by Mike Gilbert

Tthe last of us 2here’s a common feature in role-playing games where you can skip the exposition-heavy cut scenes that are used to further the narrative. It’s a great feature for those re-playing a game so to not have to hear the same dialogue several times. In playing Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II, though, I found myself wondering if the studio could add a feature to skip the game play and just get to the cinematic scenes. That’s because the story is where TLOUII really shines, and the game play is just something to be slogged through.

For a bit of background, most of TLOUII takes place four years after the events of 2013’s The Last of Us. The post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world the character lives in hasn’t changed one bit, except that humanity seems to have gotten even more brutal. Crumbling cities have become warzones that various savage factions squabble over, while the mushroom zombies seem to be even more plentiful and petulant. The zombies are merely a background threat to be avoided and summarily dispatched, though. The real threats are these competing human groups, the paramilitary Washington Liberation Front and religious zealots The Seraphists.

The story is split, Rashomon-style, into the points of view of dueling protagonists, Ellie and Abby. While we have a huge emotional connection to Ellie from the first game, the connection the narrative forges with Abby in TLOUII is arguably even greater. If you peel back the onion a bit, Abby’s actions are also slightly less problematic. That said, they are clearly opposite sides of the same coin; a fact the game cheekily lays out in the collectibles. Ellie and Abby are both extraordinarily complicated characters—equal parts hero and villain. Neither is searching for redemption, only vengeance.

Design wise, TLOUII is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen. The crumbling ruins of Seattle, where the majority of the game takes place, are a stunning achievement in design. The zombies, again, are repulsive, particularly the absolutely terrifying capo dei capi zombie. Where TLOUII really shines, though, is in the character design. The faces are expressive beyond anything I’ve ever seen in a game. At times, I forgot that I was watching a game, not movie. It’s that good.

While combat in TLOUII is a little smoother than in the first game, it got tiring after a while. Kill some zombies, kill some bad humans, repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s an endless, close-quarters bloodbath, to the point where I would have preferred to skip over most of it to get to the next story cinematic. That’s exacerbated by the fact that the character upgrades are minimal as you progress through the game. Additionally, the death cut scenes for the characters are so graphic that I found myself trying extra hard not to die so that I could avoid them.

To say that TLOUII is a punishing emotional journey is the understatement of the year (videogame category). It’s gut punch after gut punch, to the point where you almost forgive and forget that the two protagonists are intensely damaged people that you shouldn’t be rooting for. For every beautiful moment like Ellie’s cover of a-ha’s “Take on Me,” there is the sudden and brutal dispatch of side characters you’ve come to like. It can be as exhausting as running a marathon but, ultimately, TLOUII is complex and rewarding in ways that I’ve never seen in any other game. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time – probably far longer than any movie I’ve seen lately. Honestly, I can’t wait until the inevitable live-action TV version, where we can mostly get rid of the bleak combat and focus on the wrenching journeys of Ellie and Abby.

Grade: A-