Platform: PS4 (Reviewed)
This will be a review in two parts. The first will be a detailed, spoiler-free review of The Last of Us Part II’s gameplay. The second will be a deep dive into its story, because TLOU2’s main draw is its story. I can describe it in vague terms saying it's “emotional” or “shocking.” but I can’t properly review ithe game without talking about the story, and talking about it means spoiling it.
If you just want to know whether it’s good or not, yes, it’s very good. Go play. If you want to know more about the groundbreaking things Naughty Dog has decided to do with this franchise, then you have the entire gameplay review to decide whether or not you want to spoil yourself. If you read on, that a choice you made, not me, which is fitting for the themes of TLOU2.
On the surface, TLOU2 is fairly similar to the original. You’ll progress from location to location, scavenging and crafting supplies, avoiding infected, facing off against angry people with guns, you know the drill.
The game puts you in control of more than just Ellie, and every character you control has a completely different loadout. This means different guns, different skills, different gun modifications, you name it. Ellie, for example, is the only character with a switchblade, giving her effectively infinite shivs. Everyone else still has to craft them like Joel does in the first game.
These different loadouts will necessarily affect your playing style. One character, for example, gains access to a flamethrower and an assault rifle, so you’ll likely play them more aggressively. In fact, this is the same character that encounters a strange, almost Resident Evil-style boss, so they are kind of built for combat. Every character does have options for stealth and combat, but it does feel good to get to mix up your playstyles a bit.
The beginning of the game has hints of the idea of an open world. For a while, you get to explore the majority of a post-apocalyptic Seattle, choosing where to go and what to investigate. Unfortunately, this falls off pretty quickly as the game goes on. You’ll once again find yourself funneled down linear paths with infected in your way, only deviating to pick up a few supplies here or there.
The thing is, you’ll want to deviate because a lot of really important items are squirreled away in houses that lie along your path. You can’t craft additional holsters, for example. You have to find them. You’ll find whole new guns or combat manual that unlock new skill trees hidden in optional safes. TLOU2 wants you to pixel hunt every corner of its maps, and you will.
It’s really difficult to say much else about the gameplay because it can kind of be whatever you want it to be. TLOU2 has one of the most in-depth difficulty and accessibility options menus in the history of gaming period. You don’t just get to choose how much damage the enemies do. You can customize every single bit of the experience.
What does that mean? It means you can alter how much damage you and the enemies do, how many enemies you encounter, how easy it is for enemies to see you in stealth, and how common supplies are, and those are just the basic options. You can turn a wayfinder which will tell you where to go on and off. You can decide whether or not you want a visual indicator of how close you are to breaking stealth. You can decide if you want to be able to go into “listen” mode at all, and if you do, if you can use sonar pings to determine where enemies or items are. You can make quick time events easy, turn on auto aim at different strengths, skip puzzles, heck, you can even turn on permadeath if you want!
You can use these options to craft the exact gameplay experience that you desire. Hate combat? You can take it out of the game completely. The same goes for stealth and puzzles. Don’t like scavenging? You can make it so that you automatically scavenge items in the vicinity. Chase sequences frustrating you? Choose to auto run, auto mount, and auto duck around obstacles. You can even have the game guide you, step by step, to 100%ing it, rendering most guides useless! The game is its own guide!
Every single aspect of gameplay is customizable. Not to mention there are extensive options for the colorblind, partially blind, and hard of hearing.
So when I’m asked to review the gameplay, I can’t help but say it’s a 10/10, because it doesn’t really matter what Naughty Dog thinks the “correct” way to play the game is. You are the author of your experience here. Maybe you want The Last of Us Part II to be a gritty, realistic, survival simulator, or maybe you want it to be the story a psycho overloaded with guns, mowing down everything in their sight. It is what you want it to be. Nothing stands between you and the story.
The story - Spoilers beyond this point!
Now is the time to close the review if you don’t want spoilers.
Alright, everyone here wants to be here?
So Joel dies.
This is the first major bait and switch the story pulls on you. All the marketing materials make it seem like Dina, Ellie’s new girlfriend, is the one Ellie is taking revenge for. Not so. Early on, Joel saves a group of people from a horde of infected and for his trouble, he gets his head bashed in with a golf club. You then take control of Ellie in her quest to go to Seattle to hunt this group down and kill every one of them, Arya Stark style.
At least, that’s what you do for the first half of the game. For the second half, The Last of Us II pulls a Metal Gear Solid 2 on you and changes the main character completely. You play as Abby, the girl who killed Joel. Turns out, she was the daughter of the surgeon who was going to operate on Ellie to find a vaccine way back in the first game. She hunted down Joel to get revenge.
Abby’s story humanizes everyone that you kill with Ellie. From Ellie’s point of view, they are nothing but ruthless murderers but from Abby’s point of view, they are people with friends, family, a community they are protecting, and more.
The big shocker? For 90% of the game, Abby and her community, the Washington Liberation Front, didn’t even know of Ellie’s existence. You see, they were in a completely separate battle against the Seraphites, a cult with some pretty awful and violent ideals. All that time when people were trying to kill you, you thought it was because they are the bad guys and you are the good guys. But it’s actually because they were smack dab in the middle of Seraphite stealth raids, and you fit the description. To Ellie, she was the protagonist in a revenge story. To the WLF, she wasn’t even on their radar.
The Seraphites story is actually quite compelling. Abby eventually rescues a trans child from the cult, who considers him an apostate because he is trans. Abby accepts him, as does pretty much every other character… but to help this kid, Lev, she had to defect from the WLF. This makes her an enemy of the WLF and of the Seraphites, making her something of a lone survivor.
So all that killing of the WLF you did as Ellie? You were killing people who weren’t even allied with Abby anymore.
Those who have been indulging in spoiler-filled discussions about this game early on have probably seen a lot of people getting angry about the way the game makes them feel bad about what they do but doesn’t give them any choice in the matter, and that’s somewhat true. There have been a lot of games that have played with morality as a theme since TLOU1 came out, and TLOU2 does kind of feel stuck in an era where it just assumes that what you want to do is murder everyone, when plenty of players at this point might choose to try more pacifist-style playthroughs.
But as I played and reflected on the game and its meaning, I realized that’s not the point TLOU2 is trying to make. It’s not a game about morality. In fact, I was ready to call the game out if it just ended up rehashing the same old tired “all humanity is evil and chaotic without society” message that every last piece of zombie media seems to hammer down our throats.
Naughty Dog is better than that.
The Last of Us Part II is about trauma. Society at large seems to be capable of rebuilding, even in the face of great hardship. However, one person’s trauma can derail the whole thing.
Joel saved Ellie because of the trauma of losing his daughter Sarah. Abby killed Joel because of the trauma of losing her father, Jerry. Ellie then hunts down Abby because of the trauma of losing Joel. This isn’t just an interpretation. The game goes out of its way to show characters suffering from painful PTSD.
But trauma never seems to be solved with more trauma. What’s the solution then? Well that’s something not even I will spoil for you. Play the game.
In short, The Last of Us Part II is incredibly bleak and unapologetically political. It makes massive statements about humanity, motivations, and trauma. It’s painful, and at times borderline nihilistic. If you are looking for a story that ends up with everyone happy, this isn’t the game for you. Play anything else. But if you are looking for a story that shakes you and makes you think about human nature and society, then TLOU2 is one of the most brilliant pieces of storytelling this generation has to offer.
The swan song of the PS4
The Last of Us Part II is a fantastic game, but it’s also a revolutionary one. This is the last major PS4 title before games become forward-compatible with the PS5. It is, for all intents and purposes, the PS4’s swan song, its very last first party AAA blockbuster, the game that will guide how we will design games in the beginning of the next generation.
And TLOU2 is telling us that we aren’t doing enough. We need more options. We need deeper stories. Literally, nothing else in this generation comes close to what TLOU2 has done in terms of providing a truly customizable and replayable gameplay experience on top of a deep and engrossing narrative. Not every game can be this ambitious, but maybe more should try.
You may have noticed that TLOU2 is getting review bombed. Well, the review bombing isn’t doing its job, since the game has become the fastest-selling Sony PS4 title of all time, and it deserves it. If you are the type of person who is going to raise a stink over Ellie being gay or Lev being trans or the game suggesting that self-centered individualism is toxic, and you know who you are, just stay away. This game isn’t for you.
But for everyone else, this is one of the greatest masterpieces that the PS4 has produced. I’ll admit, I came into this title with a skeptical eye, ready to knock it down a peg from all the praise other critics had been giving it, but even with that pre-existing bias, I can’t deny that this is an amazing game, and you should play it.