Naughty Dog games are a bit divisive, not because of objective quality, but because there are only two extreme camps. There’s the “This game is an undeniable 10/10 masterpiece with absolutely no flaws” camp and the “Naughty Dog games are all pretentious, boring garbage” camp. I am in neither extreme camp though. I think that while certainly safe and a bit full of themselves, Naughty Dog is one of the few AAA developers I can actually rely upon to consistently release a good game every time. Yes, you can say the way they structure and present their efforts is pretentious, but I’m just happy to get to play a modern western AAA game that isn’t a microtransaction filled live-service garbage heap that is a thinly veiled excuse for a company to extract money from people who think buying stupid emotes in games doesn’t make them look like a fucking idiot. That being said, I think the first Last of Us game is really good if not incredibly overrated, and there was so much controversy surrounding The Last of Us II that the already divided camps became even more divided in the lead up to release. I reserved judgement until playing the game and after playing it, I can say that I once again don’t fall into either extreme camp, so if you’re reading this review hoping to validate your opinion of “This is a flawless medium defining masterpiece” or “I’m gonna commit a felony by threatening the developers because they made me play as a minority” then I am not your reviewer.
The LOU II takes place years after the events of the first game, with Ellie angry at Joel because of his lies at the end of the TLOU 1 and she’s just now finally accepting it and forgiving him. Unfortunately, I can’t really get into my complaints or praises of the game without going into spoilers, so if you have been living under a rock for the last 5 months here’s the truncated version of the review: The Last of Us 2 is a beautiful, technical masterpiece of a game. Presentation-wise, it’s hard to expect anything but greatness from Naughty Dog. The soundtrack, voice acting and graphics are some of the best yet, and it’s actually incredible what Naughty Dog was able to achieve on hardware that came out right after I had just graduated high school. The gameplay has massively improved from not just the first one, but also Uncharted 4 which was already a huge upgrade from the PS3 entries.
The stealth feels infinitely better than it did in the first game, and there’s a lot more depth here. Granted, it’s still behind the majority of stealth focused games, and being able to go prone in grass isn’t exactly an impressive thing to add in 2020, but it’s nice. I like that it’s not too hard to hide and lose the enemies so you don’t get that usual stealth game problem where one enemy seeing you means every enemy in the entire world knows exactly where you are. They’ve added cool new zombie types and the gunplay in general feels a lot better than in the past. There’s less boring ladder moving “puzzles” than the first game. The combat still has that visceral weight to it that made the first game so satisfying, and overall, there are a lot cleverer puzzles in this game than its predecessor.
Unfortunately, what isn’t better is the writing, characterization and pacing. Don’t get me wrong, the story and writing are still good, but this game is about 25 hours long whereas most Naughty Dog games are around 10-12 hours. Part of what makes their games so compelling is that tight pacing between action set pieces, gunfights, puzzles and character development, and without that, you really start to notice how annoying the less attractive elements of their games become. While I do like Abby as a new character and the overall idea of telling a dual narrative where you play 2 characters on opposite sides of a conflict is ambitious and interesting, it’s let down because the writing is almost amateurish in how it handles what it’s saying about the cycle of violence and revenge. Well, it’s hard to go any further without spoiling things so this is your warning.
There be spoilers past this point. Do not read past here if you don’t want to be spoiled about the story.
I’m just writing another line so nobody yells at me. That means you people who are just scrolling and pretending to read it.
So, let me quickly run down the story. It’s a few years since the end of the last game and Ellie and Joel had a falling out after Joel lied about his encounter with the Fireflies. Ellie is beginning to forgive him when Abby, who is the daughter of the Fireflies doctor that Joel killed at the end of the first game beats Joel to death. Then, Ellie and her new girlfriend Dina are living in Jackson, Wyoming and want to meet up with Tommy, Joel’s brother to travel to Seattle to get revenge on Abby. You go there, and get into a standoff with Abby where the game flashes back to the start of the first day of the game, but you’re now playing as Abby and seeing her side of the story. There’s also a death cult named the Rattlers who don’t fucking matter to the story at all. Anyway, eventually you square off with Abby again and Ellie decides to spare her life.
Ok, now that we’re done with that, I can get into the nitty gritty of my issues with the plot and the game. The first Last of Us is so compelling to me and a lot of people because you get to see the relationship between Ellie and Joel grow as it happens. This reduces the amount of (And anybody who read my reviews of the Silent Hill series are probably so fucking sick of hearing this word) ludo-narrative dissonance. Because their relationship and chemistry are shown throughout the adventure as the player experiences it themselves, the ending is 10 times more impactful than it would normally be. Even if you don’t agree with Joel’s decision to save Ellie over letting her die and possibly finding something in her immune blood that can help cure the zombie virus, you understand his decision because you know Ellie as a character and you as the player, have experienced the relationship growth with her that Joel has. You can see that Joel is an overprotective, jaded asshole who lost his daughter and wasn’t ready to go through it again. And all of this makes sense with the gameplay because no matter how many people you kill, you believe that Joel would do that because it’s in his character to kill anybody who might threaten himself or his surrogate daughter.
And this is why I didn’t want there to be a sequel, because that ending is perfect, Naughty Dog earned it, and no matter what direction they take the sequel in, you’re going to have trouble retaining that same chemistry and character development given how the first game ends. But of course, Sony has to have their fucking exclusives so here we are. I know a lot of people were really upset when it was leaked that Joel died early on in the game because asking gamers to play as anybody but a ruggedly handsome straight white dude is like asking an underfed stray dog to be a successful nightwatchman at a sausage factory, but I personally was interested to see where the story would go. And where it took me was pretty disappointing.
While I do like the setup for the plot, the problem is that neither of the characters really have a character arc. Abby kind of does, but Ellie is just being boiled down to a trope. She’s a person who does morally questionable things, talks in a low voice and calls everyone a fucker. It’s not a compelling or interesting direction for the character. In addition to this, they’ve gotten rid of the dynamic Ellie and Joel had which was a massive part of the first game’s appeal. Now that it’s gone, you have to replace it with something, and while there are some moments where you get that classic Naughty Dog dialog and banter between characters, Ellie and Dina are too similar to really have any interesting chemistry. It comes off very hypocritical and antithetical to the narrative to have her spare Abby’s life when you just spent the last 20 hours blowing the heads off people in the most grotesque ways the PS4 can handle. I usually hate branching narratives in games, but I think that this story would have benefitted from a system where depending on how the player plays the game, it could change the actions of the characters. For example, if you decide to go in guns blazing and shoot everyone up, then Ellie decides to kill Abby at the end. If you decide to go the pacifist route and mostly sneak around human combat encounters unseen, then she choses to spare her during the climax.
I know people are going to think I’m an insane person for basically saying “The gameplay is really fun but it doesn’t match up with the story so the game isn’t that good.” And you’re right, I am an insane person, but the game is not a light-hearted action adventure romp like Uncharted. Yeah, it’s weird in Uncharted that nobody questions why Nathan Drake indiscriminately kills literally thousands of people, but who cares. It’s a bombastic action game, the enemies are bad, Drake and his friends are good, that’s all that matters. The Last of Us is not a fun adventure story though, it’s a gritty drama about depressing people being angry and sad. I expected the story to assault me over the head with how horrible everyone was since the first one already did that; I did not expect to also be bludgeoned over the head with the point. The game is attempting to say a lot about the nature of violence and revenge, but ends up being nothing more than an emotionally manipulative, unsubtle attempt at telling a story that isn’t unique in a setting that’s hardly original. Like, yeah, I get it, Abby’s dad was good because he saved a fucking zebra that one time and it was rude of Joel to kill him. That doesn’t mean that she’s right in wanting revenge, nor is Ellie right for wanting revenge on Abby. It’s not an interesting narrative at all.
And all that would be fine if the gameplay was amazing but it’s not. It’s certainly good, maybe even great at times, but it doesn’t have the depth of systems or any unique twists in its core gameplay loop to warrant ignoring the story problems when the game is still not as interesting gameplay-wise as Metal Gear Solid 3, which came out in 2004. The game is padded like an insecure teenager’s bra the day of cheerleading tryouts, and without that tight narrative pacing and sharp interactions between characters, the irritating elements of Naughty Dog’s formula begin to become painfully apparent. Like how annoying it is that there’s a ton of walking and talking that could just be in a cutscene, but isn’t because they want to make sure you haven’t fallen asleep. Or how my triangle button may never forgive me for the 4 hours I spent mashing it like a mad man to loot stuff before I realized that auto-looting was an option.
Ok, you can come back now. I’m done spoiling stuff.
The Last of Us Part II is a beautiful game with some amazing visual spectacle and presentation. The gameplay is solid and satisfying enough to entertain, but the weak narrative, character development and pacing just kills the illusion that Naughty Dog games try to sell you on to hide the flaws in their formula. If it was about 6 hours shorter, I would probably recommend it with a lot more enthusiasm, but as it is, I just feel a bit disappointed. The game is fine, but we’ve come to expect a lot more than “fine” from a developer like Naughty Dog. I could have done without playing it to be perfectly honest, but I haven’t done a recent game review since March and the world will probably look like Cyberpunk before Cyberpunk actually comes out so what am I going to do? Review a fun, fulfilling game like Hades?