The Last Of Us Part II: Accessibility Review
The copy of the game used in this review was provided by the publisher at no cost to the reviewer .
I've started off recent reviews saying how I've not played certain games like Final Fantasy VII or Minecraft. In that sense, this review is no exception: I've never played The last Of Us. Despite its critical acclaim, its emotional weight means that I wouldn't want to necessarily put an unsuspecting player through the journey unless absolutely necessary. Additionally, its reliance on stealth and survival, as opposed to more action-oriented gameplay didn't seem like an easy sell to potential CoPilots.
That doesn't mean I won't ever play the original game, just that I've had to work with commentary on YouTube and streams on Mixer and Twitch for my understanding of the first game's plot.
However, when The Verge released an article talking about accessibility features in The Last Of Us Part II, I was both shocked and extremely pleased. Pleased as having so many accessibility options allows so many more people to enjoy the experience and shocked because it was the first title I'm aware of to promise 100% accessibility to "blind" players, including the possibility of obtaining the platinum trophy and completing the game start to finish without sighted assistance.
With the majority of reviews releasing a week before launch, I kept myself as spoiler free as possible, including in terms of the accessibility experience. I'm very glad I did, as you'll soon discover. With that being said, let's dive into The Last Of Us Part II from my perspective as a gamer without sight.
Clearing Some Space
With the sizes of games increasing over the course of the current console generation, prioritising space is a constant battle. Unfortunately whilst downloading this 93 GB game, I ran into this frustration point for the very first time with this system. As a result, I had to get sighted assistance to resolve it.
Why Did I Need Sighted Assistance?
Whilst the PS4 does have accessibility features, the Text To Speech (TTS) feature that allows for navigation of the interface without sighted assistance through narration is only available on models sold in certain regions, according to the documentation. Additionally, it is restricted to English only. Gamers without sight who don't have access to this feature have to either get sighted assistance or utilise workarounds like Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which, though it can work well, is nowhere near as reliable as integrated accessibility options. I do not own a US PS4 model, meaning that I couldn't navigate the PS4's interface to even launch the game for the first time without assistance.
However, Once I launched the game, the excitement really kicked in.
On first booting the game, there is no speech at all and text to speech is not enabled. To achieve this, press down once on the DPad and you'll hear your very first spoken words of the prompt system. After turning on the TTS with the right arrow on the DPad, you can then navigate around freely to select your prefered language. Changing this also changes the language spoken by the custom TTS in-game).
After pressing continue and adjusting the markers for the edges of the screen (I left mine at default), you are then presented with what would be considered the main accessibility setup screen, allowing you to turn on one of the 3 presets for Vision, Motor or Hearing.
As you continue to progress through these screens you are able to customise even more options and, eventually, you'll reach the main menu with "story", "options", and "extras".
Going into options allows you to take stock of the full range of accessibility settings available in the game and adjust to your heart's content. With this many options, it might be a little complicated at first but the fact that the game's cursor remembers your previous position in the options menu structure certainly can be useful.
Don't worry if you don't know what all the options do, with over 60 there are a massive amount of combinations and sometimes you won't know what works for you until you need to resolve a specific sticking point during a playthrough.
So What's Narrated?
The menu narration in this title is, in a word, fantastic. Everything including button prompts is narrated , also including tutorials. Even though the speed is not adjustable, it is fast enough that it hasn't personally been a problem for me even in intense combat situations. There are even elements that I didn't expect to see read that in fact do, which is a great and welcome surprise.
The Audio Cue Glossary
One of the things that fascinated me in the Naughty Dog press coverage of the accessibility features was the idea of the audio cue glossary. Audio-only games had "learn game sounds" menus years before this, but TLOU2 marks the first time such a feature has been included in a mainstream title.
Entering this menu, you are presented with something that, whilst it seems daunting, is a brilliant illustration of just how much care has been put into the thought process for these cues. The fact that I can use this list at any time to check what I'm hearing has assisted me on many occasions thorugh my time with the game, even at points where I wouldn't have thought it would've been available.
As much as it's rather overwhelming seeing so many audio cues, it's an amazing resource to have at your disposal at any time via the options menus mid-game, especially with the volume of cues present in the first place.
My only critique of the audio glossary is that it is not organised into subcategories such as combat, traversal, listen etc, but is just one long list. Other than that, looking through those cues proved invaluable at times.
The first time you enter a particular type of sequence, be it stealth, combat, or interacting with the environment, you'll notice that even the tutorial prompts are spoken. This is great since even as the sequences play out, you learn what happens when you press certain buttons in sequence for instance and not having to ask for sighted assistance is a bonus in and of itself.
Saving And Loading Your Game
Usually, the save system on the PS4 is not accessible without sighted assistance. However, within this game, Naughty Dog have provided narrated prompts once again to allow you to save your game and pick up where you left off, even having date and time information available. This means that not only can you have multiple save files, but you can also tell how recently you played, making this a huge bonus for completionists.
This is a great addition as, combined with the checkpoints feature, if you make an error in judgement or there are enemies you don't realise exists for instance, you can learn as you play and make fewer and fewer mistakes as you figure out just what strategies work best.
Stealth is a core part of The Last Of Us Part II's gameplay, much like it was in the first game. it is also one of the most rewarding aspect of the game, in that you have to scan for enemies and, using the tools and cues at your disposal, take them out with gloriously brutal sound design to accompany it. The sound design in the entire game is without a doubt top notch, but the combat and atmosphere is where it shines most prominently in my view.
Speaking of sound design, the audio cues and narration don't feel forced or too out of place, just as if they were meant to be there from the start. It definitely goes to show that implementing these features as early as possible in development can make a world of difference.
Auto-aim and locking
The auto-aim mechanics of Gears 5 have been, for me at least, the gold standard for shooting without sight in mainstream games since that title released, as you had the ability to utilise your precision with a shot through lining it up yourself rather than having it snap to your next target as you'd see in say Uncharted 4.
Naughty Dog's approach for this game, on the other hand, feels like an evolution of the Gears 5 system, with you looking at a target and the game giving you audio cues to select what kind of shot you want to take. You do have the option to adjust your line of sight as well if needed by moving the camera around as you'd expect, though this isn't usually a factor as these are scenarios where arguably you want to play it stealthy rather than going in guns blazing. The interesting part? The text description of how the system works tells you pretty much everything you need to know in comparison to Gears 5 where nothing was stated about how to get started with taking down your foes.
Cover is one of those points that comes up a fair amount when discussing navigation. Whether it's within the gritty, chainsaw gun-wielding Gearsiverse or the worlds of stealth titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn, the question has always been "how do we know where the cover is without sight?" Naughty Dog's solution, ingeniously, is what essentially amounts to allowing a gamer without sight to have a portable piece of cover at all times, or more accurately, a Ghillie suit of sorts.
This comes in the form of going prone. At the maximum setting, you are invisible to the vast majority of enemies in the game, for an infinite period of time. This can of course be shortened to increase the challenge, but on my first playthrough I gave myself the option of having infinite prone invisibility should I need to, say, gain a better vantage point and figure out my next move, or better assess enemy positions outside of the scanning available in listen mode.
When in a fight, it's clearly sometimes better to retreat rather than face overwhelming odds. After all, you're not the Doomguy who thrives on ripping and tearing his enemies to regain vitality. Instead, you are a survivalist, admittedly badass, but fragile as any human in this cruel and unrelenting world.
Consequently, there are times where you need to leave combat behind in a frantic escape at which point the navigational assistance can, for lack of a better word, assist you. Of course it doesn't just work for leaving your enemies in the dust, it also allows you to traverse the world without sighted assistance, but being able to find a way out of the current mess you've unintentionally got yourself into is certainly a comforting notion.
The Learning Curve
As great as all this agency is, it does come with a cost of learning, albeit a relatively slight one. I found myself occasionally not knowing what one of the numerous sound cues meant, but the glossary was there to clear my confusion. I'd find myself stuck as to how to progress, then realised that I hadn't enabled a particular accessibility option, with the text stating that essentially I should've done so beforehand. Of course, every player will have different opinions on what options to set to what values or what difficulty they want to play on, but for me, learning all this has been a great experience as I don't have to have anyone nearby to tell me what to do or where to go etc.
After around half an hour or so, I found myself easing into this new freedom the game allows me and enjoying every second of the story and the journey that so many with sight may take for granted. Being able to boot up the game, pick up where I left off and continue on the road towards my next destination all with the press of a few buttons is so uplifting.
There is, at the time of writing at least, no audio description within the cutscenes and in-game events of TLOU2. However,the details you miss are forgotten when you consider the fact that the story is easy enough to follow just because of great scripting, sound design, scoring and voice acting.
At times, the TTS will narrate additional pieces of information that are useful to be aware of for story reasons, thus making the lack of AD even less of an issue than it otherwise might be. Hopefully though, Naughty Dog could leverage this facet of the medium of film and theatre for future titles, even if it doesn't make its way into this current masterpiece.
Like Uncharted 4 and other titles before it, The Last Of Us Part II's use of haptics is extremely useful, not just in getting you immersed within interactions with the environment, but also with elements that are required for story progression. I won't say what these are to prevent spoilers, but suffice it to say those working on this game even managed to push haptics further than they have been before in terms of their use in accessibility for gamers without sight.
Most accessibility features I've seen in a mainstream videogame to date.
Time and effort has clearly been put into all aspects of these systems
Sound design, score and voice acting are all top quality and help enhance enjoyment and immersion in the hard-hitting story
I can play the game entirely without sighted assistance
Cue glossary could be better organised
Lacking audio description for clarity in terms of story events
TTS is not on by default on start up screen
Slight learning curve to audio cues and navigational systems that admittedly eases almost immediately
The only things that prevent me from giving this game a perfect 10/10 score are relatively small issues such as seeing items seemingly through walls and being unable to easily collect them, being unable to easily determine which object I'm interacting with when two are close together and settings that I would've thought were turned on by default not being so under certain circumstances. In Thanksfully though, the possibilities afforded by games being able to be patched means that thse and other small points like the lack of audio description could potentially be addressed later down the line.
The hard work of the team at Naughty Dogand everyone else who has contributed to this masterpiece cannot be understated, regardless of the scores on reviews. The point still stands: I can play this game without needing sighted assistance and get farther than I ever have in an open world environment unaided, without feeling the frustration of knowing I'll eventually have to ask for a sighted player's direct assistance. That alone is a fantastic achievement.
As much as people had hyped this game up before launch, I've always maintained that it's one thing to see demos of a game's accessibility and another to play the title for yourself and utilise those features in person. I'm very glad to see that the hype was just as valid as I thought it would be when I saw the initial press coverage, with Naughty Dog putting a massive amount of effort into making sure everything works as intended.
Whilst no game is perfect, especially in terms of accessibility for gamers without sight, The Last Of Us Part II is a testament to what can be achieved when accessibility is considered from the ground up and is extremely close to being flawless. I only hope that both platform developers and teams working on updates to current titles and future projects take this for what it is: an example to push the industry forward to new heights and a bar to work from. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with this game and can't wait to see what innovations arise from this title going forward.
The Grounded Update
On August 11th, 2020, Naughty Dog announced that much like the previous installment, the Grounded difficulty (a step up from the current hardest Survivor difficulty) would be coming to the game. This would arrive as part of an update also containing some accessibility improvements, along with render modes and gameplay modifiers. But as a player of the game since Day 1, how much do these really add?
The key thing to note about Grounded difficulty is that listen mode is disabled. As a gamer without sight who requires listen mode to even play the game effectively (including finding items for story progression), this means that without a massive amount of trial and error you'd be pretty hard pressed to beat grounded at least in its current state. That's not to say that it can't be done at all, just that it would be much harder than regular gameplay and not specifically for difficulty reasons. It'll definitely be an interesting challenge regardless though and I may yet attempt it.
The new update ads two additional trophies, neither of which are required to obtain the platinum. One is earned for beating the game with Permadeath enabled (another setting added as part of this update) and another for beating the game on the aforementioned grounded difficulty. I'm personally very glad that these are not required to earn the platinum trophy which, under certain circumstances, is already complicated enough given the collectable tracking issues I personally had whilst trying to obtain all the trophies, which I received sighted assistance for towards the very end of my efforts.
Gameplay Modifiers And Render Modes
Much like Uncharted 4 and other Naughty Dog titles, the studio added a large number of rendering modes (that change the graphical presentation of the game) and gameplay modifiers that allow for various tweaks not possible in the original experience.
As a gamer without sight, the render modes were of little to no interest to me, but modifiers like infinite ammo, infinite crafting (which gives you unlimited ingredients to craft items) and one shot (which as you'd expect does not work on all enemies), were definitely interesting to play around with. Being able to constantly craft the items I needed instead of worrying about finding resources certainly took a fair amount of the stress away, meaning that I felt able to immerse myself more in the experience without the worry of resource gathering that had plagued my other playthroughs.
Infinite ammo, as you can likely understand, was also very useful, as it meant that even though i picked up ammo for the common guns, even when I couldn't find any supplies to make the rest of my armaments work I had no need to fear. It turned the game into an almost arcade-like experience, save of course for the long loading times, lengthy cinematics and lack of an arcade-style control panel.
If you want to read the official patch notes, you can find the blog post detailing them here.
So How Much Does This Add For Existing Players?
As a gamer without sight, this update does breath a little extra life into the experience, but not necessarily enough to warrant starting a new playthrough unless you're very keen on doing so or want to take on an even harder challenge than most sighted gamers might with Grounded. However, it's great to see Naughty Dog improving their game with more accessibility patches, working out the kinks in a system that wasn't even that flawed to begin with.
If I Haven't Picked Up The Game Yet, Should I Do So Now?
With the game at launch already accomplishing far more than any existing game before it in combining the numerous accessibility features of other titles into a cohesive whole and this latest patch only serving to enhance that experience, if you haven't picked up The Last Of Us Part II and are a gamer without sight with the means to do so, I would highly recommend it.
This review was first posted on Can I Play That, but this copy exists for both archival and cross-site promotional purposes.
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