Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 04/15/2022 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
I clearly remember when The Last of Us first came out on PlayStation 3. It was my junior year of college, and I remember going to Gamestop to pick up my copy as soon as my last class ended that day. I hadn’t seen much about the game, having only recently gotten my PS3, but my roommate, Nick, and our friend, John, had been hyping it up hugely, so I was thoroughly swayed. As soon as I got home with the game and got it installed, I had so many errors and problems just trying to get through the first 20 minutes of the game that I knew my hard drive was in the process of dying. I immediately ran across the street to Staples, bought the first 500 GB hard drive of the right type, and swapped it out that afternoon. I then spent the whole night playing because, from the very first scene of the game, I was hooked. For the past nine years, I’ve said that The Last of Us is one of the greatest masterpieces of the medium. I know that’s a controversial opinion with a lot of folks who think the game is overrated, but I’ve never been that sucked in by writing, voice acting, and top-notch motion capture. For whatever reason, though, I waited a long time before playing The Last of Us Part II, not getting to it until early 2022. It had some big shoes to fill, so maybe I put it off knowing that it wouldn’t be able to live up to my adoration for the first game.
The Last of Us Part II picks up a few years after the first game ended. Ellie and Joel, having completed their journey to the Fireflies, settle in the town of Jackson and live, for the post-apocalypse, pretty peaceful lives. However, Overarching Story Event happens (I’m not going to spoil it for in case – somehow – someone else hasn’t played it and miraculously managed to avoid online spoilers), and Ellie sets off with her girlfriend to hunt down the perpetrators of the aforementioned event. That’s the basic premise of the game. It’s a wholly less intriguing premise, in my opinion, than “kid is immune to the disease that destroyed humanity and sets out to find a doctor who can use her blood to make a vaccine,” but it’s a classic revenge story. The character interactions are once again the highlight of the game, but nothing quite matches up to seeing Joel’s prickly exterior soften towards Ellie in the first game.
The gameplay and combat is what you expect from Naughty Dog – fun and responsive but not stunning in any way. You get a number of skills you can level up by finding vitamin supplements throughout the world, and you can upgrade your guns at workbenches with parts that you find. Ammo is scarce as are the materials used to make bombs and health packs which gives the game a bit of a survival horror feel. While most of the game is more tension than horror, there are some parts like the hospital and some of the apartment buildings that are legitimately straight-up classic Resident Evil style horror. Those were my favorite parts of the game. My least favorite part, honestly, is the last third or so. The game’s perspective shifts about 2/3 of the way through and makes you spend a few hours playing as the antagonist. On the one hand, I have to applaud this choice as it definitely does make the player empathize at least a little bit with the antagonist. This works decently well from a narrative perspective, but it introduces characters that I just found myself wanting to explore more and being left unsatisfied, and it sets up a game-ending that I found completely unsatisfying. The ending isn’t bad, per se, but I absolutely hated it. It didn’t give me a sense of finality, but it also didn’t leave me wanting a third game. Underwhelming is the best word I can think of for that ending, and that’s a shame given how dramatically the game started and how amazing the first game was.
The Last of Us Part II was good. Taken as a whole, I’ll even go as far as to call it great, especially since my problems with the ending are largely my personal taste and not actual bad writing or execution. It’s a major letdown compared to the first game, though. I wholeheartedly reject the online complaints of “It’s too woke!” Yes, the protagonist is openly gay. Yes, there’s an explicitly transgender character in the game. Those aren’t bad things, and they aren’t “forcing diversity” because, like it or not, gay and trans people exist in the real world, so of course, they should exist in our games, too. I loved those aspects. It was the disappointment I felt at the ending and the overall lack of care I felt for some of the philosophical points the game tries to make that let me down. It tries to make the points of “Revenge doesn’t help anything” and “Violence only begets violence,” and I absolutely endorse both of those points, but while the game shows that, it doesn’t make me feel that. I sympathize with some of the antagonist’s friends and companions, but I never actually empathize with them. I kept thinking “Oh, I get why they did that. Now let me butcher them.” Maybe that was the point – that unlikable characters can still have understandable motivations – but it just didn’t do it for me. If you played the first game, I recommend playing this one, but you’re not missing a monumental masterpiece if you skip it, and there’s definitely no reason to play this if you haven’t played or didn’t like the first game.