[Review] ‘The Last of Us Part II’ Offers an Uneven and Overlong Journey Filled With Bloodshed and Horror

Everything about Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II has been a mess in one way or another. The game has faced controversy after controversy since its initial reveal, from its depictions of graphic violence with no content warnings, to fear over the game’s potential for failure when it came to representing queer characters. But this game didn’t just suffer from marketing that was, frankly, misleading. The Last of Us Part II itself is a mess thanks to monotonous combat encounters, inconsistent pacing, and a fundamental fear of letting quiet moments speak for themselves. 
Without getting too deep into spoilers, you play as multiple characters in this game, but two end up becoming the central focus: Ellie, and a new character named Abby. You play through vignettes with both of them leading up to where the action kicks off. Ellie starts out on patrol with her soon-to-be love interest Dina, and Abby is searching for someone who apparently lives in Jackson, the Wyoming settlement where Joel & Ellie now live. The two meet in a nightmarish way, and their lives are changed forever.
Once events are set into motion, the game takes place over only three days, first following Ellie, then Abby. These stories are supposed to run parallel to each other, informing how things are shaking out on the other character’s end, but because they’re back-to-back the game ends up feeling like a slog to get through, and the story is unbalanced and unwieldy. 

The Seattle we see in Naughty Dog’s newest project is a post-apocalyptic warzone, and crossing it is every bit as arduous as it sounds both mechanically, and narratively. Part II took its predecessor’s combat system and tuned it up quite a bit, especially by changing the variety of equipment available to you depending on which character you’re playing as. But, at its core, every combat encounter outside of boss fights is the same loop of stalking enemy patrols/infected through abandoned buildings and overgrown streets. 
If you’d like to get creative, you definitely can. There are a ton of ways to approach things if you’re feeling frisky, but by and large, the game won’t ask you to change up how you play. This, combined with the frequency of enemy encounters, made progressing feel like a chore as I went on. 
The monotony that starts to build with one character never gets to be relieved in full because you’re stuck with them for several hours before switching. As soon as you’ve gotten used to one, it’s time to play as the other. This does get a bit better in the late game, but at that point, I was so fatigued from the first 18-20 hours that I often found myself wondering when it was going to be over. 

This is not helped by the uneven and often equally monotonous story. Ellie really only stays interesting for the first of three days. After that, it’s a lot of tracking down landmarks and slaughtering anyone in your path, with little to no character or plot development in between. Despite being funny and somewhat awkward, Ellie’s character remains flat because it’s largely focused on Joel & her immunity. 
On the other hand, Abby’s storyline gets increasingly more interesting as the days go by, but suffers because there’s so much more character development and world-building jammed into the same three-day span. This made playing through Abby’s route frustrating because I wanted more time learning about this new area and what was going on, but that time was instead devoted to Ellie walking around by herself, murdering endless enemies largely in silence.  
One of Part II’s biggest issues is that despite being excessively long, it just doesn’t understand how to allocate its time appropriately. When I take a step back, I can see the skeleton of this story, and there could have been a solid foundation. But aside from way too many combat encounters, and focusing entirely too much on Ellie’s killing spree, the game isn’t confident enough in its subtleties, overcompensating with heavy-handed and time-consuming flashbacks.

I’m torn on these because they do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting for this story, but I think that fact most strikingly shows its inherent weakness. The Last of Us is definitely a zombie story focused on the monstrosity of humanity in crisis, so it invests a lot into important relationships from the past. But in places where a gentle touch with an implication or reminder would be more than enough, Naughty Dog’s delivery of these emotional points has the nuance of the bricks you throw at Clickers. This takes the feeling from heartwarming to redundancy in record time.
Meanwhile, the relationships that are central during the events of Part II are developed largely through brief dialogue interactions triggered by the environment. While there are character dynamics that feel genuine and emotional, they’re not given the time to realistically grow. I ended up really loving these relationships, but I constantly found myself wanting more time with them. Instead, that time went to racking up a higher body count.
Violence in this game is something that’s been a hot button issue since the start, and the sequel is definitely is more graphic than the original. Part II leans more heavily into the horror side of its zombie apocalypse, which includes a lot of blood, gore, and general maiming. It’s no more graphic than a Resident Evil game, but the enemies, sans infected, are very realistic. You’ll hear people’s gurgling final breaths as they go down under your blade, and soldiers calling out the names of their companions, dog and human alike. If you’re someone who can’t bear to hurt dogs in games, you shouldn’t play this. 

However, the violence isn’t just limited to gruesome spectacles and vicious jump scares. Another hot-button topic I want to address is the trans character, Lev, who was revealed through leaks to a litany of reactions both positive and negative. Without elaborating on his plotline, he is deadnamed, and he does experience violence that is motivated by transphobia. In spite of this, in the context of the game itself, I personally didn’t feel the treatment of this character was harmful. Part II is a story rooted in brutality and angst over the nature of violence and selfishness, and Lev isn’t spared from that. But he isn’t a joke, or a token. His story is one that’s familiar, but at least to me, it didn’t feel trope-ridden or toxic. Lev’s transness is a key part of his character, but it is respected by the protagonist in addition to other key parts of who he is, like his relationships with his family and religion.
There are multiple queer characters in Part II, and despite my initial hesitation, I do think they were done well overall. The relationship between Ellie and Dina is definitely the best sapphic romance I’ve seen depicted in a AAA game. There are also some really incredible accessibility options and a diverse cast both in race and gender, as well as body types to some degree. This is refreshing, especially given how skeptical I was going in, but honestly, this is the least AAA devs can be doing in this day and age. 
After getting through all the bloodshed, horror, and brief rays of light that The Last of Us Part II has to offer, I was tired and wondering what the point even was, but I don’t think it was for the reason the developers wanted me to. There are some excellent high points to be found in this game, but they’re buried in repetitive combat, narrative fluff that wants to hold your hand through emotional beats, and erratic pacing that leaves the story constantly feeling off-kilter. Part II wants to show the ever-present rot that power and authority create in people, but it trips over its own messy structure and narrative insecurity. This game was clearly intended to push what we think of as prestige AAA gaming to the next level, but much like Ellie, it got lost along the way.

The Last of Us Part II review code provided by the publisher.
The Last of Us Part II is out now on PS4.
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