The Last of Us Part II

In reviewing The Last of Us Part II, I’m going to do my best to avoid spoiling both that game and The Last of Us.

That’s not easy, because the first issue I’ll discuss is whether you can play The Last of Us Part II (tLoU2) without playing The Last of Us (tLoU) first. Strictly speaking, you can; all the major plot beats you need to know from the first game are recapped in the second one. However, these are emotional stories, and I think it will be hard to understand some of the character motivations in tLoU2 without making the journey with the characters in tLoU.

The Last of Us was set a couple of decades after a global pandemic (sigh) has ravaged the world. The disease is effectively a highly infectious zombie plague. The story of that game followed Joel, still dealing with the loss of his family, as he accompanies the young Ellie in a journey across a ravaged country in the hopes of curing the plague.

The Last of Us Part II picks up the story some years later. This time the viewpoint character is Ellie. She’s making her own cross-country journey across the apocalyptic landscape. The centerpiece of that journey is a detailed depiction of a ravaged Seattle. The game is similar to tLoU: she must deal with environmental puzzles, locate resources, and have encounters with both zombie and human enemies.

The publisher of both games, Naughty Dog, also publishes the Uncharted series. While the two series have some similarities (the way waves of enemies attack, many encounters can be handled by stealth), the mood of the games are completely different. Anyone looking for Indiana-Jones-style antics of the Uncharted games will be disappointed. The world of the tLoU games is grim, sad, terrible, and filled with loss and pain. There are occasional moments of joy in this world, but they are few.

The story of tLoU2 is more personal than the first game, but also more intense. Naughty Dog found a way to up the emotional stakes of tLoU2 without the dramatic world-changing potential of tLoU‘s plot.

Since my previous review was for the story-telling game Detroit: Become Human, I should clarify a couple of things:

  • There are no story choices in tLoU2 (or tLoU or the Uncharted games, for that matter). They are cinematic games, in that you play the game to go from one scene to another.
  • Combat is a major part of the game. You will have to develop tactics and tools to get through encounters with enemies.
  • Unlike a story-telling game or the Uncharted series, tLoU2 is build-up-your-character game. You search for materials to improve your character’s skills, crafting abilities, and weaponry. Some reviewers say tLoU2 took them 30 hours to play; it took me over 60, because I scoured the landscape for resources (and also chose the stealth approach for most encounters).

There’s one area in which The Last of Us Part II breaks new ground in video games: its accessibility support. There are many options to adjust the user interface for both the hearing and vision impaired. As always, I played the game in Easy difficulty, but I also turned on all the accessibility options. That puts the game in “Super Easy” difficulty; for example, you can’t accidentally jump off a height and hurt yourself, you can easily detect enemies at a distance, the enemies become “dumber”, you’re harder to detect when you’re sneaking around, and you hear sounds whenever you’re near a resource.

For my part, in “Super Easy” mode I didn’t have much problem playing the game. There was only one encounter (about 2/3rds of the way through the story) in which I was so challenged that I had to consult on-line hints to figure out what to do.

The look and feel of The Last of Us Part II has improved over its predecessor. The PS4 is an aging platform and will be supplanted by the PS5 in the next few months, but during the platform’s lifetime Naughty Dog has learned how to squeeze every bit of graphics performance of of it. (The human figures in Detroit: Become Human looked better, but the landscapes and environments are better in tLoU2.)

I keep comparing tLoU2 to Detroit: Become Human, mainly because of how the story is presented. In Detroit, I had choices. In tLoU2, there are none; you take what is shown to you. There were several times during the game when I almost shouted at the screen, “Why are you doing this? This is incredibly stupid! Get a life, or at least get therapy, dammit!” But I had to follow along the self-destructive path of the character. This is a indeed the classical definition of a tragedy.

If you liked The Last of Us, I think playing The Last of Us Part II is a natural continuation of the experience. The reverse is also true: if you found tLoU to be too grim then tLoU2 is more of the same. If you’re willing to experience a powerful story and enjoy combat challenges, I think both games are worth playing. If you have time for only one, then I’ll concede that The Last of Us Part II is the better game.

One very minor spoiler that reveals something about me: At one point in the game, Ellie picks up something in a museum… then doesn’t put it back where she found it. From that point on, as far as I was concerned, she deserved everything that happens to her.

Then she does it again. Sometimes a zombie plague is the only just form of punishment.

Detroit: Become Human

As I played Detroit: Become Human, I was strongly reminded of two other games I’ve previously reviewed: Batman: The Telltale Series and Batman: The Enemy Within. They are all “choose your own adventure games”:

  • The emphasis is on the story. While there’s some combat, it’s all in the form of QTE’s (see below).
  • The story evolves as you make choices throughout the game. Depending on those choices, your character can be loved or hated; kind or vicious; calm or angry.
  • The characters you play in these games have a enhanced sensory mode (in the Batman games this comes from his cowl; in Detroit this is an ability all androids have). You use this mode to analyze your environment, locate items, and solve puzzles.

Detroit takes the experience to another level. An obvious difference is that the graphics are of high-end game-console quality; the human (and human-appearing) characters are at the other end of the “uncanny valley” from the cruder Batman animations.

The “decision tree” of Detroit is far more complex than any of the Telltale games. You know this because at the end of each chapter the game displays that chapter’s flowchart indicating the possible branches of the story. You can only see labels for the choices you made, so there’s some incentive to play the game again to explore the other branches you never saw. The Batman games don’t appear to have more than a dozen entries in their flowcharts; Detroit has hundreds.

The story: The year is 2048, and Detroit has become the “android capital of the world.” Your viewpoint switches between three android characters: Connor, the police consultant; Markus, the caretaker of an elderly artist; Kara, a housekeeper. At the very start of the game you learn the central conflict: some androids are breaking free of their programming. Whether this is a sign of free will or a symptom of “deviancy” is among the choices you make playing the game.

I was surprised to see that two well-known actors contributed to the voice talent: Lance Henriksen, probably best-known for playing Bishop in Aliens; and Clancy Brown, probably best-known to genre fans as the Kurgen in Highlander. The designers of the game went so far as to make their characters resemble the actors.

Overall, I enjoyed the game. None of the puzzles were terribly difficult. I played on Easy difficulty (of course), so the chance that any of the protagonists would die during the adventure was low (unless you made a series of aggressively stupid choices or badly failed in a QTE). While some elements of the story were predictable, there were enough surprises that I was engaged in how everything would be resolved.

The game is not without its flaws:

  • I said there was no combat outside of QTEs. For my non-gamer friends, a “QTE” is a Quick time event: during an action sequence, an icon appears on a screen and you have a limited time to press the corresponding button. Press the wrong one, and bad things can happen. My problem was that, even on Easy difficulty, I had to respond to the icon prompts so quickly that I often made the wrong choice; there were at least two times where the story spun off in a direction I did not intend because of a literal split-second confusion between what I saw on the screen and the button I pressed.
  • There is no way to deliberately save the game. In most games of this sort, you can save a game, make a decision, dislike the outcome, and restore the game to a previously-saved state. In Detroit you can’t do this; you must live with all the mistakes you’ve made. This means that to explore that expansive decision flowchart I mentioned above, you have play the entire game over again. (I may be wrong about this; there was a “Chapters” option in Detroit‘s main menu that I did not see until I completed the game.)
  • The publisher, Quantic Dream, released the game in 2018. There was no way they could have predicted that game’s events as it approaches its climax would be mirrored by real-world headline-news events a couple of years later. It created a weird dichotomy: I could empathize with the game’s characters all the more strongly because of the real-world parallel, but I also know that events would not go the way the game depicts because of what is really happening as I type this.
  • I played the game on a PS4. For some reason, Detroit‘s designers chose to use non-standard controls for the game’s actions. I grew used to it after a while… except for the QTEs, which is why I badly failed at a couple of them.

If you choose to play the game, let all of the end credits play and go past the final flowcharts. There’s a post-credit sequence that I found strangely affecting.