The Last of Us Part II is a controversial game, having divided gamers and critics across the board. Despite having the largest number of Game of the Year awards as one of the final releases for a generation of gaming, people search for reasons to criticize it, with an overtly negative look matched with harsh criticism towards the cast, crew and fans.
Here, I shall detail exactly why, in my eyes, The Last of Us Part II is the greatest experience of the PS4 generation.
GRAPHICAL ACHIEVEMENTS AND PRESENTATION
On a technical level, the game is a monumental achievement. There are details scattered throughout the environment that help enhance the immersion on a base PS4 and holds up incredibly well even amongst the new generation of consoles, with recent updates allowing for a higher frame rate that, while I personally haven’t been able to experience, has been said to change the game for the better. In the opening of the game, as Joel rides his horse, the sun setting upon the player lays the path for a beautiful environment with grassy plains and a bright glare coming in. The lighting from the trees hitting the overgrown streets allow the player to view the mesmerizing environments once again claimed by nature after the outbreak.
In the snowy winter of the second level, there are even more details to be found, as characters walk across the patches of snow, with horses leaving behind footsteps and tracks. Bumping into the white-covered trees will cause the snow on them to fall to the ground, and the snowy trails will leave behind paths until the storm.
Within the destroyed city of Seattle, skyscrapers remain with broken bridges and floors, left open and wrecked. The aforementioned environments claimed once more by nature are far more relevant and noteworthy here, as plant life grows into buildings and flowing rivers take up what were once roads, as the location is painstakingly recreated from real life. The dark, stormy environments pave the way for fantastic rain and swimming effects, with gorgeous visuals within the arcades and green gas stations.
In the final area of Santa Barbara, the brighter, sunny state of California allows for scenery far from what came before. Plants and grass still grow within houses that have lost floors and windows, while the areas taken over by enemy factions convey a sense of bleakness as the victims suffer under their control. The way each room is illuminated brings a unique feel to the visuals of the game.
The cutscenes scattered throughout the 20+ hours hold some of the most amazing looking details. There are a lot of great visuals all throughout, and they are not to be ignored, holding stunning facial animations and outfit details that blend with the heartless world they reside in.
A lot of the camera angles and parts of the game design are extremely well constructed in guiding you on your path despite there being a multitude of paths to go through. Little hints throughout the game on actions the player must do set up moments in the story later on that create tension and fear. How each and every level is constructed in a way that makes every corridor and hallway feel connected yet leaves you knowing where to go is a monumental feat of game design and construction, for which Naughty Dog deserves commendation.
In terms of the audio quality and presentation of everything I have played, this is, without doubt, the most impressive. The sound of glass bottles breaking as it finds something to shatter it into pieces with surrounding enemies being alerted is absolutely intense. The rain pouring down on the characters as they stand in the storm helps enhance the already impressive immersion. Footsteps and soldiers talking at different distances helps make the player and characters aware of locations and make each encounter suspenseful.
Each performance delivered from each actor is phenomenal, with Ashley Johnson, Laura Bailey, Shannon Woodward, Ian Alexander, Victoria Grace, Jeffrey Pierce and Troy Baker bringing their respective characters to life with beautifully raw emotion, with the two leads, in particular, delivering award-worthy performances.
From the audio quality to the musical score. Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack is a beautiful, haunting collection of musical pieces that aren’t meant to simply stand alone as a separate entity from the game but to enhance the dark feelings of dread and sense of unease found within each dramatic beat. Multiple pieces on the soundtrack help create tension that would be lacking without the heart-pounding masterful usage of banjos and other varied instruments, while Mac Quayle’s contributions to the combat sections are not to be ignored as he more than delivers
on creating a loud, overwhelming background to the action. There are many fantastic moments to be found within the story that I shall get to later, but they would have far less impact if it weren’t for the presence of Santoallala’s masterpiece of a score that carries the emotion of each situation with ease.
A smaller feature for casual gamers yet fun addition for fans are the gameplay modifiers and difficulty options. How customizable each person can craft their experience can lead to disabled players being able to experience the story, but more on that at the end of this piece. Players can help have their own unique experiences with the game, as they give themselves boosters or handicaps, and the addition of the hardest difficulty known as Grounded along with adjustments for Permadeath help make it special.
All that being said, the story of The Last of Us Part II is the most important part of the game. While divisive, it is an often misunderstood masterpiece that somehow seamlessly blends its brutal, unforgiving and relentless story with intense, satisfying and rewarding gameplay that further enhances the first game.
While I could spend the majority of this article focusing on every single plot detail as well as counters to criticisms as I had originally planned, I’d much rather focus on the emotional impact the game has, both in the story and on the players—spoilers from this point on.
A lot of people mistake the game for being loved only by critics, and my experience as a simple fan has shown me otherwise. There are legions of people that truly enjoy this game and others like me who have found it to be the greatest gaming experience. The immersive and depressing world in which our favorite people are nowhere near safe is a unique one in how real it feels despite the large gap separating it from our world.
The message of the game has commonly been falsely cited as being purely about “killing is bad” or “revenge is bad,” but instead focuses on quite the opposite. Throughout the game, Ellie and Abby mow down similarly large numbers of both people and infected for different reasons. Ellie is shown constantly to be consistently putting the people she kills on a platform, labeling them as monsters and killers. Abby is killing Seraphites whom she deems to be insane for their prophet’s actions and showing extreme prejudice and ruthlessness in her statements.
Throughout, both are consistently dehumanizing the threats they face, both doing so until certain points in their journeys. Abby’s point comes very early on her side of the story, as she meets two Seraphite children, Lev and his older and wounded sister Yara, taking it upon herself to protect them. Eventually, she grows close and bonds with these two so much that she risks her life constantly to keep them safe, despite some of it being for naught as Yara gets killed as they make an escape from the Seraphite island after Lev couldn’t bear to leave his mother behind.
Eventually, through her bond with these kids, the message of the game slowly starts to clear up, as her decisions throughout the game felt like real reactions to her environment, and her care for these kids displayed her empathy. Unfortunately, her care for Lev leaves Owen and Mel, two of Abby’s dear friends, back at the Aquarium planning to find the Fireflies, a rebel militia who were also trying to find a way to counteract the virus, where hers and Ellie’s story intertwines once more.
In bits of dialogue, Ellie’s shown to refuse to see her enemies as humans but rather as horrible killers. She refuses to listen to Nora when she gets confronted about the actions of Joel, despite her even mentioning to her pregnant companion, Dina, that he had done a lot even before he had met her as a smuggler, listing off the people they crossed. Her blind rage in search of closure with Joel is what leads her to make her way through Seattle, hunting for those present when Abby brutally murdered her father figure. She continues on with her rampage, not even hesitating to abandon her
friend and Dina’s ex, Jesse, who is also searching for the killers and Joel’s brother, Tommy, just to find Abby, taking her to the Aquarium. There, she kills them both, only to find Mel was pregnant.
This traumatizes Ellie, forcing her to take another look at her actions, her brutal rampage and treatment of those around her. Her group resolves to leave Seattle, preparing to go right until Abby and Lev come in, killing Jesse and shooting out Tommy’s eye. A battle ensues, and before Abby can kill both Ellie and Dina, whom the former say is pregnant, Lev manages to call out to her and pull her out of her blind hatred, sparing them.
The finale of the game leaves irreparable wounds on both sides. In Jackson, Ellie leaves Dina and their child, JJ, to continue on her journey at the insistence of Tommy, unable to let go of her trauma, burdened by PTSD and having constant episodes of remembering how she failed to save Joel. Meanwhile, Abby and Lev are all the way in Santa Barbara, still searching for Fireflies, having bonded, even more, trading in supplies for information. They are able to find the location of a group of Fireflies before suddenly being attacked and kidnapped by a group known as the Rattlers.
Ellie fights through both infected and the Rattlers, getting wounded heavily in the process as well as starting a riot as prisoners of the group escape thanks to her rampage. She finds Abby and Lev at the pillars, beaten, sunburnt and badly weakened, and frees them.
Before they leave, Ellie has a sudden flash of Joel’s bloody corpse and forces Abby to face her, nearly killing her after losing two of her fingers until she realizes how futile it is. With this, she lets Abby and Lev go, heading back to her home.
She sees it empty, Dina and JJ gone, before picking up and failing to play the guitar. Recalling her final conversation with Joel the night before his death, they discuss his actions and how he took the choice to die for a vaccine from her, leaving her life devoid of meaning. Eventually, she states that despite their relationship being strained, she wants to try to forgive him.
Here, the overarching message is laid bare—forgiveness, understanding and empathy. A sadly timely message, as fans of the first attack each other constantly, and people send harmful messages to not just each other, but to those who worked so hard on the game, particularly Laura Bailey and Neil Druckmann. While Laura doesn’t face the brunt of insults and death threats anymore, that has all moved on to Neil, who has been the target of hateful jokes and insults, particularly from one section of the Internet.
The message of empathy is not just perfect for the internet, however, and the game as a whole serves as a fitting reminder of not just ours but our enemies’ humanity. Our homes are populated with ever-present reminders of the hatred within society, from simple arguments and disagreements to death, destruction and war. In tough times like this, people still find reasons to divide, as well as find reasons to discriminate.
The characters go through real emotions yet refuse to see each other as real people, a striking and unfortunately realistic truth -deaths in this mimic death in real life, sometimes brutal, unnecessary, unexpected and painful. The Last of Us Part II delves into the deepest aspects of humanity but also deftly balances it out with messages of hope and the presence of light within the darkness of the world.
One more theme I haven’t quite touched upon is the game’s view of hope, love and meaning. There are so many moments that present lights to distract from the darkness of the surrounding world, from highlights like the first flashback all the way to the entire first aquarium flashback. Where it is most prevalent is in two moments. One moment is right after Yara is killed, where Lev exclaims that it was Abby’s people who killed his sister, but Abby responds with the quote, “You’re my people,” and it’s a subtle messenger of how we are not bound to where we were raised, and how we can form connections outside of our comfort zone, and that in the end, we can fight not just for ourselves, but for others, and that’d be all we need to go on.
Lastly, this is most notably seen in the ending, where Ellie doesn’t quite forgive but starts the process of forgiving Joel. Here, we see that we don’t always agree with the actions of our loved ones, but we have to at least learn to understand and try to mend the bonds broken by their actions and that sometimes, once all is said and done, be able to move on to whatever is next.
The Last of Us Part II is a definitive masterpiece, serving as the ultimate swan song for an entire generation of gaming, bringing on the most uncomfortable aspects of reality into a beautifully real and breathtakingly beautiful experience. No other game has ever dared to make such ambitious and risky narrative decisions, and here, they pay off immensely, with a story quite unlike any other. With a new generation of consoles, one can only help but wonder what else Naughty Dog can deliver after such a beautiful masterpiece, and like the main characters, we can only await what comes next.