The original The Last of Us is an achievement in gaming and a story that I personally will love for years to come. Neil Druckmann, writer for The Last of Us, had his work cut out for him when writing a sequel. The Last of Us Part II does what the first game did, amps it up to 11 and somehow tells an even more compelling story than the masterpiece original already did. It is extremely difficult to review this game without spoilers so, since there are hundreds of spoiler free reviews out there, I am going to go ahead and just spoil the game in my review. If you haven’t played the game yet, stop reading now. This game is worth playing all the way to the end and I would hate to see you robbed of such an incredible and unique experience by reading a review that will not give you the full picture of the game.
Over the last few days, I had a hard time doing anything but playing this game. I am almost sad that it is over. There are only a handful of games that leave me pondering and truly resonate for a long time. The original The Last of Us and God of War are two such examples from the Sony side alone. Red Dead Redemption II from Rockstar Games is another pillar of outstanding game direction with a story that sat with me long after I had completed it. I am amazed and shocked to say that The Last of Us Part II hit me even harder than any of these other games did. I expected a deep narrative but not to be floored by a video game in such a way.
The Last of Us Part II deals with exceptionally heavy themes that really opened my eyes to something new and exciting in a story. From the onset, we get to see Joel telling Tommy exactly what happened in Salt Lake at the end of the original game and how he rampaged through a hospital murdering dozens of people to save Ellie. That decision was insane and unexpected for games, especially in that era of gaming,. It made us question if Joel was actually the villain of the story.
The Last of Us Part II, however, takes that heavy theme of asking whether or not you are the villain to new lengths. In the opening hours we play as both Ellie and Abby and witness as Abby brutally murders Joel right in front of us. This scene is brutal, graphic and gut wrenching. I LOVE Joel and seeing him die was an unexpected and horrifying experience. As I was playing I couldn’t help but feel helpless in my ability to save one of my favorite characters in all of gaming from his gruesome demise. It was legitimately difficult to watch.
Abby is the villain of this tale in the player’s original lens. She is a ruthless murderer who gets pleasure out of the torture of another human being. What makes the story so compelling is the unraveling of just how untrue that is and the fact that Ellie is actually on the lower moral ground of the two. In essence we get to see the journey of a tortured young woman who goes from love-able young teen to a ruthless murderer incapable of seeing anything but her blood lust.
The irony is not lost on me that Abby dealt with a similar ordeal. Her journey was to avenge her father and fellow fireflies who were killed by the original game’s protagonist. The marked difference between the two is that Abby’s revenge only claimed the life of the one who brought her pain. Ellie’s journey however ends up killing all of Abby’s friends and not even killing Abby herself. In her journey to avenge her father figure, she becomes the antagonist that we never wanted to see her become and yet…we still love her.
Who is truly the villain?
About halfway into the game, we get to play as Abby and see her journey leading up to the confrontation with Ellie, Tommy, Dina and Jesse at the theater. Abby’s perspective was longer than I expected but was eye opening. We see a young woman who lost her father around the same age as Ellie when Joel saved her from the Fireflies. A woman who is devoted to her friends and will stop at nothing to save those she cares for. Upon meeting Lev, she moves heaven and earth for the young man. In this way, Abby becomes the new Joel of this story and Lev the new Ellie.
The most gut wrenching and difficult part of the game for me was when we get the confrontation between the two lead characters at the theater. We play as Abby with Ellie as the boss fight. It was the hardest boss fight in the game for me both because it is a bit more challenging and due to the fact that, despite her blood lust, I love Ellie and did not want to harm her.
Even though I had grown to care for Abby and sympathize with her, I also still hadn’t forgiven her for killing Joel either. I honestly let Ellie kill Abby on purpose at least 5 times as some strange sense of video game justice for myself. It was feelings like this that made the story so gripping for me. I cared about Abby and could see the error of Ellie’s ways. Even still, I completely understood why Ellie reacted this way and was still rooting for her over Abby. I have NEVER fought a video game boss and wanted so badly to lose the fight ever before in my life. Luckily Ellie doesn’t end up dying but I was terrified that I as Abby would choke out a character I have grown to love over the years of playing The Last of Us and now Part II.
The gameplay is interesting to me as well. The Last of Us Part II combat isn’t as good as something like the recent Tomb Raider games or even as fun as even the Uncharted games were at times and yet, I think it is perfect for the game. The lack of ammo and the fact that Ellie and Abby aren’t running and gunning with endless regenerating health all add to the tension. I felt stressed and terrified along with the characters because I would be low on ammo/health and fleeing from a group of infected or people.
The tools at your disposal are not ideal which makes each fight challenging and satisfying. Clearing a section of enemies in 100% stealth is not always an easy feet for me as I am not amazing at stealth. When I was able to do so here, it took a mixture of arrows, stealth kills, distraction and more. It immersed me in the world of The Last of Us just as much as the story did. My only minor gripe is that Abby had to craft shivs. In a way it was fitting since she was essentially the new Joel but I truly hated that mechanic and was so happy when it wasn’t a thing with Ellie.
To finish my review, I have to mention pivotal role the music plays in the tone and overarching message of the game. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t add a quick nod to the super fun use of the PlayStation touch pad to strum the guitar in a simulation of playing guitar. Gustavo Santaolalla (composer for The Last of Us Part II) created an ambiance that is unrivaled by using his music to feed into everything. In moments of horror, the score is appropriate. The guitar moments with Ellie and Joel had me in tears each time. Additionally, the music playing in the background of scenes and during gameplay was perfect.
Joel singing “if I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself” rings in my ears in a beautifully peaceful and cathartic way. The song is one of the most touching parts of the story when Joel sings it to Ellie soon after their arrival in Jackson. It also serves as one of the most tragic moments as Ellie plays it a the close of the game without the use of two of her fingers. As a young age, I lost the use of a finger when I was learning to play guitar, In this way, I understand that portion of her struggle and appreciate how perfectly the song fits the story. Ellie does in fact become the antagonist in a lot of ways but ultimately it is because she lost her self in the loss of Joel.
There are dissenting opinions out there and those who think Joel was done a disservice. His death is tragic but made for an outstanding, well written masterpiece. The Last of Us Part II is a depressing tale in many ways but sends a message of what loss and trauma can do to a person. Ellie was so lost in grief and rage that she lost herself and everyone close to her. Her lust for vengeance cost her family. It’s a heart breaking but moving and effective message. In this crazy filled year of 2020, The Last of Us Part II is certainly not a ray of sunshine to your mood but it serves as an incredible escape into a beautiful yet horrifying world created by a superbly talented team at Naughty Dog. Props to all involved and I cannot wait to see what is next from that insanely talented team of developers.
5 out of 5 Couch Cushions!!!