On paper, I fit the fanboy bill. I’ve decreed my love of The Last of Us to not only my gaming friends, but to my parents, wife, and kids, all of whom I’m sure are dying to hear my thoughts on the sequel. I’ve played through the game twice on each of the last two generations of PlayStations. I even dabbled in the vastly underrated multiplayer despite my failed campaign to recruit my friends.
This proves that 1) I need new friends, and 2) I’m a devoted disciple of Naughty Dog’s tale of Joel, Ellie, and Friends.
So then, here’s the short version: The Last of Us Part II is the most disappointing masterpiece I’ve ever played.
It took only a few hours to realize the story would not meet my expectations. It is most definitely not the Continuing Adventures of Joel and Ellie. The cast of playable characters has grown, and the familiar faces, though present, are haunted by events old and new. Ellie is as tougher than ever, but mostly gone is that wonderful mix of adolescent sass and deadly resolve. What’s left is joyless and alienated.
The Last of Us Part II is the most disappointing masterpiece I’ve ever played.
Set 5 years after the events of the first game, this is somewhat understandable. Ellie is 19 now, well past when we watched her change from child-in-distress to the young woman defending a fallen Joel from infected… and worse.
The Last of Us Part II drags players through that space—the “worse”—the muck and vile inside of us. Some players aren’t thrilled about the experience, and I’m not convinced it’s just the stress of COVID fatigue and the election year.
Players, myself included, wanted to see the aftermath of Joel’s actions and his lie to Ellie. In the final act of the first game, Joel finally finds the Fireflies at a hospital in Salt Like City, albeit while Ellie is unconscious from her wounds. They explain to him that they can use her immunity to explore a vaccine, at the cost of her life. Joel instead rolls with Plan B: kill them all, save Ellie, and to hell with everyone else. A world without Ellie wasn’t worth saving. Knowing she’d have been perfectly willing to die in service of finding a vaccine, and fearing Ellie won’t be on board with the decision he made, Joel lies, saying that her immunity was commonplace and of no use in finding a vaccine. The final moments saw her questioning his story and him doubling down on that lie.
I had so many questions! Does she believe him? Will he tell her, or will she just figure it out? Can she forgive him? Will she?
And yes, we get the answers to those questions, but only after being knocked down and pulled through a painful story that made me question my reasons for enduring it.
At a recent panel discussion, director Neil Druckmann said, “If the first game was really about the love between these two characters, this story is the counter of that… This story is about hate.”
He wasn’t fucking kidding.
The Easy Part
Mechanically, the game takes everything fun about the original and makes it better. You can crawl through more varied cover and shoot from a prone position. Enemies don’t just die; they scream, and their friends react (“Nooo, Rob!” and “Oh my God!”). The upgrade system has more depth and more interesting choices. You have more options for crafting. Clickers are more deadly due to the use of proper echolocation. New enemies abound, and all of them are smarter. They even managed to make lock-picking interesting by providing two ways to open safes: find the combination, or rotate the dial until you hear juuuuust the right click for each of three numbers.
As with its predecessor, deaths are grisly and visceral. It’s not just the blood and exploding heads, though there’s plenty of that. When you strangle a hunter or stab a runner in the temple, your character’s face changes to a mask of hatred and exertion. The original was no slouch with mo-cap technology, but Naughty Dog still found ways to improve it.
If anyone from ND reads this, please give your audio engineers a bonus. Open someone’s artery and you hear blood squirt and spatter onto the ground. Rain patters on clothes and rooftops. Clickers practically retch as they try to echolocate you.
Then again, Naughty Dog games are known for their story at least as much as their gameplay. They did not deliver the story I wanted.
The Messy Part
The Last of Us was brutal and dark. The prologue alone shattered my manhood and forced dust particles into both of my eyes at the same time. Even so, the trajectory was for the most part up. Joel faced his grief, Ellie learned how to survive and trust him, and they built a future together, however troubled. Characters died and suffered, but the tone was always one of recovery for Joel and Ellie. It was their story, and I finished the game loving and fearing for them both.
Not so in Part II. As the story begins (once again, 5 years-or-so after the end of the last game), Joel and Ellie have settled into the Jackson community with Joel’s brother, Tommy. Life is pretty good. They have electricity, schools, and a form of government that doesn’t execute its citizens. Local patrols keep the infected and occasional unsavory humans at bay, though Joel is reluctant to allow the now 19-year old Ellie to take part. While they’re on speaking terms, even socializing from time to time, it’s clear their relationship remains strained: partially because of his protectiveness but mostly due to her simmering resentment at Joel’s implausible lie about what really happened at the hospital.
The first few hours of the game are all about establishing the routine of life in Jackson. You play through a patrol with Joel and Tommy. Ellie wakes up after a party, hung over and wondering why on earth she let Dina kiss her when Dina just broke up with her boyfriend for the 15th time. Yes, Ellie is a lesbian and she’s been nursing a crush on Dina for some time, but Ellie’s more concerned about trying to convince Joel and leadership that she’s up to the task of patrolling the wilderness.
So far, so good. Next, Ellie will convince Joel to go out on patrol, and they’ll have to confront the shadows in their past while facing a new threat, right?
I wasn’t ready for where this story would take me. I had my suspicions about certain dark turns, but still… I was not ready.
Ellie is front-and-center of the story, which would’ve been easier to accept if she weren’t relatively unpleasant. Gone are most of her charm and humor. To be fair, I could argue she lost all of that in the “Winter” episode of Part I, when she was forced to slaughter a small town’s worth of villains to save Joel and then nearly raped by a goddamn cannibal, but I couldn’t help missing Ellie-of-old.
It makes sense that Ellie is alienated. It makes sense her experiences have scarred her. It makes sense that her conversations with Joel are sometimes painfully awkward and buckling under the weight of things left unsaid.
The game I wanted—or thought I did—shows their journey back to honesty and forgiveness while they kill their way through a new crop of assholes and infected. Well… new assholes and infected are aplenty, but Joel and Ellie Ride Again isn’t a story Naughty Dog thought worth telling, at least not in a literal sense. My reaction to this was a mixture of anxiety, resentment, and fear.
I chose to play on, deciding to trust the team that created this franchise, Uncharted, and… uh … Crash Bandicoot.
The Spoilery Part
NOTE THE OMINOUS RED TEXT AND THE WORD “SPOILERY,” WHICH MEANS “OF OR PERTAINING TO SPOILERS.”
I deliberately avoided any and all coverage of Part II after watching the first teaser. I had no reason to learn more because I knew I would buy the game and didn’t want to diminish my experience. Plot elements without context can make any story sound terrible, especially when they deviate from our expectations.
Ignorance aside, I was reasonably sure Joel would expire early. Naughty Dog put little energy into hiding this fact, as Joel’s behavior in that trailer only makes sense if he’s only present in Ellie’s head. Playing Abby for the first time, when Joel was still alive, I sensed she’d be Joel’s undoing. Yet like many, I wasn’t prepared to watch her torture Joel before crushing his skull with a golf club while Ellie is made to watch. Listening and watching Ellie as she sobs and begs for Joel’s life, seeing Abby’s smug hatred as she delivered the coup de grace… I hadn’t seen a TV screen so blurry since Joel’s daughter died in the first game’s prologue. Except this wasn’t just grief, this was helpless panic and anger, as if I was Ellie with my head pinned to the floor, struggling to breathe.
What the holy hell is this? It’s been 5 years since the hospital and Joel and Ellie’s relationship still hasn’t fully recovered from the fallout! How the fuck can she forgive him when he’s dead? Not just dead, but unceremoniously dispatched by the very person he just helped! This game teases us with a moment of Joel singing, then the curtain falls on him completely. It ceases to be their story, and what we get instead is First Blood: Ellie Edition. No forgiveness for Joel, no snarky dialogue, no jokes about Bill’s overeating and pornography habit.
Worse, mid-way I was forced to play Abby, the game now announcing its intent to make me feel like excrement for wanting to kill Abby and all of her friends.
I see what you’re doing, Naughty Dog, and I don’t like it. I wasn’t on board with the pure revenge story, and I’m even less on board with the “Get to Know 5-Iron Abby” one.
By the time Joel and Ellie were visiting a museum in a flashback, I was no longer in the mood to appreciate it. At the time, it almost felt sadistic. Joel was dead and here I am, trapped in a game that makes me feel bad for his death and then even worse for wanting revenge. It felt a little like getting punched in the balls and then kicked in the face, only I paid $60 for the privilege. I wasn’t hating the game, but I definitely wasn’t loving it, either, and anything less than adoration felt like disappointment.
Except… I don’t remember exactly when I turned the corner.
It definitely wasn’t that first day in Seattle, which despite the presence of Dina—Ellie’s generous, complex love interest, who tags along on her friend’s reckless roaring rampage of revenge—was the weakest part of the game. As much as I love the element of exploration in this franchise, the small open world area chafed against the supposed urgency of Operation Vengeance. I felt like I was in that ruin forever because I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss upgrades and ammo, even if I was uncomfortable with delaying the mission.
It definitely wasn’t when we learned the reason why Abby was so thirsty for Joel’s blood. Did anyone feel bad for Doctor Dad? He made his bed, and I loved Ellie as much as Joel did, so he can go rot. I shot him in the face in each of my four play-throughs of the first game and felt good doing it.
It also wasn’t when Abby died due to my mixed playing skills, which happened often and early. That’s what you get, Abby! If I kill you during a flashback and quit, that means Joel lives and you get exactly what you deserve. HA!
I may not know when, but I know why. The game shows you the human side of every character, and it doesn’t flinch. Abby wears a mask of sadism while she murders Joel, and when we play her during the immediate aftermath, she’s cold, distant, and unlikable. As much as I hated her, it’s clear Abby’s unraveling, Joel’s murder having failed to bring her any peace. It eventually becomes clear that even Abby hates Abby, which makes her relatable and suddenly had me pulling for her a little bit. Joel’s murder slowly edged a little further away, like a bad dream, or like someone other than Abby had done the deed. The Abby I was playing suddenly seemed incapable of having done the thing that made me hate her in the first place.
Joel, Ellie, Abby, Tommy, Lev, Marlene. All of them have done terrible things, but does this make them terrible people? I hated Abby when it was easy, when my only knowledge of her was what she did to Joel. I don’t know if I forgave her, exactly, but I understood it. Anyone viewed through the lens of one awful act without context has no humanity and so is easy to hate. The Last of Us Part II rarely, if ever, gives us that luxury. I ended up loving this game precisely because it dropped the revenge trope into a minefield and invited me to swim in it.
Druckmann’s statement about this game being about hate was only half true. It’s also about forgiveness. Ellie’s boundless anger goes beyond just losing Joel—she also forever loses any opportunity to fully reconcile with him. At least some of her anger toward Abby is meant for herself, and the quest for vengeance serves more accurately as a distraction from that grief.
In the end, it still very much feels like Ellie and Joel’s story, in that order. Near the end of the game, another flashback shows Joel and Ellie discussing what happened at the hospital. Ellie admits to Joel that she wants to forgive him, but doesn’t know how or even if it’s possible. It was a touching, poignant scene—one that I desperately wanted and needed. It also reminds us that Joel’s presence permeates the game despite his absence.
As for the last quarter of the game, I cannot overstate my anxiety while playing it. It was insane, hunting Ellie, breaking her arm, beating her so badly that she choked on her blood. I screamed at the game to stop even as I mashed the X button. What kind of madman writes a story that makes me take sides in a fight where I empathize with both characters?
Madman, genius… it’s a blurry line, but I joined Naughty Dog on the other side of that line and I have no regrets. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will never doubt Naughty Dog again.
Why I’ll Play It Again and Again (Back to Spoiler-Free)
WHICH YOU CAN TELL BECAUSE OF THE CHEERY, WELCOMING GREEN.
I’m glad I did choose to keep playing, because as I did, the resentment cooled. I finished the game exhausted and emotionally spent, my fear and anxiety having yielded to a strange, soothing melancholy.
It was as if I’d at first found the story’s waters too bitter, but was so parched that I guzzled it down anyway, gagging as I did so. Over time, however, the bitterness gave way to bittersweet, and the water I’d thought I’d wanted now sounds bland and tasteless. Ok, so maybe it’s Kool-Aid instead of water, but if that makes me wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
It’s not a perfect game. Day 1 in Seattle drags a bit due to some ill-advised dabbling with open-world design, which runs counter to the supposed urgency of your current objective. The game’s secondary characters are decent enough, but none are as memorable as Tess or Bill from the original. Part II also excels at making you feel bad, even more so that its predecessor. The game drains you. It makes you feel hate, but then makes you regret the actions taken in the name of that hate. Not everyone will be willing to endure the cognitive dissonance.
This is only a drawback for those who play games purely to escape from negative emotions. The strength of a drama hinges on its ability to make us feel the entire emotional catalog, ugly ones included most of all. The Last of Us Part II starts simple, with hate, but soon scatters that feeling like sunlight hitting a prism. It dispelled my early disappointment over the course of an incredibly long and gratifying 30-hour playtime.
You’ve likely read the hate about this game, though a fair share of that started with people reading half-true spoilers without context and never bothering to experience the game. I have trouble seeing how anyone who actually plays this game could continue hating it. Bigots will hate it because of a couple key LGBTQ+ plot points, but as with all effective portrayals, sexuality is incidental to their overall characterizations. The characters feel like people who happen to be LGBTQ+ rather than token characters manufactured to push an LGBTQ+ agenda.
LGBTQ+ issues are also not new to the franchise. In Part I, Bill’s “partner” turns out to be his life partner, and in the Left Behind DLC, Ellie becomes romantically involved with her doomed girlfriend, Riley. It’s not something they shoehorned in at this late hour to satisfy some agenda. If anything, the irate “fans” condemning the game without playing it are the ones with an agenda.
Druckmann, when pressed to elaborate on his “this is a game about hate” comments, responded, “No one loves these characters more than we do.” I believe him. I look forward to replaying this game and once again drinking from its bittersweet well, even if it leaves me depressed for days afterward. I suspect that I’m sad more because the game is over than because of the dark content, anyway. Only during the final few hours of the game did it occur to me that I had just experienced a masterpiece, and I can never again experience it for the first time.
Some will fault the story for the tardiness of that realization, but I fault my expectations. Many great stories—Inception, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so on—withhold their brilliance until the end. Our mind rejects them because they are foreign bodies in an immune system conditioned to accept the familiar. Storywise, almost nothing in The Last of Us Part II can be called familiar, but anyone expecting this franchise to make them feel safe hasn’t been paying attention.
Explain to Jay how wrong he is at jasondobry@Tap-Repeatedly.com.