That question clearly hung in the air as the developers at Naughty Dog set to work on “The Last of Us Part II,” a game that doesn’t just replicate what worked seven years ago but expands on it in ways that are both terrifying and remarkable. Over 20-30 hours—the low end for experienced gamers more likely to flee encounters and much higher for those looking to find every collectible and stealthily kill every enemy—“The Last of Us Part II” delivers one of the most engaging, terrifying, and breakthrough game experiences of all time. It is a brutal game, one that confronts extreme violence and horror in a way that cuts to the bone while keeping the player on edge for its entire runtime. Most of all, this is refined, complex storytelling that centers on cycles of violence, the blinding nature of vengeance, and the impact a brutal world would have on humanity. How do you stay decent and humane in a society where those traits are in increasingly low supply?
Now this is where a critic would typically dig into and recount the game’s story, but Sony has been concerned about letting this experience unfold for gamers in an unspoiled, organic way. While this spoiler-phobia is often overblown, it’s understandable here given the secrecy around this project over the years and the daring way the writers allow it to play out for gamers. More than two dozen hours into “The Last of Us Part II,” I still wasn’t sure where the story was taking me next (or even where I wanted it to go or how I wanted it to end, which is even more of an accomplishment). Long gone is the predictability of game screenwriting in which there’s a good guy trying to get to a bad guy and maybe save a princess. The character-driven horror-drama of “The Last of Us Part II” forces the gamer to question allegiances and live in the moment—the panicked, terrified moment.
That last part is key. Every minute of “The Last of Us Part II” feels urgent. This game keeps you locked into its immediacy with a possibly deadly encounter behind every corner, creating more legitimate tension than any game before it. Part of the reason for that is the stunning brutality. Stealth kills don’t just drop a bad guy, they come with the sound of a knife entering flesh, and often gurgling blood. When you shoot an enemy, his friend will sometimes call out his name—you didn’t just kill a soldier, you killed a guy with a name and a friend. Body parts rend from bodies with incredible, gory detail, and the death count rises in a way that feels like it has actual impact. On one level, this is the story of how violence begets violence. A world in which factions form and people have to fight to stay alive can only lead to more and more intense bloodshed. Resources like ammo are in short supply in this game, but it’s really about how resources of basic humanity can dwindle away.