TIME IS A FLAT CIRCLE: A SPOILER REVIEW OF THE LAST OF US PART II
This review contains spoilers relating to story and events previously hidden in advertising.
No major spoilers are included.
THE LAST OF US PART II has now been out for just under two weeks. During that time, it became the fastest-selling PlayStation exclusive in history; garnered immense praise as one of the best games of its generation, and found itself as a lightning rod for more toxic gamer rage from a small subset of angry young men fearful of change.
Throwing an opinion into the mix at this point feels like a foolhardy effort. Undoubtedly the star rating above will have already sent some into a frenzy before they’ve read a single sentence.
So here’s a spoiler-free recap before we dive into the whole thing: TLOU PART II is a technical marvel, a showcase of what is possible when you throw as much work and suffering as possible into a single product without a care for how big the budget gets. It’s an ambitious and wildly erratic attempt in forcing everything into a single product that overstays its welcome by a solid ten hours or more. But hidden under all the bloat are moments of genuine grace and wonder which remind how good Naughty Dog is at their best. It’s also, for all its faults, a superb addition to the videogame vocabulary as the industry continues to find its voice as an art form.
Some spoilers will be necessary to discuss the game more thoroughly. Arguably, many of these are not actual spoilers but significantly essential plot points that should have been part of the discussion from the word go. Instead, Naughty Dog delivered review copies under strict regulations, which denied critics from discussing over 75% of the finished product. My copy is a retail unit, meaning these restrictions do not apply. This is not to say that I’ll be spoiling everything, but those wanting to go into the finished title completely blind should come back later.
Picking up an intermittent time after the end of the first game, PART II finds the relationship between Joel and Ellie disintegrating fast. As the duo faces an uncertain future in the new society they and Tommy’s brother are building, Ellie realizes that she might never be able to forgive Joel for his actions that potentially doomed the human race. As an unspeakable tragedy shakes the core of their new home years later, Ellie sets off on her own on a quest for revenge that sees her returning to Seattle and the heart of all misery that nearly killed her before.
Continuing THE LAST OF US was always a risky proposition as it’s a game inherently not in need of a sequel. Not that this stopped the hungry fanbase for demanding one, but I don’t think they ever considered just what they were asking in the first place.
The first game ended on a somber, haunting note, which made good on its dystopian setting. The relationship between the two protagonists, built up throughout the Ulyssian road trip across ruined America, was in tatters by the story’s final minutes. Whatever justification players imagined for themselves was a delusion at best. Joel, trying to protect his adopted daughter, turned into a villain, and there was no coming back from it.
PART II picks up some of these pieces, but realizes early how little there’s left to explore. Instead, it shifts perspectives to a new protagonist entirely, a young woman called Abby arriving in Wyoming on her quest for vengeance, one that will bring her on a collision course with Ellie before long.
One of the crucial things Naughty Dog hid with the review embargo is also one of the most important aspects of reviewing PART II. The shared story between the two women, Ellie and Abby. Reminiscent of the narrative style in THE GODFATHER PART II, their experiences mirror and juxtapose one another at every turn. Ellie’s is the far more traditional adventure, complete with Naughty Dog’s quintessential humor and warmth. Conversely, it is Abby’s campaign, which reverses the power dynamic familiar from the first game and forces players to reflect on the nature of violence, that is more interesting. It’s shorter than Ellie’s, at 6 to 10 hours in length depending on the playstyle, but arguably the more poignant and divisive of the two.
It’s a bold take on the material, one hampered by telling two distinctly different stories it believes are the same even when they’re not. Just because Abby’s campaign is a reflection on something we’ve played in the past doesn’t make it compelling on its own. Likewise, just because all-consuming grief like Joel’s pushes Ellie forward, it doesn’t make her actions equally enjoyable in turn. Neil Druckmann, taking over directing duties alone this time around, clearly wants to say something about the cycle of both grace and violence, but loses the plot every time he attempts to tie the two together.
The irony is that the first game already dealt with both of these topics in a far more nuanced way. Every step Joel and Ellie took closer to their destination also drove them further away from any chance of redemption. The ending, which split audiences down the middle, emphasized the futility of Joel’s actions, making his limp justifications feel hollow at the face of their longer-lasting consequences—closing the story with an uncertainty that forced players to consider their part in everything that had happened. PART II ties every aspect of its narrative to that ending and undoes much of the nuance associated with it.
PART II, for all its faults, is a superb addition to the video game vocabulary as the industry continues to find its voice as an art form.
In PART II, Abby rescues a young boy named Lev from a violent cult called The Seraphites, hunting him as a dangerous heretic, born into their society as an ill omen they need to stamp out. It’s not long before we find out that Lev is a trans-man who the cult keeps deadnaming. His crime is not following “the natural order of things”.
We learn startlingly little of him throughout the meager campaign and his part rarely extends beyond his gender. Where the first game took its time in revealing Ellie’s immunity and, eventually, sexuality, PART II can’t wait to drop the reveal as early as it can – and does so in the clunkiest, most obvious way possible. As progressive as the game desires to be, it still fumbles in defining Lev entirely by his gender.
Throw in a war between two warring factions of old-world worshipping cultists and a technologically superior military faction, and there’s more than enough material for the entire experience to feel overstuffed.
I think PART II would be better served as two separate games, one dedicated to each protagonist, released a few months apart like Eastwood’s dual war epics: LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA and FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. Those films, depicting the battle of Iwo Jima from both perspectives, forced audiences to consider the implications of cheering at violence from one point of view while ignoring the justifications of the other side entirely. As an experiment, it’s one of Eastwood’s last times being graceful or subtle and remains one of the new century’s outstanding American films.
But games and films aren’t reviewed for what they could be, only what they are now. As such, PART II remains an ambitious but not altogether successful attempt at this kind of mosaic storytelling.
As an audiovisual experience, PART II is a seminal masterpiece with no comparison.
It looks and sounds unlike anything out there and does on just under decade-old hardware. The animations are breathtaking, often taking into account minor details most games will overlook. A repeating theme in the story is Ellie’s hobby of playing the guitar, and the act allows the player to strum each string of the instrument themselves, right down to a single note.
In just a few weeks from release, players are already releasing incredible videos of themselves playing covers of famous songs in the game.
Character models have natural faults, bruises look real, and clothing has actual texture and depth. Every little thing, even stuff you won’t notice without actually searching for it, has been considered. Items that are entirely superfluous and only eat into the budget and time are in the game. Why? Because it adds to the immersion and because Naughty Dog wants to show everyone they can.
The result makes them the undisputed leaders in their field when delivering technical wizardry unparalleled by any other company.
But more important than visuals are the accessibility options, which likewise are not just the best class, but set a new standard by for all others in the future. No other game in history has done more for making playing possible for everyone regardless of their handicap.
Everything can be adjusted to make the presentation as user-friendly as possible, allowing anyone to experience the story in a way perfect for them. It’s a stunning feat and one impossible to praise enough.
The accessibility settings set a new standard by which all others are judged in the future.
For all its efforts of becoming more like a film, PART II still clings to gameplay tropes so tightly they become a detriment to the full experience.
If you’ve played any other Naughty Dog game, including THE LAST OF US, you’ll be right at home with PART II. While the gameplay has some minor new additions and tweaks in its DNA, the foundation is remarkably (some might say lazily) similar to their prior catalog. The semi-open world design is straight from THE LOST LEGACY, the puzzles a mix between UNCHARTED 4 and the first LAST OF US, and very little feels new or inventive. Ellie can now crawl and swim, something which the game forces you to do often, and the stealth mechanics have been tinkered with to be somewhat less clunky than before.
There’s also a trite dependence on an aged gaming mechanic that feels as dated as it does hackneyed. Every level swamps the player with notes, diaries, and pertinent news articles, each fleshing out the lore and random backstories in bitesize chunks. It’s a development choice I’ve always found trite, and it feels doubly so in an already talky, exposition-heavy game like this. After being forced to follow and listen for tens of minutes at a time, having the story then dump snippets of melodramatic nonsense in your lap is cumbersome.
Another problem is that much of the gameplay itself just isn’t fun anymore. The first LAST OF US had a forward drive that allowed us to forgive the contrived level design because it always felt like we were moving towards something. PART II is cyclical by design, and most of the stages are repeats of each other, with only minor variations in style. Both Abby and Ellie play precisely the same, and both play exactly like Nathan Drake from the UNCHARTED series.
Towards the end, it even becomes more enticing to just run from every fight (something the game luckily allows reasonably often) than stand your ground. Not for any moral reasons or queasiness, but because the combat gets so repetitive and there are so many of these encounters, it just isn’t worth the effort.
The puzzles are repeats of previous Naughty Dog titles, mainly seen in the aforementioned UNCHARTED series. Traversing between places requires a combination of platforming, physics, and minor logic puzzles, none of which are taxing as they are time-consuming. Every level follows the same basic flow, meaning that making fast progress through the game is nearly impossible by design.
While much of the primary experience is heavily scripted and linear, some sections open up for quasi-free exploration. These playing fields are a smorgasbord of hiding spots, ambush points, and great one-on-one combat potential. In terms of pure gameplay experience, they’re easily the highpoint. Avoiding enemies through a combination of stealth and luck is always a thrill, and the solid AI programming creates ample opportunities for wild events at every turn.
A desperate run through abandoned townships and suburbs with dozens of enemies on your trail is an intense thrill rarely replicated in games, yet it’s something that happens only rarely in the full experience. Mainly because a lot of PART II refuses to get out of the way and just let the game be a game.
When that fails, the combat is invigorating and fun. The guns handle well, each with distinct firing patterns, and the melee is cinematic in execution. There are still numerous annoyances inherent to the nature of games in general. Enemies and the player still have health bars, and it’s maddening to fire multiple bullets at a random grunt only for them to keep attacking you. Levels are sometimes split by mini-bosses, each requiring a ton of ammo and physical attacks, which feel like a relic from another era.
THE LAST OF US PART 2 is as intuitive and responsive as possible to allow players to engage in violence at all times. Stealth kills award the player with more items, and nearly all skills have something to do with combat. So when the game then turns around to admonish you for playing in the way it permits, it’s not a philosophical question; it’s a cheap gotcha that carries no weight.
The game doesn’t ask questions about our collective relationship with fictional violence but instead says a lot about the design choices. Whether or not that’s intentional is up for discussion.
Both journeys in PART II are about revenge, and both in equal amounts are also about reacting to it. Ellie and Abby are products of a world no longer reminiscent of ours, and their Old Testament attitudes mirror that harshness. Just as in the first game, where Joel attempted to learn grace through the act of saving a life instead of taking one, forcing Ellie to deal with the immediate fallout of her actions. Namely the brutal slaughter of her enemies, now given faces and names at every turn.
PART II is only opposed to violence when it’s convenient. The gameplay feels exciting and fun when you viscerally and brutally murder people left and right. It even offers multiple scenes with unlimited ammo to take down enemies, both living and dead, on a rollercoaster style rampage. Some levels will even force you to take out everyone in the scene before you’re allowed to continue, while crafty stealth kills will hand out extra ammo and gear.
An example of this comes in NPC interactions: at one point, the last surviving member of a scouting party fell on his knees to beg for mercy. I figured I didn’t want to fight in the first place and tried to leave, only to notice that the gamepad kept resisting any movement away from the NPC. A gravitational pull is there to give the idea that there is no other choice but to kill the begging enemy. When I did manage to pull myself away, the NPC got instantly back on their feet and began to repeat their cycle to hunt and attack the player. Naturally, I responded with a face full of buckshot, only for my party member to admonish me for doing such a thing.
By design, THE LAST OF US is an action shooter with horror elements, which means that any moralizing comes off as self-important and meaningless.
The much-hyped death and violence within the game is nothing that anyone who has played horror shooters hasn’t seen before. Especially those who played the first LAST OF US will be right at home in the grimdark, often excessively and almost humorously gratuitous violence. Shot NPC’s will fall in a dramatic, stylized way of Hollywood movies, and every death is met with a gurgling yelp of pain, followed by other NPC’s screaming a random assortment of names. This is to amplify the theme of the game: violence is bad. It’s so bad that you should feel bad for taking part in it.
You know, taking part in the game you’ve purchased. The one advertised as an action horror game. The game where the director routinely shared videos of cool kills possible in said game. The same game that sees its director share compilations of inventive and graceful combat scenarios on his Twitter feed. The one advertised like this in social media.
Yes. That game. How dare you play it like it’s intended.
There’s an argument to be made that PART II is a perfect example of Ludonarrative dissonance. Even more so than the previous king of this, Naughty Dog’s very own UNCHARTED series. Ellie and Abby both murder scores of NPC’s left and right, yet only those in cutscenes are considered genuinely human. Even as the game wants to discuss the nature of violence, it can’t decide whether or not that argument is about the moral right of killing in the face of certain death – or about us as consumers enjoying questionable acts far removed from their real-life repercussions?
But having it both ways doesn’t work. Making a game filled with combat and then admonishing the players for using those mechanics feels childish. It is inherently dishonest, to begin with – and ironically something that the first game again managed to avoid even as it made the same point.
Everything about PART II feels contradictory. On the one hand, it’s a remarkable feat of engineering, a momentous leap in accessibility for all that single-handedly paves the way for others in this area. It’s an often eloquent and smartly composed discussion on the nature of revenge and loss; one that forces a still very much young and inexperienced industry to have conversations it isn’t ready for just yet.
But at the same time, it’s also equally childish in its depiction of strawman arguments of its own making and clunky in its delivery over topics other games have already broached more concisely. It’s self-indulgent to the point that it actively harms the final experience, and ultimately it’s just not fun to play for long stretches at a time. The entire middle half, about the length of whole games, is a numbing slog that requires immense goodwill from the player to get through. And the final third, which I won’t spoil, will prove just as divisive as the first game, but probably not in the way the developers intended.
Yet, it’s an important stepping stone towards a more eloquent future as the art form matures. PART II is not Schindler’s List, and it never will be. It’s not CHILDREN OF MEN or GODFATHER PART II. It borrows from all of these films and a dozen books, paintings, and more. Because it’s medium composed of everything around it, and that’s what makes it unique. But in its hurry to be taken seriously in a shorthand that is comfortable for the mainstream, PART II loses the way and ignores its origins in turn.
The result is an imperfect game, but an addition to gaming vocabulary we as a culture desperately need.
It’s a building block from a company that has mastered the action-adventure genre (arguably perfecting INDIANA JONES where the film couldn’t), now learning something new.
It will be dissected, argued about, studied, disparaged, and exulted for years to come. Many of those things will be valid; some will be pointless.
It is a game that is entirely worth experiencing simply to say you were there and tried it. Because down the line, it will be the kind of material you reference when talking about future favorites. And in that way, PART II and Druckmann achieve the kind of cinematic legacy they were hoping to find.