This review was originally published on my blog at Forbes. It was one of the more difficult reviews I’ve ever written, and one of the most in-depth. I republish it here for those who may have missed it, or who may want to re-read it. I thought of it after posting about some behind-the-scenes images of the upcoming HBO series. Thanks for reading, subscribing and sharing these posts!
There is much to admire in Naughty Dog’s ultra-dark revenge video game The Last Of Us Part II. And there is much to critique. The devs who poured their blood, sweat and tears into the game deserve praise for its technical achievements. The writers who mangled the story deserve the lumps that follow.
Despite its gore and violence, The Last Of Us Part II is a beautiful game, with renditions of post-apocalyptic Seattle and Santa Barbara that are simply staggering in detail and scope. The sights and sounds of this game are lush and lovely, gruesome and harrowing. In terms of presentation, The Last Of Us Part II is easily one of the best of the generation.
Meanwhile, the acting is—without exception—phenomenal throughout. Ashley Johnson as Ellie turns in another fantastic performance, with a great deal more of the spotlight this time around. Troy Baker’s Joel has a much smaller role, but he’s as good as ever. And man, both these two are just insanely talented. Watch this live performance of Wayfaring Stranger they put on:
Laura Bailey, who plays the third main character in the game, Abby, is also excellent. Sure, her character is fairly loathsome, but Bailey is great.
Alas, while the game is gorgeous to look at and listen to, and the acting is as good as any I’ve ever encountered in a video game, it falls apart when it comes to both gameplay and story.
The first game didn’t have much going for it in the gameplay department, either—neither game is particularly strong as an action/shooter, and each forces players to spend far too much time tediously picking up odds and ends in order to craft bombs and med-kits, and ammo for your routinely empty firearms. (There’s a setting that makes this somewhat less tedious in the sequel). When it comes to gameplay, both games are fine. Just fine. Not great, not terrible. Just fine.
But the first game’s lackluster gameplay was more than made up for by a compelling story filled with complex characters in a gritty, intriguing post-apocalyptic world. It didn’t hurt that it also had one of the best endings in video games, period.
It was an ending that deserved to be just that—the end of Joel and Ellie’s story, unresolved and bittersweet. Brittle and precarious and powerful all at once. A happy ending in many ways, but an unsettling one, too.
Joel’s was a lie told out of love, but it was still a lie. He kept that secret for the same reason he rescued Ellie from the Fireflies. Because he couldn’t stand to lose his daughter. Not again.
That same lie kicks off the events in The Last Of Us Part II, but it quickly runs roughshod over everything we loved about the first game, trampling even our high opinions of the protagonists in the process. What follows is a too-pretentious-by-half story of nonsensical revenge and relentless violence. It masquerades at depth and meaning but fails to deliver either.
Better to leave us hanging than take us down this wallowing, nihilistic path of despair and misery porn. Unless you get off on that sort of thing, of course.
An Unnecessary Sequel
Unfortunately, The Last Of Us Part II only follows in the original’s footsteps in the most generic ways. Chronologically, it comes after the first game and it takes place in the same post-apocalyptic America. In every other sense, it may as well be a completely new franchise. At least then it wouldn’t have so badly damaged the characters we came to know and care so much about in the original.
In the original, Ellie is a teenage girl who is the only person immune to the strange virus that’s caused this spore-based zombie apocalypse. Unlike every single other human, bites and spores don’t turn her into a monster. We don’t know why.
Joel, who lost his own daughter tragically at the outset of the apocalypse, is tasked with bringing Ellie to the Firefly scientists where they hope to use her to find a cure. The Fireflies are freedom fighters. They’re here to help. Or so we’re led to believe.
Along the way, throughout the course of the game, Ellie and Joel become like family. It’s not an easy road, but they manage it together and in many ways Ellie becomes the daughter Joel lost, dragging him out of his long malaise and giving him something to believe in and to fight for. She’s spunky and funny and tough, and she awakens a new sense of purpose in the burned out, grizzled survivor.
In the end, when Joel and Ellie finally find the Fireflies, it turns out that the group isn’t all they were cracked out to be. The doctors are unethical murderers who decide that it’s just fine to sacrifice the one living person who is actually immune to the disease in order to create a vaccine (a completely absurd, anti-scientific, anti-medicine decision that exposes the Fireflies for the atrocious bastards they really are).
Joel decides that sacrificing a young girl to save humanity is absolute crap and rescues her instead, killing some of the guards and doctors in the process. He does what every father would do in this situation—and what every ethical human being ought to do.
There is only one correct answer to the question “How many lives would you sacrifice to save humanity?”
Your own. Only your own. It’s one thing to take life in order to save someone; it’s another to sacrifice an innocent in the hopes that you’ll save someone. So Joel takes lives in order to save an innocent. It’s unfortunate that he is forced to kill, but he couldn’t stand by and let it happen, either. He had no other ethical choice.
Even if—and it’s a very, very big if—her death would have resulted in a vaccine, allowing it to happen would be cruel and immoral. And a doctor, above anybody else, should realize this. Certainly in our own fraught times we should understand just how tricky coming up with a vaccine is—and killing the one specimen that may hold the answer is not only cruel and immoral, it’s magnificently stupid.
Joel lies to Ellie about it after the fact, telling her that it didn’t work, she wasn’t the answer. And off they go, riding into the sunset.
It’s the perfect ending. In my headcanon, I’m just going to pretend it’s the only ending.
When Naughty Dog announced a sequel, creative director Neil Druckmann revealed that it would be a game about hate. The first was a game about love, the second hate. Like the tattooed fingers of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter.
One might wonder at this point, why you’d really even have to separate the two. Light is the left hand of darkness; love is the left hand of hatred. The first game had its fair share of hatred, after all. Unfortunately, the sequel really doesn’t bother much with love. When it does, it’s at its very best, but those moments are few and far between.
The first big problem with The Last Of Us Part II’s story is that there is very little about it that justifies its existence. It picks up a few years later, though there are flashbacks of the intervening years scattered about the game. We learn quickly where Ellie and Joel currently stand in their relationship. While the story itself is told in bits and pieces, jumping to different timelines, the basic premise is this:
Ellie has discovered that Joel lied to her and she’s mad about it. She’s mad that Joel didn’t let the Fireflies kill her in order to create a vaccine. She’s still mad at him when Abby, the daughter of the chief Firefly doctor, tracks down Joel and brutally murders him, exacting a ridiculously brutal revenge for her father’s murder. And right here, right in this one short paragraph, there is so much wrong that my head hurts even typing it out.
First of all, the game seems to want us to think that Ellie is right and justified in her anger and that Joel is in the wrong. Not just about lying but about him saving her in the first place. The game suggests, in so many different ways, that Joel’s actions were selfish and wrong. There is an implicit sense, throughout the story, and especially in the way it attempts to empathize with both its angsty emo female leads, that we should accept that Joel was wrong. That his actions were somehow immoral.
But Joel was not wrong. The doctors who decided to throw out their entire ethical and moral codes by sacrificing a young girl in the off-chance that they might come up with a cure were wrong. Ellie is wrong to suggest that a person who loves and cares for her should simply stand by and watch as she’s murdered. That’s preposterous. Any parent knows this. Any parent would do the same thing as Joel. And any doctor worth a damn would never harbor such intentions, no matter how many zebras they save from barbed wire.
But in The Last Of Us Part 2, the doctor who decides to kill Ellie is portrayed as a good man who helps escaped zoo animals and loves his daughter. And his daughter, Abby, is somehow portrayed as justified in her brutal killing of Joel, and setup as an “equal” to Ellie in the game, given just as much (if not more) screen time by the time the credits role.
I’ll get this out of the way right here: Abby’s revenge plot was deeply stupid from the start. At first, I didn’t even realize that this was the avenging daughter of the Firefly doctor because of how thin that rationalization would be. She doesn’t just kill Joel (who saved her life moments earlier, by the way) she makes him suffer. She wants it done slowly. And she does it with the support of a bunch of other people who, throughout the course of the game, are humanized and presented as sympathetic characters rather than the despicable monsters they are. (Later, Abby shows Ellie mercy despite her having killed several of those friends, which is kind of weird given the lengths she went to kill Joel . . .)
It’s one thing to get revenge because you watch your surrogate father beaten to death with a golf club, bloody and crumpled on the floor. It’s another to get revenge because someone killed your own murderous father while rescuing an innocent girl who he was about to kill.
I mean, really? I get that you’d be upset that somebody killed your dad, but when the reasoning is “he was saving his daughter from certain death” that sort of takes the wind out of those vengeance sails, doesn’t it? Maybe if not for Abby, then for her compatriots who might, given a moment to think about it, consider Joel’s actions self-defense. And sure, you might want revenge, or you might shoot the guy if you run into him and act in a moment of pique, but tracking him down and then making him suffer while beating him to death with a golf club when you’re fully aware he did it to save his daughter? Give me a break.
I’m just trying to puzzle out what kind of person goes this far out of their way to get bloody vengeance like this. A pretty evil person. Abby is evil right from the start. But the game and its creators don’t want you to think that. They want you to spend half the game empathizing with Abby. The other half of the game they want you to lose whatever respect you had for Ellie.
The Last Of Us Part II already makes it clear from the outset that we should have very little respect for Joel and his past choices. Then, instead of creating a sympathetic antagonist in Abby, they make her about as evil as possible and then ask us to see things from her point of view. It doesn’t work. The real victim of all of this is Ellie, however. I used to like Ellie quite a bit, but not by the time I finished this game.
So the whole game gets off to a rough start. It doesn’t get better from here.
Ellie and Abby are the two playable characters in The Last Of Us Part II. You play as Joel for a few minutes before he’s bludgeoned to death. In many ways, he’s the lucky one. At least we get to remember him as the caring father who saved Ellie and stuck by her through thick and thin. The game can try to convince us that he was in the wrong, but we know better. Joel is spared the next agonizing 25 to 30 hours, minus some flashbacks which are its finest moments (and a good template for what this game could have, and probably should have, been).
Ellie’s “death” is much more tragic, because the game proceeds to ruin her character in every subsequent scene, thoroughly destroying any semblance of who she once was and turning her into a relentlessly selfish, murderous jerk. All because somebody thought that a story about a cycle of revenge would be more interesting than a story about wandering through an abandoned museum.
I bring that up because to me, the museum bit was the most powerful piece of storytelling in the entire game. In a flashback, Joel takes Ellie to a surprise. She tries to guess what it is along the way, and the two banter back and forth like the good old days.
The surprise is an abandoned museum. The first thing you see is a giant T-Rex outside its doors, and if you’re the exploring type you discover that you can climb up its back and leap off its head into the pool below. Maybe you do this two or three times just because it’s so light and breezy and you desperately need a break from grim and awful. It’s such a cool bit of storytelling. It’s so at odds with the rest of the game.
Once inside the museum, Ellie and Joel explore the displays. There are various dinosaurs and astronaut suits, and even an old rocket ship which you can go into and imagine you’re taking off into outer space. You find an old Indiana Jones hat (a little nod to Uncharted) which you can toss onto one of the dinosaur’s heads. It’s imaginative and beautiful.
The sequence takes a dark turn in the end, and that juxtaposition of whimsy and terror makes it by far my favorite part of the game. Joel and Ellie are still a team. They have some great bonding moments. There’s some laughs, a good scary bit and it’s done. I wish the entire game had been like this. Moments of beauty and moments of ugliness woven together in a kind of bleak harmony. Some contrast, some variety.
Instead, it’s a game about two young women trying to kill one another, while everyone around them also tries to kill each other. You stab and/or break so many necks by the time it’s over, you start to feel a bit numb.
It’s a game about hate and don’t you dare forget it.
Let’s Not Bicker And Argue Over Who Killed Who
After Joel’s vicious murder, Ellie feels like crap. She wants revenge and so does Tommy, Joel’s brother. He sets out first and Ellie sets out a bit later, accompanied by her new girlfriend, Dina. Halfway through the game, you go back in time to when Ellie and Dina arrive in the city, but you play the next few days as Abby instead, seeing things through her eyes. This is an odd choice given how thoroughly we despise Abby at this point, and it never stops being an odd choice. While some of her story is interesting, she really isn’t. She’s a one-note character who, beyond being a murderer, does really crappy things to people she cares about. Abby sucks. A lot.
In Seattle, two factions do battle as Ellie and Abby traverse the city, Ellie searching for Abby to get revenge, while Abby looks for her wayward ex-boyfriend, Owen. The Wolves and the Seraphites (nicknamed the Scars) vie for control of the city.
The former is a group of former rebels who shook off the yoke of a tyrannical post-apocalyptic government and set up their own quasi-fascistic organization. Only now with burritos! They’ve taken in Abby and some other former Fireflies, like Owen. (They’re not a couple anymore, but Abby and Owen have sex in the game despite Owen’s current girlfriend being very, very pregnant. Because Abby is the worst).
The Scars, meanwhile, are a fanatical cult-like group—the kind that shows up in video games like this and in TV shows like The Walking Dead. They’re kind of like The Whisperers from AMC’s zombie drama, as in they’re so over-the-top it’s completely immersion-breaking. The game’s writers must have thought they were crafting a realistic post-apocalyptic group, but the Scars come off as cartoonishly vile and utterly preposterous.
Also, the Scars shoot arrows that are far more deadly than the most powerful gun in the game, so that’s a neat trick.
Suffice to say, the Scars are a completely implausible group that cartoonifies the sequel in ways that simply didn’t happen in the first entry. There were some very bad people in the original Last Of Us, but I never rolled my eyes the way I did with the Scars.
In any case, most of the game—after the opening and before the final act—takes place in Seattle across a three day period. Ellie and Dina arrive in Seattle and start tracking down Abby. During that same period, Abby explores the war-torn city and we see how the Wolves vs Scars war plays out.
Thus begins a story of revenge and violence in which Ellie stabs a couple hundred men and women in the jugular a few times and Abby breaks countless necks. Between the two of them, Ellie and Abby must murder a few hundred people, but of course only Joel and Abby’s father’s deaths warrant retaliatory bloodshed. All those other deaths? No big deal.
Oh, and when you kill someone and another AI bad guy finds their body, they’ll call out the deceased’s name like it means something.
“No, not Timothy!” “They killed Kenny!” “Brenda!!!”
It’s another little touch that’s designed to make the game’s world and people seem more real. It doesn’t work. At all. Hearing Generic Bad Guy call out the name of Dead Generic Bad Guy only made me chuckle and roll my eyes. I’m coming for you next, pal. This shiv’s for you!
We have the same half-dozen enemy character models repeated over and over again throughout the game, but I’m supposed to feel something—some sense of guilt, perhaps?
I mean, the game doesn’t even give you a non-lethal option and stealth mechanics are severely limited so why not just murder everyone?
The Slog Of Slogs
Meanwhile, pacing is a mess. The Last Of Us Part II drags on far too long with too many encounters, too many dramatic moments and too much redundancy. I’d take a game half the length with just a few more interesting set-pieces to replace all the endless slaughter.
There are a few named characters Ellie finds and kills as she tracks down Abby, and at least one of these encounters has oomph (when Ellie discovers that she’s killed a pregnant woman, having just found out about Dina’s pregnancy) but largely this sense that we’re supposed to feel bad for all this killing feels more like something Naughty Dog is hammering into us rather than part of a well-crafted story.
I watched a bit of footage I’d captured the other day where Ellie stabs this guy in the neck four or five times and it’s just gross. It doesn’t make me feel bad it just feels completely gratuitous. I simply don’t care about any of these people I violently murder in The Last Of Us Part II, and honestly, neither does Ellie. That may be the real problem with the game’s violence. It doesn’t square with the game’s seriousness or flimsy attempts at some kind of message. It’s so nihilistic so much of the time, you get the sense that there is no message. Nothing learned, nothing gained. No meaning to be found, even when you get to the dregs.
Yes, we get a sense that Ellie is traumatized by all the violence. When Abby let’s her go for a second time, despite having just killed everyone Abby cares about (and despite Abby having proven already that she’s the vengeful type so this mercy makes no sense whatsoever) we follow Ellie and Dina and Dina’s new baby to a farmhouse where they’ve cobbled together a new life together. But what appears to be all peaches and sunshine falls apart when Ellie has a bad flashback. Tommy shows up and chastises her for not killing Abby. So Ellie gives up her nice little life and sets off again, to try to kill Abby again.
Because Ellie learns nothing in this game. She must have left behind two hundred corpses in Seattle, including all of Abby’s friends, but that’s not enough to sate her thirst for comeuppance, and she doesn’t realize, bafflingly, that it will never be enough. Revenge won’t bring Joel back and it won’t assuage her guilt at how she treated him and it won’t lead to a life of happiness.
But off she goes to California.
Many people who aren’t super-fans of Naughty Dog were incredibly upset by the game’s ending. So was I, but for somewhat different reason. We’ll get to that in a second.
After her stint at the farm, Ellie abandons Dina and the infant they were raising together to once again seek out Abby, this time in Santa Barbarra. It’s just another way the game makes you hate Ellie. Her pettiness, her bitterness, her endless self-obsession and selfishness. That the game feels it necessary to have Ellie try for revenge once, fail, and then go out again is pretty ludicrous from a narrative standpoint, not only extending the game for no good reason—it’s about ten hours too long—but making Ellie out to be even more unsympathetic in the process.
In any case, Ellie ditches Dina (who deserves better, quite frankly) and the child and heads to Santa Barbara. It’s a great location, all sun and heat compared to Seattle’s rain and gloom; orange and yellow instead of green and grey. Once again, Naughty Dog proves that it can craft some truly jaw-dropping environments. Your first moments in Santa Barbara are wonderfully scary and tense.
But once again we have another group of wicked bastards to contend with. This group is called The Rattlers. The Rattlers aren’t as psycho as the Scars, but they’re close. They keep slaves and crucify troublemakers down at the beach. In Naughty Dog’s apocalypse, life truly is nasty, brutish and short. Psychopaths and creepy cults are everywhere.
This group must have sounded good on paper but to me the Rattlers are just more cartoon villains for us to stab and shoot and blow sky high, this time with a silenced SMG in your arsenal. There must be a more nuanced take on the apocalypse that all these game and TV show studios could come up with, one in which people are complicated, and groups of people aren’t always so different from one another. But so far, only the Jackson, WY settlement seems to be comprised of real people with actual shades of grey.
I’d say that Naughty Dog tried to make Abby and the Wolves complex, too, but they kind of botched that when they had them murder Joel in the very beginning. Every subsequent attempt to humanize Abby and her co-conspirators falls short thanks to that misstep.
In any case, back to Santa Barbara.
The sequence starts with Abby and her companion Lev searching for the Fireflies in Santa Barbara. We met Lev back in Seattle. He and his sister were Scars, but they were cast out and were going to be killed when Lev cut his hair. Lev, we discover, is biologically female but wants to identify as male, and the uber-religious Scars think this is an unforgivable sin. It’s a pretty ham-handed attempt at tackling the issue of trans people and tolerance in the game, simply because the Scars are so outlandishly awful. But Lev is a good character and Lev and Abby’s relationship is the one point of redemption in Abby’s entire arc, and one which I wish Naughty Dog had handled almost entirely differently. More on that later.
Abby and Lev are looking for the Fireflies so they can rejoin Abby’s old group, and just when they’ve made contact over the radio they’re ambushed and taken prisoner by the Rattlers. You can tell right away that these are Very Bad Dudes.
Sometime later, Ellie shows up, following the lead Tommy gave her back at the farmhouse. She discovers the Resort and this new enemy faction after creeping through some very zombie-infested buildings. One thing this game does do very well is make the various spore zombies scary, as much through their terrifying warbling and screeching as anything. Naughty Dog’s sound design is matched only by their graphical prowess. Nobody can discount just how technically and artistically this game succeeds. It’s the writing, the narrative, where everything falls apart.
And we come, at long last, to the ending.
This Is The End, Beautiful Friend
Depending on how you play, you either sneak or blast your way through the Resort area until you free some prisoners and they tell you that Abby has already been taken and punished for trying to escape. So you head to the beach as the prisoners go to battle with their former captors (or what’s left of them after Ellie cleaved her bloody path through their ranks).
She walks down to the beach. It’s dark. The sounds of combat echo in the distance. The sea is draped in fog. Abby and Lev, along with countless others, are hanging from posts, basically crucified and on the verge of death, skeletal from starvation. It’s as grim and awful as anything we’ve seen up to this point.
It’s just that we’re all so very, very numb by now. Another fresh hell stuffed into 30 hours of grimdark violence, atrocity and betrayal. A powerful moment that needed to come much, much sooner. (Honestly, they should have scrapped California entirely and had Ellie find Abby strung up by the Scars in Seattle).
Still, it’s probably the first time I felt real sympathy for Abby. No matter how much of a monster she was—a faithless friend, a brutal killer, a small-minded ruffian—it’s tough to see even your worst enemy starved, hanging from a post, dying slowly. And Lev was innocent. He didn’t deserve this fate. Nobody does.
When Ellie cuts her down, and Abby carries Lev to a boat to make good their escape, and it looks like Ellie has finally realized that revenge really doesn’t make anything better, I was actually pleasantly surprised. There is a beauty in mercy. Even Abby showed mercy—not once, but twice—to Ellie, after all.
Abby is not a sympathetic character and nothing the game tries made me like her, but I do want to like Ellie. Ellie taking revenge on Joel’s killer might feel good, but Ellie showing mercy makes her more human. It makes her a better person. It means that after all this blood and death and hate, she could come out the other side as someone who has grown and changed and run the gauntlet of suffering and still come out the other side with her self intact.
If she had simply turned around and left her to her fate, I could have accepted that ending as well. It would have been more cruel and Ellie would have been less humanized by it, but at least it would have been a decisive and powerful ending.
Or if Abby were already dead, there would have been some poetic justice to that as well. Ellie’s hands would be clean. Well, not clean exactly but cleaner. I’ve heard it said those damned spots don’t come out.
But instead, Ellie cuts her down. And they go their separate ways, not friends or allies, but united in suffering and tragedy. An end to the cycle of violence. Something like resolution, however bitter and incomplete.
Only, no, not quite. We need some mud-wrestling, don’t we? We need to see the women get down and dirty. We need that sweet, sweet misery porn.
What follows is the single worst moment in the entire game (aside from forcing us to play as Abby for fifteen hours of it, or the total character assassination of Ellie). Instead of cutting her down, showing mercy, Ellie decides that actually she still needs to get revenge. Wouldn’t want all that stabbing practice to go to waste, right?
She’s going to stab this woman, who has been starving to death hanging from a pole, until she bleeds out and dies. Only, not really. Nope. She’s going to stab and slash her a few times and then let her go again.
Fun times. This is really how I want to spend my video game time.
Now, a lot of people are angry that Ellie didn’t end up going through with it, that she spared her sworn enemy. They hated Abby and think that a satisfying ending required Abby to die, and Ellie to kill her. I think that’s rubbish. Sure, it could have worked in different circumstances. If Ellie and Abby had met on equal terms, for instance. But this “I’m going to save you and let you live, oh never mind time to die, oh never mind again you can live” nonsense is just bad writing.
Revenge can be fun. John Wick does “fun revenge” very well. I remember watching Braveheart for the first time and William Wallace’s revenge was thrilling. But the moral of the story in serious works of fiction is that revenge is bitter (not bittersweet) and never quite plays out the way you’d hoped. It creates a cycle of violence that hurts everyone caught up in its wake. Hamlet is consumed by his desire for revenge—prompted by the ghost of his father—but in the end it just means that everyone dies, including innocents like Polonius and Ophelia and, though she’s perhaps a little less innocent, Hamlet’s mother as well. Revenge, like that green-eyed monster, jealousy, is dangerous. Something to be avoided if at all possible. Even justifiable revenge—think A Time To Kill—can lead to all sorts of problems.
What this game needed in the end was grace. The kind of strange, unsettling thing that comes over someone when they suddenly realize something profound and choose to take a different path. When Ellie sees her emaciated enemy hanging from a poll and, instead of feeling gleeful satisfaction, feels only horror and pity, she acted with grace and mercy and, in that moment, became the person we hoped she would become. It was never about killing Abby. It was about Ellie finding her own redemption.
And then they throw it all away.
Two angry, beat up, half-dead murderesses slicing each other over and over again in the shallows, blood and saltwater spraying everywhere, until suddenly Ellie gives up and let’s Abby go. Again. I’m not one to usually criticize games for their violence, but this felt exploitative to me. And redundant. All that potential for mercy and grace lost.
Ellie already let her go! She already came to the conclusion that she should let Abby live when she cut her down! Why go through all that again? Why have this horrible, violent, senseless slasher fight if, at its conclusion, Ellie simply let’s Abby go again?
The ending could have worked with mercy or revenge as the outcome, but apparently the writers had trouble making up their minds about which direction they wanted to go, and decided to try and have their cake and eat it, too. The result feels sloppy, repetitive and frustrating.
More than anything, this game’s ending needed to not beat around the bush.
Either cut her down and let her live (mercy) or have Ellie take revenge (leave her to die) or have her already dead when Ellie gets there (chance). You can’t have it both ways, all ways, whatever. If you want to end the game with a knife fight, do that. But don’t make Ellie cut her down first. Have them meet as equals. It’s too much like Indigo Montoya helping the Man in Black up the cliff just so he can kill him. Only not in the least bit funny.
The last scene, when Ellie returns home to an empty farmhouse, Dina and her baby long gone, is better. A fitting reward for Ellie’s selfish, self-destructive obsession with revenge.
A game about hate, sure, but even more a game about loss.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
Not everything about The Last Of Us Part II’s story was terrible. I loved all of Ellie’s flashbacks with Joel and Tommy. I might have even enjoyed Abby’s if her character deserved it.
As I noted further up, I also very much enjoyed the sights and sounds. Graphically, few games I’ve ever played can compare. For all its violence and misery, The Last Of Us Part II is a true beauty. Sound design, though, is what really makes it scary. When the game bothers trying to be scary it succeeds more often than not.
Gameplay gets bogged down at times by the lack of a full-fledged stealth system and somewhat dense AI, but there are still some exhilarating sequences and combat, while far from my favorite, can be tense and exciting. There’s simply too much of it, like there’s too much of just about everything here. Too much crafting, too much scavenging (though remember there’s an option to make that more tolerable), too much story and too many hours of game to get through.
For all my complaints—complaints I genuinely found made me dislike this game and everyone in it more and more the longer I played it, and the longer I stewed over it after—I still had something resembling fun while playing. I finished the damn thing, which is more than I can say for a lot of games.
I also really enjoyed the entire frightening intro sequence with Yara and Lev, and those characters in general. If only Abby had had some sort of dawning realization about Lev and her relationship with Lev made her better understand Joel’s actions. She could have let go of some of that hate. If Abby had realized that protecting Lev from Isaac and the WLF was basically exactly what Joel was doing by rescuing Ellie from her dad and the Fireflies (only he knew Ellie a lot longer) we might have actually had a story with some interesting dynamic character arcs.
Actually, the more I think about it, the more I wish that The Last Of Us Part II had never been about Joel and Ellie at all, and that the entire thing had been the story of Abby and her desire for revenge and how that transformed into understanding and forgiveness for her father’s killer as she grew into the role of protector and surrogate mother for Lev. She could have found empathy along the way, and chosen to spare Joel’s life, sparing Ellie her own story of revenge and horror, and saving all four characters in the process.
Perhaps a game about hate could have turned into a game about love, after all.
P.S. This was a strangely challenging review for me to write. I didn’t get a review copy so I was late to actually playing it, but even after I finished the game I had a hard time putting pen to paper. I finished my first draft of this review weeks ago and then found myself unable to come back to it. I’m not entirely sure why.
In one sense, it’s because the game left me with such conflicting feelings. It’s clearly a very good game in many ways, and yet also sort of horrible at the same time. And even though I ultimately found the tale of revenge and violence too pretentious and not nearly as effective as its creators hoped, I was still haunted by it. It had emotional resonance even while not really standing up to scrutiny. So my apologies for the very late review, but sometimes that’s how it goes. Writer’s block is a helluva thing.
P.P.S. I wrote that first P.S. a couple weeks ago and still didn’t publish this thing for some reason. Today I went back in and edited a lot of it. I’m probably still not entirely satisfied, but oh well. I’m going to publish it now, come hell or high water.