‘Last of Us 2’ Review: Play This Harrowing Experience, No Matter How Much It Hurts

     June 19, 2020

last-of-us-2-review-slice[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II. For more of our coverage, be sure to check out our beginner’s tips & tricks here, the list of trophies, and a full-on spoiler rundown here.]

The Last of Us: Part II is as close as you can get to a perfect game. The Naughty Dog sequel’s shortcomings are purely subjective: Some pacing issues with the ever-unpredictable narrative, the illusion of choice in what is a very purposeful and morality-driven story, enemies who aren’t quite as smart as they were touted to be, and, a personal nitpick, the lack of a HUD, compass, or mapping system, which frustrated my desire to 100% every area. But that’s it. Everything else about The Last of Us: Part II is superlative. From the incredible, soul-crushing story from Neil Druckmann and co-writer Halley Wegryn Gross, to the detailed and lifelike character designs and animations, the crisp and customizable combat system, the variety and real-world feel of jaw-droppingly gorgeous settings, the awards-worthy voice / motion-capture performances across the board, the pared down yet haunting musical score, and the informative and at times infuriating sound design … this is as good as it gets.

The Last of Us: Part II is an absolute lock for a Game of the Year nomination. In my opinion, it’s already the best game of the year halfway through 2020 and should be in the conversation for the best game of the last decade.

Now that decade has certainly seen some gems; 2013’s original The Last of Us being among them. This sequel surpasses even that award-winning title in every way. It’s not just the vast leap forward in technological innovations that Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment have been able to take advantage of seven years later, they’ve also embraced a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, at-times blood-chilling narrative that truly earns the Mature rating in every sense of the word. It’s why co-director Kurt Margenau told Wired that, in The Last of Us: Part II, “Real life is the bar. The Last of Us was a baby game for babies.”

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

You quite honestly are not ready for everything this game is about to throw at you. Over 30-odd hours of a brutal revenge quest layered with loving relationships, crushing losses, and angsty, weighty, life-or-death decisions … it’s enough to send anyone into therapy. As excited as I had been for a sequel since playing the original, the 2017 reveal footage felt overly brutal to me, and every subsequent bit of marketing touted the game as glorifying in vengeance, bloody murder carried out in an intimate way over and over again, and plumbing the depths of human atrocities in Ultra HD. Add to this the fact that 2020 has just been The Worst, what with a global pandemic, economic collapse, and civil unrest, and … yeah. This game did not feel like it was going to offer escapism and was, admittedly, difficult for me to push play at the beginning, knowing the bloody road that lies ahead. 30 hours later, I’m so glad I did.

Perhaps The Last of Us: Part II will act as a sort of catharsis for folks struggling with this increasingly maddening real world of ours, much like the original did. Its plot certainly feels plucked from the headlines and heightened just enough to verge into science-fiction, barely. It picks up a few years after the original, but not much has changed: The post-apocalyptic world is still in the grip of a deadly parasitic fungus that kills, mutates, and monsterizes otherwise normal humans (and yes, all your favorite baddies are back, from Runners, to Stalkers, to Clickers … plus the new abomination that is the Stage 6 infected…). The exception to this rule is Ellie, the lone human who has an innate immunity to the disease.

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

And, of course, Ellie’s condition was the driving force behind the original story in which Joel, a member of the Firefly faction, escorted her across a ravaged American countryside in the hope of finding a cure. What we found, as players, was a surrogate father-daughter relationship that ultimately saw Joel committing murder on an epic scale, not just of his fellow soldiers, medical personnel, and civilians within the Firefly group, but on a species level, by depriving the human race of a cure for the apocalyptic disease as he saved Ellie from certain death. The Last of Us: Part II honors that storytelling decision and never looks back, except to add more context, more depth, and an incredible amount of complexity to it. Ellie has grown and matured, her relationship with Joel has changed (for better or worse), and her romantic relationships are refreshingly and progressively bold, either in her world or our own, but the remaining humans struggling to eke out survival every day have not forgotten that a cure was once within their grasp, and that one man took it upon himself to deny humanity that miracle.

What other gaming experience offers that level of “Holy shit, this is heavy” storytelling? They’re few and far between, and I’d be willing to argue that The Last of Us: Part II does it better than any of them. You will absolutely become one with these characters, even the ones you hate with every fiber of your being. That’s expert storytelling. It allows us as players, as human beings, to not only empathize with their hurt, their joy, their hopes and dreams, but to understand or at least rationalize the extremes to which they’ll go to achieve their goals, whatever they may be. And that empathy is not just restricted to our protagonist, but includes “enemies” as well.

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

The Last of Us: Part II obviously embodies and delivers everything the original title was about, and you’ll get a little bit of the modern Tomb Raider and even Red Dead Redemption 2 along the way, but what it does better than anything is humanize the antagonists. To namedrop another Naughty Dog title, I never really got into the Uncharted franchise simply because of the scores of nameless, faceless “Bad Guys” you mowed down with reckless abandon; Nathan Drake was basically a puzzle-solving, rock-climbing, mass murderer and we, as gamers, were supposed to celebrate that. The Last of Us: Part II is a sea change for this approach. Every enemy has a name, a backstory, people who know and love and miss them. And I do mean every enemy. Keep in mind that even the Infected were humans once — there’s an ungodly amount of lore scattered around the world that tells some of their individual stories and, without exception, they are haunting. Remember that the dogs who pursue you have handlers, trainers, and owners who love them, give them head scritches and play fetch. The Last of Us: Part II puts the weight of the decision to kill each and every enemy — Infected, human, dog, etc. — squarely on your shoulders (and your conscience … and my therapy bill) as a player. You can stealth around and sneak by (almost) everyone and everything through the excellent movement mechanics, but it will come at a cost. You have to decide what kind of player you want to be, and the game’s narrative reminds you of your actions at almost every level.

If this review sounds rather vague, it’s because it’s intended to be; The Last of Us: Part II is more than just a game, it’s an experience, a journey that needs to be undertaken by individuals. I’d hate to deprive you of the story’s surprises that wait for you. (Don’t worry, we’ll have a full-on spoiler review and explainer for you when the game hits on Friday, June 19th.) But I can say that this game is not at all what you’re expecting, it’s so much more, perhaps more than you can even imagine right now. It certainly was for me. I thought the game was approaching its natural conclusion at about the 15-hour mark … before devoting another 15 hours to one of the most immersive, intense, tear-jerking, and chilling experiences I’ve had in a long, long time. To reiterate: You are not ready.

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Image via Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Ultimately, The Last of Us: Part II is more than a story of revenge. It’s more than a story of love and friendship, of duty and honor, of responsibility and forgiveness. It’s a story of what it means to be human, albeit one that’s more focused on the horrors we’re capable of rather than the good we can do. And there are so many horrors. There were more times than I can count in this game where I said out loud to myself, “I do not want to do this,” not because I was bored or tired, but because the connection to these characters was so complete that I did not want to put them through the events that the game — the world, really — was forcing them to experience. So kudos to the creative team for coming up with these evils (I hope you’re all in therapy), and humanity be damned if we continue to carry out similar actions in this real world of ours.

In the end, like our protagonists, you have to ask yourself just what kind of person you want to be. What’s it worth to you to achieve your goals? Who are you willing to step over or push through or mow down along the way? And if a long, interconnected and self-fulfilling string of vengeance continues to run its course, will you tie that next bloody knot, or sever the string entirely and be the first to extend a hand in forgiveness? That’s the deeply philosophical but also critically important and practical question the story explores. The Last of Us: Part II is much more than a game, it’s an unprecedented experience in empathy that everyone should play, even if it hurts a lot along the way.

Rating: A

Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Games, Animation, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD

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