The Last of Us: Part 2 – Bleak, Brutal and Brilliant
I finished The Last of Us: Part 2 last night. Usually, when I finish a game, I sit there and bask in the glow of my achievement. Savouring the final moments that lead up to the finale. But what I felt as the credits rolled was not the joy of a battle hard fought and won. No, it was something more akin to shock. What, had I witnessed? What had I done? Was I a worse person or a stronger one?
These questions are not the sort of things I usually associate with video games, but with The Last of US: Part 2 (TLOU2) they have dominated my thoughts since the highly charged and emotionally taxing ending. I have been in something akin to shock. I am still struggling to gather my brain together in a way that will put forward a coherent series of words as to why I think this is a game that should be played, but not always enjoyed. You see, TLOU2 is a game that makes feeling uncomfortable the default setting. There is no solace to be found, no escape from the bleak and unrelenting nature of this game. This is a title that takes you to the pits of hell, pushing you through despite no light, no relief in sight. It depicts humanity at its worst and forces you to dive to that level. The small nuggets of joy that can rarely be found are only there to signify what you can’t have, what you aren’t even trying to achieve. I will state this very clearly, I believe Sony should be providing trigger warnings for this game because there is a lot here that could cause players some serious emotional distress, especially in the troubled times we are now living in.
In saying all that though, it is clearly Naughty Dog’s intent to make players feel this way, to make them experience something that takes them out of their safe zone and there is no doubt that they have achieved this. This is a game that has a lot to say about many many things but most of all it seems to be a piece of fiction designed to highlight just how terrible humanity can get when our backs are to the wall. Naughty Dog has brought a range of themes into this game. Bigotry, organised religion, militarization and the cost of self-preservation are all topics that get touched on, but the overriding message is about revenge and the cost of its pursuit. The narrative is one that hides from nothing, delivering its story, its lesson warts and all. To say more would journey into the realm of spoilers so I won’t, but know that this is an uncomfortable, confronting ride that is likely to test your resolve and your limits in equal measure.
This has been achieved through some masterful performances from the voice and mo-cap actors that honestly rival anything seen in modern cinema. Some of the cutscenes wouldn’t look out of place on the main stage at the Oscars and the depth of emotion on display is quite simply astounding. This goes for all technical aspects of the game. The sound design is second to none and the way the world is absolutely dripping with detail is a wonder to behold. It feels like no detail was too small for the developers to include. Where most games have unused areas in the level, TLOU2 has environmental storytelling, where there is an opportunity to make this world feel real, Naughty Dog has done so with a technical skill that very few developers could even aspire to. That said this technical wizardry isn’t without flaws. On a few occasions, I got stuck in animation loops which forced me to restart at the most recent checkpoint and there were a few instances of companions getting stuck in doorways which was slightly inconvenient if that doorway was the only way out of the room. These are minor issues in the shadow of what has been achieved and will more than likely get patched out very quickly, but are still present enough to be worth mentioning.
On the gameplay side of things, it perhaps feels a little too safe, especially when compared to the story that challenges players at every turn. The moment to moment action is very similar to what was experienced in the original game. There have been some improvements, most noticeably in agility, but essentially the combat and exploration elements are very similar. I am not saying this is bad in any way, just that from a game that seems so willing to push boundaries in narrative, it didn’t feel the need to do so in gameplay. The set pieces are fantastic however, something that shouldn’t shock anyone that has played a Naughty Dog game in the last 10 years. The way the action flows from stealth into full combat all the while seamlessly using the environment in interesting and exciting ways is magical. Noise is an especially effective tool and it allows for all sorts of creative tactics, from simple distraction to luring infected towards a group of enemy soldiers, I love how the game forced me to consider sound even more than genuine stealth titles like MGS or Splinter Cell did.
Another problem I have with the game is the narrative structure. Not so much with the story being told, but the way Naughty Dog do the telling. I feel like there is an overreliance on flashbacks, which breaks the story’s momentum on more than one occasion. There were just a few too many occasions where a major narrative beat was about to be revealed and I was forced to wait as I learned about something that happened 4 years ago. It added a stop/start feeling to the flow of the game and that left a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I am being intentionally vague here so as not to spoil anything, but know while the story is a tale more than worth the effort, it could have been perhaps handled in a different way.
There is no doubt that Naughty Dog has developed something that will be talked about for years to come. That being said I don’t think everyone will love it like the previous game. I think the story is perhaps too confrontational, too vicious in its telling for many and those elements will likely leave a bad taste in a few gamer’s mouths. That being said, for those it does click with, I can easily see it being a game that will stay will them forever. TLOU2, more than any game in recent memory, fills me with a desire to pull it apart and go over it with others that have finished the game. I want to chat, dissect and argue over what the game brings to our favourite medium. The way this game made me feel, made me loathe my own actions, is something I have never experienced before and is something I want to examine in more detail when time allows. TLOU2 is much like a confronting movie like American History X or Life is Beautiful, haunting and distressing for the viewer, but essential watching regardless. For that reason I cannot recommend this game enough, because, despite its few problems, it is brave, it is confronting and it is relentless in its vision. I may never play it again, it may have left me haunted, but it is an experience I wouldn’t trade for ten traditional triple-A blockbusters, and that, in my mind, is an achievement worth celebrating.
The Last of Us: Part II was reviewed on a PS4 Pro with code kindly provided by Playstation Australia