“Fuckin’ video games,” a character sighs halfway through Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II.
One can’t help but agree with the exasperated, self-aware sentiment. Fuckin’ video games indeed!
The Last of Us 2 is a game that demands conflicted feelings. It engenders adoration for the brilliant graphics, compelling acting, and substantial gameplay. But the story made me feel utterly miserable, even if I really admire it.
The least subtle game in history, The Last of Us 2 feels like a golf club to the head. The game that's caused stress nightmares made me love its ambition, but I sort of hate it for the emotional labor involved.
Extensive spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II follow.
In the first Last of Us, protagonists Joel and Ellie feel like real people in a dismal world where the Cordyceps brain infection wiped out most of the population. Society has crumbled. Zombies are everywhere. Ellie, who’s immune to the virus, is the key to developing a vaccine, but the vaccine would kill her. So Joel murders dozens of people to save Ellie. The game doesn’t cast judgment on his choice, so we’re left to answer this moral question ourselves: Did Joel do the right thing?
The price we all pay for Joel’s sentiment is The Last of Us Part II, which metes out the consequences of the first game’s perfect ending.
A brilliant, surprising story with hollow characters
The sequel steps back into this world five years later when a moody, adult Ellie embarks on a quest for revenge to the ruins of Seattle after a new character named Abby murders Joel with a gold club while Ellie watches.
The Last of Us 2 starts out as a revenge story, but spends an exhausting 24 hours of gameplay trying to convince us that this is not supposed to be fun. Joel killed Abby's father at the end of the first game, and then we’re asked to play as Abby for the second half of this one. Last of Us 2 is her revenge story in equal measure.
These shocking, broad strokes were the focus of a devastating batch of leaks that surfaced in April. At face value, it seems infuriating: A total stranger kills our hero from the first game, and then we’re supposed to play as her for 12 hours!?
Those seemingly divisive narrative choices produce a result that’s brilliant. Even if the parallels drawn between these characters are about as subtle as Abby’s 7-iron, they’re still artfully done.
Over the course of the game, Ellie grows more enraged. She’ll later growl obscenities like “Eat shit…!” at a woman whose throat she’s just slit. Ellie is so consumed by violent revenge that she’d blindly risk, and spend, the lives of her friends.
Hailing from a Seattle community where everyone is supremely kind, particularly to dogs, Abby embarks on an overlapping adventure where an innocent teenager helps quell her simmering rage and restore a sense of humanity. We’re meant to see the obvious mirror to Joel and Ellie’s dynamic in The Last of Us. Abby is also a super-buff badass who spent three solid years power-lifting in the Seahawks’ workout room. (Really. The Washington Liberation Front is headquartered in a stadium.)
Both of these women are enraged by the trauma that's happened to them in life, justifiably so.
The big picture gets more compelling the longer you stare it, but the characters seem to lose depth as this franchise continues.
Ellie, Joel, and other Last of Us characters feel “real” because of their nuanced array of emotions. Their decisions are sometimes astonishing, but they’re always believable. Most characters in The Last of Us 2 feel one-note by comparison. Even if characters look more realistic than ever, they often don’t feel like it.
Engaging gameplay, short on innovation
The Last of Us 2 has developer Naughty Dog’s signature polish, but it all feels a bit outdated despite the beauty rendered in the pixels. There’s very little that feels innovative in the gameplay.
There are new guns, characters, weapons, and enemies to fight. But the core loop of looting and shooting before squeezing through some crack in the wall gets repetitive when trapped on the railroaded plot. Last of Us 2 is a pretty game, but it by the end, you just want it to be over.
There are moments that represent a leap forward for video game storytelling, even for a AAA title. For instance, you’ll spend much of Ellie’s first day in Seattle entirely on horseback, exploring a small “open-world” area of the city. You’re given a map and the freedom to wander, which felt like a genuine surprise. There are ruins to be combed through, letters and notes full of lore to discover, and even a shotgun tucked away in a bank.
It’s a shame that after a few short hours of exploring, your horse is blown to smithereens by a landmine. Thus ends the wandering.
Had The Last of Us Part 2 committed to an open-world concept or more diversity in the action sequences, or better characterization, it may have truly been a perfect game. Naughty Dog plays it a bit too safe, investing all the creative energy into the plot.
This meditation on the cycle of violence is just too heavy
Game Director Neil Druckmann has repeatedly said The Last of Us 2 is “about the cycle of violence” and intends to leave the player feeling “repulsed by some of the violence they are committing themselves.” The sense of horror we feel is exacerbated when the leveled-up graphics and state-of-the-art motion capture work make the violence that much more visceral.
Experiencing this world through Ellie and Abby’s dual perspectives challenges us to think more deeply about the violence we perpetuate in video games. By slowly revealing Abby’s backstory as an unapologetic, brave woman, we sympathize with the enemy, more so in the moments where The Last of Us 2 gives a name and a history for almost every single enemy — even the dogs.
Similar to stories like Star Wars: The Last Jedi that buck fan expectations and tear down our heroes, The Last of Us 2 drags players outside of their comfort zones so they can grow and see the world from more diverse perspectives.
Even when The Last Of Us 2 makes you uncomfortable, it’s worthwhile.
Most of the game’s harshest critics discuss unlikable characters unable to grow or reckon with the consequences of their actions. That’s frustrating when we remember the nuance of the first game, where compelling character arcs made Joel and Ellie feel larger than life. Instead of taking this approach to character arcs, Part 2’s narrative arc forces us to grow and change instead.
This unconventional narrative winds up feeling like a cautionary tale or parable about the cycle of violence that’s so exhaustive and repetitive in its refrain that I can’t help but wonder: Is the journey worth it?
The answer is yes, because The Last of Us 2 is a must-play game, but you’ll probably only want to play it once. 8/10.
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