The Internet is never short on people going back and forth over games. However, the release of The Last of Us Part 2 might be the most divided and chaotic I’ve ever seen, with what feels like an all-out war raging between critics and gamers, and between gamers and gamers. Few games have ever warranted this much conversation, some of it healthy and some of it outright horrid. Its even got to the point where one of the game’s actors received threats, which is disgusting. So, I’m going to attempt to coral my thoughts and feelings about The Last of Us Part 2 into some semblance of coherence in the next 4,000+ words. Yup, it’s going to be a long one, folks.
Let me preface this review by reminding you that I literally only played the original The Last of Us days before the sequel arrived. I don’t have 7-years of extra attachment to Joel and Ellie colouring my experience with The Last of Us Part 2. With that said, I loved Joel and Ellie. Their relationship was so absorbing to watch, so expertly executed that it completely over-rode the fact that I don’t think the actual gameplay in The Last of Us was very good.
The other that I need to say is that this is a spoiler review. I decided quickly that I couldn’t try to explain how I felt about The Last of Us Part 2 without breaking down its story and characters. Therefore, this is your spoiler warning. Get out while you still can.
Let’s start with the things about The Last of Us 2 that we can all easily agree on: this is a technical masterpiece on just about every level that pushes the PS4 to its limits. In fact, my PS4 Pro frequently sounded like it was planning on launching itself into the atmosphere and I wound up having to use headphones more than normal just so I wouldn’t have to crank the speakers up so loud. Naughty Dog have outdone themselves when it comes to environments, textures and details. There are barely any reused assets despite the 25-hour runtime.
And then there’s the mocapping, animation and acting, all of which are nothing short of top-tier. The game transitions so smoothly between actual gameplay and in-game cutscenes that I often got caught out completely. Not only are the facial movements of the actors incredible to watch, but you’ll also see every little piece of body language, like how Ellie will play with her fingers when she’s nervous. Of course Ashley Johnston reprises her role as Ellie and she does an incredible job alongside a fantastic cast.
Maybe the best example of how much sheer detail Naughty Dog have added to the game is when you reach a crafting table. Ellie will pop down her current weapon and dismantle it, and if you swap weapons she’ll put the current one back together and then dismantle the new one. When you select an upgrade she’ll launch into a bespoke animation for that specific upgrade which might include using a rag to clean parts up, grabbing tools and lots more. It’s complete useless and only really only wastes time and yet it’s oddly satisfying to watch her tinker with her gear.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to see all the incredible work without also considering the numerous allegations of crunching at Naughty Dog, of workers putting in absurd hours to make The Last of Us 2 a reality. Were all those animations at the crafting bench really worth the hours and hours of extra time it took to make them?
Part of me can’t help but wonder if The Last of Us 2’s astounding production values have been part of the reason the game has got so many glowing reviews which ignore some hefty plot problems. Like a big blockbuster film its so easy to get caught up in the eye-melting visuals and the strong performances that you don’t notice the story problems, until after you’ve seen the credits roll and start to think about it all.
That isn’t to say that The Last of Us 2’s story is as bad as the Internet might have you believe. It has some excellent moments, such as the flashback with Joel and Ellie at a museum, but it also has some serious issues which mean that it doesn’t surpass the original game, at least in my eyes. The tight pacing and scripting of the fifteen hours it took to complete the original game are gone as The Last of Us 2 attempts to stretch itself into a 25-hour epic that includes a huge 7-hour chunk that feels more like a side-quest that someone got carried away with. There’s more action and more gameplay, but honestly as I was coming up to 20-hours I was beginning to want the whole thing to stop. And the story structure constantly brings the pace to a screeching halt.
The Last of Us wasn’t about its gameplay or its story. It was about its two main characters, the tale of Ellie and Joel. The Last of Us 2 shifts its focus away from its characters in order to focus on its themes of love, revenge, violence, depression, obsession and PTSD. This is a bleak with even fewer moments of light than the original. It’s a slog to get through, but sadly not in the right way. And ultimately The Last of Us 2 sacrifices its characters on the alter of theme. What was loved about The Last of Us is systematically deconstructed and burned. For some people, it’s going to be an amazing experience. For others, it’s going to be a mess. Both points are valid. For me, it doesn’t work, and I’m going to attempt to explain why.
We catch up with Ellie around five years after the events of the first game. Her and Joel have settled down in Jackson with Joel’s brother, and they’re now living the relatively good life. Jackson has working electricity, good defenses and a proper community of people. Of course, this is The Last of Us so nothing stays good for very long. Joel gets brutally murdered at the hands of new character Abby. It’s sudden and its shocking, which certainly fits the world of The Last of Us.
The problems begin there. The inciting incident which drives the story isn’t the problem. Indeed, I think it’s very much the right decision for Joel to die as it makes sense given everything that happened previously in The Last of Us. It’s the execution where the fault lies, side-stepping hugely important character traits in order to make it all work. It feels awkward thanks to a big chunk of convenience and weird character behavior, and there’s a sense that it was done with sheer shock value first and foremost versus giving the fans something fitting and satisfying. It’s subversion for the sake of itself, rather than for a real plot reason, and that sort of writing irritates me. Joel’s death is used solely as the motivation for Ellie, with Joel’s character getting nothing from it. Except, y’know, a golf club to the head.
As for Ellie, she’s changed. Naturally, it has been five-years since we last saw her so she’s going to be different, but the change isn’t for the better. This new Ellie feels like a typical moody teenager stereotype, lacking the spunk, punch and even humour of her younger self. Ellie was a child who had seen too much and done too much, yet she still looked for the light in the dark. She swore too much, was quick to anger and spoke her mind. This new Ellie is…moody. And that’s kind of it. Once she starts sinking into the black depths of revenge she becomes even one more one-note, and dare I even say sort of unlikable? I think that’s the idea. As she is consumed with her need for revenge and her willingness to kill it’s supposed to be harder to like her, even if you do understand her. But again, it feels like character’s have been twisted to make the narrative work, rather than the narrative being worked around the characters. Even in the opening 2-hours before Joel’s death I was struggling to connect with Ellie. It just got worse as the game went on.
It’s easy to say the game is just about the cycle of violence and revenge, but I think it’s more about the beauty of love, and the horror of it, too. Yes, Ellie does horrible things in the name of revenge, but she also does them because of love. We humans can do nightmarish things in the name of love, after all. But once again questionable writing fails to really nail the concept. For example, there’s a part in the game where Ellie mentally breaks down after brutally torturing someone. Really this scene should be a culmination of everything that has happened to Ellie up until then, but thanks to the writing it plays out purely as Ellie being repulsed by what she has done in the moment. Even that could have been a powerful moment if it wasn’t for the fact that for the many hours beforehand Ellie has literally been slicing throats without even flinching, burning people alive, blowing up dogs and literally beating folk to death with a lead pipe. Sure, there’s a difference between just killing someone and torture, but by this point Ellie has performed such brutal killings that’s its difficult to justify her trauma.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the game stems from its non-existent pacing. After the initial ten hours of playing as Ellie the game begins to ramp up to something big, and then just as things are coming to a head the Abby twist is introduced. Suddenly all build-up vanishes and it almost feels like you’re playing the game from the very start against as Abby. The story meanders along, you’re going through the motion of scavenging for stuff, doing little environmental puzzles and fighting through sections. Abby has her own skill trees and weapons and upgrades that you need to build up, despite having already done ten hours of the same with Ellie.
The trick gets repeated later with another build up with no payoff before the developers introduce a final chunk of gameplay that somehow brings a third, pointless faction into the mix.
Annoyingly Abby’s section of the game actually contains some of the best sequences and set pieces. Indeed, I’d even argue that it has some of the best characters in Yara and Lev. But it also feels so detached from Ellie’s story that most of it winds up feeling like a rogue side-quest or maybe even a chunk of DLC. By the time I got back to play as Ellie I was so removed from her emotions and drive and story that I couldn’t get back into it. Maybe that’s a deliberate choice by the developers to remove players from Ellie’s anger and hatred of Abby, but for me it killed the motivation to see the story through. It had dragged on for too long.
Flashbacks are heavily utilized throughout The Last of Us 2, but unfortunately these also damage the pacing. Their placement in the narrative often feels random, with some filling in motivations hours after the event itself. I did, at least, think the placement of Joel and Ellie’s final scene was smart, as its used to show us that it isn’t just Joel’s death that Ellie mourns, but also the chance to truly reconcile and reconnect with him.
So far I’ve talked about two big bits of the narrative really missing the mark, but guess what!? There’s a third bit: the ending. It doesn’t work. It’s frustrating, it’s unsatisfying and thematically it’s a bloody mess. I can see what Naughty Dog were aiming for, and lots of other media has managed to do it, but for me the writers ultimately failed to pull it off. As Ellie lets Abby go, we’re left with…nothing. The message feels as though it boils down to vengeance being bad, a one-note theme that we are all very aware of. For me, Ellie either needed to get her revenge and find it to be utterly hollow, before heading home and discovering Dina had left her, or she needed to give up on revenge like she did and return to find that Dina did wait for, and that maybe, just maybe, Ellie has a chance at happiness through hard work and retrospection. But instead Ellie does finally let go of her obsession before heading home to find an empty house. There’s some ambiguity I suppose – maybe Ellie can reconnect with Dina. That doesn’t stop the ending from feeling flaccid.
The Last of Us didn’t have a huge cast of characters, but those that it introduced were interesting and made lasting impacts. I can’t say for the ancillary characters in The Last of Us 2. Most of them are dull, or even outright pointless. Poor Jesse seems to exist solely so that Dina can be pregnant, while Nora exists so she can be beaten to death. There’s even one person whose name escapes me (she has a PS Vita, so…) whose only purpose is to make the player feel bad. That’s it.
The one-note character writing affects Ellie and Dina’s relationship, too, which should be a vital part of the game. Dina’s defining trait is a few sarcastic comments and punny jokes, but outside of that it’s hard to say who she is. Coupled with Ellie’s moody teenager vibe I was never sure what they saw in each other. Since we never see anything of their prior friendship or the build toward their first kiss either, it left me pondering how and why they had ever got to this point. In the end, I just didn’t care about Dina or the relationship.
The same can be said for Abby’s awkward love triangle between herself, Mel and Owen. At first Owen has a likeable way about him, but his treatment of Mel and his love of Abby winds up making him difficult to empathize with, and the whole thing comes across like an afternoon soap opera. Owen cheats on the mother of his unborn child. As for Mel…Jesus, this heavily pregnant woman decides to put herself on the front lines of a fight, endangering herself, the baby and everyone else around her. It’s hard to get on board with that.
Finally, there’s Abby herself. Whether you like her or the game as a whole, I do think Naughty Dog made a ballsy choice to have her kill Joel, and then have you play as her for over ten hours. From a writing perspective that’s a tough hill to clamber over, and to their credit they almost managed it. Almost. By the end I can at least say that I understood Abby, and I don’t think I was even that far off of liking her. I thought the way her and Ellie mirror each other was interesting, with one still trapped in the vice-like grip of seeking revenge and the other having now got her revenge and trying to find some measure of redemption for her acts. But ultimately, Abby didn’t just kill Joel. No, she beat him to death slowly and then proceeded to murder him in front of someone who clearly cared for him. Had she just shot him, I think I could have probably been more understanding of her character. Her desire for revenge was justified, but the way she takes it was too over-the-top for the writers to successfully overcome.
Perhaps it would have been better if we spent the game with Abby and Ellie, before finally learning near the end that Abby’s target is Joel and her reasoning for it. With some attachment to Abby already formed, and time to expand on Ellie and Joel’s rocky father-daughter relationship the death of Joel could have hit harder. Imagine if the game had ended that way, with The Last of Us 3 being the story of Ellie’s revenge and Abby’s guilt.
In some ways, I feel like the game tries too hard to make you like Abby. The writers pull out every stop, from giving her vertigo in a bid to make her relatable to having her playing with a dog that you previously murdered as Ellie. They even give Abby her own little side-kick in the form of Lev that is meant to mirror the Joel and Ellie relationship in some ways. Hell, they even seem to retcon some of the original game, making it so now there’s no mention of the other immune patients the Firefly tried to create cures from, and Joel himself never brings it up. The fact that Abby’s father and the Fireflies also knocked out an innocent girl and were going to murder her without giving her a choice is also ignored. All of these things could have been used to muddy the waters, but instead they get pushed aside.
I’ve barely touched upon so many smaller moments of the story, some of which are amazing and some of which aren’t. Despite my tone throughout the review so far, I didn’t hate the story. But neither did I love it. In some ways that’s worse, really. I left The Last of Us feeling like I’d been through the wringer. I was attached to the characters, I was invested in where they ended up and I could understand their decisions, whether they were good or bad. In The Last of Us 2 though, I left feeling hollow. It was a slog, but not in the intended emotional way. I wasn’t invested, I didn’t care much about the characters and by the end it had outstayed its welcome.
Despite this, I think the story is generally admirable in that it tries to do something difficult. The amazing production values and acting means there are scenes and sequences that are incredible or that can elicit an emotional reaction. The problems exist when you consider the writing, characters and narrative as a whole.
In some ways, I think The Last of Us 2 would have worked better if it wasn’t a sequel. If these were new characters in a world we hadn’t yet experienced I could actually see the whole thing working far better, because that attachment we have for Joel wouldn’t have been such a massive roadblock.
I wasn’t a big fan of the gameplay in the original The Last of Us. It was serviceable, but that was about it. I’m glad to say that The Last of Us Part 2 is much improved while still also maintaining the same style and feel of the original stealth and combat. Being able to hide in patches of grass and go prone are hardly new concepts in video games, but when combined with the larger, more interesting encounter designs it makes stealth and fighting feel a lot better. You can move around, flank enemies or disappear after performing a hit and run. And the ways enemies now call out to each other using names lends a surprising amount of weight to any rampages you go on, although that slight feeling of guilt vanishes quickly.
The new encounter mode which lets you play through every combat encounter separately is a great little addition. I had a lot of fun going back and seeing how the A.I. will react or how tough they can be in a firefight. Overall, the A.I. holds up well and provides a solid challenge, even if the ally A.I. will occasionally wander right in front of enemies during stealth.
Scavenging for supplies is a big part of The Last of Us, but across the much longer run time of Part 2 constantly scrounging for bits of cloth and other junk starts to become tedious. Personally, I’d say turn the resource availability down, because at least that way it feels like you’re properly having to make what little you have matter rather than just wandering around while holding triangle to hoover everything up.
Speaking of turning down resources, The Last of Us Part 2’s massive suite of options has to be mentioned. Not only can you individually adjust stuff like your A.I. partner’s aggressiveness and the amount of time you can linger before getting spotted, but you can also toggle a huge amount accessibility options. It’s apparently even possible for a blind person to play the game, a concept I can’t even begin to wrap my head around. It must have taken Naughty Dog a lot of work to implement as many options and pieces of smart design as they have. It’s impressive.
I’m also not very keen on the new character upgrade system. Like before you can guzzle down vitamin pills to boost stuff like your health or how many arrows you can craft. But now, you have a linear upgrade path, with new paths becoming available when you find skill books lying around. The result of the system is very little in the way of player choice. To get an upgrade you want you need to buy s bunch you couldn’t care less about. And the slow pace at which you get access to new upgrade paths means you either have to invest in stuff you don’t want, or end up saving heaps of vitamins until you eventually find something you’re more interested in.
With all this said the gameplay isn’t radically different, just more polished and fleshed out. So if you actively disliked how the stealth, gameplay and environmental puzzles felt in The Last of Us, I’m not sure The Last of Us 2 will change your mind. For me, the gameplay of the original was interesting but it didn’t feel very good, but now it’s much smoother, more dynamic and just more interesting to play.
Something that was shown before the game was released were encounters where you could potentially pit human enemies against the infected. It’s a fun idea, so I was saddened to find only a couple of occasions where it was possible. There’s something darkly satisfying about hurling a bottle into the middle of a group hunting you and watching as the infected shamble out from the shadows and begin to assault them.
It’s also a shame that Naughty Dog didn’t try harder with their environmental puzzles. Dragging dumpsters and ladders around in the original The Last of Us was tedious and annoying, but I had hoped Naughty Dog would expand on the idea for the sequel. A ruined world with crumbling buildings, destroyed cars, raging rivers and severe flooding would be tricky to navigate at times, so it seems like a natural fit for some inventive puzzles. Sadly that’s not the case. Instead, there’s some dull rope puzzles, an occasional ladder and that’s about it.
Even after several thousand words there’s still a lot more to say about The Last of Us 2. That in itself is something to celebrate – we don’t often get games that merit so much conversation and analysis and debate. And it has to be said that even though I ultimately didn’t like The Last of Us Part 2 anywhere near as much as the original, Naughty Dog did the right thing in making the game they wanted to make. I’d much rather a developer follows its own ideas and vision for its creation that just try to appease customers.
So, with all this said, how do I feel about The Last of Us Part 2? Conflicted, would be the answer. The lavish production values are a real sight to behold, from the amazing graphics to the beautiful music, from the incredible acting to excellent direction. The gameplay is better too, a more fleshed out and enjoyable mix of stealth and action. That just leaves the story and the writing, and for me that’s where The Last of Us Part 2 struggles to live up to its fore bearer. I didn’t hate it, but I can see why many people did. At the same time, I think I can see why some people loved it. Both sides are entirely justified. For me, though, it was just okay. It had some good moments, it had some bad moments. Its themes and ideas are conceptually interesting, but the execution was heavily flawed, especially due to awkward pacing and the overall structure.