I didn’t like The Last of Us. I want that to be clear before we go into this. It was a combination of factors: the internet spewing absolute nonsense about how it was the greatest game of all-time, how it revolutionized storytelling and no video game had ever told a story before like it and all the EMOTIONS that people felt thanks to it was a major one. But I also played it on a harder difficulty that made the actual gameplay a chore, dropped it in the middle due to the difficulty and ended up finishing the second half a month or two later so I was never invested in the story, and really just preferred light-hearted Naughty Dog to “trying to make Citizen Kane: The Game” LOOK AT THESE EMOTIONS Naughty Dog.
I wasn’t going to get The Last of Us Part 2 because honestly I didn’t care about it. But much like Animal Crossing earlier this year, my will bent very soon after release and I picked it up – but for a very different reason than the calm serenity of AC. See, this game has become a hot button in gaming discourse and will be a hot button for months (if not years) to come thanks to all sorts of opinions flying.
I was gonna have opinions on The Last of Us Part 2 no matter what, so I decided it’d at least be better if they were informed opinions. If I didn’t like the game or if it was somehow worse than The Last of Us, I’d at least have tried it and could say so. Thankfully, TLOU2 is a better game than its predecessor – but it’s still not fantastic.
This review will be full of spoilers for all parts of the game, so be warned.
I was one of the people who read the spoilers that leaked a month before the game released – mostly because at the time I had no intention of playing the game so I didn’t care about the story. Funny enough, the spoilers actually made me marginally more interested in playing the game. It came out in said spoilers that half the game you played as Ellie, and half the game you played as a new character, Abby.
What caused all the controversy, though, is that Abby murders Joel (the protagonist of TLOU, if you didn’t know) in the first few hours of the game.
The Last of Us’s ending has been a bit of a debate: Joel murders the Fireflies to save Ellie from a procedure that would definitely kill her, but might give mankind the cure to the apocalyptic infection plaguing it. It’s a selfish action that makes sense for his character: Joel has no qualms about killing anyone, and after seeing Ellie as a surrogate daughter saving her means more to him than saving humanity. Some players view Joel as the badass hero, while others see Joel as the villain for basically giving up humanity for one person. The point of the ending (to me) is that Joel is really neither, he’s selfish and looks out for his own, is willing to do despicable things to protect them, but that doesn’t mean he’s a complete sociopath. Joel is not a “good” guy in any sense of the word, but because he was the first game’s protagonist a lot of people connected with him and were psyched to see him again in the sequel.
He doesn’t last very long in TLOU2 though, because his past catches up with him through Abby: the daughter of one of the Fireflies he murdered to save Ellie. Ellie is helpless when she watches Abby kill Joel, which spurs the main story for Ellie in TLOU2. It becomes a revenge tale as Ellie hunts down Abby and the group of people she was with when they murdered Joel.
The twist comes at the end of the first act – Ellie’s Act – when Abby catches up with her after Ellie’s blazed a trail of carnage through Seattle. We’re then treated to the second act being Abby’s Act and you get to see what Abby’s been up to in Seattle while Ellie was killing a bunch of other people.
The game’s attempt at emotional manipulation of the player is clear. Due to an attachment to Joel & Ellie from the first game, you’re supposed to side with Ellie (since Abby’s motives for killing Joel are not immediately apparent) on her roaring rampage of revenge and be ecstatic at killing Abby’s friends one by one. Then suddenly you get to see things from Abby’s perspective. You see all her friends are just humans as well (most of whom aren’t actually bad people at all) and are supposed to feel guilty as you question Ellie’s actions and her commitment to revenge.
The game failed at this for me because I didn’t actually care about Joel due to not having strong feelings about TLOU. As far as I was concerned, it made totally sense for Abby to kill him. She also was compassionate (to a degree) and left Ellie and Joel’s brother Tommy alive instead of killing them, showing that she had very specific vengeance in mind. This made her a compelling character from the outset.
While I enjoyed Ellie as a character and the relationship between her and Dina as they explored Seattle, her plot never really connected with me. I didn’t have that personal connection to the characters like people who loved The Last of Us might. Abby’s plot arc was much more interesting to me. She was a completely new character and learning about her, the WLF, and the Scars they were facing off with were infinitely more interesting. Add in Lev, another complex character that partners with Abby for a major chunk of her act, and the second act just ends up being the more interesting story. Ellie was much more of a bull in a china shop story-wise. She just didn’t care about anything but finding the next person on her list that might lead her to Abby for revenge.
The climax of the second act is a tense showdown between Abby and Ellie. Again you, the player, are supposed to be conflicted because you’re playing as Abby and Ellie is the real “heroine,” right? But for me, I was more invested in Abby’s story at this point so the fight’s emotional weight just wasn’t there like it was supposed to be. Is this another result of me not liking the first game? Maybe. But the game is very heavy-handed in its attempts to say “Hey, look, nothing is black and white, everyone is grey, right? Right? Oh, except for these deus ex machina slavers we introduce for the third act, they’re super evil you should kill all of them.”
Yes, that’s right, after the tense showdown with Ellie, Abby leaves her, Dina, & Tommy alive after Lev discourages her from (more) mass murder. After multiple long cut-scenes that flirt with being false endings, you get to control Ellie for a third act in Santa Barbara after Abby gets kidnapped by slavers. This third act is absolutely pointless and tacked on: the slavers are cartoonish, faceless evil villains with no leader so you can just mow them down without guilt. Unlike the finale of TLOU, which at least had weight because you’d been seeking out the Fireflies the entire game, this third act is completely depersonalized aside from the last five minutes.
In those last five minutes Ellie finds Abby and then the most eye-rolling sequence occurs: straight out of an 80s action movie, Ellie puts down all her weapons and decides to get into a womano-a-womano fist-fight in calf-deep sea water with Abby to execute her revenge. It’s a final “boss” fight that just is completely unnecessary. They wanted to have their dramatic story conclusion but also include one final gameplay segment; instead I was just bored and uninterested during this by-the-numbers fight. The climactic emotional confrontation between Abby and Ellie had already happened several hours earlier at the end of Abby’s Seattle section. This was just a rehash from Ellie’s point of view, perhaps because the game is still under the assumption you’d rather beat up Abby instead of Ellie.
The game wants you to come away from it thoughtful; it wants you to consider that maybe your enemies are just humans too and the cycles of revenge that Abby and Ellie committed to just ended up hurting them more. I get that.
But the game robs you, the player, of having any personal choice in the matter. Aside from one moment as Ellie, every major character that dies is killed in a cut-scene or off-screen (usually by surprise for shock value) without any player input. All the people you mow down are just faceless mooks. Yes, the game is programmed so that they all have individual names, and some guy will yell “No, she killed Wes!!” when they find a body, but the guilt and self-reflection the game is trying to heap on you through the story is ineffective when you have very little part in the violence that’s supposed to matter to you.
I’ll give you an example: as Ellie’s Act progresses, dogs are introduced as an enemy type. They’re ruthless, can smell and track you while you’re in stealth, and the encounters are definitely designed with the intention of you murdering pooches on your path of revenge. I chose not to – in fact one of the reasons I finally relented on getting the game was because another review said it was possible to avoid killing the dogs. It would be hard, but it was possible. I replayed several sections over and over until I was able to sneak through them without killing any dogs. The only dog I did kill was in a Quick Time Event where the game forced me into killing one to progress.
In Abby’s section, you meet that dog: Alice. She follows you around, helps you against enemies, and you even get to play fetch with her and pet her. To me, this is another way the game tries to point the finger at the player and cause more guilt – “Remember this dog you killed? Don’t you feel bad, now that you play with her and see she’s just a good dog?” Except it didn’t work for me because, again, the game robbed me of any choice for this particular dog. Given the option, I had refused to kill any dogs. The game ripped away my free will and forced me to kill the dog to move forward, then tried to heap on guilt later for an action I had to commit if I wanted to see the rest of their brilliant game.
Video games are a unique medium – they require the player to be an active participant in what’s going on. Unlike movies, books, and TV shows, where a story is told and the viewer consumes it passively, a video game asks you to be a part of what’s going on. And as a part of the video game medium, TLOU2’s finger-wagging about the cycle of violence and the player’s participation in it just doesn’t merit raising it on a pedestal. It’s unbelievably short-sighted to look at TLOU2 and say “now this, this is art” because it doesn’t do anything profound with the video game medium in its critique.
Yes, the dual perspectives and seeing the story of the supposed “villain” is a neat idea, but in the end nothing the player does matters. You could play this game twenty times and the outcome would be the same, even if you refused to kill a single person or decided to murder every living thing you came across. And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a requirement for a good video game: I enjoy playing Doom repeatedly and killing demons in the same levels with the same outcome. But Doom does not have its creators and voice actors basking in critical glory and huffing their own farts on Twitter while trying to say “now this, this is art.”
If you want your video game to transcend into something more, please, please, please – do something that makes it unique to the medium.
I’m going to end this review by talking a little bit about the gameplay. I know, I know. I waxed long about the story and got a little snippy at the end there. And that’s probably my lingering distaste for the first TLOU bubbling to the surface. But the gameplay itself is…well, it’s not bad?
The first section of Seattle is probably the best part – it’s semi open-world giving you a large area to explore. The rest of the game tends to be linear – paths that lead to open areas to stealth/shoot your way through to get to more paths – but that first part of Seattle shines in the same way a lot of the open sections of Uncharted 4 did. Not that the linear portions are bad in any way, but I was hoping for more of that after it opened the game – but didn’t really get it.
Crafting is bad. Crafting materials are scattered all over the place, and they’re often half or quarter parts of the material so gameplay progress grinds to a halt as Ellie/Abby search through every drawer to make sure material for more molotovs wasn’t missed. It’s supposed to add to the post-apocalyptic feel but instead just makes the game drag. You find pills to upgrade skill trees, but none of the upgrades feel tangible as progression. On top of that, there are upgrades that let you craft 2 of some things instead of 1, but when that happens if you have 1 less than your limit, the game won’t allow you to craft just 1 of it anymore. It makes you wait until you’ve used a second one, which is dumb.
Enemy AI is interesting: the way the enemies will fan out when searching for you and coordinate their searches made for some interesting sequences, but they still aren’t super realistic. My tried and true method of sprinting far away and diving headfirst into long grass was able to reliably confuse most pursuers. My favorite sequences were when I got to fight both the infected and humans at the same time and could pit them against each other in chaotic battle. This only happened a few times, though.
The game truly shined in moments when Abby and Ellie had partners. The dynamics between them and whoever they were traveling with made the parts between battles more interesting and the dialogue was always great to listen to. The game felt monotonous and dragged when Abby and Ellie were traveling solo and talking to themselves, though.
It also felt overly long and padded in some parts. I lost track of the times I would crest over a hill or building and see my target location in the distance. At which point Ellie or Abby would mutter something like “I’m getting closer” before getting into another three or four fights so they could crest another hill and point to something else in the distance and talk about how close they were getting.
What I will say is the game’s technical achievements are glorious. The graphics are fantastic. The animations, backgrounds, people; everything from a technical standpoint is wonderful even if it makes my PS4 Pro sound like a jet engine at times. There’s lots of gorgeous scenery and also lots of disgusting scenery when you’re knee deep in the dead.
So what’s my recommendation for The Last of Us 2? Despite my clear criticisms and long-winded rants on what I didn’t like and what fell short for me, this is only my opinion. I came in hard disliking TLOU and while I don’t know if I’ll ever replay TLOU2, I can’t say it wasn’t worth the experience. I’m left with enough interest to see where a TLOU3 might go, but would also be satisfied if this is where the series ended.
Personally, I’d say it’s a game that people should play, if only so that they can have an informed opinion on what the game is trying to say. For some people the game is emotionally resonating with them because of the queer representation in Ellie and Dina’s relationship; others the game’s overall story just hit them in their emotions in a reflective way. Some people came away from it flat-out hating it.
I think TLOU2 is a much more divisive game compared to its predecessor. I don’t think this will get the universal love in the future the way the first did. But I also think that each person’s experience with it will be different, and the only way to be sure is to play it yourself. I didn’t feel like my time was wasted with this, and I don’t think yours will be either.
PLAY The Last of Us 2, because I’d like to hear your opinion.