The Last of Us Part 2 (2020)

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that The Last of Us Part 2 is the most controversial game of all time. There was a ludicrous amount of vitriol towards the game and its writers upon release, which were quickly matched with dozens of professional reviews claiming it to be a masterpiece. What about The Last of Us Part 2 elicited such powerful reactions? Do I believe that it deserves such malice? No. But I also don’t believe that the game is the paragon of storytelling that many critics deemed it to be. 

I typically stay away from spoiler territory in my reviews, but it is impossible to meaningfully discuss The Last of Us Part 2 without delving into those dangerous waters. It is a game that heavily relies on storytelling, and nearly all of the game’s controversy stems from some shocking story moments. As such, I will hide spoilers in an expandable tag when I begin discussing them. But before I get to that point, I do want to highlight some other aspects of the game.

If there is anything that The Last of Us Part 2 should be lauded for, it is how technically impressive the game is. Naughty Dog has always been known for being the top dog when it comes to visual fidelity, and this game is no different. The environments, set pieces and character models are extraordinary. But what was more interesting to me was the animations. During combat, there are many instances of organic encounters that were so well animated that they felt scripted. Enemies getting pinned to walls or hanging over railing as you swing weapons at them looks shockingly natural.

Perhaps the most commendable feature of The Last of Us Part 2 is its vast array of accessibility options. There are many ways to modify the game that players can use to make the game or accessible to play. Players with hearing impairments, visual impairments, or motor disabilities could apply a host of changes that makes the game more accessible. Options like high-contrast visuals, holding to melee, auto-pick-up, subtitle direction, vibration cues, HUD re-scalability, and auto-target are all great examples of features that are available to make the game more accessible. 

 On a related note, there are also modular difficulty options that lets the player tailor the experience to their liking. If you are having a tough time sneaking through areas but are good at combat, you can just tone down the stealth difficulty without making the enemies easier for example. I really do appreciate the amount of effort that went into making The Last of Us Part 2 a customizable game that players can modify to match their desired experience.

The original The Last of Us was not known for its combat, and I don’t think the sequel changes that. There are some improvements and additions to modernize the formula, but neither the stealth or combat are particularly impressive. There is now high grass that you can hide in, you can now crawl, and there are some new tools and weapons. The enemy AI was also substantially improved. Enemies are now much better at tracking you down, checking over their shoulders, and sneaking up on you. Don’t get me wrong, the gameplay is engaging whether you are sneaking through derelict buildings or improvising during a shootout, but it’s certainly not best in class by any means.

Modern Naughty Dog games have always had a consistent length, and for a good reason. It seems like 10-15 hours is the sweet spot for these types of cinematic or story driven games. The Last of Us Part 2 breaks this mold by stretching to approximately 25 hours, which I don’t think is a justifiable decision. I enjoy the occasional narrative heavy game, but I don’t feel like The Last of Us Part 2 has enough meat to warrant opening the buffet. Truthfully, it feels like there is a ton of wasted time and filler. Even taking your time, completing all of the combat arenas back-to-back only takes maybe 4-5 hours. And even though the game is story driven and contains many cutscenes, there definitely isn’t 20 hours (equivalent to 10 full length movies) worth of dialogue and story. 

So, where did all the time go? Similar to its predecessor, The Last of Us Part 2 places on emphasis on certain survival elements. In particular, the player explores the environment and acquires resources that can be used to craft equipment. I praised The Last of Us for utilizing the scarcity of resources to create tension in combat. Even trivial encounters become anxiety-inducing when you only have a couple of bullets and no medical supplies. The Last of Us Part 2 is similar in this regard, but I believe too much time is devoted to scrounging for supplies.

There was a certain balance in the original game; the areas were not particularly spacious and the game was not overly long, so spending a few minutes here or there to collect supplies never felt tedious. But in The Last of Us Part 2 the environments are far more spacious and open, which makes for more dynamic combat arenas but it also equates to more time spent searching through them. A ludicrous amount of time is spent opening drawers, running around abandoned buildings, and searching bodies for rusted scissors or ragged bandages. 

Click here to see story spoilers!

This is where opinions around The Last of Us Part 2 start to get heated: the story. The premise of The Last of Us Part 2 is built around the key theme of revenge and forgiveness. It takes place a few years after the events of the first game, with Joel and Ellie living peaceful lives in Jackson, Wyoming. The serenity quickly dissipates as Joel is brutally beaten to death in front of Ellie by an unknown group of travelers. Soon after, Ellie sets out to track down the band of murderers to avenge Joel.

The real meat of the story unfolds over the course of 3 days in Seattle. In a series of more and more shocking acts of violence, Ellie gradually loses her humanity as she hunts down her targets. She tracks them down one at a time, learning more information about her ultimate goal: finding Joel’s killer, Abby. About halfway through the game, the real controversy begins as we swap to Abby’s perspective.

After experiencing Ellie’s 3 days in Seattle and being left on a cliffhanger, the player is now meant to play those 3 days again but from Abby’s point of view. There obviously is going to be backlash when being forced to play as someone who viciously brutalized a beloved character. But I do think that I would have been much more receptive to this risky storytelling decision if the writers hadn’t played their hand so blatantly.

Look, I understand that the dual narratives are meant to parallel Ellie’s and Abby’s experiences and how similar their journeys are. We learn that Joel killed Abby’s father in the first game, he was the doctor that was going to dissect Ellie to attempt to make a vaccine from her immune brain. Abby becomes and callous and hateful person as she hunts down her father’s killer, and Ellie repeats that path as she tracks Abby. The core issue that I have is with the writer’s approach once Abby’s half of the story begins. 

Once we swap perspectives, the first scene that occurs is a flashback of Abby and her father. They, no joke, rescue a mother zebra from being wrapped in barbed wire. It’s so heavy handed that it’s comical. Soon after, we see Abby play fetch with a dog while living in her community. A dog that Ellie would later go on to kill. The game is so blatantly attempting to get the player to sympathize with Abby, while at the same time resent Ellie for killing the characters that you meet as Abby. 

I understand that both Ellie and Abby are meant to be flawed characters, but when I have to spend half the game playing as Abby, I quickly lost interest in the plot. I just wanted to see what happened after the cliffhanger. Making the player spend 12 hours playing a character that you are almost definitely going to hate initially is more than just a risky decision. I found it hard to ever root for Abby, as she is an undeniably bad person. The way she killed Joel, her apathy towards the fact that she is about to kill a pregnant woman, her attitude towards her friends, she’s just not a redeemable character.

What is bizarre to me about The Last of Us Part 2 is how it’s approach to storytelling is opposite to the original game. The Last of Us was not known for its bombastic story, in fact I would argue that it was a pretty generic post-apocalyptic zombie narrative. What made the game great was how the characters were the focal point, not the events taking place. Joel and Ellie were fully fleshed out characters who felt legitimately human. They grew together, had flaws, and ultimately bonded as a father-daughter relationship. The Last of Us Part 2 seems to care far more about the events unfolding rather than the characters.

Aside from Ellie, Abby, and a new character called Lev, every character in The Last of Us Part 2 is boring. Abby’s friends in particular are hard to ever care about. Hunting them down as Ellie is your entire goal for the first half of the game, then playing as Abby the writers attempt to make you feel sympathetic and guilty about Ellie’s actions. But you already hate them, already know they are killed, and are probably aware of the obvious ploys that the writers are using.

Much of the adventure is a solo affair, which is diametrically opposed to how the original game was structured. Joel and Ellie bantering back and forth while traversing the world was key to the experience. But in The Last of Us Part 2 most of the time spent is without a companion. The only sections that felt remotely similar to the original game were some flashback sequences of Joel and Ellie, as well as Abby and Lev climbing a skyscraper. 

To be honest, I think the opposing perspectives approach could have worked. But the order of events combined with how lengthy the game is definitely will leave many players with a foul taste in their mouths. I believe if Abby’s perspectives were short sequences interspersed throughout Ellie’s adventure, the player may actually grow to care about Abby and her crew before murdering them all. We don’t need to spend 12+ hours seeing every moment of Abby’s perspective. 

The ending of the game is frankly absurd. Again, I get what the writers are going for, Abby and Ellie are both malnourished and severely beaten as a result of their revenge fueled journeys. Abby is ready to move on since she accomplished her goal of killing Joel, but Ellie is not satisfied and forces Abby to fight. Ultimately, Ellie gets the best of Abby and is about to kill her when she decides to spare her. 

We learn that she had a flashback to her last conversation with Joel which was about forgiveness. I get that this was an epiphany for Ellie, but real humans don’t act like this. She had her father figure murdered, was mutilated, had a friend killed and another permanently brain-damaged, her wife left her, and she killed dozens of people just to reach Abby. All to give up on the finish line. I get that it was supposed to be some message about revenge and forgiveness, but I don’t buy that a reasonable person would behave like this. 

The final gripe that I want to bring up is what I call the Naughty Dog problem. I could (and maybe will) write an entire article on this epidemic, but I’ll try to keep my thoughts here brief. Naughty Dog, and many studios that are inspired by Naughty Dog’s style of cinematic experiences, feel like they are trying to make films rather than games. These types of games make poor use of the medium at hand. Video games are inherently different than films, they are interactive by nature. Nowadays, many triple-A studios have drawn inspiration from Naughty Dog. Too many games don’t ever utilize the interactivity of the medium.

Games like Uncharted and The Last of Us feel split. One half of the game is a narrative experience, and the other half being relatively disconnected gameplay. It feels like an action film where the player gets control during the fight scene. I think this approach to storytelling in games is fine on occasion, but in games like The Last of Us Part 2 it almost feels dirty. The game borderline shames the player for their actions, despite their being no other choice. I think the game would have been improved if the player could choose at the end of the game whether Ellie spares Abby or not. It would have given the player some agency in the final decision, leaving them grappling with morality and deciding how the journey of revenge concludes. 

Overall, The Last of Us Part 2 didn’t deserve all the attention that it received, positive or negative. It’s definitely not an unmitigated disaster by any means, it has competent gameplay, stellar visuals, and an exciting story. But I wouldn’t herald The Last of Us Part 2 as a masterpiece either, the gameplay was nothing special, and the narrative was poorly executed. It is for these reasons that I give The Last of Us Part 2 a 6/10. It is a rollercoaster of a story that is sure to leave many of its passengers nauseous. 

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