What I think of The Last of Us Part II
My personal review of The Last of Us Part II. It might be biased, it's probably wrong, but it's genuinely what I think of the game and how I've been thinking of it these past few days.
So after an intense, drawn out, 25 hours of gameplay, I've finally finished The Last of Us Part II, and I don't know what to say. I really don't. There's a lot of discussion online right now but the general consensus is disgust and hate. "My TLoU story ends at the hospital" "This is just a fanfiction" "Inexcusably bad writing". Then there's the other side of the coin with the early reviews that came out the week prior to it's worldwide release. Metacritic scores in the high nineties, and 10/10s showing up all over the place. Part of me thinks that the reviews you see first have an influence on how critically you think of the game, but who knows. All I know is that I'm going to try and make my review super personal. I can talk about how I felt the game was, and my issues with it, but if you process gameplay differently or think of storytelling in gaming differently, we're going to be at odds. And honestly? That's okay, I just want to have my fresh thoughts in writing.
So if I have to put it all out there with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, it'd have to be a thumbs up. I did enjoy the game, even if its not perfect, and there were times where I felt like I was "missing" something. Like I wanted to have more fun than I was having. I still think it's a good game but it's definitely not for everyone, but I'll talk a bit more on that later.
Let's break it down.
Not much has changed from the gameplay in the original story. Still a lot of stealth combat, with sparse resources and deadly encounters. I'm utter shit at it, but I still found it enjoyable for the most part. The addition of a dodge mechanic is amazing, and I couldn't have guessed how much depth that'd add to human/infected encounters. Besides the combat, you'll be happy to know it has the bog standard 'Go from A to B' Naughty Dog gameplay that'll have you crossing the country with convenient ladders, ropes and ledges. Nothing to turn your nose up at, but it's still pretty lacking for me.
This sort of gameplay has never really been my thing, but The Last of Us franchise has always kept it interesting with the set design and atmosphere. This desolate, ancient post-apocalyptic environment is just something that I will always eat the FUCK up. Most people see it as 'non-gameplay' but scouring rooms for supplies and notes is actually some of the most fun I had in terms of gameplay. There are a lot of neat stories, and interesting conversations the main characters would have when you enter these environments. New characters would ask each other questions, or talk about their settings an it just the exploring feel more pronounced. I was actually taking these characters out of their routine, and into a 'music shop' or 'library'. Not every building was just a big rotting mess with a few bullets laying around.
I don't know if 'Gameplay' is the right subheading for this but in case you're curious this is definitely the best-looking title I've ever seen for the PlayStation 4. It runs smoothly, and looks fantastic both in cutscenes and gameplay. Rain, blood, plants, hair; all of it looks natural and realistic and makes me absolutely hyped for the next-gen of consoles. The visuals are phenomenal, with clickers and stalkers looking somehow even more terrifying than they did in 2013. Their movement, and behavior are honestly next-fucking level. I may be easily impressed, but seeing NPC enemies call out my location (i.e. "behind the sofa", "in the coffee shop", "up on the second floor") had me feeling more tense and immersed than I've felt with any other game in a long time. And even though people are meme-ing on it, I kinda liked how the human enemies would call each other's names out when you killed one. Made it feel more 'human'.
And in case you're curious about the sound design? Still fuckin' bomb. Clickers give me anxiety and the voice acting is probably the gold-standard for video games.
Sadly, that's all I really have to say about gameplay. The atmosphere was great, it looked/sounded amazing, but the combat and 'puzzles' are the majority, and they're just kinda okay. If you've played the first Last of Us, you'll know if you like the gameplay, and hopefully you like it enough to keep yourself slogging through this long ass game to get to the credits. Personally, I think the $80 CAD is justified from the beautiful set pieces and performances alone, especially considering there isn't a new TLoU game coming out every year, but others may disagree since it's a lot of the same for 25+ hours, only changing the guns and upgrades you'll get.
I think a lot of people on both sides of the fence for this game can agree that it definitely has some pacing issues. It seems to establish a pattern early on and repeat it over and over until you see credits roll. Here's the steps to creating a 'chapter' in TLoU2:
- Start by setting a far away building as the goal (make it look different; rounder/taller/shinier)
- Normal gameplay to get to the building (i.e. combat, 'puzzles', getting lost for an hour)
- When you get to it, have a big dramatic reveal/moment
- Big cutscene (lots of story beats and tension)
- Cut to a gameplay flashback (like a walking simulator, lots of dialogue)
- Big cutscene (resolve tension, introduce new far away goal)
- Repeat from Step 1.
And this pattern repeats itself almost 7 or 8 times, in a single playthrough. It definitely is a unique pattern, and I appreciate the departure from barebones linear story telling, but I don't want the only interesting pieces of character development/story to happen in the flash backs. The main story should be able to stand on its own, since jumping from back and forth, with flashbacks in flashbacks is just jarring. I'm sure it can weave some interesting stories in the long run (i.e. adding context to my actions, providing back story for characters) but honestly, it felt like a chore trying to fuck around with generators and enemies when I knew nothing significant was going to happen until I got to 'the big shiny building' that Naughty Dog had me look at 40 minutes ago.
[Spoiler Paragraph] A big issue I take with the pacing is the way that it's split up to tell the 'cohesive' story. It's split up into what I think of as 4 sections. An Introduction, Ellie's Campaign, Abby's Campaign, and then a Conclusion. The Intro, and Conclusion? Excellent pacing, I personally loved it. They jumped back and forth with concurrent stories and I was on the edge of my seat for both. The two girls' campaigns though? Instead of jumping between them, they play one after another, with random flash-backs taking place through out. This decision led to an abrupt, and frankly annoying cliffhanger mid-game, where after 10h of Ellie's campaign, the drama is cut short by a hard cut to the same 10h from Abby's perspective. You, the player, must then fuck with ledges and zombies for the whole 10h (playing as the antagonist), just to see what happens at the big dramatic finale. I guess it was for the 'wow' factor, that you are not in fact 'at the end of the game' but actually only half way through, but it still left a sour taste in my mouth.
It's not really possible to talk about this game without talking about the story. It's a major selling point, and probably the reason why this game has been as successful as it is. The Last of Us was one of largest titles to have been released back in 2013 to feature a compelling, adult story with depth and smart characters. It was refreshing, and important to see that triple-A titles didn't just have to be cover-and-shoot, or big expansive open-worlds; there was a market for good storytelling. No matter how the Last of Us Part II turned out, my expectations were already pretty high going in.
From the 'Gameplay' section, you can probably tell I'm not really a fan of the combat or 'puzzles'. I got lost a lot and didn't care for killing more random humans/zombies. The driving force for me to continue moving forward was to get to the next story moment. There aren't that many games that I would do that for, but what Naughty Dog has done with their character development, and interactions is next-fucking-level. I genuinely feel as though each character had been flushed out (be it through cutscenes, or random dialogue at set pieces) so much so that I was just eager to hear them speak. They felt human and for the most part, their personalities were coming out through the dialogue really well, but sometimes there were hiccups.
There were moments where it felt like some characters did things I wish they hadn't. Like I'd wish I could control what they were doing and make them stop because 'My Ellie wouldn't do that'. I wanted events to play out differently, but since it was a cutscene I was at a loss. But that's not the game we had, and that was never the game we had. And I'm okay with that.
[Spoilers for TLoU and TLoU2 // Start]
In the first game, Joel goes and kills most of the Fireflies in St. Mary's Hospital and murders Marlene in cold blood. I remember for my first playthrough, my initial reaction was totally against it. While I got control Joel's movement and ammo, I didn't get a choice not to shoot the doctor, or not to carry Ellie out of the hospital. It was a game where I didn't get to make all the rules or story decisions, I just control what parts the game lets me. Other games put two or three big ass buttons on screen and ask "What would you like to do?", and the player gets to decide how their story ends, but that wasn't the case. And while I disagreed, I didn't let it affect how I thought of the game -- because the choice was justifiable for that character. It made sense that Joel would do that, even I wouldn't have.
After a few more playthroughs, I'm now way more understanding of Joel's choice, although it really doesn't matter. My point is that I was never a character in the story, Joel was. Ellie was. They are the ones making decisions. So even if Ellie leaves Dina and JJ, or kills a pregnant lady or tortures a begging woman, I can't stop her. I, in all my fucking power, want her to not do that but I can't. And honestly, I think it'd be a worse game if it let me, because what I want to do is different from what Ellie has to do.
A lot of people talk about how the writers used 'cheap' tricks like those listed above to make you 'feel bad', and then go on to 'chastise the player for doing them'. Like Ellie (you) killing Alice (a dog), then showing our antagonist playing fetch with Alice to make us feel like evil people, but I don't think that was their intention. The way I see it, Ellie did what she had to do since her life was at risk, but the game is saying that there is always perspective. Both sides have good people, and have people thinking they're doing what's right, but we don't usually see that in video games.
By the end of Abby's campaign, I genuinely felt conflicted, because while I wanted Ellie to win the fight in the theatre, I knew that Abby's actions were justified. The only reason I was rooting for Ellie was because I'd built up a history with her in first game. Both girls had lost their fathers, and were seeking revenge, and were ultimately good people. Not perfect people, but they both tried to do good by their loved ones, and had people who cared about them. I was having trouble coming up with a compelling argument for why Abby is the 'bad person' that didn't include "well I liked Joel from the first game". The characters are complicated, and intense and seemed to have reasoning for their actions.
You could say Abby is more evil than Ellie, since she took pleasure in torturing Joel, whereas Ellie was in shock after she did the same to Nora. But we know that Joel and Tommy have torture down to science from all their experience prior to the first game. These aren't simple, one-sided people, they all have good/bad. I don't think Naughty Dog was trying to pull the rug out and have a massive twist at the end saying "Oh you though Ellie was the hero, guess again nerd". I think they trying to show how much more complex and broken these people are, and how there is no simple 'A beats B', and everyone cheers.
That being said, there are still obvious flaws in TLoU2 that I wish could be reworked. The awful story pauses and cliffhangers (see the Pacing section), the fact that Joel and Tommy are so trusting of complete strangers, the lack of back story they provide for Abby until halfway through the game, the repetitiveness of it all. It's not a perfect game, but what I loved was that no characters ever took action that they didn't justify beforehand. Ellie wouldn't normally torture, but she was provoked. Abby wouldn't protect a Serephite, but they saved her. Maybe this just comes back around to me loving the characters Naughty Dog build, but all in all, the story was compelling and enjoyed myself.
[Spoilers for TLoU and TLoU2 // End]
I tried to talk through my opinions with this review, and I hope I've sort of done that. If you've played/watched the game and feel strongly in the camp that this game is '0/10', or 'utter trash', I hope this was at least a slight justification as to why someone might enjoy the game. Again, this is just my opinion, there isn't an objective right answer. Will I be getting The Last of Us Part 3 on release? Yes, I probably will. Even if it's not the best gameplay, it's fun enough to keep me interested in the storytelling, and honestly I gobble up the Naughty Dog production quality. Maybe the next story will be utter shit, but looking past the flaws in this one, I still appreciate it, and enjoyed it.
If you actually read this long ass review I'm sure you understand my mixed feelings on the game. Unfortunately I don't wanna do number ratings since I'm not a calculator, so this review ends here. Until next time ✌