SPOILER WARNING – This article contains spoilers for TLoU2
The Last of Us Part II (TLoU2 hereafter) is finally here, and the road to release has been as hostile as the twisted and overrun trails of post-outbreak Jackson.
After 7 years of waiting, and a run-up to release marred by delays, plot leaks and controversies (both in terms of the game’s content and the manner of its creation), has it all been worth it? The short answer is no, though in hindsight it was probably folly to believe that the highly anticipated second album could ever do justice to its seminal older brother. The Last of Us was a complete package when it was released in 2013, a rare piece of high-budget entertainment with an ending that felt both wonderfully ambiguous and final. The commercial and critical success of the first game led inevitably to a sequel that, from a technical point of view, is very good. Unfortunately, as a piece of storytelling and a sequel to The Last of Us it mostly falls a long way short of the lofty heights set by its predecessor.
Before I continue this is the FINAL SPOILER WARNING. This article will take a deep dive into all of the story details which, in my opinion, are vitally important to the user experience when playing a game like TLoU2. It is impossible to properly review a narrative driven game like this without discussing story details in any depth. Hamstrung by strict embargo conditions imposed by Naughty Dog (one of the many increasingly common and unfair practices deployed by studios who are, thankfully, coming under increased scrutiny from the more reputable outlets in the videogames industry at present), mainstream outlets could not discuss the story in any meaningful way prior to releasing their reviews. That is possibly a huge factor in creating the infamously cavernous space between media scores and user scores on Metacritic. Here I am going to address those points as a fan of Naughty Dog’s work and particularly the original game. Turn back now if you are yet to see the credits roll.
Let’s start with the good, because there is a great deal that is good about this game. The core gameplay is just as satisfying as it has always been (if overplayed this time round, discussed below). The combat and stealth systems are well-refined, the animations smooth and hyper-realistic. The combat is visceral in the extreme, the weight of your actions being fully realised and felt through screen, speakers and controller. As a survival game, a horror game, or a stealth-action game, TLoU2 soars just as its predecessor did. It is a challenging game, and it is undeniably rewarding to plot a path to victory against overwhelming odds, striking from the shadows to thin enemy numbers before engaging the stragglers in a fairer fight. The AI is reasonably cunning and deadly even on normal mode, with the result that whilst going in all guns blazing is an option, it is rarely the best one. Blowing one’s cover too early will, at least at later stages of the game, necessitate a heart-pounding scramble to reposition under pain of certain death.
As good as some of the stealth-action sequences are, the game arguably shines brightest when in horror mode. The 30-hour campaign features many terrifying indoor environments, overrun with infected, which will stick uncomfortably in the memory. These dark and blood-soaked hallways, astoundingly well-imagined and filled with the horrifying screams of the dead, are as terrifying as anything on offer elsewhere (even the best of the Resident Evil franchise). The lower levels of the hospital, visited as part of controversial new character Abby’s campaign, are a particular standout.
From a technical standpoint, the game is a marvel. It looks nothing short of amazing, the grime and grit of Naughty Dog’s dystopian vision painstakingly realised down to the last detail. The motion capture sets a new high bar for the industry. Ellie’s pained expressions are etched onto her face with such fidelity that I am not ashamed to say that I shed a tear along with her on a few occasions.
The game runs smoothly and is free of frame-rate dips and bugs, save for one extremely annoying bug which saw me stuck in an infinite death loop as my game auto-saved in mid-air as I was falling to my death. To get out of this loop I had to load a manual save and lose an hour of progress, which was extremely annoying, but I’ll hazard a guess that I was unlucky here and this will not have happened to too many people.
At times the game manages to trigger intense emotional responses, a rare feat amongst videogames that its predecessor also managed. Being forced to watch Joel’s gruesome, unexpected death by Abby’s hand from Ellie’s perspective is supremely uncomfortable. Much more impressive though is the way that the game handles Ellie and Joel’s strained father-daughter relationship. An early scene shows us Joel treading on eggshells, doing his utmost to reconnect with a suspicious Ellie, shortly after their arrival in Jackson following the events of the first game. The performances convey the tension in the air expertly. You feel Joel’s fear of losing a second daughter. You breathe Joel’s sigh of relief when he manages a breakthrough.
Equally affecting are the scenes depicting Ellie’s quiet, solitary moments of grief processing and her struggles with PTSD. I hope to God that no one reading this will have suffered the trauma of watching a loved one die a violent death, but some, including myself, will have suffered the sudden and traumatising loss of a father. The process Ellie goes through following Joel’s death will be very familiar to players who have stood in her shoes: the guilt, the loss of sleep, feeling adrift, the flashbacks and panic attacks, the quiet tears and the angry outbursts. The narrative is at its best as a character study of both Joel and Ellie – when musing on these more human, very relatable themes. Unfortunately, Naughty Dog opted not to do this often enough. What starts as a strong narrative quickly loses its footing and stumbles…
The vast majority of the problems I have with TLoU2 are with the story. The unfortunate reality is that, whilst Joel and Ellie’s relationship and Ellie’s loss are secondary themes, the game is primarily a revenge tale and a mightily depressing essay on the cyclical nature of violence. The central message of the game is that violence is bad and “an eye for an eye makes the world go blind”, simple Sunday school messages that do not require 30 hours to convey. The entire game exists primarily to repeat these messages in ham-fisted and tiresome ways that are both at odds with its core gameplay loop and out of touch with the Ellie-aligned morality of the player, then bottles it at the last hurdle...
There are many examples of this throughout the game. For example, Ellie has absolutely no problem ruthlessly murdering hundreds of uninvolved members of Abby’s faction in order to take her revenge on Joel’s killer. Many of these murders are so gruesome, callous and unnecessary that they make the player uncomfortable but, your morality being aligned to Ellie (and Joel), as was intended by the first game, you reason that the ends justify the means. However, when finally presented with the opportunity to kill Abby at the end of the game, Ellie inexplicably decides that this is one life too many and allows Abby to leave. Despite the fact that: Abby has killed Joel and killed or maimed countless of Ellie’s other friends; Ellie has ruthlessly tortured and killed untold numbers of people to track Abby down; Ellie has nearly died herself on multiple occasions in this pursuit; AND Ellie’s quest for revenge has cost her any chance of a relationship with her loved one and adopted son at this point. Taking all things into account, the ending really feels like a cop-out from a tonal perspective and it just isn’t in keeping with Ellie’s character or the sacrifices she has been willing to make in the name of revenge.
Far braver and more poignant narrative choices in my opinion would have been to have allowed Ellie her revenge but have her die in the process (in keeping with the old adage “when you seek revenge, dig two graves”) or to have Ellie succeed in killing Abby but find afterward that the act brings her no peace and cannot bring Joel or anyone else she has lost back to her. Instead we have an ending which serves not to tie off a satisfying narrative arc for either character but is instead designed leave open the possibility of a sequel starring the very unlikeable new character Abby or exploring Ellie’s fate as she finds herself alone and starting from scratch in this harsh universe. The ending is sour and depressing, leaving the whole affair feeling rather pointless. There is little of any importance to take from the ordeal, for the player or for Ellie.
Speaking of Abby, being forced to play as her for almost half of the game’s lengthy runtime becomes nothing short of a chore as the player obviously faces an uphill task to warm to her given her brutal murder of beloved character Joel and the repeated characterisation of her and her WLF companions as straight-up heartless bastards up to this point. Sure, Joel killed Abby’s father at the end of the first game and so her motivations are quite easy to understand and relate to, but the fact remains that I never saw her as the protagonist despite Naughty Dog’s obvious attempts to force me into her camp. It is all very well to paint Abby as a holier-than-though, merciful foil to Ellie’s murderous revenge demon but let’s not forget that Abby has had her revenge. Abby was just as ruthless as Ellie is in her quest for vengeance and, in dragging them to Jackson in pursuit of Joel, puts many of her own companions in danger, ultimately leading them to their deaths just as Ellie does. The game often wants you to forget this when asking you to sympathise with Abby and it is hard to do. Though the parallels between Ellie and Abby are clearly drawn and I did start to sympathise with Abby after some time with her, in truth nothing ever came close to convincing me that Ellie should show her nemesis any mercy. Those points could have been made with only a couple of hours of Abby gameplay included. Instead, I spent the majority of Abby’s lengthy portion of the game impatiently waiting to be placed back into Ellie’s shoes. Add to that some little plotholes and questionable decisions (Abby and her group are off the WLF base for an entire winter tracking Joel but Abby is arrested by WLF leader Isaac for being MIA for a day attempting to save a friend and fellow WLF member, Joel and Tommy freely giving out their names to strangers) for good measure and none of this stands up very well to any kind of critical scrutiny.
The gameplay element of the experience is also at odds with the lessons that the narrative is trying to teach. The gruesome nature of the combat quickly becomes desensitising because of the sheer amount of it that is baked into the gameplay. Much of Abby’s portion of the game is spent making you feel bad about killing characters you kill as Ellie, to little effect. Aside from the fact that I have been conditioned to sympathise with Ellie above anyone else in this world, the game gives you no choice but to kill these people and many of them try to kill you (as Ellie) along the way! I honestly barely felt any remorse for anything Ellie had done. Even if I had, it’s not like there is anything that can be done about it… Take a section of Abby gameplay as an example: toward the end of the game, Abby’s character is approaching something akin to an epiphany as she begins to show signs of wanting to exit her life of violence, return to the Fireflies and live out a more hopeful existence. At this point I actually wanted to avoid unnecessary killing. The section in question takes place at the headquarters of the Scars (my travelling companions’ tribe, with whom Abby’s faction is at war but Abby herself has begun to humanise) as the WLF militia invade. As I navigated the Scar headquarters in an effort to save her two young wards, I did my utmost to have Abby avoid violence. For about 5 minutes, before the game forced me to kill some WLF soldiers and expediency took over. There are so many enemies, and these enemies have such punishing viewcones, that it is just easier to kill them all and move on.
This leads me to another criticism – the game is too long. I had become impatient by the time I arrived at the Scar headquarters, actually looking forward to the credits rolling as the plodding nature of Abby’s part of the plot had become wearisome. I was killing WLF and Scars with ruthless abandon in a mad rush just to move this fucker along. That is not a good look for any game and was also a notable problem with the similarly dour and po-faced RDR2. TLoU2 is considerably longer than the first game and suffers for it from a pacing perspective. The repetitive nature of the gameplay also starts to grate after such a long time, a lesson which Naughty Dog has failed to learn despite the same issue being raised in relation to the enjoyable but bloated Uncharted 4.
The length of the game is doubly difficult to forgive when coupled with the sheer amount of obvious padding that is included. The number of locked doors to circumnavigate, or collapsing floors sending you falling back down to levels below those that you’ve already traversed becomes very irksome and eventually so predictable that it borders on comedy. If some of these sections had been cut, and Abby’s story truncated, the game would be a much tighter and better-paced overall package like its predecessor. As it is the game sadly outstays its welcome ever so slightly.
My final criticism, which I felt extremely strongly about, was the dubious decision by Naughty Dog to include Joel in a scene in the trailer which occurs after his death in the game. In the aforementioned trailer, Joel appears behind Ellie to say “You didn’t think I’d let you do this on your own did ya?” In the game, it is actually another character, Jesse, who appears in this scene. When Joel died, part of me didn’t believe he was actually dead because I hadn’t yet seen the scene in question in game. The effect of the trailer was to completely undermine the weight of Joel’s death because for some time I thought his death had been faked to protect Jackson from another attack, and that he would resurface when Ellie needed him most. This suspicion was exacerbated by the pre-launch marketing which suggested it was Dina that Ellie was looking to avenge and not Joel. I said to my girlfriend at the time of Joel’s death that I would be pissed off either way, because either Naughty Dog had deliberately misled people with the trailer (they had) or they had spoiled their own twist in the trailer (which would have been equally stupid but at least not underhanded). There is no winning to my mind when you mislead your own customers like this and it left a very sour taste in my mouth that could have been easily avoided without spoiling anything about the story, with some more careful editing of the pre-launch trailers. One might argue I could have avoided the trailers, but this one was part of a televised campaign, so that argument doesn’t hold much water for me!
In conclusion, TLoU2 is a mechanically and aesthetically impressive game, a shocking and poignant depiction of the ongoing trauma of grief, sadly hindered by clumsy attempts to manipulate the player and subvert expectations. Naughty Dog had an unenviable task on their hands, one which with hindsight they may regret taking on. The sequel to their undisputed masterpiece is the latest AAA victim of its own hype, overpromising and underdelivering in some disappointing ways. Where the original game told a powerful and complete tale, the sequel ends up feeling muddled and unnecessary with little of any significance to add to Ellie and Joel’s story. Whilst this is undeniably another technical tour de force from Naughty Dog, The Last of Us franchise lives and dies by its story. In that crucial respect, TLoU2 is sure to remain extremely divisive.
Overall score 6/10 – you’ll probably want at least some of your 30 hours back if you’ve struggled to carve them out of a hectic schedule.