Don’t worry, this is spoiler free. Another post is in the works to talk about the plot and whatnot. That one will have spoilers.
Credit is due, because Naughty Dog has once again achieved profound success with their newest entry in The Last of Us franchise, which coincidentally has just become a franchise for real. I say this, because if you spend any amount of time looking at “professional” evaluations of the game, you’re bound to read about how revolutionary and thought-provoking it is.
Conversely, according to some of the folks on the team who put their blood, sweat, and tears into the project, any critique of the game is just from haters. Patricia Hernandez from Polygon wrote a rather good piece on the subject of the absolute mess there is surrounding the title. Some involved with development have had their own opinions voiced, though with significantly less tact, and respect for a necessary part of the gaming industry.
I do understand that Troy Baker is a talented voice actor, as well as many others who have worked on the game, but it disappoints me to see this response to any sort of criticism. Yes, Jason admitted to referring to The Last of Us Part II in that tweet. It’s reasonable to assume that he was referring to it as well, even before he clarified, but still.
However, this is about the game, not the tempest enveloping its release, though I’m going to address why I agree with Jason Schreier on this occasion.
A lot of negative attention gets thrown about at games that people colloquially refer to as walking simulators, and while The Last of Us Part II (which from here on out I’ll refer to as TLoU2, because to hell with typing that out every time) certainly has more to it than what commonly counts as a walking simulator, I’d argue that it’s a trudging simulator.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun and all to sneak around and stab people in the neck with a switchblade (more on that later), the gunplay is satisfying even though it lacks the same care they put into making sure the stabbing felt as realistic as possible, and to quote a developer friend of mine:
-David Mason, a developer of Claire, in a piece about toxic fans
My friend said it quite well, but TLoU2 is probably one of the best looking games of this generation on PS4. The team made perfect use of their resources, with a few notable exceptions. However, amazing graphics and technical prowess don’t make a game perfect on their own.
It feels like there’s just so much dead air in the game. At one point, Ellie and company find a safe house of sorts, and it becomes the hub from which they carry out multiple adventures into Seattle. While it’s obvious that they wouldn’t just teleport to their destination, so much of the game’s time is spent on getting to the destination instead of actually exploring the destination.
Its predecessor avoided this by taking place across a wealth of varied locations, but the grand majority of the sequel takes place in the same setting. What’s kinda funny to me is that while TLoU2 spends so much of your time getting to various locales in Seattle, nothing is shown about getting to or from Seattle, or anywhere else. You can read a little about the characters’ travels in journals, but that’s pretty much it.
I suppose it made sense that they didn’t want to make the first game about slogging through hordes of infected towns and driving along the interstates to reach their goal, but this one is as much about the journey as it is the meat of the experience, and the sequel just cuts out what could’ve been room for interesting character development and fills your time with mindless slogging through ruins. This is made even more evident as the game teases you repeatedly with fleeting glimpses of your destination as you wind your way through the ruins. It gets extremely old after a while, and it makes me feel like these interim sections could’ve been trimmed down, or left on the cutting room floor completely.
Sure, there’s some flavor conversation that takes place along the way, but surely this could’ve been fit into a cutscene or short gameplay segment. I don’t understand why it was necessary to force me to kill an entire company of soldiers, or a horde of infected as you descend through a building. I get it, the city is filled with threats… I got that the first time, and while the gameplay is better than the previous game’s, there’s only so much entertainment value to be squeezed from stealth-killing everything.
Access For All
There’s something to say about the improvements made to the progression systems and combat though, and don’t get me started about the accessibility and difficulty options.
The sheer girth (yes, girth) of options given to players is downright fantastic, making it entirely possible to customize the entire game down to whatever requirements or preferences you might have. That doesn’t mean that you just get a singular choice between easy, medium, and hard. No, you get to choose how durable the player character is, how easy it is to spot the player, how effective the enemies are in combat, the capabilities of allies, and even the frequency you find ammo and materials in the world.
To top that off, the accessibility options are… incredibly varied. I won’t list them all out, but they range from ones that are useful to those with movement disabilities, to those that are nice to have for any player. I particularly love the option to change button mashing prompts to just holding down then button instead, saving me the pain of destroying my thumbs trying to deal with the horrendous number of situations where this is required.
Also, there’s a slow motion mode. Perhaps it’s cheating to use it, but it’s so awesome that I don’t care. I got myself started about that last bit, so deal with it.
I was also talking about the gameplay too, right? Well, it appears that Naughty Dog did spend a little time refining the combat from the first game, thankfully. Not much changed functionally, but it’s clear to me that they did well with making everything flow much better, though they still managed to make some rather questionable decisions.
I’m continually baffled by how developers consistently fail to understand how firearms work when they are so dead-set on “realism” as a selling point. Apparently they spent all the research time and money on making sure that stabbing is as visceral as possible, while just watching some action movies to shore up their firearm knowledge.
However, I’m glad that the stealth action is much smoother, because you’re going to spend a ton of your time killing a truly colossal number of enemies for some reason. Where all these people and infected seem to come from is beyond me, considering the nature of the environment they live in. For as much as the game attempts to hammer home that life is harsh and unforgiving, the denizens of this universe seem to have little problem with amassing ludicrous numbers of people to fulfill the role of cannon fodder for the player to cut through.
How the hell does Ellie’s knife not break, when other melee weapons break constantly? Lead pipes, machetes, fireman axes, etc… They all break in a few hits. But Ellie’s little switchblade full of delicate moving parts? Nah, that thing is made of unobtainium apparently.
The shivs from the first game do make a reappearance, which I understand to an extent since requiring the player to maintain a finite resource of clicker-killing weapons makes the stakes a tad higher, but that doesn’t apply to Ellie at all. She’s immune to the cordyceps infection, but wouldn’t it make more sense for the odds to be stacked a little more against her? After all, while a bite wouldn’t necessarily be fatal to her, that wouldn’t mean that all bites would be a negligible threat to her, so the infected can still kill her.
Has no one else discovered the lost technology of knives? Is Ellie the only one left in existence who knows how to wield a blade without breaking it? These are questions that go unanswered…
I’m going to avoid as much spoilers as possible, which leaves out a great deal of crucial detail, but I don’t want to ruin anything for people who have yet to play this. Suffice it to say that once again the strength of the narrative lies in the connection of the characters to one another. I have to applaud Naughty Dog for actually focusing on representation of LGBTQ+ relationships (something that should come as little surprise to those that played the first game’s story DLC), even if it’s not something that caters to me specifically. It’s certainly nice to see some variety finally though.
It’s a shame that the relationships are often so uninteresting and (in my opinion) poorly developed. For instance, in the span of the time Ellie takes to travel from Jackson City to Seattle with Dina, they go from partners in a fling to loving one another, and the only real indication you get to tip you off about their relationship is if you read Ellie’s journal about their trip to Washington. I feel as if this was a missed opportunity to really show how they’ve bonded along the way, but instead all you get is a tiny, entirely missable note that says they love each other.
Joel and Ellie’s surrogate father-daughter relationship showed actual development over the course of the game, which makes me feel like it’s a shame they didn’t take the same approach to fleshing out the bond between Ellie and Dina. Further compounding the lack of depth presented to the player regarding these relationships is how much focus is placed not on the characters involved, but the multiple love triangles. The beginning of the game felt much less like a serious story, and more like a mashup of teen drama tropes complete with the angst and poor decision making. Thankfully the drama fades out pretty quickly.
But hey, that’s just my take on it all. Interestingly enough, most of the moments I felt any sense of development between characters was in the multiple flashback sequences, and most notably not with Ellie either. Those probably served as the catalyst for me continuing my playthrough more than anything else, because they felt more like what I bought the game to experience. Maybe that’s just me who set myself up for disappointment; I’m not sure what I went into this expecting.
Well, maybe I went in expecting the same level of care put into the narrative and relationships as I saw in the flashback sequences, rather than the bulk of the game feeling like everyone is an empty husk. It’s funny too, that the people I ended up rooting for in the end were the “bad guys”. I’ll explain more in another more spoilery post.
Throw It All Away
I will attempt to explain something that any player should go into TLoU2 knowing beforehand. Others have talked about the narrative being about the futility of revenge, or the vicious cycle of violence and what little benefit it can bring, if any at all. However, since TLoU2 revolves around these topics, it makes the entire experience seem futile and pointless, like how Naughty Dog seems to want to portray all human life in their universe.
That’s not even to mention how I’ve come to agree with others that it just doesn’t end when it should’ve, much like other games these days that seem to want to have epilogues. However, unlike games like Red Dead Redemption II, which used the epilogue to set up the connection between it and the predecessor, TLoU2 uses the extra, unnecessary runtime to not only undo any sense of resolution or character growth, but to needlessly continue the revenge story, while also introducing the reasoning for Ellie to forge on ahead in a manner that should be completely impossible.
It felt like someone at Naughty Dog read the story notes and thought to themselves “Nah, it shouldn’t end there. I know that we padded the game with hours of combat sections that go on far too long, but we really need players to feel like they got their money’s worth by wasting their time and making them hate Ellie.”
I mean that last bit, because even though I could forgive many of the multiple transgressions she committed against everyone she was close with, Naughty Dog saw it fit to turn her into a character that doesn’t grow at all. She doesn’t develop at all. Instead, she just keeps doubling down with every hand she’s given, even if she clearly knows that no good will come from continuing, all while everyone around her bends to her will. Everyone else in the entire game is a better, more interesting character than the one you’re apparently supposed to be rooting for, and it’s not the result of a bad voice actress either… just really poor writing.
There are dozens of better revenge tales out there that you can choose to experience. The Last of Us Part II is not worth the time it takes to grind your way through the story, especially since I was left with the feeling that the game focused on the wrong person. It’s a pretty game for sure, and it has some cool moments, but the story is just as fruitless as the premise it tries to present.
Have you played The Last of Us Part II? How did it leave you feeling? What do you think its strengths and weaknesses were?