A review is only one person’s opinion on a game, and I think it’s pointless to go into one of these knowing nothing about the reviewer or the context.
The Last of Us, the original, is one of my favorite games of all time. Joel and Ellie are two of my favorite characters.
No, I did not get an early review copy of this game, which frees me up to talk about things like the entire second half of the game which was not allowed before embargo, and I think it’s an absolutely essential core part of the story to discuss.
Yes, I have spent the last few days arguing with the entire internet about The Last of Us Part 2, so much so that I am already as exhausted as I was after two years of Last Jedi fighting.
But I’m pushing past that now. I’m not going to keep diving into why exactly people are review bombing the game or the mob mentality behind it, all I can do here is explain why I played this game, even having it spoiled in many ways beforehand, and came out the other side loving it. Loving how it handles its old characters, growing and evolving them, loving how it introduces new ones, and loving how the dual perspective narrative makes for a revenge tale that is infinitely more interesting than the “check the minibosses and big boss off the list” series of levels that it could have been if it had stuck with Ellie the entire way.
This will be a non-traditional review in that I do not think you should read the rest of it until you are at least a little ways into the game. Until you at least get to “the moment.” You’ll know which one.
I have no idea how earlier reviews managed to dance around the entire impetus of the plot for their analysis, but I’m not going to bother with that here, particularly since the game has been out for a few days now, and most players are probably past this point.
But yes, spoilers for an event in the first few hours of the game follow.
We cannot talk about The Last of Us Part 2 without talking about the brutal death of Joel. It’s a moment that instantly turned off many players from the game, and I’m hearing echoes of “I stopped watching The Walking Dead after Negan beat Glenn’s head in,” right down to essentially the same manner of execution. I get that, but I think you should still keep going.
Ellie and Joel have found a new home in Jackson, a small town that has weathered the apocalypse, and managed to fend off infected and a few unsavory human types as well. But that changes one day when a patrol goes awry. Joel and Tommy, not as distrustful of strangers as perhaps they were four years ago, rescue a woman, Abby, who you play as briefly. But then, once Joel introduces himself, things turn quickly.
Abby and her group have been looking for Joel. This specific Joel. For a very long time. They capture him, torture him, and then ultimately, when Ellie finally arrives, Abby beats Joel to death with a golf club right in front of her.
It is, unquestionably, heartbreaking. I loved Joel as much as anyone, which is why this moment works so well. You feel Ellie’s pain practically as much as she does, and that need for vengeance carries you through the story.
And yet I did not find Joel’s death to be a surprise, as I always figured this was coming.
Yes, this moment was indeed spoiled me during the leaks by some rando on Twitter. If you’re as online as me, that was always going to be impossible to avoid for an entire month once the major leaks were disseminated.
But past that, even from the first trailer, it seemed very clear that something had broken Ellie and she was going on a murderous rampage of vengeance. What else would have possibly happened to make her that angry besides some group killing Joel? Yes, the trailers tried to show Joel was alive, but back then I explained it away as him possibly being in her head. That isn’t what happens, but that footage is either from scenes before his death, flashbacks that happen after, or it was plainly doctored to throw people off (I did not love that tactic, in hindsight).
I also remember that Joel did something that could easily be considered monstrous, murdered an entire hospital of people looking for a cure for the virus so he could save Ellie. It’s one of the most complicated moral decisions presented in a game, a decision that, mind you, the game did not actually let you make. This was Joel’s story. This was no ending you got to choose. It happened to you, and ultimately, through you, with the controller in your hand. The only way to avoid it was to shut the game off.
People complain that Joel’s death was “weak” and “pointless,” and he should have gone out like a hero saving Ellie. But don’t you get it? He did die saving Ellie, just four years after he probably should have.
Again, after this point, I was expecting a pretty stock tale of revenge. First, Tommy leaves, heading to Seattle to take on this “Washington Liberation Front” group, the ones who killed Joel. Ellie, and her new girlfriend Dina, follow shortly thereafter, and we get the fairly traditional “hunt down everyone who was present” structure, ultimately leading to Abby, the obvious “final boss.” But The Last of Us Part 2 is not content with that story. Not even close.
I’ll pause the plotlines here for a minute to focus on Ellie’s actual gameplay as she explores Seattle. If The Last of Us suffers anywhere, it’s probably in some aspects of it…actually being a video game. Contrary to many fan opinions, I think the story is the strongest part of the game, followed by the performances and the sheer majesty of these digital environments that Naughty Dog (and its painfully overworked employees) have crafted here. It’s one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen, which is exactly what I said about Uncharted 4. And The Last of Us Part 1. And Uncharted 3. And so on. You get it, this is kind of Naughty Dog’s thing. But it never, ever fails to impress.
Ellie pairs with various characters on her journey, sometimes Dina, sometimes others, though occasionally, she’s alone. When that happens, you miss the banter and the game is at its darkest. And sometimes dullest.
Very, very little has evolved in terms of actual gameplay and mechanics here. The control scheme is definitely one of the most bizarre I’ve ever experienced in a game (R2 to reload? What?) but you get used to it eventually. I’d say Ellie controls less like a boat than Joel did, but the game is generous making its AI rather dumb and allowing you to silently kill an entire room of bad guys with your switchblade. I think combat is enjoyable enough, a mad scramble between stealth and loud, often incredibly brutal action, but at times I almost felt the game was far too easy on normal, and enemies lost your trail way too quickly if you fled even a short distance away. Even the new “dogs track your scent” mechanic doesn’t really do much other than make you feel extremely bad about killing dogs.
I also still hate every single infected encounter in the game, like I did in the original, and tried to just blitz through them as fast as possible. The one exception was a cool infected boss fight way late into the game I was not expecting, which was the only genuinely fun moment I’ve ever experienced with this series’ cursed mushroom zombies.
I like the exploring, to a point. The game does make you feel like you need to search every nook and cranny, but it starts feeling a bit arduous the longer the game goes on. And it’s a very long game. There are select moments that you can trigger with exploration that are story relevant (one of the most touching bits of the game is a Dina/Ellie interaction early on that takes place in a random building you could easily miss), but later, this kind of stops happening and you’re just finding endless rolls of duct tape and single bullets sitting on tables. Like the first game, these sequences, whether it’s finding long, long ways around to locked doors, or trekking toward some giant landmark in the distance, can feel too long. I am not saying this game should not have gameplay, but there are many, many sequences that feel like they should be a lot tighter, like you’re reading a 1,500 page book or watching a five hour movie. Some editing would have worked well in some of these sections.
But ultimately, yes, the game is fun to play. The environment design alone makes exploration worthwhile, however plodding it may become. And there’s nothing more gratifying than having a 5’4 girl take down a room full of lunatic cult members with two arrows, three revolver rounds and a brick.
The violence…is violent. I understand that it may be a turn off to some, and if Naughty Dog’s signature is realism, that translates not just to environments and performance capture, but also its brutality. As someone who has been watching the goriest horror and action movies and shows in history for a few decades now, this didn’t really phase me. The lone exception was the dogs…which definitely made me wince. Yes, attack dogs have been enemies in video games before, but again, those encounters have never been this realistic, and that whimpering and whining and howling of brutally murdered German Shepherds will haunt my dreams.
All in all, I feel almost identical about The Last of Us 2’s gameplay as I did the first game. It’s beautiful and brutal, but enemy AI, both human and infected, is not the best, and the pacing has its problems. And yet I loved the writing and characters and story so much all of that doesn’t really end up mattering all that much to me.
Now we reach the turn, when we figure out that we’re not just playing as the Joel-murderer Abby for a brief segment, but rather, close to half the game. I’m talking a new skill tree, a new style of gameplay (while Abby can be stealthy like Ellie, she is usually better off plowing through people like a truck). And an entirely new perspective on not just this game, but the last one, too.
I will stop short of getting into further spoilers here, as these happen late into the game, rather than Joel’s death which is at the beginning. I know that many people disliked playing as Abby in a game they thought they would just be switching between Joel and Ellie again. And much less playing as a character that murdered the character they wanted to be playing as.
But I found it fascinating. Did I like Abby as much as Joel and Ellie by the end? Maybe not, but that wasn’t the goal. The point was to show that revenge stories are complicated, and often, never-ending and deeply unsatisfying. Some people just want Ellie to be John Wick and murder everyone who wronged her without a second thought. But The Last of Us 2 wants to see that Ellie’s “minibosses” are actual people, Abby’s friends. And if we’re going with the John Wick comparison, Abby’s the one whose dog gets murdered.
It is not easy to confront the idea that the characters you have grown to love may not be good people. That was pretty clear in the last game with Joel’s hospital murder spree. Whether you want to justify that or not, it’s still brutal and highly debatable, given that it’s not just the Fireflies he killed, but potentially millions who could have benefited from a potential cure.
But you’re also meant to question Ellie’s actions here, too. We are so used to just cutting through legions of bad guys in video games that we’re stunned when a game bothers to show us the other side. We don’t like it, it makes us uncomfortable. And yet by the end of the game, you should at least be able to appreciate the perspective that in Abby’s story, Joel and Ellie are the clear villains. And in Ellie’s case in particular, we have a new moral question, whether killing dozens, hundreds of people is worth seeking revenge for one man, a man who did do something who hurt a lot of people. Many players will scream “hell yes!” and cut through them all with glee. But I think the Abby storyline is what saves this game from being way, way too predictable and like every single other revenge tale out there, even though no, I don’t think the point is to make her out to be a hero either.
The ending, which I won’t fully get into, has been criticized as “unsatisfying.” For me, it’s really the only way it could have ended. This entire game is commentary on moral relativism (what I see as right and justified you see as wrong and abominable), and the circular nature of vengeance (“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”). The ending, from that perspective, works. It’s kind of perfect, actually.
This is a great game. One of the best I’ve played in years. No, I’m not going to go into GOTY nonsense in June, and no, I won’t be one of the 50 outlets giving it a perfect score, even though yes, I do believe you can give imperfect games 10/10s, given that nothing is completely without flaws. But The Last of Us 2’ actual gameplay leaves enough to be desired for me to take it out of contention for that.
But it’s stunning. It’s important. And it’s a deeply well-told story to the point where I genuinely cannot fathom why anyone who has fully beaten the game, not just heard the spoilers, not just watched a streamer snark their way through it or watched ripped YouTube cutscenes, doesn’t appreciate what it has achieved here. But again, I can only offer my own opinion and my own defense of what I think is a must-play as a huge fan of the original, even as someone who loved the characters they’ve murdered and maimed and morally compromised here. It’s remarkable, and it will stay with me a long while, just like the first.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive
Released: June 19, 2020
Review Score: 9.5 out of 10