Okay, here it finally is. My review for The Last of Us Part II. This review is broken up into 3 parts: Design, Gameplay and Story. The first two parts don’t contain any story spoilers, with the exception of a couple of gameplay mechanics described and shown.
Many people have been asking me for this. Those who know me know that The Last of Us is my favourite game of all time, so I was really looking forward to the release of the sequel. I remember the day I got the notification announcing the original release date; I was walking around in a mall during a lunch break at work (yeah, remember when that was a thing before lockdown?) and got the notification. I instantly whipped out my phone and pre-ordered the collector’s edition. I must say, it looks good on the shelf.
It’s safe to say that much of this review will focus on the story of The Last of Us Part II. This is, after all a blog about films, and if any line of games can be compared to film, it’s TLOU as well as Uncharted, both by Naughty Dog.
As you’ve just seen, I may refer to the games as TLOU (for the original) and TLOU2 for the sequel within this post when necessary, since typing out the full name can get a bit annoying. So, let’s jump straight in with the easy stuff: Design and Gameplay.
I mean the easy stuff to rate. This part refers to the actual game design as well as the visual design of the world and characters. My rating here is applied to macro and micro elements of the world of TLOU2. It’s no surprise, considering the huge exposé around the intense crunch at Naughty Dog in years past and in the buildup to the release of TLOU2, that many people were working tirelessly on the technical elements of this project. Many developers and artists sacrificed their time and mental health to perfect their small contribution to the overall world of TLOU2, and it shows.
The way light dances in each scene is glorious. The detail on the faces, clothes, and movements of characters is stunning, especially on PlayStation Pro. The world is a lot broader than ever before, providing more room to explore, with many different ways to traverse the landscape. Some screenshots from the game can be used as actual wallpapers, and that’s not something you can say about many games out there. The seamless transition from cutscenes to gameplay is an absolutely remarkable technical marvel.
Gameplay is a bit more complex, and I’ve seen many mixed responses around this. If your gameplay style is very much set in stealth or blasting enemies from range, the gamepley feels a lot more like the first game, and may then appear unevolved. However, the new abilities to dodge and go prone with characters provide new options for players to explore and use the environment and various combat techniques in interesting ways.
The biggest difference comes in when you mix things up, grappling with enemies, pitting them against one another and using momentum to execute a variety of stunning offensive maneuvers to absolutely slaughter your enemies. These are going to be really interesting if they are accessible in the multiplayer version of the game; however we’re not even sure if there’s going to be one yet. Who knows, we’ll have to wait and see. Want some examples of what I’m talking about? Check these out:
— SunhiLegend (@SunhiLegend) June 24, 2020
— SunhiLegend (@SunhiLegend) June 24, 2020
Insane, right? The world looks amazing. The details are stunning. The animations are out of this world. That’s the reason I’m giving the gameplay in The Last of Us Part II a solid 9/10. It’s time for us to get to the more complicated part of this review: The Story.
Now, this is where the spoilers come in, because I can’t really discuss this portion of the game and make any detailed points without spoilers. So continue at your own risk. Spoiler cat is down below, giving you a chance to leave the page before continuing to spoilers.
This is the part that required way more mulling over, a second playthrough, and me reading a range of reviews on both sides of the spectrum (those who hate it and those who love it) for me to navigate my own thoughts and feelings on the game as well as drawing my own conclusions.
Let’s start here: The Last of Us Part II is not a sprawling epic, it’s a tragedy. Like some old school fucked up hardcore Greek tragedy shit. Joel gets killed pretty early on in the game. I’m not going to get into the purposeful misdirects in the marketing that duped players; I’d much prefer to focus on the story itself.
The story is absolutely sadistic, and Ellie and Joel are the recipients of the torture. Joel dies pretty early on in the game. After helping a young woman (Abby) escape a horde of infected, he and Tommy follow her back to a lodge to where her friends are waiting out the raging blizzard. Abby and her friends corner Joel and Tommy in the lodge, and she essentially tortures Joel to death with a golf club, eventually killing him in front of Ellie who finds them some time later.
This is the inciting incident; Abby and her friends leave Ellie and Tommy alive and depart for Seattle where they’re from. Their job is done. We later find out that Abby is the daughter of the surgeon that Joel killed when saving Ellie from being killed by the Fireflies for them to make a vaccine. This is the core plot and climax of the first game. This moment really is Joel’s past catching up to him in the end.
Ellie then sets out on a mission to Seattle to hunt down Abby, and this begins a cycle of violent revenge as you play as Ellie hunting down Abby and her friends and picking them off one by one, then switch to playing Abby later on. And back and forth a few times. Look, I’m not going to spell out the entire story. The plot is dense and complicated, and if you’re this far into the post, I imagine you’ve either read the details of the story itself and know it start to finish, or you’ve played the game and you’re caught up.
I found this story really problematic for a number of reasons, which I’ll list below.
P.E.C (Punish Ellie Constantly)
Here are things that Ellie loses in this story: Her father figure, her friend Jesse, her girlfriend Dina and their son, her fingers (meaning she even loses the ability to play the guitar by the end. One of her last connections to Joel, who taught her to play). That moment was probably the worst of it for me, because it condenses the punishment of this character into a single, concentrated moment. I was surprised they didn’t make her lose an arm so she can’t swim either. The creators systematically strip away all hope and companionship that Ellie has one chapter at a time, creating trauma porn that constantly antagonises the player.
All they needed to do was have her raped and have Jackson burn to the ground as the little children at the start scream in pain as they’re locked in their houses, their skin melting off, and you’d hit trauma bingo (this is not a joke).
The writers punish Ellie with a drastic toll and price for going out for revenge, but they never give her that revenge. They take everything from her, and they never give give her the revenge. It’s a lose/ lose situation for Ellie.
While trying to be true to the harshness and brutality of the world and punishing the fuck out of Ellie, the story trips up in a couple of very important ways:
1) The internal conflict felt by Abby relating to revenge isn’t as strong as with Ellie, even though we spend half the game playing as Abby. We don’t see her struggle with the killing and destruction she causes in the same way. Most of her obstacles and issues are external, while Ellie is left to not only grapple with external threats, but internal torment. Which would be fine, if Abby wasn’t a playable character too. You can’t put us in the shoes of someone and not convey their internal struggles effectively (Some may argue that there is an internal struggle relating to saving Lev and Yara, but that’s tangential to the core revenge story directly related to the Ellie-Abby revenge cycle).
2) By constantly punishing the characters we’ve grown to love, the storytellers have brought about darkness-induced audience apathy, a trope in fiction “when constantly punishing their characters. Why bother getting emotionally involved in a character who may end up dead in a moment? Why bother going on a quest when you have virtually no agency in making anything better?”
3) The cost for actual revenge is paid by Ellie for the mere pursuance of revenge.
The slap in the face is not just punishing Joel and Ellie, but what comes next.
B.A.U (Build Abby Up)
Meanwhile, Abby and all of her friends show up just outside Jackson, pretty unscathed, Joel falls into her lap and she exacts her revenge pretty simply and easily, with almost no resistance. Then they make us play as Abby and we have to go on a whole journey where we see why she killed Joel. We see her spend time with her dad, her boyfriend Owen, and her dog.
The reason that doesn’t work is that we have to retroactively build that empathy after we see her brutalize and kill Joel, and that is just asking too much of many players. If you’re going to send a message about the cost of revenge, at least make it as difficult for Abby to exact that revenge at the start, and show the impact that that has had on her.
Here’s what the narrative lead, Halley Gross had to say about the character: “We wanted the opportunity to build empathy for her from the start, and the most effective way we can do that is to have you walking in her shoes, spending time with her, seeing what makes her vulnerable, seeing what makes her scared.”
They are really trying to convince you that you should like Abby because she has all this depth to her. They give her backstory TIME, they give her relationships TIME. They give her TIME. And they make you play as her. A LOT. AFTER she kills Joel. And not quickly. She tortures him to death and kills him in front of Ellie. I was shocked they didn’t have prompts for the player to swing the golf club and unspool his brains themselves.
They literally force you to walk in her shoes after she does that. The goal here is to subject Ellie to the trauma, send her on a revenge quest, make you as a player feel weird about playing for revenge (killing people with names, killing dogs, killing real people with stories and relationships), flip you to playing Abby, who is given an arc that tries to make you empathize with her (she helps kids out, her dad died for a noble cause, she has this cool boyfriend who’s a really nice guy).
The problem: It’s difficult to EVER feel conflicted about this after what Abby does to Joel. Even though I can appreciate that Abby has a good story arc, I don’t ever empathize with her. I still want to see Abby get flayed alive by the end of the game and have salt poured on her. And many players feel the same way.
Remember at the end of Sicario, when Alejandro kills the boss and his family? Yeah, the death is brutal, but we didn’t flashback halfway through the scene to a chapter of how the boss spends time with his kids and is a good dad to them. We’ve seen it in films and books before, where a character exacts brutalities on people around them (whether guilty or innocent) and yet have soft, warm, loving relationships with their loved ones. It doesn’t make their actions any less fucked up or valid (and yes, that applies to Joel too).
The storyeller here is banking on you feeling bad playing Ellie when you’re killing dogs, people with names, and Abby’s friends. But this happens after Abby tortures Joel to death in front of you, and the mental trauma Ellie experiences only happens for named characters in the story – a problem that the medium of gaming inevitably has to deal with. Ludonarrative dissonance, anyone?
The rest of the time, Ellie is easily killing off nameless goons from the WLF and Scars, and their dogs too. And then the trauma of killing is brought back in cut scenes when killing a person directly involved in Joel’s murder. And by the end of the story, the decision or ability to kill/ not kill Abby is stripped away from you and Ellie through cut-scenes. It’s sadistic. Ellie not killing Abby makes no sense, because Ellie has killed a ridiculous amount of people leading up to that point.
Naughty Dog were banking on people feeling empathy for Abby and her companions when you play as her with them, but her murdering Joel in the way she does is unforgivable for many players, rendering that empathy inaccessible, regardless of how many sweet moments with Owen, Abby’s Dad or her dog Alice. I think it’s important that the creators of the story, and the hardcore fans who enjoyed it understand that Naughty Dog took a gamble on the story; that gamble being that we would eventually come around and empathize with Abby. The truth is, that gamble just didn’t pay off with a large part of the audience. And that’s not conjecture, that’s reality (see the footnote below for more info on that).
They gave Abby revenge on a platter and punished Ellie for wanting the same, eventually removing her ability to even get close to it. At the same time they gave Abby redemption, while Ellie is left with desolation.
I didn’t like Abby, in case you didn’t get that. I’ve found discussing this game with people who liked Abby’s story to be really annoying; and even more so the writers talking about their intent for this character. They feel like they have the moral high ground because they WANT you to empathize with Abby, and if her story doesn’t resonate with you because of pacing and structural issues in the storytelling, uninteresting characters, or because you can feel the overt manipulation every time you have to throw a chew toy to that dog; as a member of the audience, there’s obviously something wrong with YOU, right? You’er a SOCIOPATH! It’s like those people who pop a pill at a trance party and think they have discovered enlightenment and you’re beneath them because you need to wake up, bro. I find it self-righteous and self-indulgent.
The Script Said So
There’s a bunch of things that happen because the script said so. Some of the more egregious ones follow:
Joel and Abby happen to run into each other in a huge blizzard just outside Jackson, eliminating her obstacle of having to infiltrate the town or question other groups of people from the town. Joel and Tommy also act out of character here as they trust the group of armed strangers.
The entire plot rewards Abby with an opportunity for redemption after she enacts her revenge, while punishing Ellie for her desire for revenge, and stripping her of the ability to gain her revenge (and for payers to do the same vicariously) through cut-scenes that remove control form the equation.
The ending really felt like the Martha moment from Batman v Superman, when Ellie just stops halfway through drowning Abby and decides to walk away. Now. Finally.
What’s the Fix?
They could have fixed this with story structure. I’m a fan of insane revenge stories with a twist. Oldboy is one of my favourite films for this very reason, but story structure really matters; when you decide to reveal the sins of a protagonist is important because it determines whether your audience will be able to connect and empathize with them or not.
Time should have been taken to build Abby up in the player’s mind as a complete and full character (making us like her) BEFORE she kills Joel. That would have completely pulled the rug. Instead, she does it in the first couple of hours, and any subsequent danger, or loss she experiences gets no sympathy from the average player.
It’s the same reason that hinting at Joel’s past in the first game works. Because you never SEE him murder innocent people systematically. The hint of darkness is there but that’s it; the rest of the time he’s killing out of necessity – kill or be killed. What you show in a story is important, and when you show it even more so. We can fall in love with Joel and his blossoming relationship with Ellie because we don’t see him murdering people before all of that.
Neil Druckmann had the following to say about the audience relationship with Joel in the first game: “There’s something interesting that happens when you’re not in alignment with the character and the game makes you do something that you don’t want to do — you wrestle with those decisions in a different way than you would be able to in a passive medium.”
The same can’t be said for Abby. A less complex story structure would have provided an opportunity for players to build a connection to Abby early on, but that connection is cut and cauterized with a golf club to Joel’s skull.
There are so many threads and ideas that could have been explored in this game. Think about living in a newly re-established town like Jackson and how the threat of nearby hordes, outsiders and even someone like Abby could batter the town. Whereas the first game was about moving from one place to another, there was an opportunity to create a story about fortifying and saving what you’ve gained; there were so many other possibilities for so many interesting stories. And they chose torment, pain and desolation. The new characters like Jesse and Dina are pretty interesting, and I’d love to spend more time with them and see how they would navigate this world and those kinds of threats.
I’m not one of those people mad that we didn’t get the story that we expected; I just know that it wasn’t told in a way that is at all satisfying or cathartic. The story we’re given induces nothing but misery and I have to ask myself, do we really need that in the current times? We were told for many years that this would be Ellie’s story, but is it really? Half of the story doesn’t even belong to her.
Story Bits That (Kinda) Worked
There are some amazing moments in the story that work really well. For example, there are many flashbacks as we see Joel and Ellie deal with the fallout of Joel’s choice and lie at the end of the first game. Ellie struggles with being in denial about what Joel did, and later realising that she can’t let go. She discovers the truth and they fall out, but by the end we discover that they made up before he died. Which is amazing, and I would have loved to see this arc actually play out in real time, instead of flashbacks. The whole idea of Abby feels shoehorned in if you consider this to be the main story in TLOU2. We don’t need Abby’s perspective for this story to be strong.
There are also some beautiful moments of light and love that Ellie shares with her new
companion girlfriend, Dina. Early on, we see their relationship blossom quite beautifully as Dina is by her side through all her troubles and her initial mission to Seattle; but that’s later abandoned as Dina is practically sidelined during the latter half of the game, left for a few scenes later, and destined to become yet another connection that Ellie loses.
Jesse was also a great character. He’s got the most non-toxic reaction to a friend hooking up with his ex girlfriend a week after they broke up, and he even accompanies her for a short while in Seattle as we discover that he has also made the trek. Yet we don’t really spend time with them to really see why their connection (or maybe his connection to Dina) is so deep that he would come all that way to help out. I enjoyed the short time we do spend fighting side by side with this character, and was really disappointed that he also got mowed down by Abby in a pretty pointless way later in the game.
There are things from Abby’s arc that work so well, but I’m completely distracted by how mad I am that they gave those great moments to the antagonist instead of our main character, Ellie. Like an insane boss fight featuring a new kind of infected creature made up of the corpses of decades-old infected bodies in a hospital basement; or the mission deep into Scar territory to extract a new companion. Whenever I think about how cool these moments were, my mind plays devil’s advocate and asks why they fuck they gave them to Abby instead of Ellie. This is especially egregious when you consider the threads of possible stories and relationships that could have been explored as I’ve just mentioned in the paragraphs above.
The Story: 6.5/10
The gameplay and design are phenomenal, and I can’t wait to play this on PlayStation 5 next year. I love these characters, the old ones like Ellie, Tommy and Joel, and the new ones like Dina and Jesse, and even Lev and Yara (Not you, Abby), but I think Naughty Dog missed an opportunity here to tell a more captivating revenge tale because they chose a story structure that didn’t work, and then forced a character on players who was virtually impossible to empathize with and like.
In the story trailer for The Last of Us Part II, Joel says, “I know you wish things were different. I wish things were different, but they ain’t”. This line feels like the storytellers staring us straight in the eye and antagonizing us by saying, “We wanted to tell this story of misery, torment, desolation and loss, and how you feel about it, well that doesn’t really matter”.
Average Rating: 8.5/10
Look, I get it, there’s been a load of shitty review bombers out there who disliked the LGBTQ representation, especially the inclusion of a trans character, as well as a same-sex relationship. Then there are those who have been body-shaming Abby and using that as an excuse to hate on the game.
On the other hand, there are people who love the creators of the game so much that they are unwilling to see any story flaws, approaching discussion with a cultish mentality, often calling those who dislike the game immature, or commenting on how there’s a lack of comprehension or understanding of themes that has lead to others not liking this tale of vengeance.
Both parties have a very “Us” vs “Them” stance. It’s kind of weird how both sides are in their own cycle of vengeance in comments sections around the internet. Oh, the irony. I want it on record that I don’t fall into any of those categories. I consider myself a LGBTQ ally, and I’m not into body shaming; I’m also pretty well-versed in storytelling, having studied it formally. I’m not unique in this feeling, and it sucks that a bunch of people with legitimate issues with the game’s story are being lumped in with the former group mentioned above.
Edit: There’s an issue with the story if details, feelings and themes in the story have to be explained in a medium outside of the story. If so many players have to be told that they were supposed to feel a certain way, but they just didn’t, then that’s a failure of storytelling. Additionally, if a storyteller wanted to convey something that didn’t land well/ work for a large portion of the audience, that’s their gamble and loss as a storyteller. It’s not the audience’s fault or responsibility.
I’ve approached this review as impartially as I could. Hope you enjoy and I’m looking forward to reading your comments on the game.
Check out the story trailer for The Last of Part II below:
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