I’ve been meaning to write about The Last of Us Part II for some time. It was a while ago now that I played it, but it’s hung around in my head, so here it is.
I generally don’t pay much attention to reviews of games, but I do remember that the reaction to TLoU2 on release was quite extreme: debates about excessive violence and the paradoxical way the game tries to condemn violence at the same time as forcing the player to participate in it. It’s a fair criticism, but opening that kind of debate is something that art does—it’s really down to whether the attempt works.
And for TLoU2 I think it does. Just.
Most of the violence is no worse than the first game, though just as depressing. It’s bizarre and counter-intuitive to be brazenly killing so many humans given the framing (and even title) of the game, but it is a game. Action games demand relentless murder, for better or (often) worse, and TLoU2 is an action game despite the heavyweight storytelling.
And just like the first game, the storytelling is the saving grace. It’s brutal and unforgiving, even drifting into absurdity at times, but the core story of loss and revenge and futility is very powerful. The surprise point-of-view switch is very daring given the potential for it to backfire disastrously, but somewhat miraculously the developers make it work despite the huge emotional heft that remains from the first game.
In many ways TLoU2 veers away from it’s core remit of zombie survival horror. In the sequel the zombies are almost inconsequential—it’s the humans that matter. There are still moments of classic jump-scare zombie gaming (the basement of a hospital the best shudder-filled example), but it’s the humans who provide the true horror, the tension, and all of the story beats. I guess that was true of the back half of TLoU too, but here it really is about the myriad ways humans can be awful to each other.
The violence is sometimes unwatchable. There are two or three horribly brutal moments that scar your brain and won’t go away, even months later. The game tries to balance them with semi-absurd scenes of mass destruction and impossible odds, but those scenes were generally forgettable and sometimes even a mistake, unnecessarily removing some of the tightly scripted tension.
I think this is especially true of the fourth act, which is disappointing and feels like a real stretch. It is probably the main reason the criticisms came strong and hard. Unlike the extra acts of both Red Dead games, it feels tacked on and unexpected in a bad way—too long and the nihilism would have been more appropriate earlier in the game to give the player a chance to come to terms with it. As it stands we are forced into a very dark sequence that made me put the controller down and hope that by not engaging some other resolution might be possible. Alas no.
It’s a depressing world the game depicts, one of little trust and even less hope, but you can’t help feeling the deep emotion and desperate connection the characters seek. You live and breathe their every hope and disappointment, their fury and need for resolution, their loves and their hatreds. One line in particular stopped me in my tracks, and has lived with me ever since:
“We let you live and you wasted it."