I've never been particularly interested in being a parent. It's a personal decision that has occasionally put me at odds with my friends and society at large, and maybe one of the biggest reasons that I've never really identified with Joel, the patriarch of the so-called "sad dad" prestige genre that PlayStation has made so famous. It made it more difficult for me to feel The Last of Us' emotional heft, even if I could recognize its excellence on an intellectual level.
The Last of Us Part 2 has changed my perspective somewhat. Viewed through the eyes of his adoptive daughter, Ellie?—a viewpoint that immediately resonates with me?—it's easier to appreciate the tragedy of their relationship; a broken man raising a teen girl who is forced to grow up far too early. It was for that reason, perhaps, that I found myself so much more invested in the sequel, which serves as a kind of emotional bookend to the original game.
In many ways, The Last of Us Part 2 is a reckoning for Joel and Ellie, who are still suffering the fallout of their actions in the first game. It's darker and more brutal this time around; a reflection, perhaps, of the emotional themes its explores and the times that we live in. More broadly, The Last of Us Part 2 is a reckoning for Naughty Dog—a studio constantly under pressure to match its own success, and one that has recently been accused of problematic practices when it comes to severe unhealthy overtime in game development, better known as crunch.
Bearing this in mind, the final product is excellent?—one of the handful of triple-A action games this generation to genuinely gets it emotional hooks into me. I went in wondering whether I ultimately cared very much about Joel and Ellie's arc, and I came out caring very much indeed.
This review contains minor spoilers pertaining to the first two hours of The Last of Us Part 2.
Picking up five years after the original story, it finds Ellie—now a waifish nineteen-year-old sporting an elaborate tattoo—living in Jackson, Wyoming, but seemingly on the outs with Joel. She's a crack shot with a rifle, trusted to handle patrols with a local woman named Dina, with whom she is now in a relationship (as revealed in the original trailer). The world they inhabit is a ruin forever trapped in the past, having been overrun by fungal zombies decades before.
The Last of Us Part 2 begins on a quiet note, with Ellie and Dina hunting Infected while on patrol, and getting up to cute shenanigans in a marijuana growing lab. But the story takes a turn after a brutal attack by the WLF ("Wolves"), a Washington-based militia that controls Seattle, sending Ellie and Dina to the Pacific Northwest in search of revenge.
What follows is an adventure that's often brilliant, with a unique story structure that frequently turns easy assumptions on their head. Its first 10 hours are masterful—a white-knuckle journey through a beautifully rendered post-apocalyptic Seattle crawling with Infected, Wolves, and a cult called the Scars, which is seemingly straight out of Wild Wild Country. It moves seamlessly from one gorgeous location to the next, layering in traversal puzzles that manage to feel organic without ever becoming contrived or monotonous—no mean feat for a game of this type.
Grey, rainy Seattle reflects the overall mood of The Last of Us Part 2, which is grim to say the least. This is a game where bad things happen to people you like, often rather suddenly, giving it a feeling of edgy uncertainty; it feels like anyone can die at any moment. Even when The Last of Us Part 2 starts to drag in the second half, or in one instance straight up rips off Resident Evil, it demands that you keep playing, if only to see who lives and who dies.
Ellie's initial jaunt through Seattle is by far its strongest section, carrying with it a raw and focused emotional edge that's missing in the more melancholy first game. It's apparent from the start that Seattle is in bad shape, dominated as it is by the war between the Wolves and the Scars. With little information to go on, it's easy to write off both groups as your typical video game bad guys: a brutal militia and a crazy cult that exist only to be murdered wholesale. Indeed, it's apparent that's exactly what Naughty Dog wants you to think, as these assumptions help to set up much of what comes after.
The point that The Last of Us Part 2 seeks to make isn't exactly subtle. Revenge, as we discover, is purely destructive, ultimately leading to pointless violence that consumes first people and then whole communities. Even if your revenge quest is successful, someone is just going to come after you so they can have revenge, and on and on until everyone is dead.
It's a theme that Last of Us Part 2 revisits again and again, to an extent that's almost numbing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you. As TV Tropes so memorably puts it, "Some anvils need to be dropped." So many acts of cruelty in this world are fueled by a thirst for revenge; I'm okay with a game that presents people as people, and not merely as some faceless enemy faction that you mow down with a shotgun—though there's still plenty of that, which I'll get to in a moment.
Revenge takes its toll on pretty much everyone in The Last of Us Part 2. Some are basically innocent bystanders who get in Ellie's way and wind up with a knife in the throat, like the poor lookout who just wants to play Hotline Miami. Others suffer the consequences in ways that are less obviously violent, but no less traumatic.
The Last of Us Part 2 is out to deconstruct the blockbuster action-adventure genre, forcing you to confront the fact that you're murdering actual people. It's a worthy ambition for a studio like Naughty Dog, which is famous for making games that revolve around mowing down veritable armies of baddies. It betrays a level of introspection that I hope will be more commonplace as we move into the next generation of consoles.
Yet, The Last of Us Part 2 also can't quite escape the boundaries of the formula that Naughty Dog helped to perfect, especially in the way that it effectively turns Ellie into a super soldier—a killing machine seemingly impervious to bullets who can patch up grievous wounds with a medkit. Violence is pointless and awful, The Last of Us Part 2 says, but here's Ellie nailing enemy soldiers with headshots and stabbing people in the neck.
Ellie is basically a ninja in The Last of Us Part 2, crawling the streets of Seattle with an arsenal strapped to her back. There's a whole crafting system where Ellie can create trip mines, silencers, and molotov cocktails, as well as workbenches where she can upgrade her guns. In the right situation, Ellie can transform into Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, able to somehow wrestle men twice her size.
Ellie's strength and prowess in battle begs belief, not to mention the outrageously high body count. Still, The Last of Us Part 2 manages to maintain a keen sense of danger despite Ellie's power levels, as simply charging out of the grass and engaging will usually get her cut down almost immediately. Ammo is quite limited, and it doesn't take much for a Clicker to get hold of Ellie and start snacking on her neck.
All of this is set against the grey, but nevertheless beautiful, backdrop of post-apocalyptic Seattle, which mixes pounding rain with splashes of bright, vibrant green (there's a reason that all of Seattle's sports teams are so infatuated with what the locals call "rave green"). It's often stunning, such as when Ellie crawls through recognizable locations like the Washington Convention Center and the Seattle Great Wheel. Many of the setpieces take place in expansive multi-level buildings, and yet even without the reassuring presence of a waypoint indicator, I was somehow able to avoid feeling completely lost. Introducing a sense of disorientation without devolving into full-blown frustration is a neat trick that Naughty Dog manages again and again.
What keeps it from surpassing the original and becoming an instant classic is the way that it starts to spin its wheels in the second half, introducing characters who simply don't command the same level of investment as Ellie and Dina. It starts to hit the same beats as the first game, including at least three full museum trips. It does the heavy lifting necessary to make the finale feel impactful—including some rather brilliant twists on the conventional boss battle—but there was a point where I just wanted The Last of Us Part 2 to get on with it. At about 25 to 30 hours in length, The Last of Us Part 2 might be 5 hours too long, which is too bad because its unique structure kind of begs for a second playthrough.
It largely regains its momentum in the final quarter or so, with a finale that's as intense as anything I've experienced in a video game. When all was said and done, I was left feeling emotionally spent, uncertain whether I ever wanted to play a hypothetical The Last of Us Part 3. Together, The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2 tell one complete story; the first game being action, the sequel being reaction. It may not be the the ending that many fans want, but it feels like this story is finished. It's one I won't soon forget.
The Last of Us Part 2 is an outstanding action game; a darker, more introspective follow-up that seeks to challenge the conventions of big-budget action games. In this it's not always successful, but its execution is impeccable, and its story proves an appropriate bookend to the story of Joel and Ellie. In short, it's some of Naughty Dog's best work.