“All I ask is that fans of the first one put faith in us and trust us. We’re going to do right by you.”
When it was announced by Naughty Dog that they were making a sequel to The Last of Us, considered by many to be one of the greatest games of all-time, Creative Director Neil Druckmann offered the above quote. After spending over 35 hours on my initial playthrough, I spent the following couple of days reflecting on the game before sitting down to write this review. So in the end, did Druckmann and the team at Naughty Dog do right by fans? Yes….and no.
The Last of Us is one of my favorite games of all-time and I feel a deep connection to Joel and Ellie. I wrote a retrospective a few years ago to highlight the significance of the story and the game’s importance to the industry. There’s so much I want to touch on in The Last of Us 2 in the same vein, but as this is solely a review, I will be focusing on the game from a more critical perspective and save my deep dive for a future article (though this will be a long review).
Note, to properly review this game you simply must talk about the story in my opinion. Thus, only proceed if you have finished the game or don’t mind spoilers. Also, I would be remiss to not mention the wealth of game and accessibility options delivered with this game. Naughty Dog deserves a large amount of praise for that focus and I hope that more developers take note.
To set the stage, it’s 5 years after the first game and Joel and Ellie now live in a settlement called Jackson. Early on you are given a glimpse of the now strained relationship between the two, but are not treated to why until much later. As part of the residents’ responsibilities, groups are sent on patrols and so, after some new character introductions, you take the role of Ellie and head out on patrol.
Noticeable from the start, Naughty Dog has once again crafted an extremely beautiful world. At times, it’s honestly hard to believe it’s running on PlayStation 4 hardware given its age. Environmental details are simply gorgeous at times and the lighting engine has a way of subtly bringing things to life in a way that’s difficult to describe but beautiful to witness. This is especially true in the later levels where I was far too often jumping in and out of photo mode.
I did run into a few visual bugs at times however. Depending on the angle I was using in cover, sometime enemies or objects would clip and thus go from being visible to invisible repeatedly. There’s also a noticeable disparity at times in some of the locations. One moment you’ll be gasping in awe at the beauty of what’s presented to you on-screen but at other times, you would swear you were playing The Last of Us Remastered. None of this truly detracted from the experience, but I feel it needs to be mentioned.
The combat and crafting systems from the first game will feel very familiar here, though Naughty Dog has improved them in a few ways. Training manuals are found as you progress and unlock short, linear skill trees that focus on specific attributes. Thus you can further fine tune your approach to the game depending on what your priorities are. Meanwhile combat feels largely similar to the first game, but the added nuances to the mechanics give you the freedom to approach situations in more ways. The ability to go prone to sneak closer to enemies is great for players like me who keep it quiet. Or if you’re more of a guns blazing type of player, you’ll be right at home with chained attacks, limb specific targeting, and some truly impactful melee animations and attacks. My only complaint really is with the aiming system which continues to need fine tuning. If you’re used to playing more polished shooters, The Last of Us 2 can feel a bit clunky at times.
The new movement abilities for traversal are reflected greatly in the game’s level design. Let me be clear; this is a far larger game than the original. To fully engross yourself in the world, find the collectibles, and uncover the backstories of the residents presented throughout, you’ll spend a lot of time exploring. And many of the small areas to find collectibles, workbenches, and safes are hidden in rooms you’ll have to get creative to find. I personally enjoyed this aspect of the game’s design and I applaud Naughty Dog for spending more time on it in the sequel to make it feel less on rails.
An area where I wish they spent more time however, is in the A.I. Not only do the human enemies in the game seemingly share the same lobotomy doctor, but you spend a large amount of time with an A.I. companion throughout the journey and they can be infuriating. Only occasionally do they have a meaningful impact on battle. Far more often than not, they will get in your way, push you out of cover, and block your line of sight. Given the size of the environments and the space in which to move, why the companions are programmed to want to cover directly next to you so often is mind-boggling and it honestly ruined some of the battle scenarios for me.
The Last of Us 2 is not just a larger game than the original, it’s a far longer game. This is due to the story’s setup and some very extensive character development. And just like the first game, those are the meat and potatoes of the game. Though, unlike the first game, they don’t taste quite as good.
After your brief time getting re-acquainted to Ellie you are introduced to Abby who is the leader of a group searching for someone in Jackson. After an intense escape from the infected thanks to Joel and Tommy, Abby escapes with them to Abby’s group’s cabin. And if you’re reading this, you know what happens next. As someone who managed to avoid all spoilers leading up to the game and had been on blackout for months, the torture and murder of Joel came as quite a shock and really hit me hard. Of course this sets up Ellie’s mantra of revenge and the journey to Seattle.
The majority of Ellie’s journey to Seattle is spent with Dina and Jesse, but the various flashbacks to prior years with Joel were some of my favorite moments in the game. In my opinion, that’s why we’re here; for Joel and Ellie. In particular, the chapter spent at the museum will sit with me for a very long time and is one of my favorite moments in gaming from this generation.
Where Naughty Dog chose to go next however, is where I really struggle with my thoughts on the game as a whole. Taking Ellie on a journey of revenge seems like the obvious route, and given the size of the world and the accompanying characters in Tommy, Dina, and Jesse, a sequel in that vein could have been a spectacular follow up. In fact, that’s how the game was marketed. Instead, we later take the role of Abby and spend a large percentage of the game playing through her history and experience. This narrative decision by Naughty Dog is where I believe the game excels to a level very few developers can reach while simultaneously being somewhat of a disservice to fans and the IP.
Joel and Ellie are beloved characters for fans. Given there only being a single game in the franchise that is now 7 years old, it’s a testament to the quality of the original game and its character development. To kill Joel off early in the sequel was already a bold choice. But to then put the player in the shoes of his murderer, for whom we only have disdain, was a huge leap.
We then spend nearly half the game playing as Abby to build out her history and psyche thus showing the parallels of trauma in her life with Ellie’s. In that vein, the game does a masterful Tarantino-like job of giving players the underlying context and subtleties of Ellie and Abby’s mindsets. But the questions I asked myself over the many hours playing as Abby were “Do I care about this? Do I care about Abby?“. Worse yet, I certainly didn’t care about her friends with whom you spend a substantial amount of time with in both gameplay and cinematics.
This is further compounded by pacing issues for periods of time where it feels as though you are playing through filler which isn’t necessarily needed though I understand it from a character journey perspective. I couldn’t help but feel like I had been Halo 5’d all over again where I went into a major big-budget sequel expecting to play as one of my favorite characters, only to be forced into playing with someone I had no connection with due to the writers wanting to fill a specific plot.
Late in the game as Abby, you have to battle Ellie in the theater which is one of the most meaningful moments in the game. Beyond the obvious reasons why, as a player it showed me where my allegiances lied and speaks to the issue I had with the game’s direction. I simply didn’t want to hurt Ellie. And when I did, and the cut scene ensued, I felt bad about it. The game had taken me on a path I simply didn’t want to go. Forcing players to question their allegiances isn’t necessarily a bad thing and again I applaud Naughty Dog for pushing the boundaries of expectations. But as the old adage states: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Regardless of my opinions on the direction, the way in which the story is told is in typical Naughty Dog fashion, brilliant. The cinematics are some of the best ever developed in a game and the fidelity with which they are displayed enables the game for you to relate to the characters as you would a show or movie. They can be enormously impactful and by time you reach the game’s epic final battle and ending scenes, you will be hard pressed to not be emotional.
As with the original, few games have made me feel the way The Last of Us 2 has. I continue to reflect on specific elements, and my friends and I have already had long discussions about the plot points and decisions made by the characters as if they were real people. The nuance shown in tackling such subjects as loss, revenge, hatred, regret, and at the heart of it all, our humanity are profound. And the fact that it makes you question and analyze both the characters and even yourself is inspiring. More than anything, I believe that speaks to the quality of what Naughty Dog delivered with this game. Very few developers can accomplish what they have and despite my complaints, it is still a monumental achievement in storytelling.
As a reviewer, the question I ask myself is this: Do the achievements in storytelling, narrative, and cinematics completely outweigh the issues with pacing and gameplay elements? In a way they do as they are so far above the bar, they have little to no competition. But I can’t overlook them entirely. Seasoned Gaming’s definition of a 10 is not perfect but rather “Historic”. If I were to rate the original title today, it would be only the third game ever to receive a 10 from this outlet.
But I don’t believe The Last of Us 2 achieves that same significance and I certainly don’t believe that Abby will be remembered in the same vein as Joel and Ellie. In the end, this is a journey I highly recommend everyone taking and I hope other developers take note as to what can be achieved with storytelling in video games. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t questioned the game’s direction frequently since completing it.
With that, I end as I began. Does the game do right by fans? Yes…and no.