The Last of Us Part II buckles under the weight of its ambition

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) sets an unimpeachable technical standard and has some of the best stealth action I’ve ever played. It’s also a game with blunted thematic impact due to excessive length and an unsatisfying story for its back half. I’m glad I played the game, but TLOU2’s weaknesses make it a significant step down from Naughty Dog’s best, The Last of Us and Uncharted 4. Spoilers for TLOU2 ahead.

Luddonarrative dissonance is an unavoidable weakness in TLOU2 thanks to the game’s persistent stealth sandbox gameplay loop. Granted, Naughty Dog tries everything possible to avoid this phenomenon. The main characters have backstories to justify their acts of violence. Player-controlled action tries its best to match the somber tone of the cutscenes with grotesque and unsettling audiovisual cues. When you kill an enemy soldier, an ally will often cry out their name in anguish. Hit someone with a melee weapon, and you’ll listen to them gurgle on their blood. Stealth kills are a switchblade to the throat, replete with arterial blood spray.

But eventually, the gameplay, however bleak, clashes against the more mediative thematic elements in the cutscenes. The variety of weapons and environments encourages an improvisational behavior that forced me to juggle an assortment of guns, bows, and explosives during an engagement, shifting in and out of stealth to get the upper hand. My mind started to treat the action scenes like puzzles to unlock and push through, a stark contrast to the “cycle of violence” that TLOU2’s cutscenes want to impress upon me. And while the brutality of the game always registers, its sheer repetition dulls the emotional effect.

This dissonance is where TLOU2’s length, roughly double that of the original The Last of Us, faced a challenge. For most of the first act of gameplay, you control Ellie, one of the protagonists of the original The Last of Us. Early on, a mysterious new character Abby brutally tortures and kills Joel, Ellie’s effective father figure. In response, Ellie heads off to Seattle to hunt down and kill Abby for revenge.

After fifteen hours of gameplay, Ellie’s story telegraphs that it’s near the end. After killing countless soldiers and capturing clues to Abby’s whereabouts, Ellie catches up with Abby herself. But Naughty Dog intentionally subverts expectations with a cliffhanger cut to black as Ellie and Abby meet face to face. At this point, my control shifted to Abby, and after a few minutes of play, the chronological timeline cycled back two days prior when Ellie first arrived in the city.

This was a disappointing reset. Luddonarrative dissonance was weakening the narrative’s power. Instead of the story wrapping up, I realized I was only halfway through the game, about to put another ten hours playing from Abby’s perspective.

To the game’s credit, playing from Abby’s viewpoint pushes the story forward in creative ways. Controlling the identified “villain” from TLOU2’s first half helps me sympathize with Abby’s character motivations and gives breathing room to portray how her backstory intersected with Joel. On a strict gameplay level, Naughty Dog also tries to freshen up gameplay by giving Abby a different upgrade path and weapon set.

But I still find Abby’s half of the story noticeably weaker than Ellie’s. On a storytelling level, the game front loads nearly all the positive, sympathetic character beats for Abby and her friends in a heavy-handed fashion that feels cheap, if not borderline manipulative.

For the first two hours of Abby’s timeline, Naughty Dog presents reveal after reveal to show “bad” characters in a new light. To understand what drove Abby to murder Joel, we see Abby’s dad as a selfless doctor that saves the life of a wild zebra, hours later dead, butchered by Joel’s hands. Abby’s organization, the WLF, painted as a ruthless, fascist militia in Ellie’s timeline, turns out to have a cute little kindergarten and farmers market in a retrofitted stadium. WLF soldiers joke around with Abby about burrito day at the cafeteria. Mel, a WLF solider that was part of the original group that targeted Joel, talks about her pregnancy. Abby plays fetch with her dog that Ellie killed in gameplay a few hours earlier. All these events are packed together in a way that robbed proceedings of nuance or interpretation and went far longer than necessary to make its point.

Abby also has detours on a medical supply mission that strain credulity and feels like padding on an overlong game. To save time for urgent surgery, she traverses Seattle across “sky bridges” that straddle tall buildings. Near the end of her journey, Abby conveniently slips and falls through glass into a nearby building, ensuring an extra hour of gameplay through a zombie filled hotel. Minutes later, Abby reaches the hospital, but every medical supply kit for surgery is conveniently packed away. My instinct here was that in a large hospital, given Abby’s established earlier as a well known face within the WLF organization, that it would be easier to sneak around and steal a single medkit from a shipment. But instead, the plot railroads Abby into the hospital’s underground levels, packed with dangerous zombies, all in the hope that leftover medical supplies from a former surgery ward remain. In both scenarios, I felt the hand of the game creators forcing me to take on more infected when, at this point, the game exhausted reasons why I kept running into them.

Abby’s trip down to the hospital’s lower depths climaxes in the most baffling fight sequence in the game, a boss encounter against a giant monster called the Rat King. Abby has one brain dead strategy to follow: pump as many rounds of ammo as possible into the creature, run away, reload, and repeat. It feels like a battle out of a late era installment of Resident Evil, an unnecessary distraction from the headier morality play many other parts of TLOU2 are striving towards.

The Rat King battle encapsulates why TLOU2 feels inferior compared to the original. It’s a game that takes many big swings, some that connect, but just as many that miss. It’s a sequel that tries to one up its predecessor at every opportunity, but in the process doubles its length and becomes tied down by a gameplay loop that overstays its welcome. TLOU2 represents peak 2020 AAA gaming, a game that takes amazing technical and gameplay leaps forward but loses the heart that made the first The Last of Us special.