Ben: It’s been seven years – almost an entire console generation – since Naughty Dog rocked the gaming world with its post-apocalyptic masterpiece, The Last of Us. Its effect on the medium is still apparent even as we near the end of the PS4’s life cycle, with newer Playstation classics using similar mature themes and storytelling styles to achieve pretty spectacular results, the most notable example being 2018’s God of War. Having just passed the 2013 hit’s latest anniversary, fans are finally able to experience the next chapter in Joel and Ellie’s story, The Last of Us Part II. Is it a worthy sequel to its landmark predecessor? Read on to see what Lauren and I think!
And don’t worry if you haven’t finished the game yet, there will be a spoiler warning before we start divulging any major story beats.
Lauren: Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin as I’m still grappling with how I feel about The Last of Us Part II, and I definitely don’t feel capable of fully expressing the emotionally charged thought hurricane in my brain right now. I guess I’ll go back to where this all started: The Last of Us is one of those games that truly encapsulates everything the gaming world has to offer as a storytelling art form, with themes of grief and the emotional scars left and walls built as protection, and characters struggling to rely on each other in an uncaring world that’ll repeatedly break your heart. The slow developing bond formed between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, dug deep into my soul because of everything that connection meant to each of them, cementing it as a top 10 game of all time for me. Which is probably why, as excited as I was at the announcement of a sequel to this phenomenal game, I was a bit wary at the odds of a follow up accomplishing just as much as its predecessor. Yet here I sit, only hours after finishing The Last of Us Part II, emotionally raw and wrecked, forever changed, in awe of what Naughty Dog managed to achieve with this sequel that weaves together new stories of loss, grief, guilt, fear, violence, and rage, and the devastating ramifications these emotions have on all they touch. On all they infect.
Ben: I’m in the same boat as you are Lauren, even days after completing my first playthrough. I initially found myself at a loss for words to articulate how important The Last of Us Part II is to video games as a storytelling medium. Never before has a game left me feeling so emotionally drained, or with such a deep appreciation of its quality and themes. It’s an utterly exhausting, but completely worthwhile voyage.
The Last of Us Part II tells a darker, even more powerful tale than its precursor. It’s one of pain, hatred, vengeance, and brutality that genuinely unsettled me. You end up really, truly caring about multiple characters throughout the campaign, which makes every small victory of theirs worth celebrating, and the absolute Hell they go through unbelievably intense and harrowing. Journeying with them as they fought and struggled against the horrors of their post-apocalyptic world – and a toxic, disturbing cycle of violence – had a legitimately profound effect on me. The end result was an experience that has haunted me over the few days since the credits rolled.
In addition to an even greater narrative, The Last of Us Part II’s gameplay is also stellar, surprisingly. The controls feel more fluid in the sequel, and there’s far more creativity in the combat, which was undoubtedly the weakest part of the original. Both you and your enemies have more tools and tricks at your disposal, and almost every encounter had me on the edge of my seat. I often found myself impressed and terrified of the tactics employed by even the most standard of enemy types.
Lauren: I’ve always been the type of player to rely on stealth as much as possible, which means I spent the majority of the almost 30 hours of exploration slowly army crawling through the tall grasses of the outdoor locals, or crouch walking my way around the more claustrophobic levels, clinging to the walls at my back whenever possible, flashlight on a swivel, anxiously creeping up behind humans and infected alike in an attempt to prevent the rest of the room from being alerted to my presence with a swift knife to the jugular and chest. Suffice it to say I’d describe my overall gaming experience as extremely tense, especially when the Stalkers came around with their unsettling creature feature skittering and imperceptibility to our, um… hearing vision. Runners and Clickers moving around the often dank and dark locals are creepy enough, but these guys… they made my skin crawl. And they brought new, horrifying friends with them.
The thing that struck me the most about the overall gameplay of Part II (other than the numerous jumpscares that always hit me no matter how much I knowingly braced for them, as well as the phenomenal transitions pushing the player from one encounter to the next) is how it is constantly escalating and evolving with the introduction of different enemy types in an attempt to keep the player uncomfortable and off balance. I’ll admit that I was feeling rather confident, and maybe a little cocky, with how smoothly the first third of the game went for me as I sat rather prettily on my surplus of constantly stocked supplies. Sometimes things would go awry and I’d have to switch to a more violent approach – admittedly my dodging was pretty mediocre at first, I should’ve relied more on my guns than stubbornly attempting to shoulder my way through a greeting of bullets to bridge the short gap to melee attack my startled assailant, and I pretty much never used the stun grenades or mines I was carrying around – fortunately the parts of my arsenal that I chose to cling to were more than enough to turn the tides back in my favor more often than not, leaving my enemies screaming in pain, or bloodily gurgling their last seconds of life away.
And then the humans brought dogs to my knife fight. Dogs that most certainly did not want to be petted no matter how much I went out of my way to do them no harm as they figuratively nipped at my heels. This section of the game was the one time I was truly frustrated (since I wouldn’t give in and kill the dogs to simplify things), but it was far from the only time I felt overwhelmed and/or frantic. Gustavo Santaolalla and Mac Quayle’s soundtrack was constantly winding me tighter and tighter as it thrummed in my ears, with each impatient pulse and every beat of hesitant inaction pushing me to higher stress levels.
Ben: I agree completely. Part II was able to keep its stealth and combat fresh throughout my playthrough by constantly surprising me with new enemies or obstacles. Time and time again, I was forced to rethink my plan of attack (or avoidance) because of the constantly evolving and changing threats. Dogs sniffed, Stalkers… Well, stalked, and every time I survived or escaped a confrontation with dwindling health and supplies I felt like an ultra badass, brilliant tactician, or both.
And oh my God, the music! The Last of Us had one of my favorite soundtracks from any game, movie or TV show of the past fifteen years, and Part II’s is just as awesome. Every beat of tension, terror, or sadness was heightened even further by Santaolalla’s phenomenal compositions.
Also, I have to bring up the excellence of the game’s exploration and level design. In the vastness of the bleak beauty that is a destroyed Seattle, I was never unsure of where I needed to go or what my next task was. Even if I got “lost” in my desire to look for collectibles and resources, or simply take in the sights, I was always able to get right back on track when I needed to.
Alrighty then, now that we’ve given our spoiler-free take on it, let’s take an unfiltered look at why we like The Last of Us Part II so much.
FULL SPOILERS BELOW
STOP HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED THE LAST OF US PART II
I think we should start at the beginning, or at least with the moment that gives Ellie – and us – her mission: Joel’s murder. The death of Ellie’s father figure was spoiled for me about a month before The Last of Us Part II’s release (IN A NICKELBACK MEME OF ALL THINGS!) but the context and ferocity of it was not. I was horrified by Abby’s savagery, enraged by the compliance of her friends, and devastated to see the wonderful bond between Joel and Ellie snuffed out so viciously right in front of the latter as she screamed in agony and struggled in vain. I was totally invested in and on board with Ellie’s quest for revenge on what I thought were piles of human garbage. At least, I was at first. Then Naughty Dog (led by game director Neil Drukmann) used this against me, and made me rethink almost everything about Joel, Ellie, and the “villainous” Abby.
Lauren: As if the surprise shotgun blast de-capping his knee (or de-kneeing his leg, really) wasn’t bad enough, Abby teeing off on Joel’s head was the “fore!” heard round the world, enraging the masses of The Last of Us fans. Unfortunately some too much, as the torpedoed ratings show. Which is a real shame, because those that saw Joel’s early death as reason enough to abandon Ellie during one of the most traumatic moments of her life truly missed out on a rather surprising and tragic unfolding of flashbacks and current events that make this sequel so much more than a vengeance filled warpath. They missed out on a beautiful relationship between Ellie and Dina that is full of life and love, happiness and struggles as Ellie’s mission started to detach her from her support system (both emotionally and physically for some extra stressful alone time), memories of swimming and Jurassic Park references as Joel and Ellie briefly got to live happily ever after until the truth of what happened at the end of Part I wedged a deeper and deeper chasm between them, and, most surprising, a concurrent story that caused an unexpected understanding to develop towards the game’s “villain.” Honestly I was genuinely shocked by how affected I felt by the parallels drawn between our two playable characters.
That’s right, turns out that in addition to playing as Ellie, half of the game follows Abby in what I like to call The Last of Us Part 2.5. I’ll admit that when we switched rolls midway through the game I was pretty upset. I didn’t want to play as Joel’s killer because I hated her as much as Ellie did. Ellie’s pain was my pain, just as her mission was mine; but as we spent more time with Abby I slowly found myself grappling with those feelings, even sympathizing with her the more she was humanized. After all, Joel killed her father before he could operate on Ellie at the end of the first game, putting the cycle of violence in motion. And that small bit of understanding began to fester until I was fully supportive of her right to her own rage and grief, just as Ellie had every right to hers. If ever there was a time that “to understand is to forgive” made the most sense to me, this was it. And as these stories came to a head, I cried for Abby just as much as I cried for Ellie, feeling sick to my stomach at the idea that either one of these characters’ lives might be further and completely destroyed by the pervasive fury catalyzed by their just causes.
Ben: I was also flabbergasted by the surprise deuteragonist reveal at Part II’s halfway point, and by how effective Abby’s arc was. I initially thought “how could this game expect me to play as the cold-hearted, ruthless monster that destroyed the greatest relationship in all of gaming?” Then Naughty Dog pulled off one of the most impressive storytelling feats I’ve ever witnessed and turned a character that I was dead set against into a believable, sympathetic, and painfully human protagonist who I wished could find a happy ending with all of my heart. As you get to know Abby, you realize she isn’t evil, but an endearing, flawed being with a tragic past whose own goals and morals align eerily close with Ellie’s, even if the pair would never be able to see eye to eye. Abby made an awful, lethal choice out of anger and grief, which continued a chain reaction of hatred and pain that Ellie fed into as it destroyed so many of their loved ones. But like you said Lauren, “to understand is to forgive…” And holy shit, I understand now.
If only Abby had met the lovable, sarcasm-deprived Lev earlier. Even after being forced to kill his own mother in self defense and watching his sister get gunned down minutes later – because there wasn’t enough emotional trauma in this game already – Lev was able to help Abby realign her moral compass, and stopped her from killing a defenseless Dina (a moment in which I literally screamed in horror as Abby seemed primed to do it). The time Abby and Lev spent together featured some of Part II’s most impactful instances of happiness – along with Ellie’s moments of peace with Joel and Dina – and was arguably what gave Abby the strength to finally break the chain of violence and vengeance that had taken so much from her, Ellie, and the people closest to them.
Ellie’s journey continued though, until she let go of her fury in the story’s climax, which absolutely devastated me. After hearing that Abby was captured by a gang of less-than-noble individuals a few months prior and finally tracking her down again, I ended up walking right by her when she was strung up on that pillar because I didn’t even recognize her. When I finally realized that the thin, scarred, battered individual I passed was Abby, I felt sick, and then an overwhelming sadness washed over me. The sight of a tortured character I would’ve had no problem throwing into a fire twenty hours earlier brought me to tears.
Then the final fight forced me to pile on even more pain. Abby didn’t deserve this, and I couldn’t stomach the thought of Ellie succeeding in her mission anymore. I almost failed the relatively (mechanically) simple duel because tears were obstructing my vision.
And after the dust finally settled on this nightmarish scenario, we see that Abby has lost all of her closest friends, and Ellie her father figure, the ability to efficiently play the guitar he gave her, and possibly the one last healthy relationship in her life, all from their pursuit of “justice.” Many games, movies, books, and TV shows have shown their audiences that violence only begets more violence and that revenge isn’t worth it, but none before have done so with such brutal, uncomfortable, and terrifying honesty.
At least the changes to the game’s main menu after completing the story hint that Abby and Lev made it to the new Firefly HQ. They got a happy ending, THANK GOD!
Lauren: And I refuse to believe that Ellie’s life is as empty as the house we watch her walk away from in the end, because I will not survive that. My eyes are legitimately welling up now just thinking about those barren rooms once filled with such love, along with everything she gave up to finish a mission that brought nothing but desolation. As much as I was pulling for Abby in the end – no one deserves what she went through, no matter what the Joel Stans say – I’ll admit that a lot of it was me selfishly pulling more for Ellie, because Abby’s death would bring about nothing but more pain for Ellie in the realization that it solves absolutely nothing. It won’t bring her closure or any real catharsis, it won’t return the pieces of herself that will forever be missing, or assuage the anguish over a future lost or the guilt for wasting so much time pushing Joel away for loving her too much. So with tears rolling down my face and heavy reluctance in continuing the final confrontation, I begged Ellie to stop fighting. To stop carrying this unnecessary burden that had pushed her forward for so long. This was never what Joel would’ve wanted for her. He didn’t save her life for this.
So for Joel, for Ellie, and for me, I choose to believe the sun soaked beach that has replaced the tumultuous waters of the main menu mean everyone made it out of the darkness and into the light. Battered and bloody, sure, but full of hope at what can still be. Which for Ellie means a happy ending filled with Dina, the Potato, and a left handed guitar.
Ben: Although Ellie’s future is left less clear than Abby’s, I’d like to believe that she found happiness too, and I think that’s a big part of what makes The Last of Us Part II so special: even after experiencing so much tragedy and trauma, there’s still hope for Abby and Ellie, these characters that we’ve grown to love.