Friday, December 18, 2020

The Last of Us Part II

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Last of Us, The Last of Us Part II, Ghost of Tsushima, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Undertale and Spec Ops: The Line.

Ever since the PS2 Jak and Daxter games, I’ve been a fan of Naughty Dog and their work, even when they shifted to a narrative-driven style with the Uncharted series onward. I even enjoyed Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy in spite of their flaws and found The Last of Us to have some of the best character writing I’ve ever seen in a video game. When they originally announced The Last of Us Part II, directed by Neil Druckmann, I was intrigued, but news of overly intense crunch periods soured my willingness to play it. Once the game actually released during the early months of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I opted to watch a playthrough of the game and a few videos to see if I had really missed anything.

Although I wasn’t impressed with what I had seen, I eventually decided I should witness the story and gameplay for myself. Considering the praise that the game received, and its numerous Game of the Year awards, I wondered if maybe I had missed something and might change my mind if I actually played The Last of Us Part II. During my 25-hour journey, I did form my own opinion of the story separate from what I had already heard and found that I actually liked a couple ideas. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to like the game, I felt so thoroughly disappointed by such a painfully average experience that I now question if I can still eagerly support a company I once loved.

Let’s start with what the game actually did well. There’s absolutely no denying that The Last of Us Part II is easily the best-looking game I’ve played on the PS4. At times it felt like they somehow created a PS5 game, with an incredible attention to detail in the character models and environments, especially with water, grass and snow interactions, as well as horses that no longer look spindly like in the original game. I loved watching the characters go through the process of gun upgrades, since these animations actually used the parts on the workbenches and the end result physically shows up on the gun. The highly detailed environments also show off some amazing environmental storytelling, which I always appreciate in a game like this. There are some blemishes, like minor texture pop-in, some framerate drops and delayed model changes while a character eats a burrito, but they did nothing to take away from this aspect of the game.

I can't deny the stunning visuals.

I also can’t deny that the voice actors did a great job with what they were given and the music, while similar to the original, does its job well and maintains a unified sense of identity between games. There’s also good sound design, with different sounds from each weapon and human enemies reacting and speaking differently depending on the situation. It’s worth noting that human enemies also all have names now and will call them out if they spot a corpse or witness a death. While this didn’t really affect my view toward the game, it was an interesting detail nonetheless, mainly in how the line changed depending on how the death was discovered. There are points where Ellie can practice playing guitar and I liked how many scales were available and how the individual strings reacted to the placement of your finger on the DualShock 4’s touch pad, which opens up many possibilities if the player wants to play a song in the game (just don’t try anything heavy).

When it comes to the actual gameplay of The Last of Us Part II, I feel more conflicted. I was blown away by the wealth of setup and accessibility options that allow virtually anyone a chance to complete the game, even if they have poor vision or motor skills. Some of these options can honestly feel like cheat codes, like staying undetected while prone, but some are useful even for more able-bodied players, such as a High Contrast mode that makes spotting collectables easier. Auto-Pickup is also a godsend for anyone playing, as it easily prevents your thumb from hurting after pressing Triangle one too many times during exploration.

Aside from this, however, the core gameplay is virtually unchanged from the original The Last of Us from 2013. Crafting and upgrades are expanded a little and you can now use makeshift silencers, but jumping and going prone are the only major new additions. If you know the combat from the original, you’ll know exactly how to navigate combat in this game. Sure, the same tries to throw in a few new surprises, like the addition of dogs that can sniff you out or a new Shambler Infected, but dogs aren’t too difficult to throw off in some areas and Shamblers are a glorified remix of Bloaters. When I played on Moderate difficulty, I didn’t find the combat too challenging, especially once I figured out how to effectively sneak through or even run past certain encounters with no penalty. I did appreciate that dodging is a little more important in hand-to-hand combat, but I wish that were expanded on as a more viable option.

Crafting is expanded on, yet feels nearly identical.

Speaking of the combat, I noticed a much higher concentration of human enemies in this game compared to the Infected despite the post-apocalyptic zombie setting, even in comparison to the original The Last of Us. There is a boss fight against a new Infected known as the Rat King, which felt legitimately challenging compared to the rest of the combat and looked like it came out of Resident Evil, but that’s only one compared to the other boss encounters with humans. I didn’t think every boss had to be the Rat King, but more variety would have helped.

Puzzles are generally better designed than in the original game, with less of an emphasis on ladder and pallet puzzles in favor of ones involving a rope. I liked the idea behind the rope puzzles, but felt they could have pushed the mechanic further to add even a semblance of depth to exploration or even combat. Safes are also expanded on for puzzle solving, as they now require physical input from the player. While at least a couple require looking around the environment for clues, too many solutions are blatantly written on collectable artifacts a few feet away, to the point where the safe puzzles barely count as puzzles at all.

This was placed only a few feet away from the safe.

I also couldn’t ignore just how extremely linear the game felt, like I was walking on rails from point A to point B. The original The Last of Us also had sections like this, but since this game is double the length of the previous entry, it was more noticeable here. During Ellie’s “Seattle Day 1” portion, there’s one area that’s designed more like an open world game, with plenty of side locations where you can fight Infected and find valuable collectables. I did see some potential in expanding on this concept for the series, even if this section did drag a little, but the game eventually places you back onto the linear story path and you never get as much freedom again. The linear approach to level design also made me think of a boating section during Ellie’s “Seattle Day 2” like a riverboat ride and, due to proximity of playtime, a horseback riding setpiece during Abby’s “Seattle Day 3” vaguely reminded me of the two chariot sequences from Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones.

Speaking of setpieces, I did notice both that Abby has more action-packed ones than Ellie gets and that the game liked repeating certain gameplay beats. Some are more minor, Ellie and Abby both get attacked by an Infected while squeezing between two walls, while one more major example involved copying the sniper section from The Last of Us, but with Abby advancing against Tommy. I also ran into a couple issues, including the game saving my Artifacts and not my collected Parts and Supplements and one time where I fell through the map while traversing a river as Abby.

I don't even know how this happened.

I must say that while only 4.2% of players (at the time of this writing) have the Platinum trophy, “Every Last One of Them”, it’s actually very easy to obtain since none of them require anything spectacular unless you’re going for the two separate Grounded Mode trophies. I followed a collectables guide during my playthrough and only missed two trophies despite only missing three Parts the entire run. No matter what you do, you’ll have to replay at least 60% of the game on New Game+, so I lowered the difficulty on this run from Moderate to Very Light+ and turned on absolutely everything that would give me an advantage, but it still took me an extra five hours to speedrun the endeavor, bringing my total playtime to just under 30 hours (29 hours, 55 minutes and 19 seconds to be exact).

Platinum Trophy screenshot for posterity.

Now, let’s talk about the one aspect of this game that I’ve barely talked about up to this point and the single most disappointing part of the entire experience, the story. Before I go on, I somehow feel the need to say that my complaints have absolutely nothing to do with the identities of the characters. In reality, these come from an understanding that The Last of Us had one of the best stories and some of the best character writing I’ve ever seen in a video game and creating a sequel to that already creates very lofty expectations. Plus, as a writer myself, I have some idea of when something just doesn’t work.

With that said, the writing by Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross is shockingly awful, especially in comparison to the original The Last of Us. Even from the outset, the premise runs on shaky ground. Four year after the first game, Joel and Ellie have built a life in Jackson, Wyoming, but their relationship is strained. While on patrol, Joel and Tommy rescue a woman named Abby from a horde of Infected and return to Abby’s group at a nearby outpost. Meanwhile, Ellie and Dina are on patrol and search for Joel and Tommy. When Ellie finds Joel, she’s forced to watch him get beaten to death with a golf club and swears revenge.

Following up something as unique and well-written as The Last of Us with a generic revenge story is disappointing enough, but the poor pacing and anachronic order of events really don’t help. To break it down, my first run through, where I paid attention to the story, took nearly 25 hours even while grabbing every single collectable. After about 14.5 hours, it looks like the story has reached its climax, except it rewinds time so now you replay the same three days spent with Ellie, but now playing as Abby instead. This lasts another eight hours, after which you return to the fight at the theater, but still play as Abby. When it feels like the story has reached a possible ending, you then play as Abby and Ellie for another two hours until their climactic final fight. Throughout the story, however, you’ll also play through several flashback sequences, one per in-game day on average. If you count the three days spent as Abby as one big flashback, this results in flashbacks within flashbacks, which muddies the timeline. On top of that, you don’t learn major pieces of information until possibly hours later, like why Ellie seemed mad at Joel at the beginning before she decides to get revenge for his death.

The existence of flashbacks doesn’t automatically make a story bad, I even enjoyed them more than the main story, but they seemed abused here. At one point, I even wondered aloud why they didn’t just tell the story in chronological order for better emotional impact. The main story isn’t completely devoid of good ideas, as I liked the concept of Abby and Lev forming a bond despite the hatred between their respective factions and thought the story could have explored that instead of a generic revenge story. Plenty of the newer characters felt inconsequential to the overall plot–including Jesse, Manny, Isaac and the Rattlers—so it felt nice to find something more substantial.

The core idea of Abby and Lev's bond is actually interesting.

When the story doesn’t introduce inconsequential characters, however, it adds contrivances for the sake of making the plot work exactly as needed. For instance, while I did expect Joel to die at some point, the circumstances required him to act completely out of character. In the first game, he grew hardened after twenty years of surviving a post-apocalypse and was slow to trust anyone, so to have him immediately trust Abby after saving her felt wrong, especially since the story makes no effort to hint that he had changed in any way. Later on, Abby’s story feels almost wrapped up, but since she wasn’t at the aquarium when Ellie killed Owen and Mel, she has to chase down Lev at an island populated by the Seraphite cult as an excuse. When she returns to the aquarium, Ellie is gone, yet carelessly left behind a map with her exact location so that Abby will know where to find her for the climactic theater fight. There are other moments, including the questionable decision of allowing an eight-month pregnant woman out into the field, but these stood out the most.

All of these contrivances build up to an ending that feels anticlimactic to say the least. It relies on Ellie making a decision that doesn’t make that much sense in the context of her actions leading up to that moment, with not even a prior hint that she had second thoughts about fulfilling her revenge. Since nothing gets accomplished for Ellie except senseless deaths and more or less destroying her own life, the whole story feels pointless after this point and I wondered if this scene might have had more of an impact if she had fulfilled her lust for revenge and realized its true cost afterward.

Of course, the ending and prior decisions that led up to it are a result of the game’s very heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative execution of its “revenge is bad” message. While this does include hearing the names of humans and dogs that you kill, it even goes so far that it commits a cardinal sin of game design, forcing you to commit certain actions to advance the story and then trying to make you feel bad about it. When Ellie kills Mel, the player is forced to participate in her death, with no option not to, and then reveals she was pregnant. Just before that, you’re forced to kill a dog in a quick-time event, with no option not to, and then you learn during Abby’s section that the dog was named Alice and spend a lot of time with her, including playing fetch. Both fights between Ellie and Abby also end in only one way, with no say from the player on whether Ellie can win the theater fight or kill Abby at the end.

That’s really the biggest problem with The Last of Us Part II, the major disconnect it has between the story and gameplay. It’s far from the only game to tackle the cycle of violence as a major theme, but it relies a lot more on a liner storyline and cinematic cutscenes instead of incorporating it into gameplay and taking player agency into account. To better explain what I mean, I’d like to briefly mention how similar games handled this theme in a way that only a video game can (and remind you that I’ll be spoiling them).

Spec Ops: The Line details Walker’s downward spiral into insanity from his desire to feel like a hero, which includes denying the consequences of his actions in Dubai and even blaming a third party for the destruction he himself caused. It does have one memorable scene the player has no choice to avoid, but player agency exists everywhere else, as players can choose how far Walker will go on his destructive path. Players can even choose how the game ends, including whether or not Walker lives and whether or not he has learned his lesson.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater takes the cycle of violence concept and makes it the core mechanic of a boss fight. When fighting The Sorrow, Naked Snake must wade through a river of souls who scream about how they died. However, the number of souls in the river, and thus the length of the boss fight, is determined by how many soldiers the player chose to kill throughout the campaign. Since nonlethal stealth dramatically decreases the length of the fight, this encourages a different approach from going in guns blazing, though the player can still choose this playstyle.

Undertale expands on the cycle of violence theme and centers all of its gameplay systems around it. The player has complete control over whether they kill or spare any monster they come across. However, the game remembers everything you do and these actions actively shape the narrative, with certain events locked behind the player’s general behavior and certain characters occasionally calling you out. The act of saving and loading even becomes a major plot point for the antagonist and one other character. There are even multiple endings, including one that permanently alters future playthroughs.

Even Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima, the real swan song of the PS4, takes advantage of the video game medium when telling its story. It too deals with the topic of revenge, but the player has agency over Jin Sakai’s actions and dialogue as part of his struggle with maintaining the self-destructive samurai code of honor versus adapting and taking the less honorable path of the ninja. Players can even choose what Jin meditates on while he relaxes in a hot spring and where he gets his inspiration when composing a haiku, reflecting his values and outlook respectively. There are even two separate endings depending on the player’s final choice, which also influence what post-game items they receive.

My point in bringing these games up is that The Last of Us Part II and its anti-revenge narrative could have benefitted more from incorporating player agency into its story and gameplay, even without completely overhauling the plot. Improve the stealth mechanics and make it a more viable option for avoiding combat, then give blind destruction lasting consequences on the narrative. Give players the choice in how Ellie and Abby’s theater struggle ends or whether or not Ellie kills Abby at the end and show the consequences either way. Even improve safe puzzles by forcing the player to look more at the environment like in The Evil Within or turn resource management into a thoughtful risk vs reward system. Really anything that would make the player feel like their choices actually matter or that they even have a choice to begin with.

Despite all that I’ve said, The Last of Us Part II isn’t the worst game I’ve ever played. It’s truly breathtaking on a technical level and while the gameplay is serviceable, it has commendable levels of accessibility. However, the story, the most important aspect of a narrative-driven game, feels sorely lacking and is so linear that it could very easily have been a film or book instead. In that sense, it doesn’t really feel like much of a game and I unfortunately can’t recommend it.

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