It's a hell of a time to be reviewing The Last of Us Part 2, isn't it? People are once again in the streets protesting police brutality; the pandemic is still raging, and our version of escapism is one where a 19-year-old girl is forced to cave in heads with a sledgehammer in order to survive.
Suffice it to say, wandering around the Seattle Quarantine Zone feels a little different when you've been under lockdown yourself for the past couple months. We've had a million visions of the apocalypse over the past 20 years, The Last of Us included. Well here we are. We're living it.
Anyway, yes, I'm playing the final review version of The Last of Us Part 2 right now, and yes, even with the crunch and the leaks and everything else, it's a very good game (at least so far). That said, playing it has also kind of been a surreal experience, for the reasons mentioned above.
To recap, The Last of Us Part 2 finds a now nineteen-year-old Ellie making her way to Seattle, which is overrun with infected humans, cultists, and a militia calling itself the Washington Liberation Front. The city is ruined and overgrown, with pine trees popping up near the remnants of the Washington State Convention Center, and a rushing river running right down the middle of the downtown area. The remains of the government's failed quarantine are everywhere, among them WLF flyers encouraging citiziens to "bare their fangs" against the occupying forces trying to quell the fungal pandemic.
Naughty Dog's marvelously rendered vision of post-apocalyptic Seattle is a familiar one, but it lands a bit differently this time around. Seeing Seattle's military checkpoints instantly makes me think of similar checkpoints in countries like South Korea, where you have to undergo intense testing simply to enter the country. Advertisements and signage throughout Last of Us Part 2 freeze its version of Seattle in the latter part of 2013, while in the real-world, many schools and bars still have advertisements up from St. Patrick's Day. The WLF bring to mind the quarantine protesters who descended on state capitals earlier this month, egged on by memes, bots, and the White House. It's funny to think of how trite this all felt before 2020, and how urgently real it feels now.
This brings me to Animal Crossing, probably 2020's biggest game to this point. Like Last of Us Part 2, Animal Crossing begs to be read through the lens of the pandemic. But where Last of Us Part 2 is our current world taken to the extreme, Animal Crossing is pure escapism.
As Senior Editor Caty McCarthy wrote in our Starting Screen column shortly before Animal Crossing's release, "Across headlines and social media, I kept seeing the same ol' refrain: Animal Crossing is the game we need right now. I can't fault them either. In more ways than one, it is. In a time where CDC is urging everyone to practice social distancing, a game about living within a tight knit community like Animal Crossing is what we need right now."
Indeed, as 2020 has lurched from one crisis to another, it's been reassuring to have Isabelle tell me every day that there's no news, but that she's been watching a really good TV show. Man, to live in a world with no news, but lots of really good documentaries.
It goes without say that the whiplash of going from Animal Crossing to The Last of Us Part 2 has been... intense. I've taken to referring to The Last of Us Part 2 as my "stab people in the face game," because, well, Ellie spends a good deal of time stabbing people in the face. Or the neck. Or shooting them in the face with a shotgun.
Ultra-violence has been a staple of The Last of Us experience going back to its famous reveal at E3 2012, and The Last of Us Part 2 amplifies that element accordingly. I don't feel like I'm even that far into the story, but I've already seen a guy get his entrails ritualistically ripped out of his belly, among other gruesome scenes. I've lost count of the number of ways Ellie has met her fate: shot, stabbed, throat ripped out by a dog, melted by acid spores (the new Infected type, the Shambler, is kind of a bastard).
Set against everything happening in the real world right now, it might seem a bit much. But here's the funny thing: I find myself enthralled by it. I've heard it said more than once that violent games can be an outlet for real-world frustrations, and I can't deny that it's been cathartic bashing hapless Infected with axes and baseball bats. The real-world parallels make the raw satisfaction of battling the WLF all the more acute.
It's helped by the deep sympathy I have for Ellie, who by The Last of Us Part 2 is a seasoned killer who is mature beyond her years, but also still very much a teenager. Her story is told both in her journey through Seattle and through flashbacks, which help to fill in some of the gaps from the five years that have elapsed between the original game and the sequel. Naughty Dog has said that one of its main goals for The Last of Us Part 2's combat was to heighten the sense of vulnerability, and playing as a nineteen-year-old girl fighting multiple armies alone certainly does that. It's a very different feeling compared to playing as Joel, who played the role of world-weary and protective adopted father in the first game. In The Last of Us 2, Ellie is all grown up.
I doubt that I'll be the first person to take note of The Last of Us Part 2's parallels with the real world. The comparisons are obvious.
Nevertheless, I can't help but be struck by the contrast between Animal Crossing and The Last of Us Part 2, if only because both games have been so much on my mind. On one end of the spectrum, we have the endlessly cheerful and wholesome Animal Crossing; on the other, the grim and rather violent Last of Us. One game wants us to forget about the apocalypse; the other is steeped in it. Everyone always says Animal Crossing was the perfect game for that moment in time. I'd argue that Last of Us Part 2 is much the same, just in a very different, way more intense way.
Granted, it's not all grim. The Last of Us Part 2 is full of beautiful moments, like when Ellie finds herself walking alone, surrounded by the rich green and grey tapestry of post-apocalyptic Seattle. In typical Naughty Dog fashion, the action sequences are extremely impressive, but it's the quiet moments that I like best. It's these areas where its world really comes alive.
So when I say that The Last of Us Part 2 is the "dark counterpart" to Animal Crossing, I don't just mean that it's violent, or that it bears a greater resemblance to our blighted reality. I mean that it can be every bit as beautiful; every bit as emotional, and every bit as much of a cathartic escape.
In any case, I'll have more thoughts when my review drops on June 12, so stay tuned. The full game will be on June 19.