part II where I thought that this had to be the end, right? Storylines were resolved, characters were redeemed, revenge had been enacted, and the story appeared to have nothing more to say. However, it just kept going. Another cutscene, another hour of rummaging through an abandoned building, another combat scenario requiring a half dozen resets. Whatever it was, it just kept going. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game of such a high production quality that I was practically begging for it to end. That is exactly what the Last of Us Part II is. It is a long, arduous journey that leaves you physically and emotionally exhausted.
I’ve played overly long games before. I’ve played games that seemingly went on forever. That is nothing new. That’s not even new for the Last of Us, which the first game was also exceedingly long (though that, however, was only about half the length of Part II). What makes the Last of Us Part II different is that the story and the combat also leave you emotionally and physically spent. The story a brutal, graphic, intense tale of revenge that goes over the limit several times. A story of the cycle of violence where bad people do horrible things to other bad people. The gameplay is a sub-standard stealth action game that has not evolved much since the original release seven years ago. A ‘throw a brick to distract guards and stab them from behind’ stealth system that was redundant with the release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain five years ago. If it weren’t for the presentation of the game; the graphics, the acting, the soundtrack, I would have placed this in the same box as a typical yearly Ubisoft release.
The Last of Us Part II has a story that seems to ride only one theme the entire game: violence is wrong. Our protagonist Ellie must journey through the destroyed United States of America to have her revenge on a new group of antagonists: the Washington Liberation Front or the Wolves for short, a fascist collection of soldiers who control Seattle. She will run afoul of the Wolves archenemy too: the Scars — a group of fanatical cult-like hunters who shun “old-technology” and live off the land. Think of them as the most extreme version of the Amish. Finally, the oldest enemy that everyone in the Last of Us Part II must deal with: the infected. The main problem with the story (and the game in general) is that it takes forever to do anything relating to the plot. If Ellie’s objective is to reach a building two blocks away, it will take players hours of searching an empty building for supplies, fighting in combat scenarios and dealing with the inevitable ‘something goes wrong’ where Ellie falls through a broken floor or is driven off by enemies. The plot has almost no urgency even when it tries to be. There is a section in the late game where the player is tasked to find medical supplies for another character. The time limit given by the story is two hours. The gameplay section of getting to the supplies, retrieving the supplies and making your way back is about 5 hours. If I needed condense the plot, I could quickly write everything plot-critical in just a few paragraphs. For a game that lasted nearly 30 hours is just unacceptable. A genre standard revenge plot does not need to be 30 hours, and it barely needs to be 10.
Of course, when people tell you what the most memorable thing about the Last of Us, it is the characters. More specifically, Joel and Ellie. With the main character now being Ellie, it’s evident that most of the attention is on her and her relationships. Her primary relationships concern her new girlfriend Dina, Dina’s ex-boyfriend Jesse, the leader of the group of Wolves she is hunting Abby and of course Joel. Ellie and Dina take the main focus of the story as the majority of the game you will be playing with her at your side. Unlike Joel who Ellie is initially standoff-ish with that Ellie eventually warms up too, Dina is already is in a relationship with Ellie at the start of the game thus their relationship doesn’t evolve much from where it starts. This relationship isn’t two people who fall in love with each other through their dangerous and lonely journey. It is two people already in a relationship, and that continues to be in said relationship. I’m not opposed to having characters already in a relationship at the start of the game. Not every piece of media needs to involve a love story. But it is the main relationship of the protagonist and the focus for over half the game, and it barely goes anywhere from where it started. Joel and Ellie may as well be two different characters at the end of Last of Us. Ellie and Dina do not change at all until the literal last cutscene. You would also think that having Dina’s ex-boyfriend in the mix would add some much need tension or some love-triangle subplot, but it doesn’t.
I’m glad that Naughty Dog decided not to do the most obvious thing in the world and shove an awkward and utterly unnecessary love-triangle into the game, but in terms of a character, Jesse may as well not be there. Ellie and Abby, the women she is scouring all of Seattle to find, is much more interesting but only in terms of the other characters. As you progress through the game, Abby becomes less of an evil antagonist and more of a rival. A person who is not inherently evil but someone else is also in a bad situation. Ellie and Joel perhaps have the most interesting relationship between Ellie and the main cast. Still, due to a majority of their interactions being flashbacks, it seems to be a bit stagnant. Their relationship does change from what it was in the first game, but we simply do not get to see what that looks like. We don’t get to see how Ellie treats Joel years after the first game. I can count their present-day interactions on the one hand. I didn’t need another game of Joel and Ellie going across the country, but if you are going to develop the relationship these characters have, I would have like to have seen what that relationship would look like a bit more. One more thing I would like to say is that there are interesting characters and relationships in this game, but talking about them would be significant spoilers so I won’t go into them here. Let me just say that there are characters and relationships I care about, and none of them involves Ellie.
I was hard on the characters of the Last of Us Part II mainly because they lack change or had very little of it. It pales in comparison to the gameplay of the Last of Us Part II which has not changed a single bit since the release of the original in 2013. It is the most significant disappointment in the entire game. Say what you will about the story; they did try something bold and unexpected. But all that ambition to create something different seems to go entirely in the story department. This game truly is the second part of the Last of Us, not its own individual game. It still has the same gameplay loop. You scour the environment looking for ammo for your guns, scrap metal to upgrade your weapons at workbenches, medicine to place into upgrades and materials to craft medic kits and Molotov cocktails. You fight several living human enemies as well as several kinds of infected, including clickers and bloaters. A majority of the combat encounters are you stalking through an environment taking out enemies one by one until you get caught. You can listen for enemies through walls and distract them with bottles and bricks. Not only has it not changed at all since the last game, but it also doesn’t even vary within the game itself. It is not a slow bleed of new elements that will keep you on your toes. No, it is a game that will show you what it has up its sleeve one-quarter of the way into it. The new changes that Naughty Dog did manage to introduce are dogs for human encounters which can pick up your scent and follow you, two new infected enemies including Stalkers which are immune to the listen mode and the ability to go prone. That is literally it. That is a level of gameplay evolution I would expect out of an instalment of a yearly franchise, not a game seven years in the making from a decorated studio that has backing from a first-party publisher.
That seven years in the making did get put into one thing, and that is the presentation. The presentation of the Last of Us Part II is the best in business today and could easily justify the purchase of the game alone. The game looks and sounds like a next-generation title. It is one of those rare games where you want to show to your non-gaming friends and family and just say ‘Look at this’. The graphics look otherworldly, especially the environments. Going through the world is an absolute delight whether it’s the overgrown city streets of Seattle, the snowy wildness of Wyoming or the dark and infested corridors of the games many, many indoor environments. Every place feels like a unique place a person used to (or currently) lives in. There is no copy-pasted rooms or an abundance of reused assists. An abandoned music store has album covers and concert posters all over the walls. Survivor camps have food, books and defences that make it seem like a person lives there. Rooms full of infected have disgusting fungal growths everywhere on top of a layer of dust and corpses. As draining as the length of the game can make you feel it does not tap you because of copy-pasted areas as it always has something new to show you. From start to finish The Last of Us Part II will stun you with how many varied, beautiful and unique places to scavenge, fight and survive through its 30-hour playtime.
The acting deserves special mention here due to the overall quality. Once again, Naughty Dog takes the cinematic approach that so many fail to reach and nail it every time. At no point does the game dive deep into the uncanny valley. No performance in the Last of Us Part II is subpar. Everyone regardless of screen time, brings their best. The actors for Ellie and Joel slip straight back into their characters like they never left and feel as real and believable as they were in 2013. Other performances keep up with the main cast including Dina, Jeese and Tommy. Special mention to the actress who plays Abby who achieves a monumental task of simultaneously being sympathetic and vile.
The soundtrack while not as disappointing as the gameplay is what would describe as ‘the Last of Us soundtrack’. Lots of solo acoustic guitar, banjo and ambient bassy strings. The acoustic guitar has a particular focus in the game as a few characters play and sing specific songs which looks and sound great. It reminds me of the way Bioshock Infinite used music though not quite to the dimension shifting degree. It also has a small amount of licenced music with was a pleasant surprise for those looking for it. It does not add much to the overall package when you run into it you smile and think ‘Oh that song is in this game? That’s cool’. I only bring up the middling the music not because it is terrible but because the game features the best graphics, character models and acting in the gaming industry, however, the soundtrack is merely fine. In any other game, I would have called the music in the Last of Us Part II good, but when everything else in the presentation is so far past anything else out there, it makes the okay soundtrack stick out like a sore thumb.
My biggest complaint with the game is the length. It is simply way, way, way too long. I wanted the game to be over 15 hours into it, and I still had 15 more hours to go. It is a game that desperately needed an editor. Several sections just did not need to be there or go as long. This isn’t merely a game where it goes for a few hours too long. It is a game that drags on, drones away at you while you're playing it, is seemingly endless and makes the game much worse than what I am probably giving it credit for. Honestly, if this game were 10 to 15 hours, it probably would have added a star to this review. It is the most overindulgent game I have ever played. Its naturally slow pace and push to search every nook and cranny in every environment turn something that should be entertainment into a job. I doubt I will ever play this game again and that is solely due to its length.
The Last of Us Part II is an extraordinary game for so many reasons. It has the presentation of a game once in a generation pared with the gameplay you could find in any stealth action game made in the last five years. It has top of the line performance capture and acting for characters that you do not care about. It has the skill, time and marketing of a multi-million dollar first-party release with the script of 2nd-year university writing assignment. It is a game that has the highest of highs but quite a number of lows. When I finished the Last of Us Part II, I posted on Twitter how I felt about it, and after writing this review for nearly two hours, I can still stand by it: The Last of Us Part II is an A+ presentation inside a C- game.