As I watched the rolling credits of The Last of Us Part 2, I couldn’t help but feel a complete unresolved emptiness towards the game. Did I like it? I couldn’t tell. I had a lot of fun playing it, but ultimately felt torn on whether the story line was actually worth touching the game’s masterful predecessor. I can usually determine whether I recommend the piece to a friend or reader. However, The Last of Us 2 felt like such a scrambled together mess that I’m torn on whether the story line was a brave telling of the consequences of revenge or some weird experimental art piece that Neil Druckmann shouldn’t have shoved into one of the most anticipated game sequels of all time.
It’s hard to believe The Last of Us was highly praised for its story line and character development, and then these two elements turn out to be the major flaws of its sequel. The Last of Us Part 2 excels in everything from technical achievement, game play enjoyment and world building but unfortunately falls flat on the very things that made its predecessor stand out so much from other zombie games. Some would argue that Naughty Dog set themselves up for an impossible feat when they presented the trailer for The Last of Us Part 2 in 2016 – because The Last of Us is widely considered to be a perfect game, a masterpiece – and it would have been highly optimistic to assume its sequel would live up to this too.
“It’s hard to believe The Last of Us was highly praised for its story line and character development, and then these two elements turn out to be the major flaws of its sequel.”
Naughty Dog themselves were probably stressing about how they could possibly create a sequel as good as the first. So it’s easy to see why they decided to take a risk with the story line. Unfortunately it failed on the highest of proportions.
Let’s start from the beginning, this review will contain spoilers for both games.
It was hard not to fall in love with the story of Ellie and Joel. We start The Last of Us in the birth of the apocalypse. In a shocking turn of events and one of the greatest game openings of all time, Joel’s daughter Sarah is killed whilst they are running to safety. She dies in his arms as the title credits appear on screen. Several years later, Joel is a bitter shadow of his former self and reduced to a survival instinct. When tasked with transporting Ellie, a girl who is immune to the virus and a potential key to a vaccine, it’s just another job for him. However, it turns out that she gives him a purpose in life, a reason to look past his own survival in an otherwise empty world.
They go through hell to reach their destination: a hospital run by the Firefly organisation, the people who claim they have the means to create a vaccine from Ellie’s immunity. That is until it is revealed the only way to use Ellie’s immunity is by killing her, something they have kept from Joel. He goes on a murderous rampage to save Ellie from the operation table, killing a doctor and the leader of the Fireflies in the process. Joel carries an unconscious Ellie out of the hospital, mimicking the starting events of the game where he attempted to carry his injured daughter to safety before she was shot dead by a soldier. Upon awaking, Ellie asks Joel what happened. He lies to her and says the Fireflies already had plenty of people lined up to create the vaccine – she was not needed. The final shot is of Ellie’s face and we the player look into her eyes. Does she believe him? Does she know he’s lying? Does she care? It was left up to us to decide. Until now.
Whereas The Last of Us was about finding love in unexpected circumstances, the trailers for The Last of Us Part 2 all settled on one major theme: Hate. Ellie’s anger and need for revenge. Many were edited in such a way to make it look as though Joel played a much bigger part than he actually did. However, within the first two hours of The Last of Us Part 2, Joel is brutally murdered by a newly introduced character called Abby. It becomes abundantly clear that the audience was heavily misled by the game’s marketing. In fact, Joel and Ellie’s interactions are entirely shown through flashbacks in the actual game. Asides from his death scene, the present Joel and Ellie do not have a moment together.
Even without reading and watching interviews with Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann, it becomes clear that the writers want you to change your mind about Abby. It’s painfully obvious. She kills a beloved character as it turns out in a twist that the doctor Joel killed in the first game was actually her father. And the writers want you to turn that frown towards her upside down in the most painfully patronising way possible. They really wanted to prove the players wrong with this one. One where we hate a character and love another, and by the end they are switched around. But their attempts at this are painfully forced and manipulating.
Everyone loves dogs, am I right? You know who also loves dogs? Abby. Do you know who stabs dogs? Ellie.
Calling the Last of Us Part 2 lazy would be a major insult to the many people who spent years working on the best parts of it. The rope and hair physics are impeccable, groundbreaking even. In fact, everything other than the writing was done to the absolute maximum quality. At times it felt like the animators were just showing off their skills. Many games avoid showing characters interacting with objects directly with their hands because they are hard to animate, Naughty Dog flaunts close-ups of characters playing the guitar. The combat is so detailed I almost needed therapy after finishing the game. If you shoot an enemy in the hand, they will scream in pain. If you kill someone, another enemy may cry out their name. If you kill a dog’s owner, the dog will cry. If you smack someone in the face with a baseball bat, you will see and hear their teeth clatter to the floor.
I’ve always hated the waste of life in action films and video games. The way a main character will mow down ‘enemies’ because they are the ‘bad guys’ shows that we are often de-emphasised towards these extras. The Last of Us Part 2 does a great job at showing that some random guard you kill just to get access to a building probably had a family and kids they were working a minimum wage job to support and most likely had no affiliation with the main bad guys other than the wage they were being paid. Great job, hero.
But there comes a point where this starts to become really patronising and forced, ruining Ellie as a character in order to push towards this moral agenda. Although the use of a non-linear narrative was a great way to reflect the consequences of both characters’ actions, the methods used to achieve what Naughty Dog set out to do with Abby’s character are incredibly lazy. No longer the carefree or goofy girl she was in the first game, Ellie is depressed and traumatised by the early events of the game. This dive into the topic of PTSD and depression after horrific events would be impactful if it wasn’t used to turn her into a dislikeable character. Whereas Ellie is solemn and lusting for revenge, Abby is ever so cheerful and loving life and her dogs. This could have instead been a topic of self care and learning to start putting yourself before others if you can see it’s killing you. Ellie’s soul is destroyed by the things she has to do but we’re constantly shown via Abby’s perspective that she’s just supposed to be an evil person whereas Abby is just so nice and caring, barely tortures anyone.
The Last of Us Part 2 was sold to us as a father and daughter revenge mission. What we got was a daughter’s mission to avenge her father, which was started by Abby’s mission to avenge her father, then after Ellie’s first attempt to avenge Joel, Abby wants to avenge her friends, and then we’re back onto avenging Joel again. It’s no wonder that by the end of the game, Ellie decides revenge is pretty pointless. It’s just a shame that she had murdered hundreds of people to actually reach this decision and decide to go home.
We start off as Ellie, hunting down Abby after she murdered Joel by battering him with a golf club. Once we find her and murder all her friends, the player will then switch control to Abby in a series of flashbacks which show her life leading up to the events of finding Joel and avenging her father. Once we see the full picture and how much of a terrible person Ellie is for misjudging Abby after she clobbered Joel to death with a golf club, we’re supposed to be angry when years later Ellie decides to go back for round two.
Naughty Dog pulls out all of the cards to show the player the consequences of their actions as Ellie. When infiltrating Abby’s base, we are attacked by a guard dog. It’s a life or death situation and Ellie ultimately opts to stab this dog in the throat. Later on we play as Abby a few weeks before (who loves dogs by the way) as she plays fetch with this pup. She plays fetch with her a lot. Naughty Dog really wants to hone in on just how much Abby loves this dog and how much they want you to love the dog too.
In what feels like a sick version of Bioshock, the player is consistently forced to do terrible things at Ellie’s hands. We are further pushed towards the bias that Ellie is a bad person. All the people that Ellie tracks down and kills in order to get more information on Abby’s location turn out to be her dear friends. We’re supposed to feel bad when Mel tries to stab Ellie, resulting in Ellie killing her in self defence and then discovering that Mel was heavily pregnant. If you managed to sneak past all the dogs and humans without killing them then the game will surely find a cut scene or quick time event when you are forced to do the deed. Would you kindly stab the puppy? Would you kindly murder this pregnant woman? Would you kindly kill the girl playing a PlayStation Vita who later turns out to be totally relatable and nice during Abby’s playthrough, even though Ellie killed her in self defence? It starts becoming predictable that anyone Ellie attacked or killed was a quirky and likeable character in Abby’s story. Look at that, Manny likes tacos, how relatable. And Owen made a cool den out of an abandoned aquarium. Oh look, that woman Ellie tortured to death after infecting her with the virus was actually a really caring doctor.
“In what feels like a sick version of Bioshock, the player is consistently forced to do terrible things at Ellie’s hands.”
And if that’s not enough to force ‘Abby good, Ellie bad’ down our throats, Ellie also treats the people she cares about like shit. She abandons a crying Dina in the middle of the night; her revenge plot is the reason why Jesse loses his life. Meanwhile, Abby is a great friend. She would do anything for them. Even rushes into a deadly cult’s camp to save Lev’s life.
Abby starts off with the best weapons, she can mash an infected person into tiny pieces with her bare hands. She gets the best boss fights, the best locations and epic events. As Abby we will climb up the highest sky scrapers, explore ground zero of the infection, and take on the homophobic Seraphite cult. As Ellie we kill dogs and spend 5 hours looking for an oil canister.
In the meantime, Naughty Dog also attempt to destroy Joel as a character. We already knew he was an anti hero. Even during the events of The Last of Us, it’s easy to see that Joel may have overreacted when he murdered a hospital full of people to save Ellie. But the player becomes so attached to Ellie it’s hard to see until the final scene of the game that Joel did something unforgivable to save someone he loved. This finally becomes clear when he lies to Ellie about what happened in the hospital; because he knows what he did was so awful that he can’t even share this with her. And this is coming from the guy who taught her how to torture people. This was enough for the first game to be considered complete. But not enough for Naughty Dog and their experiment. They really want you to know that killing a hospital full of people and destroying humanity’s chance of a vaccine is a bad thing… In case you didn’t know.
We learn in the second game that Abby’s father was the only doctor capable of creating a vaccine, and we can only assume that humanity has not found anyone else since his death. It also becomes evident that neither Joel, or Ellie, nor anyone else within the game has ever met another person immune to the virus asides from Ellie who’s immunity is due to an impossibly rare mutation of a virus. Meaning that Joel not only murdered a load of innocent people that day but he also destroyed humanity’s only chance of eliminating the virus.
And if THIS wasn’t enough for the player to be really grinding their teeth over Joel’s actions (it is though, we get the picture), Naughty Dog uses the same manipulation tactics on Abby’s dad too. Like his daughter, he loves animals. Even risks his life to save an injured zebra in his first scene. And when it comes to deciding Ellie’s fate, the writers make it very clear that this very nice man absolutely would not have considered it unless it was absolutely necessary. Such a nice man. And isn’t he a great dad too? All round, a fantastic guy. Wouldn’t it be a shame if someone came along and murdered him and then stabbed his daughter’s dog, boyfriend and pregnant friend in the future?
And whereas Ellie’s storyline is filled with nothing but hate and the need to kill to avenge Joel, Abby’s is actually a tale of looking past her enemy’s uniform to see the person underneath. As a member of the Washington Liberation Front, she is at war with a cult called the Seraphites. During her story, she meets Lev, a trans man who is on the run with his sister as the transphobic Seraphites want to hunt them down. Their friendship blossoms and very much mirrors the way Joel and Ellie came to like each other in the first game. After Abby returns from saving Lev from the Seraphites, she finds her friends and dog dead after Ellie ploughed through them to find Abby’s location. It’s then her turn to take revenge upon Ellie but she instead lets her go.
Several years later, Ellie has a family but decides to try killing Abby again. This time Abby and Lev have been captured by the Rattlesnake gang whilst looking for surviving Fireflies, Ellie finds them being tortured in a slave camp and frees them. In what feels like a moment when the two may look past their differences and let bygones be bygones, Ellie decides she’s not actually the better person and goads Abby into a fight. The two then fight to the death, with Ellie finally gaining the upper hand with her hands around Abby’s neck, chocking her to death… and then lets her go.
So, Ellie has by this point murdered hundreds of people to get to Abby. She’s left her family. She’s stabbed some dogs. Jesse is dead. Tommy is injured. She travelled half way across the country… To let Abby go?
It’s infuriating that this plot would have been better had scenes been shuffled around. One of the best scenes in the game is a flashback where Joel takes Ellie to a museum on her birthday. The two are sat in a shuttle and Joel gives her a recording of the moon landing because Ellie is fascinated with the idea of space. The game should have started with this. The Last of Us began with heartbreak; The Last of Us 2 should have matched this with a joyful moment.
We should have then been introduced to Abby with her father saving the Zebra in another flashback. Finally we start the main sequence of the game in the present with Abby being saved by Joel and Tommy. She then spends some time in Jackson, getting to know them before joining Ellie on the first mission. We then get more missions with Ellie and Joel via flashbacks, and see Abby interacting with Owen during her training in the WLF.
Without revealing what has happened, we’re then back in the present with Ellie and Dina travelling to Seattle to find Abby again. In a turn of events towards the middle of the game, we’re shown the reason why Ellie and Dina are looking for Abby is because she has killed Joel. This seemingly being a betrayal plot now, we the player are eager to hunt down Abby. Then we see the sequence of events with Abby’s friends as we lead up to the theatre fight, just like the actual game.
The only different here is that Joel’s death is shown in middle of the game; we have played each character equally up until this point so it’s not so sectioned off. We’re seeing the atrocities Ellie has committed whilst also growing support for Abby as we know now that she was avenging her father. The two fight and Abby lets Ellie go as usual. The game then progresses exactly the same until we get to the end. And rather than just fighting and then letting Abby go, Ellie realises that both of them have suffered a great deal over the revenge plot. Abby finally tells Ellie the reason why she killed Joel, but also tells her that she feels no different after killing him; her father is still dead. They let each other go.
These are very minor changes, but would have brought humanity into an otherwise empty game. The character’s actions never make any sense. Joel, usually a very protective and careful person, drops his guard down instantly with Abby which is how she discovers his identity. And why wouldn’t Ellie and Abby want to talk in those final moments of the game? Why wouldn’t Ellie at least ask Abby why she did it? Otherwise their silence is just so awkward, so inhumane. Ellie doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Abby is in slave camp; there are no comments towards that. Abby never mentions any regret towards killing Joel, or any feelings towards it at all. Once he’s dead she potters on with life like nothing ever happened. Both characters just feel so empty, so dead.
It’s not all bad. Certain parts in the writing did pull at the old heartstrings. I loved all the flashbacks between Joel and Ellie, I loved the discussions between the characters about what the world was like before the apocalypse. I even felt heartbreak for Ellie in the final scenes of the game. She lets Abby go, sobbing and saying ‘just take him’. It’s easy to assume she means Lev who’s unconscious in the boat, but it really feels like she’s telling Abby that she can just have Joel, she killed him and now Ellie can’t even have her revenge because she knows it won’t bring him back. Just take him.
Abby is also a fun character if you put aside Naughty Dog’s ‘you will like this character’ agenda. She’s funny at times, a joy to play with her brute strength, and her relationship with the loveable Lev is really great to see unfold. We also have Jesse who was a great character for standing up to Ellie when she was being an arse, and being so mature over the fact that Ellie was starting a relationship with his ex girlfriend. There was no beef or bad blood and this was so nice to see for a change.
The Last of Us Part 2 is a complete technical marvel which is just so fun to play if you’re not thinking about the plot. The graphics are so beautiful it’s hard to fathom them getting any better with the next generation of consoles. The atmosphere is perfect; haunting and beautiful. The acting is tremendous and the best motion capture I have seen in a video game. I like the idea of a non-linear story line, similar to films like Gone Girl, The Prestige and Memento – it’s a fantastic way to pick and choose when to reveal those important plot points for the ‘wow’ factor. It’s just a shame this sequel did not deliver on what the fans were really playing it for. The writing. What could have been a beautiful telling of the consequences of revenge and black & white views towards your enemies jut felt empty and incomplete. Although the initial idea would have been perfect for the world of The Last of Us, the final product just didn’t nail it and ultimately left me feeling patronised and guilty about things the game forced me to do.