In reviewing The Last of Us Part II, I’m going to do my best to avoid spoiling both that game and The Last of Us.
That’s not easy, because the first issue I’ll discuss is whether you can play The Last of Us Part II (tLoU2) without playing The Last of Us (tLoU) first. Strictly speaking, you can; all the major plot beats you need to know from the first game are recapped in the second one. However, these are emotional stories, and I think it will be hard to understand some of the character motivations in tLoU2 without making the journey with the characters in tLoU.
The Last of Us was set a couple of decades after a global pandemic (sigh) has ravaged the world. The disease is effectively a highly infectious zombie plague. The story of that game followed Joel, still dealing with the loss of his family, as he accompanies the young Ellie in a journey across a ravaged country in the hopes of curing the plague.
The Last of Us Part II picks up the story some years later. This time the viewpoint character is Ellie. She’s making her own cross-country journey across the apocalyptic landscape. The centerpiece of that journey is a detailed depiction of a ravaged Seattle. The game is similar to tLoU: she must deal with environmental puzzles, locate resources, and have encounters with both zombie and human enemies.
The publisher of both games, Naughty Dog, also publishes the Uncharted series. While the two series have some similarities (the way waves of enemies attack, many encounters can be handled by stealth), the mood of the games are completely different. Anyone looking for Indiana-Jones-style antics of the Uncharted games will be disappointed. The world of the tLoU games is grim, sad, terrible, and filled with loss and pain. There are occasional moments of joy in this world, but they are few.
The story of tLoU2 is more personal than the first game, but also more intense. Naughty Dog found a way to up the emotional stakes of tLoU2 without the dramatic world-changing potential of tLoU‘s plot.
Since my previous review was for the story-telling game Detroit: Become Human, I should clarify a couple of things:
- There are no story choices in tLoU2 (or tLoU or the Uncharted games, for that matter). They are cinematic games, in that you play the game to go from one scene to another.
- Combat is a major part of the game. You will have to develop tactics and tools to get through encounters with enemies.
- Unlike a story-telling game or the Uncharted series, tLoU2 is build-up-your-character game. You search for materials to improve your character’s skills, crafting abilities, and weaponry. Some reviewers say tLoU2 took them 30 hours to play; it took me over 60, because I scoured the landscape for resources (and also chose the stealth approach for most encounters).
There’s one area in which The Last of Us Part II breaks new ground in video games: its accessibility support. There are many options to adjust the user interface for both the hearing and vision impaired. As always, I played the game in Easy difficulty, but I also turned on all the accessibility options. That puts the game in “Super Easy” difficulty; for example, you can’t accidentally jump off a height and hurt yourself, you can easily detect enemies at a distance, the enemies become “dumber”, you’re harder to detect when you’re sneaking around, and you hear sounds whenever you’re near a resource.
For my part, in “Super Easy” mode I didn’t have much problem playing the game. There was only one encounter (about 2/3rds of the way through the story) in which I was so challenged that I had to consult on-line hints to figure out what to do.
The look and feel of The Last of Us Part II has improved over its predecessor. The PS4 is an aging platform and will be supplanted by the PS5 in the next few months, but during the platform’s lifetime Naughty Dog has learned how to squeeze every bit of graphics performance of of it. (The human figures in Detroit: Become Human looked better, but the landscapes and environments are better in tLoU2.)
I keep comparing tLoU2 to Detroit: Become Human, mainly because of how the story is presented. In Detroit, I had choices. In tLoU2, there are none; you take what is shown to you. There were several times during the game when I almost shouted at the screen, “Why are you doing this? This is incredibly stupid! Get a life, or at least get therapy, dammit!” But I had to follow along the self-destructive path of the character. This is a indeed the classical definition of a tragedy.
If you liked The Last of Us, I think playing The Last of Us Part II is a natural continuation of the experience. The reverse is also true: if you found tLoU to be too grim then tLoU2 is more of the same. If you’re willing to experience a powerful story and enjoy combat challenges, I think both games are worth playing. If you have time for only one, then I’ll concede that The Last of Us Part II is the better game.
One very minor spoiler that reveals something about me: At one point in the game, Ellie picks up something in a museum… then doesn’t put it back where she found it. From that point on, as far as I was concerned, she deserved everything that happens to her.
Then she does it again. Sometimes a zombie plague is the only just form of punishment.