The Last of Us Part II is for people who like stories. It's for people who appreciate characters struggling to survive, struggling to understand what humanity is, and who occupy the grey zones of morality when making decisions. Decisions—and consequences—are, of course, fundamental to story.
This is a story about the apocalypse. It's about how the human race is nearly annihilated by a fungal plague that turns people into gibbering horrors that attack the uninfected. It's also about the decisions survivors make in the act of survival, and it's about the consequences of those decisions.
And this sequel, which takes place in the years after the first game, shows us a world that remains brutal even while there are moments of breathtaking beauty.
In 2013, The Last of Us introduced us to Ellie, who is immune to the fungus. At that time we played as Joel, who was hired to escort Ellie out of a quarantine zone in Boston. He ends up alongside her all the way down the East Coast, then west to Colorado and Salt Lake City. The majesty of the first game was in how the two characters changed and grew close. Ellie became the daughter Joel lost in the early days of the plague; and Joel the parent Ellie seems never to have had.
That game ended with Joel making a moral decision that placed his needs above those of the human race.
As in all good stories, there must be a reckoning.
In Part II, we play as Ellie, who is no longer a young adult. She's fully her own person, now, making her own decisions. She decides she must travel to Seattle, where much of the game takes place. I'm not going to detail any more of the plot, because there's too much that intertwines and it's a story that needs to be experienced.
What I will say is that in telling this story there are flashbacks to earlier times, new characters are introduced, and more of the larger world is revealed to us.
The mechanics of movement, combat, and crafting are serviceable; satisfactory without being satisfying. But you're not playing The Last of Us Part II for the mechanics. You're here for the story.
You don't have to be a gamer to appreciate what director Neil Druckmann and the developers at Naughty Dog have crafted here. These characters transcend the medium, in part because they've been scripted well, but also because the performances are superior. Ian Alexander (Lev), Laura Bailey (Abby), Troy Baker (Joel), Stephen Chang (Jesse), Jeffrey Pierce (Tommy), Shannon Woodward (Dina), and all the other supporting cast are note-perfect.
And your heart will break for Ashley Johnson's Ellie, who is fierce and tough and a vulnerable wreck. She is a product of violence and trauma and consequence, and she confronts her life as a survivor. In so doing, she battles against infected antagonists as well as human ones using melee weapons and firearms, crafting what she needs for supplies scrounged from the detritus of 20th-century civilization.
To be sure, this is a violent game. While the systems exist to use stealth to avoid interactions with enemies, it's often not easy or practical to do so. Ellie and the other characters in this game are killers.
The savagery is staccato, interspersed with stretches of quiet, and I took it slow, savouring those moments of wonder—like in the first game, when Ellie and Joel come across a giraffe that had escaped captivity and was wandering the countryside. This is where the story shines, because this is when the characters have real conversations filled with meaning and subtext and emotion.
The problem is that when these moments happen, The Last of Us Part II stops being a game and becomes a movie. The number and length of cut scenes will keep some people from ever giving this game a chance, because ultimately we have no agency over the story or the characters. We're simply embodying them for a little while.
This is characteristic of Naughty Dog games, so it's not a surprise that they decided to use that approach here. I'm glad that Druckmann is getting a chance to bring these characters to television, and I'm curious to know if we'll still care about them so much when we're not becoming them.
There are other decisions that he's made about how to tell this story as a video game that I'm desperate to explore but can't talk about here for fear of spoiling the experience. In the same way stories are about characters making decisions, telling stories requires that choices be made. And although I'm not sure that all of the choices made by Druckmann and the developers at Naughty Dog are the best, I'm sure glad to have had the chance to become these characters again. As with The Last of Us, playing this game is permanently affecting.
If you like stories and don't mind playing a game where sometimes you need to sit back and watch, The Last of Us Part II is storytelling at its best.