This “review”/ analysis is after three hours with the game.
My opinion could well change by the end, but I felt I had reached enough of a significant moment to explain my thoughts so far.
I thought the Last of Us was a masterpiece upon first play through. Over time, I have identified a few design flaws (which are actually common across a few other Naughty Dog games in my opinion), but nevertheless it remains probably my favorite game on the PS3. This will inevitably affect my judgement on its sequel, but I will try to be as rational as I can.
While I have read spoiler free reviews of TLOU2, I did speculate about the story before the leaks. At this juncture, I did go in relatively blind and right now can only guess where it’s going to go. I can and will only comment on the story thus far. Right now I can say that there will be a big spoiler (with warning) so I can express my thoughts honestly.
Finally, it’s a given that I will talk about elements that have been mentioned dozens of times before across this digital void known as the Internet. That being said, I think I have my own style and I will be respectful but honest.
With that out of the way, let’s go.
For the longest time, I thought that was going to be the last thing said in a game that was, in my opinion, it was one of the best stories and overall experiences in gaming so far.
I loved the first Metal Gear Solid, but my teenage self was slightly naive (or just new to) playing a video game that was so pioneering in its cinematic presentation. While my thoughts on that franchise will have to wait (in fact I’m not sure I have the energy), as I’ve grown older, Naughty Dog (and of course others) have been at the forefront of pushing the medium in terms of production values.
It’s strange how “ok”- something so ambiguous, so almost defeatist and nonchalant (in context) can have such narrative and emotional weight. At the time it was one of the best looking games on the system but regardless, The Last of Us earned every single second of involvement- being able to digest a rich lore, enjoy plot progression and overall, learn about the dynamic between the main “protagonists” and enjoy how well crafted their relationship was, as well as having a stellar supporting cast.
Well, that was 2013, and a lot has happened.
After my first three or so hours with the Last of Us part 2, I have to take stock.
Whether this is the “review” you’re expecting is your call, but I want to explain as best I can what works, what doesn’t and more precisely, why.
At the beginning of TLOU2, we catch up with grizzled smuggler Joel, his brother Tommy and teenager Ellie. If you haven’t played the first, it’s difficult to get into it but suffice to say you’ll be in the loop in no time.
One of the earliest exchanges turns out to be a pretty good analogy of my experience so far, but I will explain this in my conclusion. Joel recalls the closing moments of the first game to his brother, while seemingly living in a perpetually precarious yet unnervingly content community.
Performing duties such as patrolling the parameters of townships are referred to with whimsy that the sense of dread of surviving every day life has been reduced to a sport or boring slog rather than tense, tactical battle of wills. Everything is everyone else’s business and the day after the night before is the main topic of early conversations. Cliques, factions, alliances- it appears all of the tropes that come with institutionalization or manufactured society associated with post apocalyptic fiction are waiting in the wings.
Individuals and groups just trying to stay alive, while trying to make things work in the face of adversity and diversity.
The picture was always going to get bigger. The juxtaposition of the intimate paternal relationship between Joel and Ellie was always fighting against the greater good, or “the rest of them” if you will. It was time for them to join some kind of community after their road trip across America in the first game, the destination has been put front and centre, but at what cost to their emotional journeys.
Has the relationship run its course?
Sure, it would have been understandable if the past was left in the past (lingering doubt notwithstanding) with Joel and Ellie drifting apart after the events of the first game. We already know about their relationship and history so it could have been explored more to add wrinkles or impact or conversely, it could easily have been seen as unnecessarily drawn out. There is a jump of four years after all. I still think it would have been interesting to see them drift apart like young adult kids and their parents do. I thought it really was going in that direction. When Joel and Ellie do share a moment, it’s exactly what I wanted from the sequel.
The game didn’t need to retread old themes or even bring up the past too much, but that relationship (and the opening of part 2) was still one of the key things that worked.
What happened between Joel and Ellie was what I was most looking forward to with The Last of Us part 2, and I have to accept where the story has gone so far. I can’t make adefinitive judgment yet because I haven’t finished the game.But… if you’ve read anything from ND kingpin Neil Druckman… he certainly wasn’t lying.
The writing is on the wall.
Without trying to sound antagonistic towards any demographic, in my opinion the Last of Us part 2 wears its heart on its sleeve and has its… ideologies in its mouth from the outset. I’m not singling any one example out but while the diverse range of characters deserve time to develop, there are a few interactions early on that glaringly lack the nuance or the craft of the first game and more specifically, the DLC Left Behind.
I have no issue with the characters message or the cause, but the writing and characterization so far invokes the feeling of rather than taking the ball and running with it, they ran backwards, drop kicked it into my face and then I get penalized. And then made me feel guilty.
Moments of quiet contemplation and reflection during down time in the first game are replaced by overt, awkward and clumsy attempts at confronting contentious subject matter. The first game skillfully dealt with similar themes and ideas, but as far as I’m concerned, there are many good literary examples of addressing issues across a wide spectrum of specific topics that are infinitely better handled or dare I say more sophisticated in their delivery than the austerity I have experienced so far in The Last of Us part 2.
I obviously still need to see how things pan out, but so far I have not had the chance to get a sense of… purpose. There’s heavy themes being dealt with here, but it’s approach is so jarring it’s bizarre.
I have been introduced to a handful of (so far) peripheral characters that are as ambiguous as they are just flat.
It’s clearer to me that the Last of Us is morphing into a “saga” or “universe” now. I’m not able to make a proper judgement just yet but so far the transition is unsatisfying, disorientating and frankly disconcerting.
Hard, fast and early. SPOILER WARNING!
Joel dies. Early. With relatively no build up and definitely no rationale. At least not yet. By someone who appears to be trying to make a name for themselves but as of yet is relying on me caring, which I’m not sure I do. He could well be a victim of circumstance and the subsequent developments could compliment the first rather than forget it. My genuine concern is that for a number reasons, it feels like it was for shock value rather than narrative significance and the game will suffer as a result.
As I said, maybe the dynamic and relationship between Joel and Ellie might have been on a road to nowhere, but time will tell. I guess that because words like justification and vindication are filling my head, which is worrying so early on before going forward.
I will say right now that in the aftermath, Ellie goes back to their house. As a player you are exploring to find mementos and memories to feel the sense of loss. It doesn’t work. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a lazy attempt to make me feel something that had not been earned by anything I’d experienced so far. The photograph of Joel and Sarah from the first game, the watch, etc. just looking through this stuff (and up to this point in the game) it felt like not only was the game not respecting my time, past or present, but paradoxically it expected me to move on without question. There’s no balance of exposition and ambiguity. There’s no “your watch is broken” level of smart dialogue.
In the opening hour or so, there are a number of shifts in tone or changes in perspective. Going from an admittedly fun method of reacquainting myself with the controls and such, I was flip flopping between a scripted chase sequence, character introductions and obtuse exposition at break neck speed, until things slowed down to a crawl.
Again, whether these narrative threads pan out remains to be seen, but it does feel incredibly unbalanced- some aspects seem rushed or unearned while there are the antiquated “environmental puzzles” that were more forgiving in the first game due to the character development. Here it seems a lot more brazen, and dare I say, regurgitated.
Elsewhere, interactions and conversations that feel like I was dropped in half way through or dirty laundry being unceremoniously aired in public do nothing to satisfactorily either establish new characters or build the lore around them. I know I’m not far in but right now, what could be seen as intriguing and suspect is honestly perplexing and odd.
I’ve not mentioned names, purely because I want to see what happens. At least initially this was going to be Joel and Ellie’s story, and in that respect, I have to move on.
I said there was a small but significant thing I noticed very early on which I personally think is a good analogy about how I feel so far.
Joel is cleaning his guitar (at least it looks like) without any strings, and that is what this game feels like so far. A guitar with no strings makes no tune, but you can still bang on it to make noise.
The game may well be trying to say something relevant and important in today’s modern, complicated and intense social landscape, but it is said with such a lack of grace, craft or even understanding that it comes across as disingenuous.
Waves of mutilation.
While I haven’t really experienced any graphic violence so far (well, nothing out of the ordinary), Unfortunately the opening exchanges are bludgeoning in every context imaginable. In terms of the set up so far, one comparison that comes into my head is, regrettably, Batman vs Superman. Trying to set up so many things and bombard me with forced or flimsy emotional connections has left me feeling empty and confused.
I still enjoy the stealth combat and the game looks absolutely stunning, as riding on horseback with mountains in the background and the exquisite score from returning composer Gustavo Santaolalla made me remember why I loved the first one so much. However, I can’t help but feel that everything that made the game so special is being lost, forgotten or just mishandled.
I need to give the game time to grow as its own entity and I’m interested to see where it goes in spite of my initial concerns.
It is a video game after all, and in that respect, it is still essentially the familiar gameplay and level design from the first game- for better or worse. So far I am enjoying the GAME, but as the story and characters were so integral to the experience first (and this) time round, I have to approach the rest of my time with the game with an open mind, despite my grievances about what has happened so far.
I’ve not given up yet.