The Last of Us 2 Review: Emotional Scars
True to their marketing efforts, Naughty Dog has delivered a game focused on a tale of revenge above all else. At least, from the frame that it's what drives the characters for the majority of the plot. However, The Last of Us 2 turns into something far more complex and relatable by the end. It turns into a story about bonds.
We witness just how far characters are willing to go for the bonds they cherish so deeply, and we learn it's not always easy to forgive and forget. In fact, it can feel impossible sometimes.
The Last of Us 2 tackles that sentiment head-on. The journey to the end of its narrative is no doubt impactful in many areas, but some missteps along the way prevent those bright spots from connecting to each other as smoothly as they should.
Note: This is a non-spoiler review for The Last of Us 2.
The Last of Us 2 Review: Emotional Scars
The Last of Us 2 picks up about five years after The Last of Us. Joel and Ellie are now living in the thriving community of Jackson, Wyoming, along with Tommy and Maria.
The game's intro, set in a peaceful, thriving settlement, is full of wholesome moments that you wish could last forever. Joel visiting Ellie to share a dad joke and playing a Pearl Jam song for her are moments I didn't know I wanted to see, but immediately fell in love with.
These interactions between the two are the ones that players will undoubtedly connect with the most, especially those who have played the first game. This is a sequel that contains plenty of wonderful interactions sprinkled throughout its 25- to 30-hour length, some as flashbacks showing life just after The Last of Us concludes. But as we all know, peace doesn't last in the post-apocalypse. That's just the way it goes.
Ellie's relationship with Joel is what drives her on her journey. It's the most fully-realized connection in The Last of Us 2, with many other characters tending to fall a bit flat by comparison.
It's hard to get emotionally attached to characters whose backstories are presented through journal entries or random bits of dialog. This is doubly true for Dina and Jesse, both of whom have known Ellie for years and whose backstories we don't get to see much of at all.
A large chunk of The Last of Us 2 takes place over the course of three days in Seattle, Washington, during which Ellie goes to great lengths to achieve her main goal. Her mind is set on killing her enemies in the name of revenge, but at what cost?
The Last of Us 2 demands that you analyze your actions as both main and secondary characters die in visceral ways. There are repercussions for your actions, and they don’t simply happen in a gameplay sequence just to be forgotten about later. They're integral to the overall story.
As expected, Ellie's actions sometimes end up harming her both physically and mentally. It's in those moments that the game truly shines. Seeing Ellie's internal and external struggles, and how they affect those around her, makes you contemplate whether or not this tale of revenge is worth it at all.
In many ways, the theme of The Last of Us 2 is more than just "revenge is bad." The main characters are flawed people facing real problems by honoring their loved ones in the only ways that they know how. The game handles the concept in heartbreaking ways, continuously putting you into morally ambiguous situations where right and wrong collide.
Because of the game's stunning framing and beautiful presentation, these moments of grey are gripping and hard to forget, made more commanding by the performances of Ashley Johnson, Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Shannon Woodward, Stephen Chang, and Jeffrey Pierce.
In a brave move, The Last of Us 2 eventually shifts away from Ellie's tale of vengeance, providing another perspective on the game's narrative. While this decision creates an interesting new layer for the game's events, its implementation is questionable because of its placement within the overarching narrative.
The plot's momentum grinds to a halt a few times throughout The Last of Us 2, and the perspective switch is one such place. Though the shift is mostly enjoyable and contains some of the best gameplay moments in TLoU2, its poor timing and lengthy nature undermine its impact, disrupting the overall pacing and structure of the game.
Though you'll still find the post-apocalyptic standard shotguns, bows, handguns, and rifles — weapons you'd expect to use as you clear areas of either infected or other humans — The Last of Us 2 improves upon the gameplay found in the original.
Both humans and infected have better tactics this time around. Infected Stalkers regularly try to silently corner you, while attack dogs aid humans by sniffing out your position. Sometimes you're forced to move from cover to cover quickly to avoid getting caught, making combat more dynamic.
The well-designed environments facilitate this new style of gameplay. Lots of waist-high cover still exists, but it feels far less random because of how Seattle's environments are set up.
The Last of Us 2's Seattle is constantly rainy and sinking, with overgrown plant life and rubble around every corner. Avoiding enemy sightlines by slipping through cracks in walls, swimming through water, and crawling through tall grass never gets old. Using the terrain to quietly outsmart enemies is genuinely satisfying in almost every encounter.
Going loud means you'll often waste much-needed supplies that are hard to get back. It also means that confrontations are a lot more gruesome. The game's mix of realistic violence and high-quality graphics is not for the faint of heart. Screams literally echo through the game's meandering levels as limbs fly from bodies.
Stealth, on the other hand, allows you to figure out the best approaches for various situations — it feels good not being seen or heard at all. It also cuts down on the scavenging the game urges you to do at almost every turn.
Though scavenging makes sense within the world and the setting, searching for supplies outside of combat still feels like a chore because of how open and vast some of the locations are in The Last of Us 2.
It's not just one closed-off street you'll explore, but entire city blocks. Not only do these huge zones affect the pacing of the game, but the fear of missing out on new guns and useful upgrades will have you going building to building picking up supplies for far too long, most notably in the earlier sections of the game.
Issues with scavenging are made more prominent by generally uninteresting character upgrades, with skill trees full of Listening Mode improvements, health increases, and various crafting bonuses.
They're useful skills depending on your playstyle, but they're not practical enough to make scavenging feel worthwhile or rewarding. I can't help but feel there could have been a better way to implement skill trees outside of collecting random, hidden pills and pill bottles, especially since it's impossible to max out every skill tree in one playthrough.
The Last of Us 2 Review — The Bottom Line
- Beautiful character moments and arcs
- Outstanding performances
- Beyond impressive presentation
- Great environments provide plenty of options in combat
- Some new characters feel flat and uninteresting
- Pacing issues grind the plot to a crawl at times
- Tedious scavenging for mostly unexciting skill trees and upgrades
The Last of Us 2 does so many things right, from its engaging story beats to its eye-catching level design. But at the same time, there are more than a few things that Naughty Dog could've, and possibly should've, handled differently.
The character interactions and moments of individual growth shown throughout the narrative are some of my favorites in recent memory. The bonds on display are so believably strong that, when they're severed, getting revenge is understandably the only option left.
That's what makes it so moving to see characters struggling to progress past devastating moments in order to ultimately find internal peace. It's just unfortunate that some poor implementation of intriguing ideas and slow pacing are often wedged between those spectacular moments.
[Note: The reviewer purchased the copy of The Last of Us 2 used in this review.]