In 2013, The Last of Us was lauded as one of the finest video games of its console generation for strong story telling, artful graphics and an unapologetic approach to post-apocalyptic themes. It was a tight and unique story with a clear beginning and end, satisfying many gamers as one of their greatest game experiences. Naturally, with any critical (or commercial) success comes the desire to continue the story with another installment. By mid 2020, The Last of Us Part II was released as a potential swan song for the PS4 console. Before release, the gaming community was a veritable powder keg of leaked content, wild accusations about social contexts, marketing schemes, and other general conflict between the creators, marketers and gamers themselves. THANKFULLY, this reviewer somehow kept himself out of this hornet’s nest of spoilers, and by release day I was going in nearly blind to the story or any major controversy. Going forward from this point in this review, there will be some spoilers as I try to flesh out my ideas on this game’s themes, so take warning before pressing on. Does the world of The Last of Us hold up as well on the second try? Masks on, it’s time for an adventure!
*SPOILER POTENTIAL FROM HERE ON*
I’m not going to waste a tremendous amount of time detailing the plot, but I’ll outline it as best I can. Most of the game’s story takes place around four years after the conclusion of the first edition, with Ellie aged 19 and living in the Jackson, Wyoming compound that Joel brought her to after uhh…saving her life in that controversial way. Ellie appears far more independent these days, and displays a cold and distant characterization to her fellow inhabitants. Events quickly transpire and the story maps out as one of pure vengeance as Ellie sets out to Seattle to kill everyone that’s done wrong to her in this horrid, gruesome opening act.
On a gameplay level, the mechanics feel satisfying as combat and movement are fluid and responsive to the action/survival hybrid that we came to know with the first game. There’s still a fair amount of trial and error when you choose to play at higher difficulties, but the urgency created by scarce resources will force the player to adapt on the fly. There’s a brief attempt at a non-linear chapter of the campaign that was welcome, but most of the proceedings will be a bread crumb linear trail with some fairly pedestrian puzzle solving sprinkled about. Visually, the game is nearly faultless. The wilderness combined with the decayed Seattle cityscape provided breathtaking moments between instances of brutal violence and combat. While the first game was scary at times based on the unique disease ridden enemies, this time around the human element provides the really uncomfortable moments.
SUPER DUPER SPOILERS FROM HERE ON
There’s really only one way to describe the emotion of this storyline: it’s misery porn. From the very beginning, Ellie is sent on a journey of pain, misery, gore, misery, depression, and even more misery. The whole crux of the plot is the brutal revenge murder of Joel, done with fierce brutality in front of Ellie after the mother of all unfortunate coincidences. Naturally, the game player is meant to be enraged and take joy in the hunt and murder of each and every one of these scoundrels. At a purely gameplay level, I enjoyed the intensity. Most every non infected enemy appears to be a named character, and as you pick them off during combat, their associates can be heard screaming their slain friend’s name after you end them. This is a small window into the vengeance angle that I couldn’t help but get caught up in. That aside, I tried like hell to disconnect from the characters as much as possible…and thank goodness I did.
At around the half way point of the game, Ellie is no longer the playable character, flipping back to the start of the Seattle conflict playing as Abby. This Abby, mind you, is the one that murdered Joel and by this point looks like nothing more than a homicidal kill demon. From this angle the intent is clear: showing the side of revenge from the other end of the conflict. If you only think about it from a macro level, this could certainly work. There’s plenty of room to understand why someone would want to kill Joel, Ellie, or any of the supposed good guys from the first game. What’s troubling is how manipulative the story telling tries to be. It’s not just a “flip side of the coin” look at post apocalyptic violence, but a constant notion and unsubtle reminder that you’re supposed to draw a hatred towards not only Joel but Ellie as well. The game attempts to make you feel bad as the player for doing the things you did in the first half of the game, which even includes the killing of certain animals. That dog you had to stab while playing as Ellie? Well make sure you play an extra game of fetch with the ol’ girl while playing as Abby, you never know when a scripted event might take us all away someday. Fucking hell, I’m all for smashing the notion of heroes, but this tomfuckery was meant to manipulate your emotions as a player rather than lay the facts out for your own critical thinking. Once the two parties finally meet, there’s some more back and forth complete with one of those false endings that briefly gives Ellie some domestic happiness before the inevitable violent conclusion. It’s a purposefully dissatisfying ending that goes even more over the top to make double damn sure you knew that Ellie isn’t allowed a scrap of happiness or even validation once all is said and done. It’s not wholly unrealistic or even unfounded, but it leaves nothing to chance and tries its best to make you as miserable as much as it possibly can.
Verdict: The Last of Us Part II is a new approach to the survival horror genre in characterization and plot development, while sticking to its guns in gameplay and mechanics. A visually pleasing experience, but with repetitive combat that is truly only satisfying for being visceral and fueled by the notion of revenge. The story format makes a deliberate and even manipulative attempt at instilling player guilt, trying to force emotions onto the player that are best reserved for the characters themselves. With over-the-top gore and violence capped off with a personal touch, the intensity may be a bit too much for players normally invested in who they maneuver while holding the controller. To that point the best way to enjoy this game is by taking a back seat and leaving your own feelings away from what’s occurring on screen. It’s bad enough that the characters have to be this tortured and miserable, there’s no need to feel it yourself.
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