Warning: This article contains spoilers for both The Last of Us and The Last of Us: Part II.
The Last of Us: Part II is certainly receiving a lot of attention following its release on June 19th. After two pushbacks, the game finally debuted to stellar reviews from critics. However, this quickly changed following the general release. A slew of negativity was received from players who began to review bomb the sequel incessantly, leading to some painful Metacritic scores. Some say it is the worst game they’ve ever played whilst others sing its praises from the rooftops. So why has The Last of Us: Part II created such a divisive conflict?
Well, let’s break down the elements of the game and look at some of the positives and negatives to get a grasp on this insanely mixed reaction. The only thing I won’t be touching on is those that dislike the game purely for their stance on the LGBTQ community. Ellie is gay and there is a transgender character involved and so some–though only a select few–are clearly choosing to dislike the game because of their own prejudices. They believe that Naughty Dog is pandering to this community: a ridiculous notion. Inclusion and representation should not be slated merely as “pandering”. Everyone has the right to be able to see aspects of themselves within their favourite characters and stories in any medium, no matter what your race, gender, creed or sexuality.
With that being said, let’s get started.
I want to begin by going into what I found to be the more positive aspects of the game. Heaven knows positivity is getting harder to come by in this day and age. The gameplay and mechanics of The Last of Us: Part II do exactly what they should do in a sequel. It builds and improves upon what was there in the original but also keeps the aspects that didn’t necessarily need to change. If you’ve played The Last of Us and know the controls well, you’ll have no issues here. Elements such as weapon crafting and upgrades are mostly the same, while some areas of combat (mainly some more options for stealth attacking) are expanded.
Visceral doesn’t seem like a strong enough word to describe the combat. Depending on how you choose to kill them, enemies will react. They can scream as they bleed out, plead for their lives and cry out for their fallen friends. They don’t die immediately and each kill feels all the more brutal with their reactions. Visually, the game is gorgeous and much bigger than its predecessor. There is no denying the effort, time, care and likely, sleepless nights, that went into building this world. From the light shining through the broken windows of a dilapidated building to the incredibly simple yet hugely impressive physics for the numerous ropes you use throughout the game. From a technological perspective the game is, as our saviour Keanu would say, breathtaking.
Gustavo Santaolalla’s score, which he creates with Mac Quayle this time around, is incredibly strong. The usual themes are there but there is a darker tone and new themes that slot perfectly into the narrative.
The performances are also strong, particularly from Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie. Admittedly I didn’t find myself as engaged in the actors performances as I did in the first game (except for some particular flashback scenes but I’ll go into that later).
These aspects are all positives that I took away from my time with The Last of Us: Part II and I believe they should not to be overlooked in the grander scheme of things. That being said, let’s now take a look at what fans are having the biggest issues with: the narrative.
The game is essentially split into two segments, the first being Ellie and her quest for vengeance. Quite early on in the game, Joel is murdered at the hands of a woman named Abby and her friends from a group who call themselves the Washington Liberation Front. Ellie vows to find Abby and kill her for what she did to Joel. In the second half, the player takes on the role of Abby. We experience her life from a few years back and up to now, realising why she did what she did and getting to know the companions that Ellie ends up killing.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy Abby’s segment as much as Ellie’s. When you are so used to a certain character and come to care for them, it is difficult when the tables are suddenly turned. This is made even more difficult when that character brutally murdered the character you came to love from the first game. It is hard to connect with Abby despite experiencing her trauma first hand, mostly due to the strength of Joel as a character. However, there are certainly great parts of Abby’s gameplay.
Her parallels with Ellie are definitely interesting but aren’t delved into thoroughly enough. Abby’s relationship with Lev, a transgender child, becomes a reflection of Joel and Ellie’s relationship from the first game. Abby finds some solace in Lev due to her becoming somewhat disconnected from her friends following her brutal torture and murder of Joel. Some of the action in her section is genuinely exhilarating too, such as the final fight between the Wolves (Washington Liberation Front) and the Seraphites. Despite these elements being admirable and enjoyable, Abby’s segments still feel underwhelming. This would not be an issue if playing as Abby didn’t feel quite so forced but it is clear to see why this was done. We go back to the whole action versus consequence theme, with the game forcing you to constantly experience the consequences of Ellie’s actions and vice versa when you play as Abby. The issue is how these themes are handled.
The first The Last of Us game touched on some heavy hitting themes, things like loss and sacrifice, but Part II increases this to the point where it can sometimes feel like these themes are constantly in your face. This has its good and bad points. It makes you think about the importance of actions and consequences and consider what it is you are doing as you violently murder your way through your enemies. Interesting questions about morality and human nature arise throughout both Ellie and Abby’s stories, but it is not always executed in the most effective manner. As I said, these themes come across rather forcefully (making you play fetch with a dog that you know you kill later for instance) which makes the game feel a little pretentious at times.
Some decisions made by the characters in this game are a bit odd and the narrative structure can be inconsistent. I feel like the game could have benefited from a few optional choices. For example, at the end of the game Ellie and Abby have one final fight. Ellie overpowers Abby, but she lets her go. Vengeance is the main theme of the game and Ellie kills a huge amount of people to try and get to Abby and avenge Joel. That is why it feels so forced to have her give up her mission. Ellie goes out of her way to track down Abby again, abandoning her happy farm life with her girlfriend Dina and Dina’s infant son to do so. So would she really just give up at the last hurdle like that? I think this moment would certainly have benefited from allowing the player to choose Abby’s fate.
When you finally find Abby again in California, she and Lev have been tortured by yet another wayward group of people. The game tries hard to make you feel for sorry for them, after all, we experienced what they went through to get here, but it just falls a little flat again due to the forceful nature of it. I think one of the biggest problems is that by forcing the player to see things from another perspective, the interesting questions and themes can become a little redundant.
As well as Ellie’s final decision, Joel’s choices are also questionable. Joel is such a guarded character in the first game due to living in a post-apocalyptic world and having to watch his daughter die. He trusts nothing and no one, not even 14-year-old Ellie at first. Yet here, he is incredibly accommodating to Abby when he and Tommy save her from a horde of infected. He tells her his name and offers to take her back to Jackson to restock their supplies. This is how Abby and her group get the jump on him. It felt a bit ridiculous for a man who spent twenty-plus years keeping his cards close to his chest to have suddenly become so amicable with strangers.
The situation itself didn’t feel the least bit believable either. Abby goes on a mission to find Joel by herself and she is cornered by a ton of infected when, lo and behold, here are Joel and Tommy to save the day. What are the chances of you suddenly stumbling across one another in the freezing winter countryside? Not only that but it also happens to be the guy that you have had a significant vendetta against for years. The first game was brilliant in that every occurrence slotted into place. Nothing felt unnecessary or like it didn’t belong. Even with the crazy situations that Joel and Ellie found themselves in, they felt believable and natural. This moment in the second game felt so unnatural and ridiculously coincidental that it took me out of the story completely. These sorts of narrative issues, odd character developments and misplaced moments are what many players are having trouble with.
My favourite parts of the game are actually the flashbacks where we see Joel and Ellie living in Jackson and developing their father/daughter relationship. Everything about these sections shines; the writing, the acting, even the gameplay, despite them not being heavily action-based. They show Ellie as she was in the first game (optimistic and wide-eyed yet still tough as nails) and depict her maturation as she begins to question Joel’s honesty in regard to his actions with the Fireflies at the end of the first game. Eventually, she is shown finding out the truth of what happened and disowning Joel. These moments obviously have a connection with the player, assuming they played the first one, and they work so much better as they take us back to what made The Last of Us so memorable: Joel, Ellie, their relationship and the ramifications of Joel’s decision to save Ellie and forgo a possible cure to the Cordyceps virus.
The best moment comes in a flashback to a Science Museum that Joel takes Ellie to on her birthday. All you do is explore the museum, looking at the dinosaur skeletons and indulging in Ellie’s fascination with space travel, but it highlights such great character development for the two them. The natural rapport between Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker also shines as it did in the first game. These segments show what the game could have been and it is a little disheartening. It is also a shame that these moments are placed quite awkwardly within the narrative. The story is not linear and jumps back and forth between flashbacks for both Ellie and Abby. I do tend to wonder whether the game would have been more effective if the timeline was chronological. This skewed timeline is also a complaint from some players.
Despite its flaws (is there such a thing as perfect game anyway?) The Last of Us: Part II is a great experience that has its highs and lows. It definitely makes you consider your actions as you play and even at its most narratively strained, it is always engaging. No matter what you think of the game, you have to give credit to those who worked so hard for years on it. Neil Druckmann and his team told the story that they wanted to tell, despite pressure to conform to what the players wanted. This is their narrative and you have to respect the developers for staying true to their vision. Even if that story doesn’t resonate with everyone, there is no doubting that The Last of Us: Part II is an experience that should be played before being judged.
For more on The Last of Us: Part II, check out our review here.