The Last of Us was 2013's game of the year and remains the pinnacle of nuanced cinematic storytelling within the medium. Early reviews for the sequel, The Last of Us Part II, were published Friday morning. As a whole, they suggest Naughty Dog's latest is visually stunning, but leans too heavily on violence instead of emotional depth. Will you still play it? Obviously. Will you enjoy it as much? That depends on what you loved most about the first game, and what you look for in your escapism.
The Last of Us 2 picks up about five years after the first game and follows Ellie, now a brooding and distant young woman in her late teenage years. She lives in a post-apocalyptic settlement in the remote wilderness of Jackson, Wyoming with other survivors, including many new faces and Joel, her grizzled adoptive father figure from the first game. After an upsetting event rocks the community, Ellie embarks on a quest for revenge that leads her to the ruins of Seattle.
Violence begets more violence, and The Last of Us 2 puts it all on full display.
IGN gave The Last of Us 2 a 10/10 score, calling it a "Masterpiece" that rivals even beloved games like Red Dead Redemption 2, 2018's God of War, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Other reviews praise the game as a flawless and worthy follow-up, but there are some observations to be found in some of the more critical reviews.
None of these reviews will confirm or deny those spoilers
The Last of Us Part 2 was marred by major leaked spoilers that hit the internet in early May, and none of the reviews are able to grapple directly with these — whether or not they're true or even how they feel delivered within the proper context. A huge swath of the game that spans about 12 hours is off-limits for reviewers. This is where all of the game's biggest twists happen.
"I went into the game, armed with all the knowledge of the leaks, thinking I could fill in the blanks of the story. The game still left me in shock," writes Gene Park for The Washington Post. "It is very much an extension of the first game’s themes and storytelling tricks." Game Director Neil Druckmann noted to Park that the game is "so much about hate and how we dehumanize each other ... and you can see that happening with the leaks." While this makes it seem like the leaks may be true, there's a whole lot more to examine.
The Last of Us Part 2's core gameplay feels upgraded, but outdated
A video review published by YouTube channel Skill Up is one of the more negative responses out there to the game, and a lot of that reasoning has to do with some of the narrative decisions made in the sequel. He calls it a "weaker game" than its predecessor, but he also notes that the core gameplay loop of "stealth, loot, and shoot" remains unchanged. Changes to exploration are "minor... tired and outdated," which is to say that gameplay remains mostly the same.
Environmental puzzles in the sequel, however, have been vastly improved. Jonathon Dornbush's review for IGN makes an amusing nod to "floating pallets" from the first game being absent, noting "a lot more contextual challenges that make smart use of Ellie’s journey through skyscrapers, residential neighborhoods, sewers, plains, and more."
Across the board, reviews praise upgrades made to stealth and combat, with GameSpot's review noting that "combat is tense and exhilarating, though confronting in its brutality." Virtually every aspect of the game, from mechanics and combat to the narrative, seem to drive home the point that this is a bleak, miserable world where resources and virtue are scarce.
Could that be too miserable and bleak for a mid-2020 audience?
The Last of Us Part 2 is so grim it might give you stress nightmares
"The story of the game is a complete miss, foregoing any of the relationships, themes, and tones that were central to the first game and replacing them with a petty revenge story driven by unlikable characters making decisions that seem ridiculous and unbelievable," the Skill Up video review says. There's a sense with many of these critiques that the sequel does something different from the first game.
The Last of Us began with the death of Joel's daughter, which utterly destroyed him, and the entire game revolves around him regaining his sense of humanity through his love for Ellie. That was so important to him that he'd sacrifice a potential cure for everyone just to save her. That's thematically rich storytelling, but by all accounts, it seems like the sequel might just be ultra-violent revenge porn.
"This is a story about characters who seem unable to learn or grow, and more specifically, unable to consider the humanity of the people they kill," Maddy Myers writes for Polygon. "It’s filled with characters dedicated to never seeing the bigger picture beyond themselves."
If we don't have any character arcs, then we need an arc within the narrative itself so that we as the audience can grow and change. But this begs the question: What is the point of The Last of Us Part 2?
"The game gave me stress nightmares, not because you kill a lot of people per se, but because playing as Ellie felt more like being dragged by my hair than being immersed in her mission," she wrote. "From the very beginning, I wanted to reach out and shake Ellie, as her proxy in all this, and get her to do anything other than what we were about to do. I knew her revenge quest was bad news before the killing and maiming really began."
There's a sense that establishing the player as a helpless bystander watching Ellie unravel makes for an unpleasant but compelling experience, but the purpose behind this remains shrouded by a spoiler wall. "Being helpless as a player in the face of Ellie's destruction serves a grander purpose that I won't spoil here," Plagge also wrote.
The first game's aesthetic of societal breakdown and ultra-violence in a zombie-filled apocalypse worked well in 2013, but that was a time long before President Donald Trump was elected and systemic hate became more readily apparent in contemporary American society. The Last of Us Part 2 is a story of simmering, undigested hatred and the violence it causes as a thoughtless emotional response, and it's being released during a real-life pandemic and the worst period of civil unrest the country has seen in decades.
If you weren't having stress nightmares already, you just might after playing The Last of Us Part 2.
The Last of Us Part II will be released for the PlayStation 4 on June 19, 2020.