Friday, July 17, 2020

The Six Scariest Horror Moments in ‘The Last of Us Part II’

Undergoing seven whole years in development, The Last of Us Part II has finally arrived to an impassioned response to say the least. Bones of contention include: whether the title is a benchmark of risky storytelling or an ‘’insulting slap in the face of fans’’; its depiction of LGBTQ+ issues; deliberate pacing; nihilistic worldview; the ethics of crunch culture; and the body shapes of its various female characters. 

One topic that has sadly been buried amidst the exhausting furor is the fact that, as a genre outing, this sequel outdoes its forbear by every conceivable metric. It’s unquestionably scarier and more intense – with the moodier vibe, gorier imagery, and improved monster designs – and there generally seems to have been a conscious effort to mine the survival-horror potential for all its worth. 

With that in mind, let’s take a break from all the maddening internet vitriol and reflect on some positives for a change. Here are six times that The Last of Part II was actually more intense than its predecessor. Oh, and it should go without saying but watch out for SPOILERS AHEAD.

6) Pursued by a Horde 

Impressing the need for you to be lighter on your feet, this white-knuckle sprint compels you to utilize TLOU2’s refined traversal mechanics.

On the surface, this is yet another one of Naughty Dog’s tried and tested ‘’boulder’’ levels. You know, those bits mainly associated with the Uncharted franchise that have you bolting away from an encroaching danger and occasionally pressing ‘’X’’ to jump. You can practically hear the Crash Bandicoot music threatening to override the soundtrack as you dexterously weave between enemies, slide under platforms, and desperately try to keep your distance from whatever collapsing structure, venomous spider, pursuing vehicle, or giant polar bear happens to be on your tail this time. 

In that respect, Abby’s manic dash towards the ski lodge outpost, near the start of TLOU2, is hardly a radical departure from the formula. You’re essentially performing the same reflexive interactions that Nathan Drake would be carrying out under similar circumstances. Yet it is uniquely rattling in this particular case, thanks to the sheer volume of runners that are nipping at your heels.

The segment is a massive step up from comparable moments in the first game, wherein you’d rarely see more than a handful of infected at any given juncture. Back in 2013, they might have duped you back into believing that an unrelenting swarm was pouring through the windows (e.g. David and Ellie’s cabin defense) but for the most part, the attackers came in relatively manageable waves. 

Things are considerably beefed up with this chase however, as innumerable zombies flood in from all angles, shepherding you through a breathless obstacle course that’s bound to get your blood pumping. The dizzying clamor; the teeming crowd simulations; the way that the runners are now more agile, can break down partitions, and overwhelm fences: it’s a spectacular demonstration of how much these creatures have evolved for the sequel. Not to mention a chilling appetizer for the 20+ hours still to come.

5) Drywall Surprise

Being caught in such a compromised position, unable to defend yourself in any way, is extremely distressing.

It’s quite common for modern releases to disguise their loading times by making you squeeze through environmental obstructions whilst the engine quietly does its thing in the background. Featured in the likes of God of War, the latest Tomb Raider iterations and, most recently, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, we’ve become so accustomed to the gimmicky illusion by now that its novelty has kind of worn off. 

Whenever we are tasked with jostling through a tight crevice for a suspiciously long interval, or holding down a button to dislodge rubble, we know that it’s really just a stalling tactic to buy time whilst the next area is populated with assets. As such, we basically go into autopilot for the duration of these level transitions, secure in the knowledge that no interaction is required from us beyond simply pushing the thumbstick in the apposite direction.

This makes it all the more destabilizing when, roughly 12 hours into TLOU2, Naughty Dog pulls a fast one on you by dropping a clicker right into the middle of one of these shimmy sections. Up until this point, you’ve taken it for granted that the masked loading screens will offer you total sanctuary, as they do in every other title, and that you will be completely impervious to harm. So once you get behind an innocuous wall cavity (at the start of Abby’s trek to the aquarium) you’re thoroughly convinced that any peril has been put on standby and accordingly lower your guard.

To have that promise of safety rescinded – courtesy of an infected bursting through the plaster, ala the Kool-Aid mascot – comes as a real shock then. Forcing you to double back the way you came, it’s a devious little jump scare that plays on your assumptions of how video games work and even the most seasoned of horror veterans won’t see it coming. For another great instance of the developers preying on audience complacency and lulling you into a false sense of security, take a look at the moment in which your routine workbench tinkering is abruptly interrupted by a WLF ambush.

4) Cleaving, Maiming and Disfiguring in Haven 

Grueling and unimaginably painful, this fight ends up being so intense that you forget that damage is being inflicted upon virtual puppets.

Another area in which TLOU2 indisputably outstrips its predecessor is with its portrayal of graphic violence. Some have even raised concerns that it may have gone too far in certain places, arguing that the lurid detail with which it depicts bloody switchblade executions, gruesome disembowelments, and messy pipe bomb mutilations almost borders on the fetishistic.

Irrespective of whether you think Naughty Dog did truly cross a line, you have to admit that the brutality is exceedingly well done. Whenever you swing a crowbar into someone’s ribs, or slit the throat of a struggling NPC, it’ll cause you to involuntarily wince. After all, the combat animations and evocative audio feedback are just too realistic for you to casually brush off, no matter how desensitized to this stuff you think you are. 

The stomach-churning verisimilitude is at its most impactful during Abby’s perspective on ‘’Seattle Day 3’’, wherein she faces off against one of those sledgehammer-wielding Seraphites. Recalling the gratuitous excess of an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, this mini-boss encounter would verge on comical overkill, were it not for the terrific performances that bring it to life, alongside high fidelity graphics that make you feel the sting of every wound. 

The agonizing set-piece begins with Abby ditching her trusty backpack in a blazing inferno. Upon escaping the wreckage, she picks up a nearby reaping hook (as a substitute for her lost firearms) only to be immediately jumped by a muscle-bound scar intent on ‘’cleansing’’ her of sin. From there, you engage in a merciless duel with the brawny fanatic, using the sickle to tear through his dorsal, slash into his tendons, and even cut a Glasgow smile into his cheek (You can later forcibly pry this gash open, in what is possibly the most harrowing QTE I’ve ever participated in). As if those grisly lacerations weren’t enough, the poor bastard also gets an arrow lodged into his shoulder, which you can then yank free and use to repeatedly stab him in the face.

True, the brawl might not be ‘’frightening’’ in the obvious sense of the word, seeing as you’re the one who is effectively dishing out the punishment. Nevertheless, it is a horrific display reminiscent of the full-blown torture porn of Eli Roth, one that eclipses any of the gross-out content found in, say, Outlast or Resident Evil.

3) The Stalker Den

The office complex is an ideal map for introducing these cunning foes, filled with shrouded hiding spots and a multitude of paths to keep an eye on.

Whilst the original Last of Us got decent mileage out of a modest enemy roster, its sequel masterfully builds upon those foundations to offer up fresh nightmare fuel. Each of the newcomers has their own unique attributes that can shake up encounters in meaningful and often terrifying ways. You’ve got the Wolves (capable of tracking you on the go, via their canine companions), the Scars (whose behaviors you will be constantly trying to second-guess, on account of their coded whistling) and of course the Shamblers (who secrete toxic fumes to prevent you from getting too comfy in an advantageous position). 

Across the board, they’re fantastic, carefully balanced additions that keep you on your toes and incentivize you to adapt your playstyle at a moment’s notice. Yet whilst they all make a lasting impression and are capable of producing electrifying scenarios, the revamped Stalkers are the clear standouts. 

Granted, these stealthy mutants had a fleeting cameo in the first installment and its respective DLC, but the extent to which they have been dramatically overhauled makes them feel like an entirely new permutation. They scuttle around on all fours, hiding in unseen vantage points, and can even graft onto walls as a form of camouflage. Worse still, they cannot be detected by Ellie’s listening mode, which in turn flips the established dynamic on its head. Suddenly you’re the one who needs to be vigilant of stealthy opponents trying to take you unaware and lead you into clever taps. 

Your initial run-in with the breed is especially nerve-wracking, as you pass through an office building that’s been utterly infested with the ghouls. Trapped in the dark and gloomy lair, you become fearful of blinking, just in case you miss a hobbling silhouette dart between the cubicles, or a coordinated pack flanking you from the rear. Complementing the oppressive atmosphere is an exemplary audio mix, with the stalkers’ guttural shrieking and Gustavo Santaolalla’s droning score enveloping your eardrums. You’re surrounded and the game won’t allow you to forget that for a second.

2) Run, Abby, Run 

This spooky encounter showcases the title’s outstanding lighting effect, with dynamically rendered shadows that extend menacingly from the void.

Perfectly encapsulating the concept of ‘’out of the frying pan and into the fire’’, this portion of the game sees Abby narrowly escape a woodland lynching, only to then find herself being hounded by throngs of infected crawling out from the trees. 

Deprived of your standard equipment, you don’t even have the benefit of a flashlight to help you glimpse through the forest’s impenetrable darkness. Instead, you must rely exclusively on source lighting, namely a flickering torch carried by Yara, to navigate the dense foliage. So you’ll need to keep up with the apostate if you want to avoid being left behind, disoriented, and utterly encircled by ‘’demons’’.

Once again the audio does much of the heavy lifting here, suggesting the presence of an otherwise invisible threat; with a creepy subtly that evokes memories of The Blair Witch Project. The mix is incredibly rich – tuning you into every snapped twig, rustled leaf, or panting movement – whilst the directional sound implies that you’re gradually being boxed in and suffocated. In short, like the finest examples of horror media, this scene exercises admirable restraint and leaves a lot to your imagination.

1) Hitting Ground Zero 

Given that you’ll be too busy either fleeing in terror or setting it alight, you might not be treated to the clearest view of the Rat King. Check out the model viewer for a better look at its hideosity. 

One of the defining traits of the Cordyceps strain is how it progressively mutates over the course of several years. Those who are unfortunate enough to contract the disease will initially experience symptoms of mental deterioration, as the microscopic agent invades the brain and saps them of their remaining humanity. If they manage to survive for 12 months in this zombified condition, the fungus will eventually manifest itself externally and distort the victim’s facial tissue, creating what we know as Clickers. Then there is what we previously assumed to be the final stage of biological takeover, where (after a decade of replicating in the host) the virus causes armored plates to spread over the body and make a Bloater. 

In other words, the longer that someone has been infected with Cordyceps, the more monstrous they will become. It is with this foreknowledge of the virus’ life cycle, that we enter the basement of St. Mary’s hospital with great trepidation. As Ellie, we’ve already read an ominous missive that warned us against venturing into the lower levels of the building. Meanwhile, Abby has been explicitly told beforehand that the site was ‘’Ground Zero’’ for Seattle’s outbreak, where the first cluster of patients were quarantined together and have been lurking ever since. Metamorphosing into God knows what. 

As such, when we descend into the subterranean graveyard we’re already a little on edge. The developers were evidently counting on this reaction, as they sadistically turn the screw on you by implementing a creepier tone than usual. Indeed, all of the focus here is directed at ratcheting up the tension and conjuring up an atmosphere of sustained dread. Inhuman groans echo throughout the dingy recesses of the ward environs, pulsating emergency lights cast a hellish tint over the corridors, and disquieting notes paint an eerie picture of what happened 26 years ago. 

Progressing through the area, you’ll also notice that the abandoned inpatients have grotesquely fused into the walls. Maybe they’re dead. Or maybe they’re waiting for the golden opportunity to strike. Either way, it takes a considerable amount of fortitude to push onwards, as if you’re psyching yourself up for a haunted house attraction, anticipating the inevitable jolts. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably end up channeling Ellen Ripley and liberally incinerate everything in sight with your flamethrower, just to ensure that nothing is breathing. 

The thrilling sequence culminates with an exquisite boss battle against the misshapen ‘’Rat King’, a Cronenbergian abomination made up of Bloaters, Clickers, Stalkers and Shamblers all coalescing together. Having been artfully teased throughout the chapter, this hitherto undiscovered species is a startling revelation for fans and the ensuing confrontation turns out to be one the title’s very best. 


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