The Last of Us is one of the most acclaimed video games of the past decade, putting Naughty Dog at the forefront on how to properly blend story and gameplay together in harmony. It’s one of my favorite games of all time that many claimed didn’t need a sequel, and for good reason. Trying to follow-up any successful game is difficult, but making one to a highly acclaimed first installment is harder than trying to defy gravity: you can do it, but chances are that reality will weigh you down. And since its release on June 19th, The Last of Us Part 2 has gone from one of the most anticipated games of 2020 to the most polarizing discussion that rivals politics. Gamers refuse to accept the nine’s and ten’s given by websites like IGN and Gamesradar, the developers took to twitter shooting down anything related to the leaks, and even cast members were at the center of controversial news stories. Since I don’t have time to make both a spoiler free and spoiler review, I waited for the embargo to expire to make an in-depth dissection of this experience and why some people are going crazy over several important moments. If you haven’t completed the game yet, stop reading this article and play it for yourself, because this will go over all the crucial plot details that have yet again divided gamers. Otherwise, skip to the picture of the boat for the final verdict. This isn’t a review bombing scheme, and this isn’t an attack on anyone involved in the production. This is me playing all twenty-five hours of the game and thinking back on the experience with fair judgement.
Five years have passed since Joel and Ellie (Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson) returned to Jackson and made a life for themselves in a now thriving community. Ellie has grown up to the point where she leads her own life while also sharing some tender moments with her father figure. But a mercenary group known as the Washington Liberation Front, led by top wolf Abby (Laura Bailey), invades her territory and scars her for life by carrying out a sadistic plan. Enraged by the event, Ellie sets out to Seattle to kill both the leader and her followers to claim her own justice.
This, out of all the elements, has divided responses from both sides of the internet, but let’s go over the good stuff first. Many have accused the story of being miserable, melancholy, and down right unpleasant, and they’re right. This kind of story isn’t for the faint of heart as it delves into sadistic territory. That’s not to say the zombie apocalypse isn’t bleak enough on its own, but more blood is split and the characters go through even more hell. I actually welcome the darker tone as it set itself apart from the original to go in new directions. And when things get real, it’s hits the pulse during the familiar and new narratives: Encountering clickers, trying to hide from the wolves, and eventually coming in contact with your revenge target. This is why killing dogs in the game doesn’t feel out of place. Especially when they can sniff you out faster than any humans can spot you. In a setting where natural selection means kill or be killed, acting in self-defense, especially against an animal that will rip you to shreds, is justifiable. Although the best parts are the moments between Ellie and Joel, which are sadly few and far between for reasons we’ll get into later. The majority of the story does possess a lot of good ideas on where to go as well as expanding the lore of this apocalypse through collectible artifacts. However, without giving away major details, the experimentation often backfires with its desire to “subvert expectations”: something that’s become a running gag in entertainment since The Last Jedi. Subverting expectations these days usually boils down to divulging from a predictable story path without replacing it with alternative substance, unlike Avengers: Infinity War which had an ace up its sleeve for every detour.
This unfortunately has moments that should carry more weight in the payoff, but are often undermined by either baffling writing, or underdeveloped characters fighting for screen time in a 25 hour long campaign. Even worse, some of the flashbacks completely shatter the pacing when the hype is at its peak, going into an unrelated character study that should’ve been its own game altogether. And to those who say That’s the point, it nullifies all the daring story decisions that could’ve been cut if so much of the narrative wanted to be “surprising”. Not only that, but it completely backtracks on the themes the first game cemented, almost like a cat unraveling a ball of yarn. Worst of all, the relationships the characters go through never really change, which was a cornerstone of the original. There are good ideas with the relationships, but the sequel is half neutered by having the characters support the themes rather than the themes supporting the characters. And yes, there is a difference with incorporating evolving human interactions. The story has a few evolutions with genuine heart and darkness, setting itself apart from sequels that just want to rehash everything, but for all the risks it takes, they’re all for naught when the plot comes to an unsatisfying end after trying so hard to “surprise” gamers. It definitely sets up a threequel, but with the direction this universe is spiraling down, things don’t look good for a series that led the charge for narrative driven interactive media.
For all the times the story shoots itself in the foot, it does so with the best technology on the PlayStation 4. And this is a year where it’s competing with the likes of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Sure, it’s not at sixty frames per second like its predecessor, but the amount of details in the water, wildlife, snow, and mud are beyond what any studio is doing today. And the realism aids the darker tone’s gruesome moments that end with bloody corpses contaminating lakes and rivers. The lighting is crisp, the motion-capture is more advanced, and the cutscenes are no different from the gameplay in between transitions. As someone who was born and raised in Seattle, this nails many famous locations with a touch of post apocalyptic décor: the downtown library, the aquarium, the sports stadium, the not Starbucks coffee houses, and the courthouse (though why is the cheesecake factory not across from the convention center?). It might not have the varied locations from a cross country journey, but there’s still many sites to behold in the Washington territory. Sometimes these details lead to artificially lengthened moments, like whenever you’re upgrading your armory at a workbench. It takes two minutes to show the process of weapon customization. These animations enter the double digits and it gets repetitive showing every step of extending your ammo capacity or attaching a sniper scope.
In terms of acting, the cast, old and new, deliver stronger performances than before, running the gambit of emotions ranging from sarcastic to bloodhungry. Ashley Johnson handles a now grown up Ellie with the flick of her wrist, and Troy Baker is excellent as usual voicing Joel. Laura Bailey from Catherine does everything she can with her role, but again, we’ll get to that down the line. There’s not much else to say about the presentation since there was little to improve on in the first place. And that’s a compliment seeing as this is released near the beginning of the next generation of gaming.
The Last of Us Part 2 is at its best when the gameplay is the center stage, and not fighting the broken story. The foundation of stealth and action mechanics that separated itself from other zombie games is expanded upon with new tweaks and an upgraded arsenal. Enemies are just as dynamic, moving in unpredictable paths as you play hide and go kill. They’re more aware of your melee skills and thus a new dodge maneuver is added to spice up what used to be a one sided fisticuffs. The crafting system omits items that are now common and replaces them with new modifications like silencers, explosive batteries, and durability add-ons for blunt weapons. Not a revolution in gameplay, but like the presentation, the simple additions go a long way in making the experience fresh.
Admittedly, there’s less of an emphasis on choosing your battles when it comes to stealth as you’re required to cut down everyone in your path. And sadly for those who enjoy a challenge, grounded mode is no longer an option, though you can customize your difficulty settings on the enemy intelligence, resource scarcity, and damage infliction. Exploration is just as important if you want more details on the fall of humanity through collecting letters, trading cards, coins, and other artifacts, with the standout level being a open exploration of downtown Seattle: something that would’ve been fun to explore more than once in this otherwise linear journey with material and characters fighting for development. There’s also no multiplayer in the form of factions this time around after everything is finished: only a new game plus option to go through the campaign again with all your upgrades in tact. And sadly your AI companions aren’t as reliable as Ellie was when dealing with enemies. More often than not, they get in the way of stealth and don’t save you from a gruesome death no matter the executioner.
Update: Since the release, Grounded mode has been added and requires you to finish the game in one life, lest you restart a chapter or even the entire game with one false slip. I don’t recommend this to people who just want to experience the story.
As a video game, The Last of Us Part 2 improves the stealth/action gameplay whenever it gets the chance, which is what you can always hope for in a proper sequel. With all that out of the way, let’s go down the list of moments that have divided the nation. This is the final spoiler warning before proceeding any further, so read the instructions and either leave now, or brace yourself for the unpopular opinions:
Do Not Proceed If You Haven’t Finished the Game!!!!
Important Plot Details Will Be Discussed!!!!
Skip To the Bottom of the Page and Proceed Up Until You Reach the Boat Picture For the Final Verdict!!!!!!
You Have Been Warned!!!
Assuming everyone who’s still reading this knows the story in and out, let’s begin this list with:
The Death of Joel
The biggest outcry from day one is the death of Joel. Previously the main character of the series, the plot involves a group of former fireflies seeking revenge on Joel for killing the doctors that would’ve developed a cure for the outbreak. This sets Ellie on her revenge quest to Seattle in order to take down both the Washington Liberation Front (labeled as wolves throughout the game) and more importantly, Abby.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, Joel’s death was incredibly painful to stomach on both playthroughs. He left a huge impact on everyone thanks to Troy Baker’s dedication and how we get to know him, even through his most despicable actions. We can all relate to how he became hardened by the world and yet eventually became a better person thanks to Ellie. He’s definitely not a saint, and given how the worst of his past catches up with him, it makes sense that he would be killed. Obviously this is supposed to be Ellie’s story now that Joel has found peace and doesn’t have a lot of character to explore from here on out. The world is in chaos, but he’s happy that he was able to be the father he never got to be after the outbreak claimed his child. This leads to several scenes in the trailer that people are now claiming to be false advertising. Seeing as Naughty Dog pulled off the same lie with the previous game when stating that you would never play as Ellie, it doesn’t feel too out of place, but it is disheartening to see several key moments with the actual characters taking his place.
Playing as Abby
Unfortunately that’s not the only bitter pill to swallow as halfway through the story, right at a critical moment of bloodshed, the plot takes a 180 when the player is forced to control Joel’s killer, Abby. This is also where most people are divided, and I’m on the side that’s ready to betray Abby at the first sign of switching characters (not the voice actress). The story begs the viewer to side with Abby no matter how deep a psychological wound the opening left on the player.
As fun as the gameplay is, Abby gets way too much screen time compared to Ellie. In fact, she should’ve had her own game. It doesn’t help that we start to play as her after she kills more character’s we’ve grown attached to. It’s like trying to make Azula sympathetic in The Last Airbender after The Crossroads of Destiny. Coupled with her own group of new characters that don’t get enough development, everything about this is undercooked and there are several videos at the end presenting ideas on how to improve the execution of this narrative.
Her story involving the wolves vs seraphites has a lot of potential, but because it’s grouped with Ellie’s revenge quest, there’s not enough time to flesh out her side of the story. It was only out of sheer grit that I stuck with Abby, eagerly awaiting the moment where I could control Ellie again and give her some proper acupuncture. If we could choose to play either character, the risks would make more sense. It would be daring to see multiple story outcomes involving both sides. But because we’re forced into this half way through the game and at a crucial moment, it breaks the pacing and doesn’t apologize for it. Abby doesn’t get a lot of development because the narrative wants to focus on the themes rather than building human relationships. I can’t think of another playable character that gamers have intentionally sacrificed when the opportunity presented itself:
But with all these resentments, that doesn’t justify the toxic behavior towards Laura Bailey. She’s a talented voice actress that gave this role everything she’s got, which is the best you can ask from your cast. Did we not learn anything from the hate that was directed towards Kelly Marie Tran following The Last Jedi? And honestly, who cares if Abby has huge arms? In a world overrun by zombies, huge arms are handy for survival and it’s the most subtle character development in gameplay compared to the rest of the experience.
The Diversity Content
Among the list of complaints in this sequel, none are as flimsy as the complaints about “forced diversity”. To that I say, “Did you not play the Left Behind DLC from the first game?” This question also goes out to the countries that banned this title for “reasons”, because Ellie’s character was already established in the Left Behind DLC. Going into her adult years, it’s something she would have to eventually deal with in her social life. Though I will say that because this game focuses more on themes than relationships, it’s not handled as well as it could’ve been. There’s not much chemistry or change with her relationship to Dina except at the end (we’ll get to that in a bit).
However, that’s microscopic compared to the surprise that shows up in Abby’s campaign. Abby escapes death by hanging with the help of two seraphites, Yara and Lev, who are on the run from their own tribe. It’s later revealed that Lev, who shaved his head to become a soldier, is actually transgender.
For something that was hidden behind the curtains, it was handled with genuine subtlety and grace. I can’t speak for the transgender community on Lev, but considering how little representation there is on the subject, it’s a pioneer alongside Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling, and it will be interesting to see what future representation this leads to. But there’s one tiny detail that negates the whole idea behind Lev: he’s paired with Abby. And because of this, he feels more like an excuse to keep the antagonist alive (more on that later) rather than a fully fledged character. If he wasn’t with Abby, or at least in his own game with said character, then it wouldn’t be as frustrating when the game forces you to sympathize with a character you barely know. I’d like to see Ellie take Lev under her wing as a way of keeping Joel’s torch burning, but no, he’s grouped with all the other new characters that get pushed aside to emphasize the themes without nurturing the natural human interactions, so part of it feels like a wasted opportunity. However to anyone who says that they don’t want politics in their games, don’t ever play Metal Gear Solid, otherwise that’s hypocrisy.
The Anti-Violence Message
Speaking of hypocrisy, the other main issue that plagues the story is the anti-violence message, in a zombie apocalypse, where the law is kill or be killed. There’s a sense that Ellie is becoming less human as she steps on anybody to go after Abby, and yet for some reason, after slaughtering hundreds of normal NPCs, Ellie starts to feel bad to the point of vomiting when she kills both Owen and Mel, the latter of which turns out to be pregnant and wielded a knife that pretty much said it’s either you die or I die. As much as this tries to mimic a movie with the cutscenes outweighing the gameplay, video game logic eventually works its way in sooner or later, and because of that, the anti-violence message is a huge problem. In a movie, this message work’s because we’re don’t have direct control over the characters and progression happens regardless of how it’s written. In a video game, where all progression is halted unless we partake in the senseless violence that the story scolds us for, it’s incredibly hypocritical and doesn’t work at all. Nothing separates Mel from the other disposable enemies, in fact she pretty much endangered her unborn baby by signing up for field work in the first place. You could even argue that any of the random NPCs you kill on your road to slaughter Owen, Mel, and Abby were also pregnant or had a family to feed. So when the moments comes where the game wants us to regret our actions, it feels unearned and manipulative. Granted, the acting is phenomenal during these moments, but when it’s for the wrong reasons, it feels wasted. Even after the scene plays out, we just go back to slaughtering countless more enemies that we could’ve shed a tear over anyway, so what’s the point?
Not only that, but it goes against the message of the original game: there are no bad guys, just people trying to survive. By painting Ellie as an antagonist and forcing us sympathize with Abby without a choice, after putting the player through a traumatic character death, it comes off as an unfocused and contrived mess: a far cry from the tight writing of the original.
Finally let’s discuss the ending because when all is said and done, the ending is the biggest let down of the story. At the end of the game, Ellie decides to settle down with Dina on a farm, complete with a baby and their own flock of sheep. Shockingly, Ellie still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder from the events. And after being given an ultimatum by Dina on what life she wants, Ellie decides to track down Abby. Once the two cross paths again, Ellie challenges Abby to one final fight, threatening to kill Lev if she doesn’t cooperate. In the heat of battle, Abby bites off two of Ellie’s fingers, leaving her unable to play Joel’s guitar. Everything feels like it’s going to come to a satisfying conclusion until out of nowhere, Ellie gets a flash back of Joel and lets Abby go.
As someone who defended the first game’s conclusion, this took all the daring narrative risks and threw them out the window: the death of Joel, the relationships (or lack there of), the darker tone, and the long campaign. All of it was wasted through this single action that relies on the incredibly hypocritical anti-violence message. In the first game, the ending reflected how Joel changed as a character. How he grew a connection with someone after years of living with loss. Here, nothing changes about Ellie except her fingers, and a few minutes ago, Ellie had no remorse killing an entire camp of guards just to get to Abby, who at this point has so much plot armor, she could fly to space and somehow breathe without oxygen. So why does Abby get to live? Because Lev is with her after getting as much development as the rest of the new characters? This is not only a waste of time, but also a slap in the face to the characters and the story. All of this could’ve been forgiven if we at least went through with our actions, instead of the game trying to force us to side with the person we went through so much trouble to find. Letting Abby live once is fine, but three times is repetitive and pads the game out to an unnecessary length.
In the end, Ellie loses Dina as she returns to an empty farm house, attempting to play the guitar with little success before venturing out on her own, roll credits. Ellie losing everything in the end would’ve had more emotional weight if she actually killed Abby, but no, the game wants to “subvert expectations” by taking away a victory (hollow or not) from both the character and the player after dragging out an already long campaign. Usually in an age where microtransactions and expensive downloadable content strip games down to the bare bones for a bigger profit, a long campaign would be a welcome change of pace. But since a good portion of the story is wasted with so much backward logic, it feels long and unwarranted when looking back. The ending to a game can usually mean the difference between a good product and a waste of time. Even some good games have terrible endings that left a horrible lasting impression, and this is no exception.
The Last of Us Part 2 is a complicated evolution that doesn’t know how to balance what made the original a masterpiece in the first place. There are elements that make this a better sequel in an industry where continuations rehash the original concept. The gameplay improves in every corner, the technology showcases the best the system has to offer, the performances from the cast is top notch, and the darker tone is a daring approach to the grander narrative. But for a series that is the shining example of how to properly gel story and gameplay, the story is unsatisfying by cramming in too many new characters with little development, putting the themes ahead of said new characters, robbing the player of a long sought victory without branching narratives, and preaching an anti-violence message when progression is held back until the player partakes in said violence. Seven years of waiting to return to this world wouldn’t have been so agonizing if we got to control Ellie for the whole game and Abby and Lev were spun off into their own title. It’s a bunch of good ideas that unfortunately don’t want to work together in order to bring a satisfying, cohesive experience to life. One wonders how differently this would’ve turned out if the first game’s co-director, Bruce Straley, hadn’t left Naughty Dog after completing Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. If this was a movie, the story would’ve worked better because video game logic doesn’t contaminate the message, even with all the narrative problems (and no, this is nowhere near as perfect as Schindler’s List). But as a game that improves on the gameplay, it should be experienced at least once to draw your own conclusion. However as someone who gave the original a perfect ten out of ten, it’s a major disappointment to see this regress everything to an average triple A game experience. Risks are daring, but they’re not always rewarding. This isn’t the worst game of all time from an unbiased perspective, but it doesn’t come close to game of the year territory like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I still went into this with an open mind, judged it fairly, and didn’t regret playing it, unlike the Metacritic profiles that review bombed it to kingdom come only mere hours after the release. No one could’ve beaten this game in that short of a time span. Maybe I’ll revisit this down the line and see if opinions have changed when the gaming landscape enters a new era, but for now let’s hope the upcoming HBO adaptation can fix whatever broken state the franchise is left in after this underwhelming second outing.