The Last of Us Part II Review - Trauma in a broken world

 

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(Before the review itself, I'd like to talk about controversies that surround the game and its developer Naughty Dog. Earlier this year ex-employees were outspoken about tremendous crunch during an apparently tumultuous development cycle as reported by Kotaku. There is also the still, as of publication, unresolved accusation of sexual harassment against Uncharted 4's Lead MP Designer Robert Cogburn (who left Naughty Dog in 2018) by Former Naughty Dog Environmental Artist David Ballard, as reported at Wccf Tech. You can decide how these stories effect your engagement with the game but they're worth being aware of regardless)

SPOILERS – Some early story beats will be touched on so if you want to know nothing, turn back now


I've written this introduction before I've even started playing because The Last Of Us (now destined to be known as Part I?) is an important game for me. I have a tangled ball of emotions going into this sequel. Excitement but worry and trepidation too.  In a sea of videogames about big damn heroes, Joel and Ellie stood out. Two tough and broken people with no nemesis , no calling, no big story. There's just them, their world and their trauma. Watching them wrestle through, with no easy answers or tidy resolutions, was deeply cathartic. I didn't need a sequel. But I also can't deny the appeal of one. My investment in these characters is significant and what happens to them matters to me. 

I came away thrilled and overwhelmed by The Last of Us Part II, sometimes in spite of what I feel the creators were going for. But reviewing this game isn't simply squaring up how well it delivers on its ambitions. For me, it's whether it adds to the catharsis of the first game. Or whether it takes away.

Part II very delicately brings us back into its post apocalyptic world, ravaged by the cordyceps parasite, four years after the events of the first game. The main menu is silent, devoid of Santaolalla's warm and bittersweet score. We're not immediately told what happened in the intervening years, putting us at a slight remove. Ellie and Joel have settled into a peaceful life as part of the town run by his brother Tommy in Jackson county. An unease is felt in this calm knowing that it won't last but it's so easy to forget while you're there, surrounded by these caring people and their small problems. They're happy, more or less. It feels deserved. While it puts off the incoming conflict, one thing the game doesn't take its time to get into is its queerness. 

Queer At Last

Ellie is a lesbian. Two years ago when THAT trailer was revealed at E3, I was ecstatically messaging back and forth with a friend of mine (both of us gay women and fans of The Last of Us) as we could scarcely believe that yes, the game really was going to go there. Only a couple of months prior I'd written about my modest hopes for the sequel, convinced that her sexuality would get no more than a passing mention. 

Her relationship with her girlfriend Dina is such a big part of this game too and a counterpoint to her partnership with Joel in the first game. Where they were reluctantly forced together, Dina and Ellie choose to take this journey. A surprisingly tender centre for a game of this scope. Alas, it's not really a game about queerness. Questions about how the collapse of society has effected norms and prejudices gets touched upon by queer characters but not nearly as fleshed out as I would have liked. 

No relationship is as fundamental to Ellie or this game like her bond with Joel. The two have grown into their father/daughter dynamic and we get to see plenty of embarrassing Joel dad which, honestly, was pretty funny to see. They're no longer in survival mode and without that pressure, you can see them straining to keep their relationship alive. Joel especially is going all out trying to give Ellie the adolescence she's been denied till now. But the lie he told at the end of the first game hangs over them. Even in their happiest moments you feel the pain that sits between them, unspoken. 

Part II has my deepest admiration for consistently making time for these smaller, character driven moments. Long stretches go by without action or plot and it's such a breath of fresh air.  When Ellie needs to leave their town in Jackson, she plans to sneak out. It would have been easy to use this as an excuse to put in a big stealth set piece. Instead, it subverts that entirely with a quiet moment where Ellie confronts the people stopping her from leaving. It foregoes a “gamey” sequence in favour of what the character's story needs.

Not that these peaceful sequences are always small. The game has a number of expansive, open-world like sections where you can roam and explore. There's an early bit on horseback that struck me with disbelief at how much space was being laid to explore. There are neat little detours to gather supplies but also some of the game's best sequences. A moment where Ellie sits down to play guitar for her girlfriend is up there with my most treasured wee sequences I've played in a game, a defining moment of vulnerability and it's just there as a thing for you to find on your own.

I've always been drawn to post apocalypses and I think The Last of Us is my favourite? The embodiment of everything that draws me to the genre. On paper it's like many others but the details feel true to my experience of neglected places in cities and towns when I was growing up. Suburban streets consumed by the eruption of a pine forest and ferns or the basement of a car park turned into an underground river. They're of a different scale, yet get across that feeling of slow decay. Perhaps as much as the visuals the sound of these spaces sits with me. Matched by the moving score or not, the calming sounds of nature while you stand in an urban space is an evocative contrast.

It certainly hits you hard when you're playing it in the middle of a pandemic. Stories of people ignoring quarantine or visiting ration centres to queue for hours. Others trying to push back against martial law. At one point you find the bodies of soldiers left in charge of the city, shot against a wall. "Sounds like they deserved it" Ellie says. Stories about a viral outbreak are gonna feel close to the bone but this may not be the game you want to play right now. 

Gen QZ

It's different for the game's young characters who have grown up post-outbreak and have never known anything different. While I found myself impressed by their resourcefulness and capability, there's nonetheless something sad about how accustomed to their bleak circumstances they've become. As Ellie and Dina ride down a highway, they worry about being watched. "Think about how well we hide our lookouts" "That's what scares me". When Ellie upgrades her weapons at the workbenches scattered throughout, she takes her guns apart with a bleak proficiency. She's nineteen and being a killer is as natural to her as breathing. It's amazing how accustomed to violence and seeing threats everywhere you can be and by that I mean I do not miss it or envy these characters living it. 

This discomfort fuels much of the game's central conflict. It's not long into the game before a shocking tragedy tears Ellie's peaceful life apart and sets her on a hunt for revenge, taking her to the city of Seattle in the midst of its own turmoil. 

Violence is punctuation in The Last of Us. Where the quiet moments were once an action games way of offering relief, the action here is a disruption to peaceful spaces. It doesn't hold its punches either, the presentation of the violence (much discussed thanks to a sometimes baffling focus on it by the game's marketing) is some of the gnarliest I've seen in a game. As we saw the results of a violent life in Joel's stunted, survivalist, we now see that process as Ellie descends into an ever bloodying mission which she just can't let go of. 

Part II’s cast are terrific across the board, with Stephen A. Chang as Jesse a particular standout, bringing warmth and strength to a new character who could easily have felt disposable. It also finds strength in greater diversity and just the sheer amount of women in the cast,  women of various body types, who get to share so many scenes together. I cannot recall a game of this budget ever like this and god, please, do this more. A lot more. That said, while older women are present in the game, a majority focus is given to paternal figures. What gives? There's a big cast of women in this game and a lot of attention paid to them, so maternal influences seem like a big thing to leave out. Though there's a world best big sister in this game and I'll take that.

Despite the size of its cast, this is Ellie’s game and Ashley Johnson’s work is cut out for her, balancing a character we know and love while growing her into someone else entirely. Her chemistry with Shannon Woodward as Dina lights up every scene they’re together but often it's the moments where Ellie is alone that moved me the most. She is stoic but conflicted and pulled along by trauma against her better instincts. In so many moments you see the survivor’s guilt that is eating at her soul. Performances that can do the heavy lifting are a rare opportunity for games and one Part II seizes, letting much go unspoken. Every relationship and character shown feels like the tip of an iceberg. For all Ellie's ferocity, you can sense the pain and vulnerability beneath. Something that carries over into play. Where Joel lumbered about like a bear, Ellie is a wildcat, lashing out. She can hold her own but her fights are frantic and always won by the skin of her teeth.

Endure And Survive

The first game frustrated many with its ambiguous detection and clumsy shooting but for me they fed into the game's tension. No move or shot ever felt certain. Even as it expands and overhauls its options, Part II retains that feeling. I'm much more drawn to games that are disempowering, that turn you into the underdog and I don't think I've ever played an action game that encapsulates that better.

Because this time you're not up against ragtag bands of desperate bandits. Your foes are organised. 

I hear a bark as the patrol finds the man I'd quietly taken out with an arrow. "Colin!". A sniper spots me as I smash open a window to make a quick escape, the music ramping up into a rattling heartbeat. I jump through only finding another enemy in the way. I hesitate for a split second before sinking my axe into their neck, sprinting off as I hear the dogs closing in. As I stumble into a basement, stun bombs are thrown down the stairs as I load my last bullets. These sequences aren't scripted but sandboxes just a single shot away from descending into chaos, with factions clashing in the wake of your actions. One fuck up and suddenly you're burning through all the resources you'd gathered for the last hour in mere minutes. It's the antithesis of many stealth action games where you carefully observe, tag enemies, plot out routes...here you make one panicked decision after the other and never look back.

The much touted attempts to make your foes seem more real, like calling each other by names (including their dogs who yes, you will murder too) or being aware of when a friend is missing, didn't really inspire a lot of sympathy in me. Truth be told, I never had much hesitation sinking a knife into the neck of my next would-be killer. It did heighten the threat, feeding the illusion I'm being hunted by real, thinking, blood pumping human beings. If the intention was to inspire guilt then it's failed in that mission but personally, that sense of living opponents added a lot to my experience.

For all the humanity that's been added, the game's iconic cordyceps infected have only grown more monstrous. It's a testament to the game's restraint that as novel a zombie as it has they never really take centre stage. Often they're part of the sandbox, present in quiet corners of an area, ready to be drawn to the first sounds of fighting. There are still encounters with them alone, in the darkest corners of the world, where the game becomes out and out survival horror. New types of infected transform them into a much more engaging threat and less an obstacle to be crept around but they still feel like a part of the world rather than a villain. They're a take on the zombie ready to remind us that nature won't just reclaim our world, it'll get us too, kicking and screaming. 

Keep Finding Something To Fight For

It builds on what has come before but its foundations are still a familiar formula, one that Naughty Dog has been refining for well over a decade now. Characters still give you a leg up, enemies will still ambush you with a tackle as you come through a doorway (a trick that gets more than a little well worn by the end of this believe me) and at least one or two floors collapse beneath your feet. These tropes aren't bad exactly, these are the tools they know and they know how to use them well. They also know how to subvert them and there are a couple of inventive surprises to keep fans on their toes. I just wonder how much Naughty Dog can iterate on this formula before they completely exhaust it. 

How well does the formula support this story though? Creative Director Neil Druckmann has repeatedly described the game as being about "unforgivable hate" while writer Halley Gross describes it, more aptly in my mind, as "a story about the cycle of violence". In hand with the game's marketing (which definitely feels needlessly cruel in the way it toys with audience expectation) one of my deepest concerns was that Part II would embrace some grim-dark notions of maturity and abandon the beauty and empathy of the first game. 

Despite all the awful things these people do, the game doesn’t (or mercifully fails to) really judge its characters and left me trying only to understand them. While I felt for some more than others (and there are definitely still villains), I sympathised with a lot of the people in Part II. A huge detour later in the game threatens to derail the game by taking us into new territory with a bigger conflict and even more characters, helping us to see the other side so to speak. It undoubtedly impacts the pacing by going against the story up to that point and throws off its own momentum. Having finished the game, I feel it's a precarious choice but one that ultimately leads to a tremendous pay off.  A couple of contrived moments might've let it down if I weren't so emotionally invested but I was and they're small parts in the game overall. The pacing never quite recovers from this detour but it gives the remainder of the game a context for its final hours to wrestle with messy, uncomfortable feelings. 

If the game is about unforgivable hate, it never seemed to me about giving in to it or chastising those who have it but about the toll it takes. How do you let go of hate when you have to live with the ramifications of what was done to you? And what do you do when the chance to forgive is taken from you? 

Ellie never gets a tidy solution nor easy path to healing (though please, someone get this lassie some therapy). Trauma works in cycles, creating triggers or behaviours that lead us to create new traumas, sometimes pushing away the people we need most. In the struggle to break that cycle there are only mistakes, time and love. There is so much love in this game. It made me smile, it made me laugh. No matter how cruel the world gets Part II shows people trying to make it worth living. Contrasted with its moments of darkness, an emotional roller-coaster barely describes what an overwhelming experience it is. There are so many characters, so many touching scenes, so many unforgettable fights and escapes, the game barely holds itself together as it swerves between plot threads and flashbacks. 

From that chaos The Last of Us Part II emerges rawer than the first, if not as neatly tied together. It’s a game explicitly about trauma. About queerness surviving against the odds. If ever a game felt tailor made for me, this is it. Not that this makes it an easy game to play. There were moments I almost didn't want to continue, dreading where it was going. After nearly twenty hours I had tears and a lot of heartache. But in the end I got catharsis.



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