From a narrative perspective, there’s no real need for The Last of Us Part 2 to exist. The gripping, tightly paced, very human tale told by the first game is an almost perfect example of self-contained video game storytelling. That game’s ending—where the “hero” condemns the world to continuing disaster out of love for a companion he has slowly grown to love like a daughter, all while betraying her wishes and shielding her from the truth—is a deeply affecting and thought-provoking moment that has resonated with gamers for seven years now. The idea of adding anything to that quietly confident, freestanding narrative package feels superfluous at best and gratuitous at worst.
But the difference between a happy ending and a sad one often depends on when you decide to stop telling the story. And it would admittedly be something of a waste to condemn The Last of Us’ top-notch world building to a single short game. Thus, we now have The Last of Us Part 2, a game that can’t seem to decide if it wants to continue the core story of the first game or pull the camera back to provide a wider view of a fallen world still ravaged by the threat of the zombie-like Infected.
Nothing good can last
Things pick up four years after the events of the first game in the amazingly calm settlement of Jackson, Wyoming. After the almost overwhelming death and decay of the first game, it’s a shock to be thrown into a thriving community full of electricity, commerce, gossip, food and drink, and even happily playing children. Small groups still regularly patrol the perimeter to keep the Infected at bay, but humanity, it seems, has gained a bucolic foothold.
The sense of a slowly returning normalcy is made all the more bittersweet because we know Ellie is fated not to enjoy it for long. The Ellie we see here is no longer the sweet, energetic, eager pre-adolescent who forged an endearing bond with gruff Joel through the first game, either. Time and knowledge have made her harder, more reserved, and more unforgiving than ever. By the time external circumstances and a drive for vengeance force her out of the comfort of Jackson and into a dangerous, murderous trek to Seattle, it’s not exactly a surprise.
We do get occasional glimpses of the old Ellie, especially when she’s taking her first tentative steps into a truly adult relationship. Love interest Dina is a gently teasing foil for Ellie’s developing affections here, and their extended casual banter during the trip to Seattle brings to mind some of the best bonding moments between Ellie and Joel in the last game.
These conversations take place amid the beautiful desolation of a city that has quickly been retaken by the nature surrounding it—a “Nature is healing” meme made vividly real. The environmental design in Part 2 is top notch, with every single location feeling like an actual, inhabited place that was fully built and then slowly left to rot. I could aimlessly wander the beautiful desolation for hours, picking out ominous touches of environmental storytelling even if I wasn’t scrounging for materials to ensure my in-game survival.