‘The Last of Us II’ review: A late cycle hit

The Last of Us II, the follow to 2013’s critically-acclaimed “The Last of Us,” is finally here, and it is drawing tons of buzz. Of course, the title, which is sure to be a late-life system mover for Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 4, has been one of the most anticipated games of the year, but it’s the game’s content and characters that are getting all of the attention ahead of its launch.

Set in a world ravaged by a parasitic fungus that turns humans into, well, zombies, it’s the kind of mature title that packs a serious punch in terms of story, the effects trauma has on people, and graphic violence. And while that’s certain to turn off some players, those who loved the original “The Last of Us” will find the wait worthwhile when they launch into “The Last of Us II.”

Picking up the pieces

“The Last of Us II” takes place five years after the events of “The Last of Us.” You don’t necessarily need to have played the first game to play the new entry, but you’ll lose out on much of the significance of the characters’ actions in the sequel.

As a quick refresher, this is your spoiler warning for “The Last of Us,” the first game focused on a smuggler Joel, and 14-year-old Ellie. Several years have passed since the parasitic cordyceps fungus first took root in humans, and the world has fallen into chaos.

Joel is tasked by a group called The Fireflies with taking Ellie across the country, from Boston to Seattle, where they hope to create a vaccine against the fungus by using Ellie’s immune system.

Doing so, however, would kill her.

In the end, Joel couldn’t let the girl he took across the U.S., and who reminds him of his daughter who died at the outbreak of the virus, to die. So he stole her away from The Fireflies, slaughtering a number of them, before escaping to a small settlement in Jackson, Wyoming.

But Joel never told Ellie the truth about his actions in Seattle, simply saying that there were others who were immune and that The Fireflies wouldn’t have been able to make a vaccine.

That brings us to “The Last of Us II.” Picking up in the now-bustling settlement of Jackson, you spend your time in the game playing as Ellie. The world is still very much full of the infected, forcing the residents of Jackson to regularly patrol the area around the settlement to take out any hordes that pass through the region.

Ellie and Joel have to reckon with their past in ‘The Last of Us II.’ (Image: Sony)

Of course, you don’t stay in Jackson long, and eventually make your way to areas including a war-torn, long-abandoned Seattle. Ellie is now a 19-year old carrying intense survivor’s guilt caused by her immunity to the virus and the trauma of having traversed the country having to kill infected and humans alike.

Naturally, you’ll continue to kill an endless number of infected in “The Last of Us II”, but like any good zombie story, it’s the other humans that are the greatest threat. They’re also the characters that you feel the most uncomfortable dispatching.

The game builds up Ellie’s relationships with her girlfriend Dina and close friend Jesse, to show that there’s still hope in this world, but it feels easily overmatched by both the virus and rival factions that kill anyone not in their group indiscriminately.

I’ve played plenty of violent games over the years, but the intimacy of the violence in “The Last of Us II” sets it apart from its peers. Yes, you’ll end up shooting down foes from rival groups, but you’ll also dispatch people with everything from hatchets to switchblades, and hear the immediate results of your actions. Ellie’s death scenes that roll when you’re killed can be particularly brutal to watch.

But that’s the point of the violence in this game, to show how prolonged exposure to it numbs you, just as it seemingly numbed Ellie, who is able to calmly stick another person pleading for his or her life with a knife and leave them to die on their own.

At its heart, “The Last of Us II” is a story about revenge and loss, one that Ellie herself ends up perpetuating — like a perverted form of ouroboros.

The second half of “The Last of Us II” is a major turning point for the game, one that reviewers have been asked to hold discussing in their articles for fear of spoiling the title. But it’s there that you will form a large amount of your opinions about the game.

A need for changes

It’s important to note that “The Last of Us II” looks spectacular. Naught Dog, the studio behind the game, makes everything from snowy trails to gutted cities appear as realistic as is possible with the power of the PlayStation 4. You won’t be left wanting for better art here.

I do, however, wish there were more changes to the game’s general interface. Much of it feels like it’s been carried over directly from the original “The Last of Us.” Shooting controls can also be frustratingly difficult, making you miss your target often.

Naughty Dog has done an incredible job building the world of ‘The Last of Us II.’ (Image: Sony)

I get that it’s supposed to simulate the feeling of being in a life-or-death situation, but Ellie has been in those most of her adult life, and should be able to better aim at her targets, especially when ammo is in such short supply.

Since this is “The Last of Us II,” you’ll spend a lot of time in the game sneaking around trying to avoid both infected and humans. And like the first game, you’ll use your hearing to locate your enemies and plot your path around them. I found myself needing at least a few tries to get through particularly cramped areas of enemies before managing to take the right path to escape unharmed.

My one real problem with “The Last of Us II’s” mechanics is its dodge system. You’re supposed to be able to press the L1 button to avoid physical attacks from the infected and humans, but I was never able to get the hang of it. 

Should you get it?

“The Last of Us II” is the kind of game that will divide people through its intense delivery. I fall strongly in the camp who truly enjoy the title. It’s just about as dark and gritty as possible with a few fleeting moments of joy between characters to give you at least a hint of hope.

There’s little doubt that fans of the first game should pick up “The Last of Us II.” If you haven’t played the first one, it becomes a bit harder specifically because it builds on the characters’ relationships from the prior title.

That said, this is the kind of game that only comes around so often, and is worth your time if you can handle it.

Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at [email protected] over via encrypted mail at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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