Fury, upset, bafflement, isolation, devastation and loss. An emotional array that we’ve all pushed through in varying comibinations over the last 12 months found itself a champion in Naughty Dog’s latest, bleakest masterpiece.
Triggering an unsurprising but nonetheless despicable storm of fury from the depraved right wing that has come to dominate games culture, Neil Druckmann and his team couldn’t have managed a better follow-up to the beloved but frankly slightly overrated first game.
We return to the lives of Ellie and Joel to find them fractured by the closing decisions of the first episode, rather than living some absurd “happily ever after” fiction. At home in a settlement among friends, any thawing in their icy distance is interrupted by an astounding and profoundly grim act of violent revenge. Ellie can only set out on a bloody crusade to get vengeance of her own.
The opening act that sets up these story beats is tense, detailed, thoughtful and wonderfully directed, and sets a standard that the rest of TLOUII maintains. Every environment, every character model and voice line, and every story twist adds to the miasma of atmosphere that suffuses the game.
Across 25 to 30 aching hours, players will follow Ellie as her quest loses any sense of righteousness, and as she plumbs the depths of what she’s willing to endure. Then, they’ll do it again in a lengthy second act that has bravura moments that simply top anything else this story-driven genre has so far offered up.
A torchlit hanging, the slow nervous exploration of a decrepit aquarium, a terrifying high-wire tightrope walk, a moonlit escape from fanatics, explosive ambushes and quiet reprieves – its environmental variation is superb, its pacing largely effective and its sheer tone-setting is irrepressible. You will stress out, have palpitations, drop your jaw in disbelief, scramble to survive and lose sleep over key moments.
Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey anchor the game with a pair of astonishingly accomplished performances as Ellie and her nemesis Abby. Their emotional trauma and bereavement are raw and affecting – it might sound trite to say that this is film-level work but it’s sadly true that few games have managed this sort of performance capture nuance thus far.
In terms of actual gameplay things have evolved from the first game but still revolve around the core loop of third-person exploration of wide but linear levels, interrupted by sustained and sometimes organic encounters with stalking enemies. These are both the living and the biomass dead, overtaken ever further by the fungal growths that triggered this world’s apocalypse.
Combat is crunching, brutal and abrupt, but filled with adaptability and varied tools to outwit and destroy your opponents in grim new ways. The extraordinary violence and gore is offputting and at times completely affronting, but my word is it effective. Some have argued that TLOUII aims for a mood that’s easy to summon, but the message it leaves a player with after its exhausting climax is impossible to deny.
Similarly, the idea that the darkness of the game’s story direction is somehow “unrealistic”, or that the manias some of its key characters showcase “don’t make sense” is so laughable a misread that it doesn’t bear investigation. By all means, avoid TLOUII if you’re not feeling up to its content and tone ruining your mood, but do not pretend it’s ineffective.
What was a terrible year offered up some genuinely outstanding games, with Demon’s Souls, Hades and Half Life: Alyx truly reaching for the stratosphere. TLOUII, though, is the game that did the most to show mainstream players that good stories are rarely easy, and pulled off its lofty aims with a surefootedness that beggared belief – the game of the year.