Video Game Review: The Last Of Us Part II
Updated: May 21
Initial release date June 19th, 2020
Developed by Naughty Dog
Published by SIE
It’s difficult to write about a game like The Last of Us Part II. Everything that needs to be said about this game has already been said. Actually, it’s been bludgeoned over everyone’s head, and smeared across every timeline, recommended page, and Twitter thread for the past two weeks. Journalists, YouTubers, Twitch Streamers, and my third uncle twice removed have made their opinions clear. From Joel’s death, to Abby’s physique, to the controversial ending. It’s all been said. And yet, here I am. Saying. Why? Because…I need to.
No piece of media has taken up my headspace for this long the way this one has. As a filmmaker who constantly strives to learn more about the art of storytelling, I will myself to consume as much as I can from every medium of narrative art. From Kurosawa, Scorsese, and Varda; to Baldwin and Marquez; to Taro and Kojima. I want to experience them all. And yet, I’ve never pondered so extensively about a piece of work that lead me to stay awake at 2am, itching to let my thoughts out. But here I am. However I can’t help but ask again…Why?
Well, as far as I’m concerned I don’t believe we’ve had a game of this caliber and budget do the things it does, in the way it does. I can’t remember the last time we had a game this polarizing; that dared to tell it’s story the way it wants to be told, while pushing and provoking the player’s emotions. After the 25 hours I’d spent with the game, I was left sitting in my chair in awe, unsure of what to feel and yet feeling everything at once. As I continued my day trying to gather my thoughts, I was sure this game was going to be crowned my favourite video game of all time. But that title was quickly stripped the next day, and oddly reinstated the day after that. I read, watched, and listened to all the people I admired, and some I couldn’t care less for. Vehemently disagreeing, and passionately agreeing with every shared thought. And though I’m still very conflicted in some areas, I can’t deny that this is a landmark title for the industry, both for good reason, and bad.
It’s far from perfect, and I question a lot of its messaging as well as the structure in which it tells its story. But I want to talk about it, so kindly indulge me as I do so.
All The Other Stuff
Though I don’t intend for this to be a “normal” review, I do want to talk about the audiovisual presentation of the game, and the moment-to-moment gameplay itself. There’s really not much to be said in this regard, Naughty Dog have yet again delivered the most technically gorgeous game I’ve ever experienced. From lighting, textures, density in foliage, and animations this game looks phenomenal. And the fact that it runs near perfectly with very few loading screens and unnoticeable frame-rate drops on my base PS4, is even more impressive. I want to specifically commend the facial animations team. There’s always been a bit of a divide between vocal performances and how that performance translates to the 3D model of the character the actor plays. Due to the technical limitations of motion capture, this often created an odd experience where even though the performance from the actor may be solid, it’s disconnected from what we see on the characters face. I’ve come to dismiss this dissonance as the years have progressed, however, Naughty Dog have seemed to completely jump over this hurdle. The performances in The Last of Us Part II are simply impeccable. The nuances and depth in performance you get from great film actors are fully matched in this game. This is not only a testament to the talent of the actors, but also the animation team. Similar superlatives can be used for the sound and music. From the pitter-patter of rain drops on different surfaces, to the beautifully somber but sometimes haunting music of Gustavo Santaolalla, my ears were thoroughly mystified by the sounds of this game.
The game itself plays quite well. It’s a clear evolution from the original title, meaning it shares many of the same mechanics from seven years ago but everything feels far more “smooth” this time around. Characters feel far less clunky to maneuver, reacting to inputs with quick and fluid animations. The gunplay and combat are “fun,” considering the brutality. And the stealth options are adequate. Nothing Kojima has to sweat over, but perfectly fine. The open areas during combat and multiple ways you can tackle each encounter is very interesting, and make for a far more versatile experience. The crafting and upgrade systems all work and progress well, though the opening and closing of countless cupboards to collect the seemingly endless number of materials can get a tad tedious after the first fifteen hours. But the environments are all so intricately designed with each room telling a bit more of the story of this world, that I ended up scouring through each area regardless, so honestly didn’t really mind the rummaging.
The Main Stuff
Okay, story. Honestly, I’d be lying if I said I knew how to put my thoughts together for this section. But here goes nothing.
The Last of Us Part II, for me, is a story about acceptance. More specifically, Ellie’s acceptance. And I wish it were just about that. Because you see, the reason I wanted to put this game as my all time favourite – aside from the great audiovisuals and engaging gameplay – was Ellie. Without hesitation, I can easily say that Ellie is my favourite playable character in a video game. Her story that started with Joel, learning to accept his decision, and coming to peace with his absence. Ellie is a wonderfully written, well-rounded, and understandably flawed character; who’s evolution and growth has been heart-warming, heart-breaking, and at times frustrating to experience. Everything she’s gone through, and every connection she’s both fostered and lost throughout, has been incredibly captivating to watch. She’s performed perfectly by Ashley Johnson, who captures every facet and depth of her personality. Ellie has made me laugh, cry, shout, and everything in between. Her character is complemented by those around her as well. Dina, Jesse, Tommy, Maria, are all interesting characters that hold their own. They work great to supplement Ellie, but are also well-written enough to not feel like they are only in service to her. I loved that we got to do entire missions with both Dina and Jesse, and had a flashback with Tommy. It was nice to see that they had their own ideas and personalities that challenged Ellie. I wish my quarter century number of hours were spent with her, which leads me into my main issue of this game.
I understand what Naughty Dog were trying to do. We’ve seen it before. Many times. But, as I always say, everything is a cliché because everything has been done; what matters is the execution. Unfortunately, I can’t say that Naughty Dog nailed the execution of Abby as a character. I can understand some of the criticism in regards to the structure of the story. I agree that the pacing was butchered due to the switch midway through. Combined with a couple unnecessary flashbacks, which continually halted any forward momentum, making for a disjointed and bumpy experience to say the least. However my issues don’t really pertain to the structure as much as it does with Abby, and her relationships. The thing I love about Ellie is that regardless of the blind rage she carries, and the awful things she’s done, I can see that she still genuinely loves Dina. That she loves Jesse, Tommy, Joel obviously, and cares for the people in Jackson. I can’t say I see the same in Abby. As we start going through her flashbacks and scenes with other characters, I never truly felt she genuinely had love or care for Owen, Mel, Manny, Nora, or any of the WLF members. Aside from her relationship with her father, whom we barely get to see more of in the flashbacks, I didn’t feel she was a multi-dimensional character. Performed very well, sure, but that’s it. And the fact that for me all those aforementioned characters were dull, boring, and at times even annoying, didn’t help. Most others bring up Lev and Yara as the points where they began to sympathize with Abby. To me, that shouldn’t be the case. Lev and Yara simply felt like under-written (though interesting) characters that were there simply in servitude to make us empathize with Abby. Even then it only seemed like she cared for them because they were all she had left. And they are physical manifestations of a bigger issue that Naughty Dog continually enforces throughout Abby’s play-through: Forced Empathy. From guiding us through happy NPC’s that we had previously killed as Ellie, to making us play fetch with the dogs that we had previously killed as Ellie, to have one character tell her she’s a terrible person, only to have the cute kid tell her she’s a good person, to…everything else. Does it work? Well it’s hard for it not to, to some degree. Is it interesting to experience these things through the medium of video games? Sure, especially mechanics like walking Abby close to a ledge and see her visibly get frightened. That’s an example of great use of gameplay to tell story. But you shouldn’t have to try so hard. Your character (and side characters) should be able to stand on their own. If ten hours isn’t enough to show us the humanity and dimensions of a character, without the use of cheap and overused narrative tropes (aside from the fear of heights thing), then maybe you should rethink the character you’ve written. I also found it odd that Abby’s story thread had nothing to do with Ellie’s. When you leave the climactic scene at the theatre, you’re basically playing a completely different game as Abby for the following ten hours. It’s within the same world, but the “enemy” and plot threads have nothing to do with Ellie’s.
For me, it would have been far more interesting to see Abby be connected with Ellie earlier on, being a part of the same plot thread as Ellie and developing a relationship with her. Have her join Jackson, work with Ellie, Joel, and everyone to team up alongside the WLF’s. Then have them face the Seraphites, where maybe halfway through we get to play a chapter as Lev and Yara to see their side of things, and how brutal the WLF’s were to them. All to have Abby figure out who Joel really is towards the end, kill him, go through the series of flashbacks, and then continue onwards switching between Ellie and Abby before coming to the similar heart-wrenching climactic ending, which was perfect the way it was done. So much of this game works. Even though I’m tired of the post-apocalyptic narrative trope of having multiple “factions” where “we don’t know who’s good or bad,” and wish we could try different ideas of what humanity can be after a crumbled world, or at least question the moralities of a world that chooses to exist this way; I still loved so much of the experience. I still cry when I watch some scenes with Ellie and Dina. And I appreciate the boldness of some of the choices Naughty Dog made. And though I still struggled to press square during that last fight, I simply wish my getting there was different.
An unrivalled audiovisual experience with breakthrough animation work, coupled with a masterfully written and performed character in Ellie, unfortunately cannot alleviate the narrative woes of this game; particularly in regards to pacing, Abby as a character, underdeveloped side characters, and its trite attempts to convey a deep message about violence.