Note: This article contains very minor plot details from The Last Of Us Part II and major details from the original Last Of Us (including discussion of its ending).
The Last Of Us Part II wastes no time reminding players of something they could never forget. The opening scene of the game is a recap of how its predecessor ended, the profoundly haunting punctuation it put on the tale of two bereaved survivors making their way across an America overrun by fungal zombies and bands of vicious outlaws. Joel, the grizzled smuggler you controlled in the original, promptly recounts the climax of that cross-country journey, the moment when he successfully escorted Ellie, a 13-year-old immune to the virus that had ravaged the whole world, to a hospital in Salt Lake City, where a group of scientists hoped to engineer a vaccine. And Joel recalls, too, how he couldn’t accept Ellie’s sacrifice, the fatal surgery on which the future of the species depended, and how he—which is to say, you—turned the full force of his misdirected grief and rage on humanity’s last hope, including the doctor standing between him and the surrogate daughter he couldn’t cope with losing. It was an ending as dramatically satisfying as it was disturbing. A perfect ending, in its shattering way.
We didn’t need more. There was, in fact, reason to be skeptical of the very idea of continuing this grim, celebrated story. Why tempt fate by tacking more words onto the end of an exquisitely troubling ellipsis? But The Last Of Us Part II justifies its existence by not just forging forward from that unforgettable ending but actually grappling with it. Joel’s dark choice, and his additional decision to lie to Ellie about it, hangs over all 30 hours of this maximalist sequel, as crucial to its own psychological architecture as a devastating prologue was to the original’s. What Joel did, out of some combination of undigested trauma and genuine love, informs everything in Part II, from the relationships among an expanded cast of characters to the new conflicts that drive its super-sized plot. The game keeps returning to those fateful moments in the hospital—the walk down a long hallway and into an operating room—through nightmares and flashbacks and symbolic callbacks. Joel’s blinkered rescue operation sent shockwaves of horrible meaning backwards through the first game. With Part II, they move outward, too, like the ripples of water touching an ashen shore on the menu screen of this new adventure.
We begin in Jackson, Wyoming. Joel and Ellie have settled into a new life in a facsimile of the old world, a settlement behind high walls, a makeshift city with electricity and security and neighbors. Though something has come between the one-time travelers, their status quo is stable. (Toddlers stagger down Main Street—a reality that seemed impossible in the at-once more barren and more volatile world presented in the first game.) Something will, of course, shatter the peace. Inverting the original’s configuration of roles, the developers at Naughty Dog push Joel—looking even older than he did last time around—into the passenger seat of the narrative. Players instead take control of Ellie, now a gaunt and haunted young adult, some five years after the events in Salt Lake City. She’s played again by Ashley Johnson, not just deepening the character’s voice but also implying a miniature lifetime of heartache and harsh awakening in its cadences. (Part II reinforces Naughty Dog’s reputation as one of the gaming industry’s leaders in casting and voice acting; the performances are as nuanced as they were in the last installment.)
Whereas The Last Of Us unfolded on the open road, dragging its slowly bonding protagonists from one side of the map to the other over a span of a few months, the sequel centralizes the action and truncates the timeline. Huge portions of it take place over just three days in the disputed remains of Seattle. Here, Ellie arrives almost like a Yojimbo figure, trotting into the territorial conflict between two warring factions. There is, as you could suspect, less environmental variety—which it to say, a lot of passages tasking players to crawl through abandoned buildings and across crumbling city streets. Yet the designers, working toward the vision of returning writer-director Neil Druckmann, get the most out of this fully realized setting, taking us into every remarkably detailed corner, from a subway system bathed in blood-red light to the queasy peaks of darkened skyscrapers. (If you don’t already have a fear of heights, one breathlessly sadistic sequence might give you one.) The Last Of Us Part II creates a whole city for you to scramble through and then uses the texture of its world-building to imply an even bigger one just beyond your sight line.
Though the maps are larger, that’s not so much to create a more “open” world—this is still a guided and relatively linear experience, in gameplay if not chronology—as to expand the sense of spontaneity and the options of strategy during each “encounter.” The mechanics have been tweaked, not overhauled: You can break windows with bottles, crawl on your belly through tall grass, and shimmy sideways through tight spaces, but the signature blend of feverish combat and intense stealth evasion—and the possibility to choose between them when faced with a mass of patrolling enemies—remains more or less intact. At 30 hours, the gameplay can border, occasionally, on the repetitive, though Naughty Dog finds ways to keep you on your toes, sometimes literally: One extended, nerve-wracking pursuit through a residential area of overgrown backlawns throws scent-tracing dogs on your trail, forcing you to stay moving or get caught, while several full-blown action sequences pivot on fleeing giant hordes of the infected. (These moments are about as close as anyone might get to some feverish Hollywood spectacle this summer.)
There was a pinch of the Western to The Last Of Us, detectable in its twangy Gustavo Santaolalla score and its vision of a country reverting to Old West lawlessness in the aftermath of civilization’s collapse. In Part II, that accent becomes a full flavor, beginning with an opening stretch that recalls—in its wintery weather and horseback action—the prologue of another recent, hotly anticipated sequel, Red Dead Redemption 2. But the game’s genre influences run deeper: to action blockbusters, to fallen-world science fiction, to R-rated revenge thrillers, even to YA romance. (There are not one but two love triangles, both sensitively handled.) Like just about all games with some survival horror in their DNA, The Last Of Us Part II nods at one point to Resident Evil, through a boss fight in a cluttered basement that evokes any number of standoffs with Umbrella Corporation mistakes. Elsewhere, it briefly, explosively transforms into a bona fide war game, putting the apocalyptic into post-apocalyptic. No one could accuse Naughty Dog of aiming too low.
It can be an exhausting game—in its suffocating suspense and relentless violence (including, dog lovers be warned, against man’s best friend), in its story’s grueling emotional stakes, and in the sheer time commitment it demands. The Last Of Us Part II fancies itself an epic, down to the Roman-numeral formality of its title; were it a ’90s prestige movie, it would stretch out across two VHS tapes. But more often than not, Druckmann’s ambition pays off. While Naughty Dog is well known for its cinematic aspirations, there’s something undeniably novelistic about this sequel, with its sprawling ensemble of sharply defined supporting players and its willingness to privilege character development over nonstop excitement. The game’s sophisticated flashback structure, dipping back into the years between its own events and those of the first game’s, pays enormous dramatic dividends. We get to see Ellie grow up—a neat trick that gives fans the version of her they remember (“Jesus Christ, Joel” and all) and the more hardened person she’s become. The question of how one turned into the other is a matter of more than simply time and age; it’s integral to the backstory Part II slowly, carefully unfurls.
There’s a moral logic, also, to how The Last Of Us Part II plays with our sympathies. Without saying much more, Ellie’s is not the lone perspective the game offers. It splits our allegiances and re-contextualizes sections of gameplay in powerful, sometimes cruel ways. As with many revenge stories, it’s hard to reconcile the game’s desire to wring thrills from brutal bloodshed and to hand-wring about it at the same time; this is, yes, another violent entertainment that sometimes wants to make you feel bad about the violence it’s feeding you. But Druckmann’s critique of killing as fundamentally corrosive to the soul isn’t entirely generic. It’s specific to his characters and what they’ve been through over the course of this multi-year saga. And Part II works an indictment of tribalism into its very structure, the plot doubling back on itself to complicate our relationship to Ellie and confront us with the full consequences of her actions. Lots of games, even ones that remove the element of actual player choice the way The Last Of Us did, force an identification with characters by simply syncing your vantage to theirs. The Last Of Us Part II offers no further say in the decisions Ellie or Joel make, but it’s enormously effective in acknowledging and undercutting the subjectivity of it story.
There are times when a fan of the original might miss its comparably lean and direct approach. Part II is a bigger game in every possible way but not necessarily a better one; it sacrifices some of the simple ghost-town poetry, not to mention the clarity of Joel and Ellie’s relationship, which gets reiterated (and even mirrored) here but never quite matched. This sequel has more false stops than Return Of The King, and by its operatic and downright biblical finale, it begins to flirt heavily with pure bombast, with a self-seriousness as overgrown as any Bloater. But it’s usually smart to bet on Naughty Dog sticking the landing, and Part II invests so heavily in these characters—new but especially old—that by the time the actual ending finally arrives, it’s gutting in a wholly different way than the original’s. All of which is enough to make you hope against hope that this will be the last of The Last Of Us—and to suspect that if it isn’t, everyone involved will again justify the decision to continue it.