‘The Last of Us Part II’ (PS4) review: Violent shades of gray

‘Last of Us’ sequel a draining, traumatic, searing masterpiece

If a video game could ever be considered a Rorschach test, then “The Last of Us Part II” would be it. A highly anticipated sequel to one of the most acclaimed video games of all time deluged by vitriolic, pre-release criticism of social-justice pandering, “Part II” had staunch critics and defenders weeks before anyone outside of development even had a chance to pre-install it to their PlayStation 4s, much less play the game proper.

But a little background first: The first “The Last of Us” released exclusively on the PlayStation 3 in 2013 (it then came to the PS4, which hit the market in 2014 — read the review for the remastered version here). The game, developed by Naughty Dog (of “Uncharted” fame), was instantly met with rave reviews from critics and players alike. A tale of human connection amid a global pandemic (sound familiar?) that left the world in ruin and infested with “zombies” and hostile survivors, “TLoU” pulled bits and pieces from well-trodden genres and established game mechanics to create something truly special. “TLoU” was a seminal experience, a master class in story-driving gaming that didn’t skimp on the action, suspense and thrills — or forget to make a game that’s enjoyable to play.

In essence, “TLoU” was so much more than the sum of its parts — and it left an indelible mark on many of those who played it. So, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that fans of the first game would feel protective of any possible sequel.

And then came the leaks.

In late April, major spoilers for “Part II” hits the internet, and the backlash was instantaneous — and beyond vicious. Without going into detail, the leaks showed hours of potential major plot elements, including a major character’s death. “Part II” already was facing criticism from certain corners for further exploring LGBT relationships (a continuation from “Left Behind,” a DLC for the first game), but what followed bordered on unhinged. It was clear the leaks lacked significant context and, while possibly showing major revelations, were obviously cherry-picked.

But that didn’t seem to matter. The hatred that followed — which, funny enough, is a major theme of “Part II” — had metastasized; within hours of release, scathing “reviews” were flooding aggregate site Metacritic (a near-impossibility for most players, considering the game takes about two dozen hours your first time through). Just as obvious that the leaks didn’t tell the whole story, neither did those “reviews” — in fact, they mostly read as angry screeds against a major title having the audacity to possibly explore themes other than “good guy shoots bad guy, saves day.”

Because, after the 27 hours it took me to get through “Part II” (with plenty of exploring and resource-scrounging along the way), I can say this: “The Last of Us Part II” is a masterpiece, but in a very different sense than its predecessor. “TLoU” was no fragile flower — it wasn’t afraid to show how the desperation of those surviving in a broken world can be used to justify just about anything. But “Part II” takes those themes and strips away even the strained veneer of morality that coated them. In “Part II,” it’s not about connections made, it’s about connections broken — and how love can quickly, violently, ruinously turn to hatred.

It’s not just zombie-like mutants that threaten Ellie in “The Last of Us Part II.” (Photo credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Into the fray

“Part II” kicks off five years after the events of “TLoU,” in which protagonist Joel prevents his ward, Ellie (again voiced by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, respectively), from being killed during a surgical experiment that might have saved the remnants of humanity from a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus that turns people into horrifying zombie-like monsters. Much happened during Joel and Ellie’s journey in the first game, but it that final sequence, in which Joel makes a critical decision, that colors all of “Part II.”

The two of them have found refuge in the relatively safe community of Jackson, Wyoming, though said tranquility lasts about two hours before everything goes to hell. Once the dust settles, you embark on one of the most vengeful, bloodthirsty, soul-shattering revenge quests I’ve ever experienced in a video game; we’re talking “John Wick” levels of violence and “Kill Bill” levels of revenge-seeking — or maybe it’s the other way around?

But it’s made all the more overwhelming because you play half the game as a character you’ll probably hate. And I don’t mean that the character — Abby (voiced by Laura Bailey), a former member of the Fireflies, the non-infected antagonists of the first game — is poorly created in any particular way. But no matter how the game tries to make you sympathize with her quest, no matter how it rationalizes, no matter how it justifies, it never eased the rage I felt toward her — and that rage only grew deeper as her section progressed (which I won’t get into because, you know, spoilers).

The weirdest part? I can’t tell if that’s what the game intended. Playing as Ellie felt like the natural follow-up after “TLoU” and “Left Behind.” I was OK playing as her, no matter how stark and desolate her journey would become. But playing as Abby? I still can’t fathom a way I would ever feel pity for her after having played the first game. It’s infuriating and upsetting, and I’ll be the first to say I came this close to being able to create a montage reel of all her death sequences.

The entire experience is draining and caustic. And it doesn’t help that no one can seem to learn a lesson. Joel never learns that some secrets aren’t worth keeping. Ellie never learns that revenge is not the same thing as justice. Abby never learns … well, she doesn’t care enough about the consequences of her actions to think she has to learn anything from them. It’s no wonder that by the time everything is said and done, no one comes out unscathed.

But in between these depressing and rage-inducing revenge quests are some of the best flashback sequences I’ve ever seen in any medium. Multiple times throughout my time in “Part II” I would say, “Oh, X person doesn’t know about this!” or “I don’t understand X motive!” only for the game to brilliantly reveal the answers to my questions. No matter how it was stitched together, the final product — a breathtaking weaving of major plot points both past and present to tell a tale of love and hatred — is nothing short of masterful.

Which just goes back to a previous point: All that pre-release criticism? It didn’t amount to much after playing the game in its entirety. Was I happy with every decision, particularly the slightly shoehorned-in LGBT threads? No. (And for the record, that’s because while I feel Ellie’s same-sex relationship added depth to her character, the introduction of a transgender character later in the story came off as slightly pandering and unnecessary.) But that’s OK. Naughty Dog had a story it wanted to tell, and it did so in perfect execution.

Abby is a tough character to love in “The Last of Us Part II.” (Photo credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Sounds of death

Every step along this depressing, blood-stained journey, you’re going to experience stunning visuals and arresting audio. From the snow-covered Jackson and lush, nature-reclaimed vistas of a post-humanity Seattle to the nightmare-inducing screeches of the infected and the tragically lovely strums of the guitar, every aspect of “Part II” is soaked in stunning detail. It’s on par with other visual heavy-hitters on the PS4 like “Horizon: Zero Dawn” and “God of War.” That kind of attention to detail is necessary in any game, but it matters even more in a game that, at its core, is story-driven survival horror, where audio and visual design play such a key role in maintaining the atmosphere.

Mechanics-wise, those who played the first game will find many of the same systems here. Crafting and resource-hunting return as important ways to equip and upgrade yourself. (I won more than one major skirmish by throwing firebomb bottles in an enemy’s face.) Combat plays out in much the same way as “TLoU”: You’re going to want to stealth kill as many enemies as possible and then whip out the guns/explosives to clean up if you get spotted along the way. Speaking of stealth: It’s your best friend in “Part II.” Being reckless rarely pays off, and you tend to use way more of your precious resources going in guns a-blazin’.

And you need to horde those resources because you’re going to get into a lot of confrontations. Far too many, to be honest. “Part II’s” greatest sin is its far-too-long play time. Ellie’s section didn’t feel stretched because I didn’t realize just how long I was going to be playing as Abby; they get about the same amount of time on screen, and it’s just too much. There’s simply too many battles against infected and unhappy human alike. The entire game could have been cut by about eight hours, split more or less evenly, and it would have been a tighter, even more enticing experience.

But hey, those encounters are downright tense and engaging throughout — oh, and violent. Very, very violent. Torture-level violence. The game, to a more extreme level than its predecessor, seems to revel in its carnage. There’s an honesty here that I appreciate — when you shoot someone, they don’t just fall down a la “Uncharted” — so fair warning.

Secrets come back to haunt Joel in “The Last of Us Part II.” (Photo credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Lessons not learned

In the end, “The Last of Us Part II” tragically, stunningly brings the story of the first game full circle. What begin in 2013 as a quest to transport a young girl across the country that evolved into a tale of bonds forged in 2020 becomes a bloody, soul-searing quest for revenge that leaves everyone in its wake traumatized and broken. It seems no one in “Part II” has heard that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” because everyone here is eager to get to stabbing. But that’s one of the most powerful messages of “Part II”: Sometimes, they are no heroes, no black and white — just violent shades of gray instead. If Ellie and Joel had learned from their experiences in “TLoU,” we would be playing a very different game — and, after everything I went through to get to this point, I’m not sure I want that. There’s something to be said for a beautiful disaster.

Five “shoot zombies, not people!” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick

“The Last of Us Remastered” review

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