Sunday 23 August 2020

The Last Of Us Part II

"Press L1 to gallop". It's the first prompt you're given in The Last Of Us Part II, a prompt to race ahead on your horse. But why would you? The low sun hovers in the sky casting golden shadows through the tranquil trees. The animation feels more lifelike than anything before. The textures are sumptuous. This is a world to immerse yourself in, an Americana somehow more lush and grotesque than the game that came before.

By the end, you'll wish you could've galloped through a lot quicker.

Until then, you revel in the details. The paraphernalia in Ellie's room that hints at the woman she's become since the events of the first game. The way snow cascades off a tree as you brush past. Crackling footsteps in snow. The dirt under Ellie's fingernails. There are frequent moments to simply pause and take in the view - whether in photo mode or just in-game - accompanied by the gentle plucking of a banjo for punctuation. 

It's these quiet moments that highlight the humanity at the heart of The Last Of Us Part II. It can be tender and sweet and loving, catharsis between all the shooting and stabbing. This is the game at its best, when it makes you care about these human beings. The core relationship between Joel and Ellie is truly affecting, fuelled by father-daughter awkwardness and nostalgia for the first game. That giraffe moment is extended to whole scenes, cementing the characters more than ever in moments of levity and laughter that become decidedly less frequent as the story progresses.

And the characters are authentically portrayed, reflecting the world in all its diversity - even if some secondary characters are underdeveloped. Queer relationships are wonderfully normalised, even if a trans character is used primarily for dramatic effect. These are humans who love and hate in equal measure. You will too.

There are some subtle changes to gameplay compared with the original. Ellie is more mobile than Joel was; the ability to crawl adds another (literal) layer to stealth; the inclusion of enemy dogs instills more panic than the undead ever do. More so, the game leans further into horror elements. It is a masterclass in atmosphere and suspense as you frequently wander in the dark and crawl through cramped air ducts waiting for the next jump scare, the fantastically eerie sound design sending tingles down the spine.

It's a game about love, grief, forgiveness and revenge. It's about religion and faith, the destruction it brings but also the hope and strength it provides to rise above loss. But more than anything, it's a meditation on violence. It forces you to question every character you kill, whether dramatically through storytelling or almost comically through the cries of named NPCs. Where so many video games rely on violence for action - not least of all Naughty Dog's own Uncharted series - The Last Of Us Part II has you confronting every death you commit. 

But how far is too far?

The game's biggest flaw is its lack of editing. It's so jam-packed with themes, twists and horribly gruesome deaths it's simply exhausting. While the narrative concepts are worthwhile exploring, the game's lack of any subtlety eventually numbs you. There are no heroes or villains here but it's so intent on telling you this, in indelicately painted shades of grey, it hits you brutally over the head repeatedly to let you know. Humans are flawed. Ok, we get it.

The pacing is off for a number of reasons. The storytelling lacks the singular focus of the first game. The flashback structure drags. The gameplay isn't shaken up enough across the overlong runtime and is instead just relentless. When the multiple consecutive endings reach finality the narrative does eventually land. But it takes so long to get there, the whole experience is a draining, laborious slog. The setup doesn't quite feel worth it. 

And it really is an experience. This is not a game to enjoy. It is amongst the most depressing and bleak pieces of media in existence, plunging the depths of human depravity and cruelty. It will leave you disgusted and heartbroken in equal measure. It will leave you questioning what it was all for, this ultra-violence dressed up with a poignant score.

That a game has such an ability to make you feel is remarkable. It's almost impossible to not be invested in its storytelling and it will stay with you long after the credits roll. But to make us feel this bad for the violence the game forces you to enact feels like punishment. It's a masterpiece in grim storytelling. There's no other experience quite like it, for good and for bad. If only you could gallop through a little quicker.