There are a couple of things I need to get out of the way right at the start. First, this isn’t going to be a traditional review in the sense that you’re used to. Reviews often grade things on a sliding scale whether it be alphabetically or numerically and will give you the reviewer’s opinion on whether or not you should buy/play. This is without a doubt a very important game in many respects for a myriad of reasons, so much so that a simple should you or shouldn’t you contextualization of this title seems somewhat reductive. This isn’t just a video game but a story and a journey that looms larger than the medium that houses it. So while I will still be giving you my opinions and thoughts on the overall experience, I can’t in good conscience give this a pass or fail grade. This game is a very subjective experience and if you’ve existed in the internet at all lately… you’ve likely seen the sharp divide in people’s experience with the game. The critics love it, it would seem a lot of fans hate it and there’s plenty of people on both sides that exist somewhere in between. Please take these words and thoughts under consideration but I strongly urge you guys to really try and go into this experience forming your opinion and leave any preconceived notions at the door.
Second, and this is somewhat more important, there is no possible way to talk about TLOU Part 2 without spoilers. This is a game that focuses so heavily on narrative and plot, that a true discussion can’t be had without being able to cover some of the more sensitive (in terms of story details) elements of the game. So, if you guys haven’t played it yet and are sensitive to spoilers, I urge you to pick up the game first and then come back to this article. For those of you who have beaten the game or don’t care about spoilers as much, stick around and I will do my best to surmise why this is not only one of the most important games of this generation… but will also go down as a defining title for the entire PlayStation brand.
Here we go….
I think an important distinction to make right off the bat in terms of what we’re getting with this game is right upfront in the title. It’s called The Last Of Us Part 2 and not just The Last Of Us 2. The minute detail of including the word “part” in the title speaks volumes about the kind of story that Neil Druckmann and Naughty Dog Studios is trying to tell here. Making it a Part 2 gives it the sense that this is just the second chapter in the same ongoing story. This isn’t just a numbered sequel that features the same characters on a completely new adventure with the most threadbare of connective tissue. TLOU Part 2’s whole existence is predicated on where the story of the first game goes and ends up. The entirety of your play through of this new game is in search of answers and in service of the moral ambiguity the original game drives its main characters towards. The inciting incident that sets Ellie out on her bloody path of vengeance is a direct result of the decision making you take part in at the end of Part 1. While you don’t need to have played the first game to enjoy this one necessarily, some of the more emotional moments, especially the final flashback moment featuring Joel and Ellie, will not land nearly as hard on an emotional level.
The inciting incident of course being Joel Miller’s death at the hand of new major villain Abby. Who is this character and why does she have a hand in dispatching one of the most beloved game characters of this and the last gaming generation? Well for those of you who remember, the final level of the original TLOU, Joel (who is the main playable character of this first game) storms the hospital where the operation to extract the cure from Ellie (who is the only known living human with an immunity to the cordyceps virus) will most assuredly kill her is underway. His choice to save his surrogate daughter’s life in the face of dooming humanity is really where the story of this new game gets set in stone. Once you get inside the actual operating room the doctor operating on Ellie points a knife at you and then you’re forced to kill him to move along the story. This is significant because that man you killed is Abby’s father.
So yes, I really really liked Joel as a character and as a fan I really really didn’t want him to die. However, I can’t say the choice to take him off the board wasn’t without merit. As much as I liked and related to him, Joel killed a lot of innocent people who despite wanting to kill Ellie for the vaccine, we’re not an inherently evil group of people. They were bad guys in the sense that you developed a loving relationship with a character and they wanted to take her away from you, but their intentions however muddled were for the ultimate good. Your decision as Joel to save Ellie and murder everyone in your path, while relatable especially to fathers, still cost the lives of a lot of people who we’re just doing their part to save the world in their eyes. So yes, as a father myself, I know I would’ve reacted in much the same way that he did. Fuck humanity, let it burn, nobody is touching a hair on my daughter’s head. Still, despite the best of intentions, Joel is kind of a villain in this scenario even though the game doesn’t entirely frame it that way. So when its revealed early on in this new game that Joel’s past sins come back to haunt him and cost him his life, despite that early twang of being upset, it happens in a totally organic way and makes sense given the proper context of the story up until that point.
One thing that Neil Druckmann would hit on every time someone asked him about his thoughts on the leaks, is that despite key plot points being released several months ahead of the street date, people should wait for the proper context of the situation before pre-forming their opinions on the story direction of this new game. I let my own feelings towards Joel cloud my judgment and didn’t think there was any amount “context” that could justify his death…. well I am happy to say I was very wrong. Yes, it still really really sucks but the story is so well written and so intricately assembled that I allowed myself to keep going and give in to what this game was selling me.
The game then becomes about Ellie’s un-yielding thirst for vengeance against those who took from her someone she loved. This is not a pleasant game. It is a very long and emotional look at the unending cycles of violence and the rage that consumes us when our lives become focused on vengeance for a perceived slight. The next 10 hours or so are spent tracking down the various members of Abby’s crew so Ellie can extract her pound of flesh. As the player you’re along for the ride, but as you continue along the path and slowly work your way around the ruined setting of Seattle and kill more and more characters along the way, Ellie’s motivations become less identifiable and she becomes more and more lost in her own head.
There comes a point where Ellie’s journey finds her happening upon a ruined Aquarium where Abby is rumored to have been holed up. She arrives and instantly you’re placed in several ugly situations that turn Ellie from the sympathetic character you wanted to see get her vengeance to someone who comes full circle into becoming the villain. The thirst for blood and the drive to kill everyone involved in Joel’s death have completely consumed her and gone is the smart ass but lovable kid we’re introduced to in the first game. In her place is a shell of the human being she once was. She has become the thing that she was hunting and even she begins to realize this from this point forward. There are several acts in this section of the game we’re not only forced to witness but also to partake in and it completely shifts the focus of the game from this point forward. Several reviewers and content creators take issue with the level of violence, and while I can see it being a step too far for some, it never becomes cartoonish and never feels unjustified. This is a violent post-apocalyptic world where death literally hangs on every second of existence. The act of killing while hard to watch for some, is in keeping with the need to survive in the face of such hellish conditions.
Ellie loses herself in her quest and it’s at this point that the entire thing shifts focus to play from the perspective of Abby. While a hard pill to swallow at first and huge source of contention for a lot of fans, it makes sense in conjunction with the thematics this story seems to want to trade in. Whereas Ellie’s portion of the game is about the descent into madness and the loss of identity when pure rage and emotion pilot every decision we make, Abby’s is kind of the inverse of this motivation. We start out seeing her as this character who is every bit the villain we’ve been made to believe she is. Her entire life’s motivation has been leading to the moment where she finds Joel and exacts the revenge she feels she is owed when he killed her father in the previous game. Druckmann and writer Hailey Gross purposefully make Abby and Ellie different sides to the same coin. This isn’t exactly a new trope in gaming, but where this story becomes different is daring to flip the trope on its head and make you have sympathy for the devil so to speak. Abby, throughout her portion of the game, begins to wrestle with the weight of what she did to Joel and throughout her adventures begins to find her humanity again. There are still portions of the game that go to great lengths to paint her as a true piece of shit. She’s still not the most likable character we’ve ever met. However, the further you play through the game the more you see her willingness and desire to escape from the cycle of violence and bloodshed she’s so willingly a part of at the start.
When I was playing through as Ellie, as the game wore on, it became more and more emotionally exhausting to see this woman you’re rooting for continue to make the wrong decisions that further and further separate herself from the idyllic life she left behind at the start of all of this. Abby starts out at the bottom and the further and further you progress through her story, you really feel more and more energized by her character arc’s redemptive path. I can see how hardcore fans of this franchise might see being forced to play as a character that killed somebody we love as a betrayal of what came before, but this isn’t the same game. Much like Ellie and Abby are different sides of the same coin, both TLOU and TLOU Part 2 share a similar relationship. TLOU is about the beauty of simplicity and love and humanity juxtaposed against the backdrop of a fungal infection that has completely decimated the world. Even though It still deals in violence and the ugliness often associated with popular post-apocalyptic fiction (especially with the ambiguous ending), it’s still a largely hopeful game. TLOU Part 2 is the nasty mean-spirited flipside that shows that the world will eat itself if given the opportunity. Humanity is often the bigger threat than the zombies or creatures, this is again nothing new but it is rendered to perfection here. It is a perfect sequel in the sense that it elevates, expands and furthers the themes introduced in that first title.
The other big defining aspect of this game that a lot of people seem to be focusing on for better or worse are the sexual identities of its main characters and the progressive sexual politics of its story. Ellie is a very openly gay woman who starts a relationship with a very openly bi-sexual woman. Abby befriends and rescues a trans Asian boy named Lev who is constantly disrespected and deadnamed (the act of calling a transgender individual by their birthname without their direct consent or permission) by his formal fellow disciples of the Seraphite cultists you often run into throughout the game. While I can see trans individuals having a hard time seeing this presented front and center in a game ultimately about a zombie apocalypse, it’s never given to us in a clumsy or exploitative way. Although Lev is only present in a portion of Abby’s half of the story, he’s the one genuinely decent human being in this whole universe of miserable individuals. His story of ex-communication from his place in the Seraphites (this games wackadoo and disturbing religious cult) due to his choice to not live his life by society’s vision of what he should or shouldn’t do is extremely inspiring when it comes to video games. Featuring characters who proudly exist within the LGBTQ community is not new or even unique in gaming. What is refreshing to see is these characters being treated with humanity in such a huge triple A title that will reach the widest possible audience. This game isn’t a piece of social justice warrior propaganda like many short-sighted individuals would have you believe. It is very much first and foremost a survival horror video game. It just also happens to be a game with a very particular message that not a lot of people seem to agree with. It’s story doesn’t exist to push progressive politics in an age when being “woke” is necessary to survive in popular culture. Yes, Ellie is a lesbian but her character identity isn’t defined by her sexuality. She is who she is because of her experiences as a human being living in a world that has largely melted away due to a viral infection. Yes, Lev is very much trans and features prominently in Abby’s path to redemption. She doesn’t become a better person because she’s “woke” for being seen with Lev. She gets that nice slice of redemption pie because she sees Lev as the type of person she should strive to be. This game has a very complicated relationship with love but one thing that they do not shy away from is identity politics and staying true to one’s self despite society telling you it’s wrong. At the end of the day, these are just very well written, well-acted and well realized characters that stand as a landmark achievement in the whole medium.
One more thing on the story, we can’t go any further without discussing the ending of the game. TLOU Part 1 could have ended and that would’ve been that. The “narrative” arc of the first game came to a complete close and most of the loose hanging threads we’re all tied up. Mostly…. The big one is Joel’s lie to Ellie. After he saves her life, she asks about what happened and why she was still alive. Joel had a chance to tell her the truth about what he did, but he knew that it would destroy her and any chance at a relationship between the two. So, he lied to her about what happened… and she accepts it… we think. The final 20 minutes or so of that game paint Ellie as skeptical of everything that has just happened but she chooses to trust Joel because of everything they had been through together. It’s a morally ambiguous ending that leaves the players wanting more not because it ended on a cliffhanger but because we were so invested in these characters lives that we really wanted to spend more time with them. The ending of TLOU Part 2 is not nearly as ambiguous but infinitely more emotionally devastating. The final battle between Abby and Ellie is particularly brutal for multiple reasons. Watching two people who are bloody, beaten and battered continue to fight to the death despite at this point recognizing the futility of their actions is the culmination of everything the game has been trying make you feel. Abby has been abducted by a rogue group of cannibals/hunters and abused to the point of emaciation. Her whole journey of vengeance and justice for her father culminated in her suffering at the very hands of misery she wrought. When Ellie finally sees what she has become and they cross paths for the final time, Abby has completely transformed and not just physically. Ellie taunts her repeatedly and Abby says that “she is done” and wants none of it. Ellie on the other hand has lost everything at this point. Everyone she has ever loved or cared for has been killed or left her. Her girlfriend you spend an early portion of the game developing a relationship with decides that she’s had enough with Ellie’s constant throwing herself at death’s door step all in the name of avenging a man with questionable morals and decides to leave her. Ellie has poured everything she is and sacrificed everything she had to get to this point. It all comes down to Ellie’s desperation versus Abby’s reluctance, and in the end, there are ultimately no winners. Ellie does eventually get the upper hand but in the middle of drowning Abby decides at the last possible moment that maybe she’s gone too far. It’s in this do or die moment that Ellie is confronted with all of her mistakes and poor decisions that lead her to this moment. Abby gets in a nearby rowboat with an unconscious Lev and sails off into the night never to be seen again (at least until the inevitable DLC or sequel). Ellie sits there on the beach with her thoughts with the final realization that this whole journey she’s been on throughout the game was for nothing. She has killed and fought and scraped her way to the end and feels no better or more fulfilled because of it. Instead she has lost it all. Joel is dead, Tommy wants nothing to do with her, Dina (Ellie’s girlfriend who is largely sidelined in the front half of the game) has taken their child and left Ellie behind, Ellie is forever physically scarred and carries the weight of everything she’s done with her. The final scene finds her returning to the home that she and Dina have built only to find it completely empty save for her own office area. She attempts to play the guitar that Joel gave her in the opening only to find it impossible now that she’s missing two of her fingers. She puts the guitar down, grabs her backpack and leaves the house and consequently her life behind. It’s a very bleak and dour ending with the slightest tease of hope at the very end. There’s a small flashback with her and Joel that provides a very powerful final moment the two share about forgiveness and understanding which paints her thirst for revenge into a slightly more sympathetic light. Joel lied to her about what happened but she was willing to try and move on and forgive him for what he did. But before she could do that, his life is taken and sets in motion everything that has happened up until this point. For such an anticipated game with such a large budget that is ostensibly going to be played by a huge audience to feature such a downer of an ending is quite the bold narrative choice.
So I’ve been spending this whole article talking about the story and the themes and plot… but what about the gameplay? I mean… I suppose this is still a video game after all. Honestly… It’s not all that unchanged from the first game. It’s mostly a stealth survival horror game. Most of your time is going to be split between exploring the ruins of Seattle looking for supplies and sneaking your way through various ruined buildings and streets overgrown with plant life while stalking your enemies. There are some updates to the core mechanics. The weapon upgrade system seems more tied to your progression as a character and doesn’t ever feel overpowered. The game always gives you what it feels are the right amount of supplies to successfully navigate whatever threat is facing you down. You can also upgrade your abilities like being able to move faster while aiming your gun, or faster crafting times, extra damage for your melee weapons. These systems were present in the first game but felt mostly ancillary and not SUPER necessary to the forward momentum of the game. Here the game guides you to be more proactive in the upgrade system as the enemies become more deadly and harder to kill. The weapons you are given are very appropriately powered but don’t stay that way for long. The more you travel Seattle you come across more varied versions of the infected monsters that simply become too powerful to subdue with your starter pistol. The upgrade benches are spaced out in way that when you come across one, you can rest assured you’re about to enter a battle that will tax all of your abilities and choice upgrades. The battle spaces are much larger and offer extremely varied ways to approach the combat. Make no mistake, the game itself very much promotes a stealthy approach, however it also doesn’t always punish you for going in guns blazing. Granted, your limited resources don’t make this the most viable option, it still allows you the freedom of choice.
Whew… that was a long one lol. I know that in a discussion about a video game that the actual game mechanics weren’t really super discussed at length but that’s kind of the point. While the game play is carried over from the first game but refined to perfection, TLOU Part 2 lives and dies by and is almost universally known for its story. It’s often referred to in most marketing tools as a story-based action adventure game. While I think they should lean more into it being a survival horror game, it is a game that places its emphasis on story which is why I spent the most time talking about its themes and narrative. The game play isn’t given short shrift and is refined into perfection, its still really not the main reason to play this game.
The Last Of Us Part 2 is a once in a lifetime generation defining video game. It’s bold and takes creative steps in directions that not many major video games studios these days are willing to go. Its uncompromisingly bleak and nearly torturous in its rampant violence but never in a titillating or exploitative way. The violence and the rage and the hatred exist to shine a light on the hopelessness of revenge. You may get what you want in the end but how far are you willing to go? What are you willing to sacrifice? This is a game that simply has no equal not just in story but pure and raw emotion. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like the game in the same way I have, but it’s still one I think everyone should play as soon as possible. I have a feeling it’ll be in the popular public conscious for a long time whether in a positive or negative light. Sometimes the best art is the most divisive.