(PS4) ★★★★★ Age: 18+
Lady Macbeth was tormented by her complicity to murder, driven mad by all the blood on her hands spilled during her husband’s rise to the throne. You too shall know such anguish while experiencing The Last of Us 2, which spares nothing in this post-apocalyptic sequel’s savage cycle of violence.
Accomplished developer Naughty Dog – perhaps best-known for popcorn-actioner series Uncharted – brought the original Last of Us to a gut-wrenching conclusion in which a fatherly devotion to one child triumphed over the needs of all humanity during a zombie outbreak. That child, Ellie, has now grown up but her world is in even worse shape, riven by hostile factions, perennially endangered by the infected and filled with hate.
In TLOU2, Naughty Dog wants us to understand the primal forces of love and revenge, how they drive us to new heights but also new depths. Such themes are regularly explored in literature, theatre and cinema but very rarely with such grim conviction in gaming. You can even see parallels with the real world of 2020.
So a vicious murder sets Ellie off on a brutal mission of retribution, pursuing the killers to the ruined city of Seattle. In the hands of Naughty Dog, it’s quite the spectacle. The studio deftly evokes a dangerous streetscape, overgrown with vegetation, flooded by encroaching rivers and teeming with ravenous undead or aggressive militia.
But all that’s meant as just framing for the emotional conflict at the heart of TLOU2, adeptly portrayed by the impressive, diverse cast and the visual tech that captures the subtlety of their performances. Naughty Dog gives reflective time and space to their mindsets with lengthy talky interludes in flashback. It’s trying to humanise all sides, making it all the more unsettling when they end up murdering each other.
Alas, the relentlessness and indifference of Ellie’s killing sprees undermines Naughty Dog’s good intentions. We experience so many emotions – joy, love, fear, sadness, amusement – throughout TLOU2 but it always returns to the next bout of repugnant throat-slitting. Ellie can stealthily avoid many confrontations, with great difficulty, but is never given non-lethal options.
In many ways, TLOU2 is an astonishing achievement – the result of five years’ work by a studio at the peak of its craft. But there’s barely a glimmer of redemption to wash away the stain of so much blood. Out, damned spot, out, as Lady Macbeth would say.