Naughty Dog have delivered their most brutal, affecting, and profound story to date.
Naughty Dog captured lightning in a bottle with The Last of Us. It was a new IP that was entirely unlike anything they had made before, and yet they handled the task of realizing their vision for it like absolute champions. Not only was The Last of Us a masterpiece of storytelling, world-building, and character development, it was also the rare kind of game that explored all of its themes and ideas as much as it could without milking them, while tying things off in a bold but uniquely conclusive manner. The common wisdom was that a sequel seemed unnecessary.
Most other developers in their position would have opted for a rather boring approach to making a sequel to such a game, delivering something that capitalized on what made the first game so good and avoiding taking any unnecessary risks- and by and large, audiences would have been happy with such an approach. But Naughty Dog have very clearly made The Last of Us Part 2 because they wanted to make it- not because they thought it would sell, or because they wanted to exploit the first game’s ridiculous popularity. The Last of Us Part 2 isn’t afraid to take risks, it’s averse to just doing things its predecessor already did, and it has so much to say- that’s what makes it Naughty Dog’s greatest game to date. For a studio of their caliber, that’s unbelievably high praise.
From the moment it kicks off, The Last of Us Part 2 isn’t afraid to be bold. For a while, it shows us Ellie’s idyllic life in Jackson, while establishing the new friendships she has formed in the four years that have passed, and the toll that the fallout of the first game’s events has taken on Ellie and Joel’s father-daughter relationship. Soon, it upends everything in devastating fashion- and from there, Ellie sets off on a relentless mission of vengeance to the decrepit remains of the city of Seattle.
"The Last of Us Part 2 isn’t afraid to take risks, it’s averse to just doing things its predecessor already did, and it has so much to say- that’s what makes it Naughty Dog’s greatest game to date. For a studio of their caliber, that’s unbelievably high praise."
Like the first game, this is an excellent character study, a deep and unflinching look at Ellie and her evolution – or devolution – throughout the events of the game. But while Joel in The Last of Us was already a man with very few moral boundaries left to cross, in Part 2, we’re watching Ellie cross those boundaries with our own eyes. And she’s doing that not for the sake of survival, but for revenge. As the story progresses and the brutality begins to pile up, you start wondering whether any of this is worth it, and though Ellie is also clearly affected by her own actions, she believes no cost is high enough to get what she wants. Moments where the consequences of Ellie’s rage-fueled actions present themselves hit incredibly hard, and keep ramping up in intensity.
Part 2’s unflinching violence also goes hand-in-hand with a thoroughly complex look at the morality of Ellie’s actions, and those of the people she’s working against, establishing very effectively the fact that in this world, there are no good guys and bad guys. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I can’t talk too much about how the game does that, but I can say this one thing: many stories across media have tried to represent both sides of a brutal conflict in a bid to make audiences feel conflicted about who’s right and who isn’t, but very few have done it as well as The Last of Us Part 2 does.
All of this is, of course, built on the strong foundations of an incredible cast of characters, which features a good mix of returning favourites and new faces, all of whom are brought to life by typically excellent acting performances and strong writing that always knows just how much to say, and what needs to be left unsaid. The Last of Us Part 2’s story is larger in scope than its predecessor was, but it doesn’t forget where its greatest strengths are supposed to lie- in the characters, and the relationships they forge with each other.
"Many stories across media have tried to represent both sides of a brutal conflict in a bid to make audiences feel conflicted about who’s right and who isn’t, but very few have done it as well as The Last of Us Part 2 does."
While The Last of Us Part 2’s storytelling ambitious are hellbent on turning the tables on the first game, in terms of game design, it is very much an iterative sequel. It takes the intense stealth action of its predecessor and builds upon it in smart and excellent ways. The biggest improvement it makes is to the level design, which stands as perhaps one of the game’s greatest strengths. From combat arenas to the exploration-focused areas connecting them, The Last of Us Part 2 is much larger than its predecessor. It’s not open world, obviously, but it always knows just how much freedom to give to players.
Exploration is also deeply engaging, because it relies on more than just covering vast swathes of nothingness to pick up resources. Ellie’s expanded movement options – which allow her to jump, crawl, squeeze through gaps, use ropes, break windows, and more – make every environment a joy to explore. Smart little puzzles peppered throughout these locations challenge you to find ways into areas that seem inaccessible by using those new movement options, and the rewards for doing so are always worth it, whether that’s collectibles and training manuals to unlock new upgrade trees for Ellie, or valuable resources and notes that add new meaning to the game’s world and backstory.
Combat and stealth also benefit greatly from Ellie’s expanded moveset and the larger level design. Combat arenas are littered with tall grass and bushes to crawl through, walls to jump and vault over, gaps to jump across, cracks in walls to squeeze through. Leveraging that level design to stealthily dispatch unsuspecting enemies – or desperately re-enter stealth after you’ve been spotted by foes – feels empowering and rewarding.
"While The Last of Us Part 2’s storytelling ambitious are hellbent on turning the tables on the first game, in terms of game design, it is very much an iterative sequel. It takes the intense stealth action of its predecessor and builds upon it in smart and excellent ways."
What also helps is that enemy AI has seen massive improvements. Human foes communicate with each other to seek Ellie out like a well-oiled machine, making stealth an intense affair where you always have to watch your back and stay on the move, while in open combat, you’re always in danger of getting flanked or rushed, especially if you’re outnumbered. The Infected, meanwhile, are absolutely terrifying foes, and though they feel less emphasized than they did in the first game – especially in the first half – every single one of their appearances is accompanied with overpowering and oppressive dread. Meanwhile, new enemy types such as the noxious cloud-emitting Shamblers and dogs that are always looking to catch Ellie’s scent make things even more intense, constantly keeping you on the edge of your seat.
It’s also worth mentioning that returning Infected types have also seen some noticeable improvements. Clickers are more deadly and vicious, while Runners are even more erratic and sharp-sighted- but it’s the Stalkers that see the biggest improvements. You’d be forgiven for not remembering what Stalkers even are. In the first game, they were in an awkward “neither here nor there” situation- a bridge between Runners and Clickers, neither as fast and erratic as the former, nor nearly as deadly as the latter. In The Last of Us Part 2, they carve out an entirely new and terrifying identity for themselves, hiding in the shadows and in dark corners, and true to their name, jumping out at you when you least suspect it.
The Stalkers are perfectly representative of the much more potent brand of horror The Last of Us Part 2 proudly delivers. Coming up against a pack of the Infected will always make you sweat, and the atmospheric and expertly crafted decayed environments these encounters take place in contribute to that sense of dread greatly. Making smart of use of your resources in these encounters – or even when you come up against human enemies – always feels crucial, thanks to a deadly combination of how vulnerable the game always makes you feel and how effectively it builds up the atmosphere. The Last of Us Part 2, much like its predecessor, strikes the perfect balance between making it seem like you’re running low on everything, and yet have just enough to scrape through. Progression has also been finetuned, and feels much more rewarding than it did in the first game. There are just enough upgrade options for Ellie’s arsenal of weapons and Ellie herself to make you feel like you have control over how she progresses, and tailoring her to fit your ideal play style can be done much more effectively.
"The Last of Us Part 2, much like its predecessor, strikes the perfect balance between making it seem like you’re running low on everything, and yet have just enough to scrape through."
From a visuals perspective, it’s no surprise that The Last of Us Part 2 is a stunning achievement. After years of watching Naughty Dog games achieve incredible visual fidelity, you’d think we would have hit a point of diminishing returns by now, but that’s not the case at all. The Last of Us Part 2 is stuffed full of tiny little details that breathe so much life into its world and characters, the animations are silky smooth to the point of looking like they’re scripted, and the art design brings the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us to life expertly yet again, from the haunting beauty of the overgrown urban cityscapes, to the snow-covered mountains of Jackson, to the flooded and decrepit remains of Seattle.
For a long time after The Last of Us came out, many wondered whether a sequel needed to exist. The answer is a conclusive yes- not only does it need to exist, it deserves to. With The Last of Us Part 2, Naughty Dog have crafted yet another masterpiece of storytelling and game design that will be remembered for years to come. With The Last of Us Part 2, they have captured lightning in a bottle- again.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
A bold, brutal story that isn't afraid to take risks; Ellie shines as a conflicted and complex protagonist; An excellent cast of actors, backed by amazing writing and acting performances; Tense stealth and combat; Enemy AI is devilishly smart, and new enemy types are great additions; A much more potent brand of horror; Great level design that leverages Ellie's expanded movement options perfectly; Engaging and rewarding exploration; Makes smart and meaningful improvements to progression mechanics; Beautiful visuals, thanks to impressive tech and striking art design.
With The Last of Us Part 2, Naughty Dog have crafted yet another masterpiece of storytelling and game design, capturing lightning in a bottle- again.