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TIME IS A FLAT CIRCLE: A SPOILER REVIEW OF THE LAST OF US PART II

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This review contains spoilers relating to story and events previously hidden in advertising.

No major events are spoiled.


THE LAST OF US PART II has now been out for just under two weeks. During that time it became the fastest selling PlayStation exclusive in history, garnered immense praise as one of the best games of its generation, and found itself as a lightning rod for more toxic gamer rage from a small subset of angry young men fearful of change. 

Throwing an opinion into the mix at this point feels like a foolhardy effort. After all, anything that is said can be misconstrued as a political statement or garnering attention. Certainly the star rating above will have already sent some into a frenzy before they’ve read a single sentence from the review. 

So here’s a spoiler free recap before we dive into the full thing: TLOU PART II is a technical marvel, a showcase of what is possible when you throw as much work and suffering as possible into a single product without a care for how big the budget gets. It’s an ambitious and wildly erratic attempt in forcing everything into a single product that overstays its welcome by a solid ten hours or more. But hidden under all the bloat are moments of genuine grace and wonder which remind how good Naughty Dog is at their best. It’s also, for all its faults, a superb addition to the videogame vocabulary as the industry continues to find its voice as an art form. 

To discuss the game more thoroughly some spoilers will be necessary. Now arguably a lot of these are not actual spoilers, but significantly important plot points that should have been part of the discussion from the word go. Instead review copies of the game were delivered under strict regulations which denied critics from discussing over 75% of the finished product. Mine is a retail unit, meaning these restrictions do not apply. Which is not to say that I’ll be spoiling everything, but those wanting to go into the finished title completely blind should come back later. 


I

Picking up an intermittent time after the end of the first game, PART II finds the relationship between Joel and Ellie disintegrating fast. As the duo face an uncertain future in the new society they and Tommy’s brother are building, Ellie realizes that she might never be able to forgive Joel for his actions that potentially doomed the human race. As an unspeakable tragedy shakes the core of their new home years later, Ellie sets off on her own on a quest for revenge that sees her returning to Seattle and the heart of all misery that nearly killed her before. 

Continuing THE LAST OF US was always going to be a risky proposition as it’s a game that inherently does not need a sequel. Not that this stopped the hungry fan base for demanding one, but I don’t think they ever considered just what they were asking in the first place.

The first game ended on a sombre, haunting note which made good on its dystopian setting. The relationship between the two protagonists, built up over the course of the Ulyssean road trip across ruined America was in tatters by the final minutes of the story, and it was clear that whatever justification the player imagined for themselves was a delusion at best. Joel, in his fervent desire to protect his adopted daughter, turned into a villain and there was no coming back from it. 

PART II picks up some of these pieces of the story, but seems to realize early on that there isn’t much story left to explore. So instead it shifts perspectives to a new protagonist entirely, a young woman called Abby arriving in Wyoming on her own quest for vengeance, one that will bring her on a collision course with Ellie before long. 

One of the major things that Naughty Dog tried to keep hidden with the review embargo is also one of the most important things that needs to be discussed when reviewing PART II: this is a shared story between the two women, Ellie and Abby equally. Told in a style awfully reminiscent of THE GODFATHER PART II, their experiences are mirrored and juxtaposed at every turn. Ellie’s is the far more traditional adventure, complete with more traditional Naughty Dog humor and excitement. Abby’s campaign, about 6 to 10 hours in length depending on the play style, is a more introspective and condensed version of the first LAST OF US, where the roles of Ellie and Joel are reversed. 

This is a bold take on the material, one that is hampered by the fact that it’s telling two distinctly different stories it believes are the same even when they’re not. Just because Abby’s campaign is a reflection on something we’ve played in the past doesn’t make it compelling on its own. Likewise just because Ellie is driven by an all consuming grief like Joel doesn’t make her actions equally interesting in turn. Neil Druckmann, taking over directing duties alone this time around, clearly wants to say something about the cycle of both grace and violence, but loses the plot every time he attempts to tie the two together. 

The irony is that the first game already dealt with both of these topics in a far more nuanced way. Every step Joel and Ellie took closer to their destination also drove them further away from any chance of redemption. The ending, which at the time split audiences down the middle, emphasized the futility of Joel’s actions, making his limp justifications feel hollow at the face of their longer lasting consequences. Closing the story with uncertainty forced players to consider their part in everything that had happened. PART II ties every aspect of its narrative to that ending, and as such undoes much of the grace associated with it. 

PART II, for all its faults, is a superb addition to the video game vocabulary as the industry continues to find its voice as an art form.

There’s also an uncomfortable and poorly thought out parallel running between Abby’s and Ellie’s stories. In the first LAST OF US, Ellie was singled out as special because of her natural immunity to the virus that has decimated society. Throughout the story we followed her growth as a character as she came to terms with not just her survivor’s guilt, but that of a messianic figure with the weight of the world on her shoulders. It was only far later, mainly through DLC, we found out that Ellie is gay and one of the few major protagonists in modern gaming to be one. 

In PART II, Abby rescues a young boy named Lev from a violent cult called The Seraphites who are hunting him as a dangerous heretic, born into their society as an ill omen they need to stamp out. It’s quickly revealed that Lev is a trans-man who the cult keeps dead naming. His crime is that of not following “the natural order” of things. 

And that’s it. That’s his part in the game. We learn startlingly little of him throughout the meager (even though too long) campaign, and his role rarely extends beyond his gender. Where the first game took its time in revealing Ellie’s immunity, let alone her sexuality, PART II can’t wait to drop the reveal as early as it can and does so in the clunkiest, most obvious way possible. As progressive as the game clearly desires to be, it still fumbles in defining Lev entirely by his gender.

Throw in a war between two warring factions of old world worshiping cultists and a technologically superior military faction, and there’s more than enough material for the entire experience to feel overstuffed. 

I can’t help but feel that PART II should have been two separate games, one entirely for each protagonist, released a few months apart in the style of Clint Eastwood’s LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA and FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. Those films, depicting the battle of Iwo Jima from both perspectives, forced audiences to consider the implications of cheering at violence from one point of view while ignoring the justifications of the other side entirely. As an experiment it’s one of the last times Eastwood was graceful or subtle and remains one of the great American films of the new century. 

But neither games or films should be reviewed for what they could have been, only what they are. As such PART II remains an ambitious but not altogether successful attempt at this kind of mosaic storytelling.


II

As an audiovisual experience, PART II is a seminal masterpiece with no comparison.

It looks and sounds unlike anything out there and does so on just under a decade old hardware. The animations are stupendous, often taking into account minor details most games will overlook. A repeating theme in the story is Ellie’s hobby of playing the guitar, an act so meticulously simulated it allows for the player to strum each individual string of the instrument right down to a single note. 

In just a few weeks from release players are already releasing incredible videos of themselves covering famous songs in the game

Character models have natural faults, bruises look real, and clothing has actual texture and depth to it. Every little thing, even stuff you won’t notice without actually searching for it have been accounted for. Things that are entirely superfluous and only eat into the budget and time are in the game. Why? Because it adds to the immersion and because Naughty Dog wants to show everyone they can. 

The result makes them the undisputed leaders in their field when it comes to delivering technical wizardry unparalleled by any other company. 

But more important than visuals are the accessibility options, which likewise are not just the best class, but set a new standard by which all others are judged in the future. No other game in history has done more for making playing possible for everyone regardless of their handicap. 

Everything can be adjusted to make the presentation as user friendly as possible, allowing for anyone to experience the story in a way perfect for them. It’s a stunning feat and one the game cannot be praised highly enough for. 

The accessibility settings set a new standard by which all others are judged in the future.


III

For all its efforts in becoming more like a film, PART II still clings to game play tropes so tightly they become a detriment to the full experience.

If you’ve played any other Naughty Dog game, including THE LAST OF US, you’ll be right at home with PART II. While some new additions to controls and minor tweaks to mechanics have been added, the foundation is remarkably (some might say lazily) similar to their previous titles. The semi-open world design is straight from THE LOST LEGACY, the puzzles a mix between UNCHARTED 4 and the first LAST OF US and very little feels new or inventive. Ellie can now crawl and swim, something which the game forces you to do often, and the stealth mechanics have been tinkered with to be somewhat less clunkier than before. 

There’s also a trite dependence on an aged gaming mechanic that feels as dated as it does hackneyed. Every level is littered with notes, diaries, and pertinent news articles, all fleshing out the lore and random backstories in bite size chunks. It’s a development choice I’ve always found lazy and feels doubly so in an already talky, exposition heavy game like this. After being forced to follow and listen for tens of minutes at a time, having the story then dump snippets of melodramatic nonsense in your lap is cumbersome.

Another problem is that much of the gaming experience itself just isn’t fun anymore. The first LAST OF US had a forward drive that allowed us to forgive the contrived level design because it always felt like we were moving towards something. PART II is cyclical by design and most of the stages are repeats of each other with only minor variations in style. Both Abby and Ellie play exactly the same, and both play exactly like Nathan Drake from the UNCHARTED series.

Towards the end it even becomes more enticing to just run from every fight (something the game luckily allows reasonably often) than stand your ground. Not for any moral reasons or for queasiness, but because the combat gets so repetitive and there are so many of these encounters that it just isn’t worth the effort anymore.

The puzzles are repeats of previous Naughty Dog titles, mainly the ones already seen in the aforementioned UNCHARTED series. Traversing between places requires a combination of platforming, physics, and minor logic puzzles, none of which are so much taxing as they are time consuming. Every level follows the same basic flow, meaning that making fast progress through the game is nearly impossible as it is designed to be as slow as possible. 

While much of the main experience is heavily scripted and linear, some sections open up for quasi-free exploration. These playing fields are riddled with hiding spots, ambush points, and potential for great one on one combat. In terms of pure game play experience, they’re easily the high point. Avoiding enemies through a combination of stealth and luck is always a thrill and the solid AI programming creates ample opportunities for wild events at every turn.

A desperate run through abandoned townships and suburbs with dozens of enemies on your trail is an intense thrill rarely replicated in games, yet it’s something that happens only rarely in the full experience. Mainly because a lot of PART II refuses to get out of the way and just the game be a game.

When stealth fails, the combat is invigorating and fun. The guns handle well, each with distinct firing patterns, and the melee is cinematic in execution. There are still numerous annoyances which can be attributed to the nature of games in general. Enemies and the player still have health bars, and it’s maddening to fire multiple bullets at a random grunt only for them to keep attacking you. Levels are sometimes split by mini-bosses, each requiring a ton of ammo and physical attacks, which feel like a relic from another era. 

The game mechanics are designed to be as intuitive and responsive as possible to allow players to engage in violence at all times. Stealth kills award the player with more items and nearly all skills have something to do with combat. So when the game then turns around to admonish you for playing it the way it was designed, it’s not a philosophical question, it’s a cheap gotcha that has no weight to it at all.

The game doesn’t ask questions about our collective relationship with fictional violence, but instead says a lot about the design choices made itself. Whether or not that’s intentional is up for discussion. 


IV

Both journeys in PART II are about revenge, and both in equal amounts are also about reacting to it. Ellie and Abby are products of a world no longer reminiscent of ours, and their Old Testament attitudes mirror that harshness. Just as in the first game, where Joel attempted to learn grace through the act of saving a life instead of taking one, Ellie is forced to deal with the immediate fallout of her actions. Namely the brutal slaughter of her enemies, now given faces and names at every turn.

But the problem remains that PART II is only opposed to violence when it’s convenient. The game play is by design meant to feel exciting and fun when you viscerally and brutally murder people left and right. It even offers multiple scenes with unlimited ammo to take down enemies, both living and dead, on a roller coaster style rampage. Some levels will even force you to take out everyone in the scenario before you’re allowed to continue, while crafty stealth kills will hand out extra ammo and gear. 

An example of this comes in NPC interactions: at one point the last surviving member of a scouting party fell on his knees to beg for mercy. I figured I didn’t want to fight in the first place and tried to leave, only to notice that the game pad kept resisting any movement away from the NPC. A gravitational pull was implemented to give the idea that there is no other choice but to kill the begging enemy. When I did manage to pull myself away, the NPC got instantly back on their feet and began to repeat their cycle to hunt and attack the player character. Naturally, I responded with a face full of buckshot, only for my party member to admonish me for doing such a thing.

The game is designed to be an action shooter with horror elements, which means that any moralizing comes off as self-important and meaningless. 

The much hyped death and violence within the game is nothing that anyone who has played horror shooters hasn’t seen before. Especially those who played the first LAST OF US will be right at home in the grim dark, often excessively and almost humorously gratuitous violence. Shot NPC’s will fall in a dramatic, stylized way of Hollywood movies, and every death is met with a gurgling yelp of pain, followed by other NPC’s screaming a random assortment of names. This is to amplify the theme of the game: violence is bad. It’s so bad, in fact, that you should feel bad for taking part in it. 

You know, taking part in the game you’ve purchased. The one advertised as an action horror game. The one which sees its director share compilations of inventive and graceful combat scenarios on his Twitter feed. The one advertised like this in social media:

“Who will you kill first?” Facebook advertising for THE LAST OF US PART II

Yes. That game. How dare you play it like it’s intended.  

There’s an argument to be made that PART II is a perfect example of Ludonarrative dissonance. Even more so than the previous king of this, Naughty Dog’s very own UNCHARTED series. Ellie and Abby both murder scores of NPC’s left and right, yet only those in cut scenes are considered truly human. Even as the game clearly wants to have a discussion about the very nature of violence, it can’t decide whether or not that discussion is about the moral right of killing in the face of certain death – or is it about us as consumers enjoying questionable acts far removed from their real life repercussions?

But having it both ways doesn’t work. Making a game that is by design filled with combat and then tut-tutting the players for buying into it feels, well, childish. It’s a gotcha that is inherently dishonest to begin with – and ironically something that the first game again managed to avoid even as it made the exact same point.


V

Everything about PART II feels contradictory. On one hand it’s a remarkable feat of engineering, a momentous leap in accessibility for all that single-handedly paves the way for others in this area. It’s often eloquent and smartly composed discussion on the nature of revenge and loss that forces a still very much young and inexperienced industry to have discussions it clearly isn’t ready for just yet. 

But at the same time it’s also equally childish in its depiction of straw man arguments of its own making, and clunky in its delivery over topics other games have already broached in a more succinct manner. It’s self-indulgent to the point that it actively harms the final experience, and ultimately it’s just not fun to play for long stretches at a time. The entire middle half, about the length of entire games, is a numbing slog that requires immense goodwill from the player to get through. And the final third, which I won’t spoil, will prove just as divisive as the first game, but probably not in the way the developers were intending it to. 

And yet.

And yet it’s an important stepping stone towards a more eloquent future that games are destined for as the art form matures. PART II is not Schindler’s List and it never will be. It’s not CHILDREN OF MEN or GODFATHER PART II either. It borrows from all of these films and from a dozen books, paintings and more. Because that’s what games do. It’s an interactive medium composed of everything around it and it’s what makes it special. But in its hurry to be taken seriously in a shorthand that is comfortable for the mainstream, PART II loses the way and ignores important aspects of itself. 

The result is an imperfect game, but an addition to gaming vocabulary we as a culture desperately need.

It’s a building block from a company that has mastered the action adventure genre (arguably perfecting INDIANA JONES where the film couldn’t), now learning something new. 

It will be dissected, argued about, studied, disparaged and exulted for years to come. Many of those things will be valid, some will be pointless. 

It is a game that is entirely worth experiencing simply to say you were there and tried it. Because down the line it will be the kind of material you reference when talking about future favorites. And in that way, PART II and Druckmann achieve the kind of cinematic legacy they’re hoping for. 

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