Graves of the Fireflies
One final, devastating word which conveyed the pain, confusion and torment of Ellie at the end of The Last of Us back in 2013. It was a showcase of how far the PlayStation 3 had come at the time with the graphical fidelity and the medium’s ability to convey complex emotional stories in earnest. Now, 2020 is in full flow, we’ve got a new generation around the corner. Naughty Dog is about to flex its muscles once again and answer the question that everybody has been asking: Did we really need a Part II to one of the most critically and commercially loved games of all time?
Let’s address the elephant in the room first and foremost. The leaks. I’ve been desperately holding my tongue for the past couple of weeks on this, but some of the biggest leaks that certain sections of the internet are getting their underwear twisted over? Yeah, they’re not accurate. I might do a video on launch day discussing this in more detail, but if you’re going to skip on this game because of what equates to around half an hour’s worth of discussed content which isn’t even accurate? You’re an idiot.
It’s 4 years after “Okay”. The town of Jackson, the settlement house by former Fireflies and other survivors, is thriving. Regular patrols are carried out by the likes of Ellie, Joel and Tommy along with new characters Dina and Jesse. Helping clear out any infected, keeping an eye out for other survivors and generally bonding as friends and survivors. It’s every bit the quintessential Wild West town, but with all the mod-cons you’d expect. From the outset, it looks astonishing. Out on patrol, the light shines through the trees, snow tumbles from collapsing branches as you nudge them, while underneath your feet the deformation of it looks as real as it ever has in a game. At one point though, as you’d expect, this picture perfect post-pandemic civilisation is fractured. The quest for a peaceful life is distorted into an ugly tale of revenge, and it’s here that The Last of Us Part 2 really starts to peel away your expectations and descend into one of the darkest places I’ve experienced in a game. And no, I’m not talking about Seattle, even though that’s where the bulk of the game takes place.
I shan’t get into specifics of the story in this review, but after avoiding spoilers until I’d gotten my hands on it, I was hooked. Characters that I’d never even heard of before almost became as strongly etched in my mind as Ellie and Joel, while moments within helped to cement the very relationship that was built in that first masterpiece even further. It also picks up with the environmental storytelling that the first one did so well. One chapter in the game has a series of collectibles dotted around that, when read, flesh out a compelling backstory to an incredibly minor character. It’s small things like this which can really help to build the immersion in the world, but will have very little detrimental impact if you skip over them. The Last of Us Part 2 has some moments that will have your heart racing, it has some moments where your heart will break, and it has moments which will warm whatever remains of your heart after it’s been beaten to within an inch of its life. When Naughty Dog hit, they hit hard.
It’s somewhat fitting then, that hitting hard is going to be one of the main talking points of this game. Let me put it out there. This game has an unprecedented level of excruciating violence. While I think the likes of Doom and Mortal Kombat revel in the ridiculous, The Last of Us Part 2 has an unnerving edge to it. Nothing in the game is ever “clean”. Even a carefully planned out attack results in viscera being discharged in the most of clumsy ways, with each fight having real weight to it. It’s helped, of course, by the animations. I think I say this whenever a new Naughty Dog game hits the market, but they are working miracles with the hardware they’re given. Limbs contort, faces grimace and entire bodies slump to the floor after whatever brutal punishment you’d care to offer up. There were points in the game that I felt genuinely uncomfortable with what was being asked of me to do. This wasn’t a GTAV style torture sequence though, being played for shock value in an otherwise traditional game, this is a slope that continues to probe into the depths of what’s possible when being driven by a pure and uncontrollable lust for revenge. It reminded me a lot of Spec Ops: The Line in that respect. Not only watching, but controlling a character as they become consumed with an idea, wondering if there will ever be an end to the perpetual cycle of violence and death. I finished the game around two weeks ago, and there are parts of it that are still incredibly fresh in my mind.
The Last of Us Part 2’s narrative is complex, it’s troubling, and it’s not averse to taking huge risks. However, it never tries to do anything that isn’t earned, and any moments with emotional impact are set up and crafted almost to perfection. It’s also important. In the real world, we’re living through a global pandemic that’s threatened to slow life to a crawl at points. We’re seeing the consequences of what happens when people believe they can act with impunity for too long. While the current situation hasn’t quite turned people into mindless infected killing machines (yet), and the level of violence hasn’t quite reached the point of stringing people up and gutting them in the street (yet), there are some parallels that should be taken from The Last of Us Part 2. Continually relying on violence to solve a problem just might not be the answer. Reacting to grief by eliminating everything in your path will potentially only lead to problems further down the line. And of course, the biggest lesson, make sure you keep all of your trading cards in your bedside drawer. They’re easier to find, that way. Look, I don’t want to sound preachy. There are a million other obvious and lazy comparisons that I could be writing in here to link the game to the current pandemic and violence in the world, but honestly that helps nobody. There are many important discussions to be had about this game, but the discourse will go on long after this review has been published and digested.
Gameplay-wise, there are some big additions to The Last of Us Part 2. There is a much heavier emphasis on stealth than in the first game. Going prone and crawling through long grass is a godsend when you’re out of ammo, and the scarcity of additional resources always has you on the edge of your seat. If you do get caught, however, the new dodge mechanic will get you out of a tricky situation if required. It feels organic, and a natural evolution from the mechanics in the first game. Combined with the animations mentioned before, and you’ve got a really good looking game that plays really, really well. It cribs some moments from Uncharted as well, such as the rope swinging and mud-sliding, but these are used when it makes sense. What it doesn’t bring from Uncharted, however, is the sense of invulnerability. The game constantly reminds you in multiple areas that you’re not safe, and will ratchet up the tension to a point where it becomes almost unbearable. Clickers are still one of the most terrifying enemies to me, and they’re joined by the runners, stalkers and boomers from the first game, as well as a couple of new infected types that had my palms sweating profusely by the end of the encounters. Human enemies also have the same impact. Whether it’s the tooled up and highly organised WLF, or the secretive Seraphite religious cult, there are entire sections of the game which will have your cheeks clenched so tight that you might just be able to turn coal into diamonds.
It’s because of these incredibly tense moments that make the downtime so important. Moments when you’re just sitting and talking with a friend, or slowly making your way round an interesting abandoned building, and taking it all in. The moments of quiet are the moments that help put the devastation into context, and it’s paced to perfection. Looking through a lot of the recent discourse, it’s a shame that people seem to be focusing on what they think The Last of Us Part 2 isn’t. If you focus on what The Last of Us Part 2 is, you’ll see that it’s a phenomenal achievement. In my time with the game (2 full play throughs and some mopping up of trophies), I encountered one crash. I could count on one hand the number of times the frame rate noticeably dropped, and I could probably use the other hand to total up the number of other bugs I encountered. The Last of Us Part 2 is possibly the most impressive game I’ve ever seen. Naughty Dog continue to raise the bar when it comes to what is possible with how games look, tell stories and stick with you. When all is said and done, this is a tale of what anger can drive you to. Whether revenge will free you of your demons, and the cost of it if it does so. The Last of Us Part 2 asks the question of what you’d be willing to give up when obsession takes over, and whether it would all be worth it in the end. Seven years on, and I can still remember that conversation between Ellie and Joel. The Last of Us remains one of my favourite games of all time, to the point where I named my cat Ellie after I finished it. Given how some of the moments in this game hit me, I honestly think I’ll be sitting here in 7 years time reminiscing about scenes from this game. It is phenomenal.