The Last of Us Part II Remastered: No Return is a fun but flawed roguelike

It’s not often I get together with my gaming buddies, so when we meet up, the discussions about what we’ve been playing last for hours. One game that sprung up during our chats was The Last of Us Part II, and I still remember what I said when concluding my thoughts on it. “I love the game, but I’m never playing it again.”

I last finished it back in 2020 and have yet to get back to it. Then The Last of Us Part II Remastered came out about a few weeks ago, and I’m back in that hole. Truth is, I’ve been thinking a lot about it — it’s been infecting the synapses of my brain, much like the cordyceps in the game. — creating an itch that other games haven’t been able to scratch. The remastered version provided a good excuse to dive back in.

Technically, my statement still holds: I’ve not returned to playing the game’s story campaign — I don’t think I’ve got the emotional energy to do so. But I have been going through No Return, the new roguelike mode included within the remaster. Roguelikes are something that I’ve only recently got into. Hades has converted me, so hearing about this new mode got me excited.

I’ve gone through many hours of The Last of Us Part II Remastered: No Return, and the overall consensus is that It has scratched that itch, but things are holding it back. So let’s talk about them.

No Returning Back

Let’s set the stage first. No Return is Naughty Dog’s iteration of the roguelike genre. Once you pick a character, you’re tasked with going through five levels before fighting a boss. Defeating the boss cements your run. 

The Last of Us Part II Remastered No Return: Board
No Return starts you off in a hub space, where you’ll be able to see the path you take to the end

Levels come in four different forms. There’s Assault, which involves clearing enemies in three waves. Capture requires you to open a guarded safe before time runs out. Hunted asks you to survive for a set period of time, and Holdout requires you to protect your ally against a swarm of Infected. Enemies are also randomised for most levels, so you could face the WLF soldiers for one stage and then the Seraphite faction afterwards.

A lot has been said about The Last of Us Part II, but more needs to be said about the combat. Combat is an underrated part of the game, and for No Return, it is the heartbeat of the mode. You would not think the system lends itself well to a roguelike mode, but it fits surprisingly well. 

No Return requires a decent level of planning for every run. Like the main campaign, there’s the aspect of hoarding crafting materials, but here, it is encouraged — you may not need it now, but you certainly will for the next stage. Plus, there is the extra paranoia of losing it all if you die early. 

Then there’s the decision-making. After every stage, you’re rewarded with currency for gun upgrades, the trading post (where you can buy weapons, ammo, and recipes), and skill upgrades. For the trading post, items on sale are randomised, so there is that internal struggle to choose whether to get a particular gun now and risk the next stage with no other items or to get what you need but then be unable to have an extra weapon.

One thing that the mode has added is urgency. In the story campaign, you have the luxury of time to plan out what you want to do. For the No Return mode, not so much. Not only are you racing against the clock for some stages, but enemy AI is much more aggressive and gets progressively stronger as you go deeper. Nothing is quite as tense as being hunted down by the Infected while your supplies are dwindling; missing any shot is much more fatal to your chances of survival.

The Last of Us Part II Remastered No Return: Gameplay
With ammo similarly scarce, but enemies more aggressive, every bullet in No Return counts

The Last of Us Part II Remastered: No Return also lets you play as multiple characters from the story, each with distinct loadouts and playstyles. While you may start with Ellie, a more balanced character with an equal focus towards stealth and crafting, you can eventually use others like Lev, who employs a stealth-like approach and begins with a silent bow and arrow. 

Conceptually, playing as your favourite character (mine’s Jesse) is exciting, but the execution is well-thought-out, too. Each character has strengths and weaknesses, and it is engaging to accommodate them within the gameplay. For example, Tommy can’t dodge, though this is offset somewhat by being much sturdier against melee attacks. But he also starts with a sniper rifle, so players have to play to his build and keep a distance for maximum lethality and survival.

The Last of Us Part II Remastered No Return: Characters
Unlocking characters takes a little bit of time but gives the opportunity to try out different playstyles, like Mel, who has healing-based gameplay traits

They say variety is the spice of life, and there are a decent amount of maps for the levels, though these are reused maps from the campaign, and you’ll be seeing a lot of repeats during your first few runs (I now know the Office map like the back of my hand). 

The variety comes from the level mods. Mods come in all sorts of flavours, ranging from photo filter visual tweaks to gameplay modifications, such as enemies dropping bombs when killed. 

The Last of Us Part II Remastered No Return: Photo Filters
Photo filter mods help change the scenery every now and then

Admittedly, mods don’t come into play very often on normal runs, but with custom runs (a feature unlocked later), that’s when the fun starts. There’s a cool one called Molotov Rain, which creates a unique form of chaos with its randomly dropping Molotovs on the map.

Rueing the Roguelike Absences

As much as The Last of Us Part II Remastered: No Return has been an incredibly fun experience, I don’t think it is a particularly good roguelike for my taste. 

For me, roguelikes are about getting progressively more powerful after every run — think Hades and Rogue Legacy. This unfortunately is not what No Return has. Like other roguelikes, you lose everything you’ve accumulated when you die during a run, but unlike its contemporaries, you don’t earn anything that you can use for later runs.

Instead, there are challenges, and completing them during a run mostly unlocks other characters or skins. At the start, there is some impetus to see what other characters bring to the table, but that all dies out once you’ve unlocked everyone. 

The Last of Us Part II Remastered No Return: Challenges
Challenges mostly unlock cosmetic changes rather than improving your chances

There is little motivation to continue on more runs with a specific character you like because you can’t upgrade them. That’s not to say you can’t create a powerful character during a run. I’ve gone on very successful tries with potent weapons and a full stock of items, but because a run only consists of five levels and a boss encounter, you never really get to enjoy being unstoppable that long.

Compare this to another PlayStation Studios game that recently had a roguelike mode added as well — God of War Ragnarök’s Valhalla mode — which has the unique trait of a narrative interwoven into the mode. The difference is more stark than you’d think.

Arguably, I’d say that No Return’s gameplay was more thrilling than Valhalla — I never quite kicked about in my seat quite as much in Valhalla as I did, barely surviving an encounter in No Return — but I certainly wanted to jump back in more often in God of War not just because I could improve my chances for my next run, but also because I was still rewarded with new lore and dialogue from characters; gaining more knowledge of the story being told. Every single death felt as though I was working towards something.

The Last of Us Part II Remastered: No Return exists in its own bubble. Though you may play as the different characters within the story, you gain no further insights into them. The absence of these qualities in No Return feels strange and distant for a series that has earned its reputation through its narrative and characters.

But I’m speaking hastily; story and character progression aren’t the only motivating factors needed for a roguelike. Sometimes challenging yourself is. Bosses get unlocked for players to face later, so there is some incentive to complete runs. The problem lies in luck. Because you can’t add any permanent buffs for later runs, you are at the mercy of the RNG, which makes up a big part of whether you can complete a run.

The Last of Us Part II Remastered No Return: Boss
New bosses unlock after you complete a run, but the journey there takes a certain amount of luck

A run can end as soon as it starts. Dinah, a crafting-focused character, had absolutely no chance on the first level of one run — I could not collect and craft items while being aggressively pursued by Infected in Hunted. Similarly, a bad RNG roll for items you need before a boss encounter can be incredibly demoralising, having been so close yet so far.

Sometimes it feels like the odds are stacked against you, which could certainly translate into a higher feeling of euphoria if you manage to get through it. But I just wish that the game mode gave more power to players’ skills.

The Last of Us Part II Remastered: No Return can be described in many ways. ‘Fun’ is definitely one of them, but so is ‘flawed’. There are several things that I feel that Naughty Dog has missed the mark on for their first roguelike, but I’d be damned if I didn’t admit that I had such a blast playing it — I miss the gameplay so much.

If you haven’t yet played through The Last of Us Part II, what are you doing here? Go experience the story, wallow in your feelings once you’re done, and come back here. As for those coming back and wanting to know if the No Return mode is worth going through, it mostly certainly is for a fan of the series, but maybe not so much for roguelike enjoyers.

The Last of Us Part II Remastered is available on the PlayStation Store at S$67.90. Owners of the PS4 version can upgrade to the PS5 version for S$13.36.

Screenshots were taken on a PlayStation 5.

Russell Matthew Loh

Watcher of films and player of games. Dabble with writing in between.

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