Finished The Last of Us Part 2 last night. It is an impressive game, brutal in so many ways, though not in the way the Souls games are brutal. It's not about play difficulty. The game offers an impressive array of options for difficulty and accessibility. The studio clearly made accessibility a priority, the first thing you see when you load the game, before you even see the studio logo is a few accessibility options, and when you get into the game the options become even more numerous. I ended up playing with a lot of them turned on, because I really wasn't looking for a skill challenge, I was looking for the narrative.
The game is like a movie with some interactive parts. Unlike say, Bioware games, there are no points where you really control or change the outcome of the story. You play puzzles and tactics in combat/stealth situations, but none of that effects dialogue or outcomes. In this case, the studio put that to good use by writing an excellent story. Most of the time I didn't care I couldn't control outcomes because I was just wrapped up in what was happening and wanting to know where it was going. The times I did want to control what was happening were where, I think, part of the point was having to sit and be complicit, in a way, with the actions of the protagonists.
While the mechanics of the game are (as best as I recall) pretty much unchanged from the first game, the game makes a bunch of interesting choices outside of the mechanics that really integrate with the theme and story.
[And here I will warn about tons of spoilers, which I don't usually do, but this game really does deserve to be played without knowing where its going.]
You start off the game playing Ellie, one of the protagonists from the previous game, but pretty quickly you switch to this other unfamiliar woman, Abby. Her story starts out pretty vague, but quickly intersects with Joel (the other protagonist from the first game). It switches back to Ellie and you see Abby kill Joel. It's pretty brutal and shocking. The game jumps ahead a short period, and you return to Ellie, headed off from her home with her girlfriend to Seattle to track down the group of people that killed Joel (in particular Abby). At first you think the early part of playing Abby was just a way to increase the shock of the murder.
In Seattle, Ellie starts killing the other people that were with Abby in the beginning. They are part of some kind of militia group (who is fighting a kind of territory/gang war with this religious group) and it's easy to see them as enemies. The militia attack you, you fight back, you track down the specific people. They get killed. (Other stuff happens with Ellie and her friends, including a bunch of flashbacks.) Then... one morning Ellie wakes up, and finds Abby holding a gun over one of her friends and Abby shoots another friend dead (it happens so quickly). Abby is pointing the gun at Ellie your protagonist... You expect... something... maybe a boss fight, maybe some kind of resolution... then...
You're playing Abby again a few days earlier. And suddenly as it continues, you realize, it's not another one-off thing, Abby is the other protagonist. And at first it's weird cause she killed the guy you played in the first game, but then you start to warm to her. You see all those friends Ellie killed as... Abby's friends, as people, struggling with what they did and what they do (well most of them). You play fetch with a dog you previously killed as Ellie.
And there are more flashbacks where you learn that Abby's dad is this doctor that Joel (you, the gameplayer) killed at the end of the first game. And there are all these parallels and connections and suddenly you realize, how it's just violence perpetuating violence. But in a way... in the beginning... Abby and her friends kill Joel but they leave Ellie and Joel's brother alive. They leave. But Ellie... she followed them and started killing them all. They are basically following the same path, revenge, but Ellie takes it to even greater extremes. And weirdly your protagonist of two games, becomes a villain.
So you end up playing Abby helping some kids that are part of her opponent religious cult, and you play her finding her friends' dead bodies, or seeing her friends killed (in a tough scene where you are hiding from a vicious sniper who is the friendly brother of Joel).
Eventually the game gets back around to the confrontation, Abby pointing a gun at Ellie, Ellie admitting the reason Joel killed Abby's dad was Ellie. And suddenly you are in a boss fight, but you're Abby fighting Ellie. And you win. And you let Ellie and her girlfriend live. Abby walks out.
Cut to a farmhouse, Ellie and her girlfriend are living on a farm with a baby (the girlfriend finds out she's pregnant earlier in the game). It seems as idyllic as post zombie apocalypse can get. It's a little coda, somehow against all odds this game has a happy ending, though clearly we see Ellie has ptsd after all she's gone through.
Then Joel's brother shows up (the first point you realize he is alive and that Abby didn't kill him) and he's heard a rumor where Abby is and you realize he hasn't given up, but still I held out some hope that it was still the end. A final "let it go". Then... Ellie is leaving. And you are her again hunting down Abby and the game continues for another couple scenes. And Ellie and Abby fight again, both horribly wounded. Abby doesn't want to fight, Ellie forces it, and you are her, so this time you are fighting Abby.
And this is one place where I was tempted to just... not fight. To let Abby win. But... what would be the point, when you die the game would start you back at the beginning of the scene/fight/location as usual. ( A nagging suspicion maybe this last fight they'd let you do that to get an alternate ending, but somehow I doubt it.) And when you win Ellie almost drowns Abby (they are fighting in the surf) and then let's her go. She sits there in the ocean in the fog alone.
Final scene, this time for real, Ellie returns to the farmhouse and it is all cleaned out except for her stuff in one room. She leaves.
That's a ton of plot description, but even that much feels like it misses elements that made the game so effective. The game consistently makes the violence vicious and brutal and keeps turning around on you and not letting you forget that all those human enemies are people. And having you play basically mirrored antagonists was a brilliant decision. It's uncomfortable and sad and painful at times, but it's also really effective.
Even in the last scene when Ellie is trying to find Abby and fighting these gang members who captured Abby, when you kill them the others in the group shout out their names. They each have names and you hear a lot of them. It's surprising and unexpected and it makes you feel how much Ellie, is basically just a mass murderer.
Probably the least effective or interesting part of the game is all the zombie fights. They provide an important background for why society has fragmented so much and why there are these desperate warring factions and such, but unlike in the first one where the zombie's and the potential cure for the zombie plague were a major driver of the plot, this one has no real connection anymore to the zombie's, they are just there as another obstacle, and playwise I found them the least interesting parts of the game.
Still, wow, a powerful game. I basically spent a huge portion of my free time playing it over the past 6 days because I just kept needing to know what was going to happen next. But also... I don't think I could ever play it again. Without the plot surprises, the narrative would be much less effective I think, and the gameplay itself is not exciting enough to want to redo (plenty of other games I could play if I want a third person stealth shooter type game).
I also wonder where they can go from here. Can the studio follow this up with a game with violence without being total hypocrits? Can they find a way to make a violence free game? Seems like very few of the big games are not about killing stuff.