Upon its 2013 release, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us proved to be a tremendous hit with fans and critics alike. It proceeded to receive awards from nearly every conceivable outlet with one journalist considering it gaming’s Citizen Kane moment. Emboldened by the success of this game, series creator Neil Druckmann and the rest of Naughty Dog began working on a sequel in 2014. As development proceeded, Naughty Dog also provided gamers with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The former provided a sendoff to series protagonist Nathan Drake whereas the latter continued the story with two prominent female characters. Both games were well-received and cemented Naughty Dog as one of the most beloved American developers in the process. With the sequel to The Last of Us announced in 2016, fans eagerly awaited what Mr. Druckmann and his team had to offer.
Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, the development process would prove to be less than uneventful. While Mr. Druckmann had previously encountered tremendous difficulties on his path to bringing his artistic visions into reality, it was nothing compared to what was about to occur. The troubles began brewing as early as the very year they began work on the game. In March of 2014, it came to light that the creative director of the first three Uncharted installments, Amy Henning, had left Naughty Dog alongside game director Justin Richmond. One article from IGN speculated that they had been forced out of the company, citing how it coincided with Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley’s subsequent replacement of their respective positions. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra released statements, clarifying that neither of them had anything to do with the departure of Ms. Henning or Mr. Richmond.
The controversy eventually subsided, and the fans continued to await the sequel to The Last of Us. Shortly after the release of The Lost Legacy in 2017, the first trailers for this sequel surfaced. Fans were now more excited than ever – particularly after the game became slated for a release in September of 2019. However, history repeated itself – this time, in the worst way possible. Jason Schreier, writing for Kotaku, wrote a report that revealed Naughty Dog’s intensive crunch schedule wherein 12-hour workdays was the standard. Many people concluded that Naughty Dog had been exploiting their programmers’ passion, and soon enough, the company gained a bad reputation in Los Angeles County for up-and-coming programmers. With its staff unable to bear working such untenable hours, the company had a 70% turnover rate. Although several other sources claimed such a thing was not unheard of in the industry, this caused many of Naughty Dog’s fans to turn on them.
Because of these harsh working conditions, the game found itself delayed yet again – this time to 2020. Naughty Dog assured fans the game would be released by that year’s summer, but then a disaster the likes of which humankind hadn’t experienced in nearly a century occurred. In late 2019, a coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 had broken out in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. Being highly infectious and capable of causing severe damage to one’s respiratory system, everyone on the planet not employed by an essential business soon found themselves under lockdown the following March. Unemployment skyrocketed and the ensuing stock market crash was likened to the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of the year, over one-million people had lost their lives to the virus. It would eventually be considered the single worst pandemic in recorded history since the influenza outbreak of 1918.
In response to logistical problems caused by the virus, Naughty Dog opted to delay the game once more – this time indefinitely. By this point, fans were beginning to lose patience with Naughty Dog. It would seem that the game was not to surface for quite some time. However, an undesirable development forced their hand. In April of 2020, key details of the game’s story were leaked onto the internet. Although it was initially dismissed as a hoax, the leaks were quickly confirmed as the genuine article.
A few days after these leaks occurred, Naughty Dog announced the game had gone gold. Discs could now be manufactured for a slated release date of June 19, 2020. Many fans were excited about getting their hands on the game sooner than expected, but it was clear the leaks had taken the wind out of Naughty Dog’s sails. Regardless, the game, simply titled The Last of Us Part II, quickly amassed a level of acclaim rivaling – and in some circles, surpassing – that of the original. Many of them considered it the first true masterpiece of the 2020s. Facing delays, internal problems, and a worldwide pandemic along the road to seeing the light of day, was The Last of Us Part II truly able to surpass the acclaim of the original game and truly tap into the medium’s storytelling potential?
Playing the Game
WARNING: This entire review will contain unmarked spoilers for The Last of Us Part II and the series thus far.
September 26th, 2013 – the day civilization collapsed. A mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus began to spread throughout the United States, infecting countless humans. Those infected would lose their higher brain functions, becoming hyperaggressive predators not unlike zombies from popular folklore. It is estimated that 60% of humanity lost their lives to the infection.
Twenty years after the outbreak, a revolutionary militia group calling themselves the Fireflies revolted against the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) with one goal in mind: to find a cure for the infection. Hope appeared to present itself in the form of a young girl named Ellie, who was miraculously immune to the infection. To transfer Ellie from a quarantine zone in Boston to Salt Lake City, the Fireflies’ leader, Marlene, enlisted the help of a smuggler named Joel. Joel and Ellie successfully navigated the country after many trials and tribulations. However, upon reaching the Fireflies’ base, Joel was informed that Ellie would need to be euthanized to develop the vaccine. Unwilling to accept this outcome, Joel fought his way through the Fireflies’ base, killing their leader and escaping with Ellie in the process.
Four years have passed since then, and both Joel and Ellie are making a new life for themselves in Jackson, Wyoming. Their relationship has become strained over the years, but they live in relative peace. Unbeknownst to them, a young woman named Abby Anderson arrives in Jackson. Her unexpected visit is destined to shake the community to its core.
It is through this sudden change in perspective that the player is formally introduced to the game mechanics. The Last of Us Part II plays as something of a cross between a survival horror game and a third-person shooter. In broad strokes, the game plays very similarly to the seminal Resident Evil 4 in how it combines action and horror elements into a single, cohesive experience. It would be ill-advised to play the game like Resident Evil 4, however. Not only is ammunition scarce, you cannot hold onto many bullets at a given time. You can get ammunition from dead enemies or in the abandoned buildings you explore, but a trigger-happy approach will cause you to drain your resources very quickly.
Much like Joel, Abby can elect to punch enemies rather than expend ammunition. There is a risk/reward system to this approach because while the game does not feature a stamina meter like Dark Souls to limit physical attacks, getting close to the infected exposes your character to their strongest attacks. You can press “L1” to dodge attacks, but it is still fairly dangerous, as a given encounter can become highly chaotic. Then again, you may not have much of a choice because attempting to engage enemies with firearms at close range is quite difficult. Sure, you can fall back on the shotgun, but even one wasted bullet or shell has the potential to hinder your run in the long term.
Eventually, control of the game shifts to Ellie. As is implied by the cover art, she is the protagonist of the game. It is when the player gains control of her that role-playing elements are injected into the gameplay. By consuming supplements found within the various former dwellings, you can improve Ellie’s overall combat performance. In this game, upgrades exist within five different branches and have five tiers each. The branches typically have a theme to them such as stealth or combat abilities, and the upgrades themselves must be taken in order. That is to say, even if you have enough supplements to obtain the fifth upgrade in a branch, you cannot take it until you go through the first four. Upgrades can be anything from increasing Ellie’s carrying capacity to giving her more health.
Ellie can also find materials capable of upgrading her weapons. Weapon upgrades are performed at workbenches. These upgrades take the form of new stocks to improve stability or extended magazines to increase a firearm’s clip size. Perhaps the most notable upgrade would be a scope she can place on her bolt-action rifle. This turns the weapon into an improved sniper rifle, allowing her to take down targets from afar. Initially, she can equip one rifle and one pistol at a given time. If she can find a holster, she can equip an additional weapon. All other weapons are stored in her backpack along with any collectables she may find.
It’s important to know that the game primarily functions in real time. Ellie could very easily get accosted while visiting a workbench or searching through her backpack, and the various threats she faces won’t wait for her to patch herself up after being injured. This means gives incentive to the player to plan out these encounters carefully. If the enemy is unaware of Ellie’s presence, you can take advantage of that to craft improvised weapons such as Molotov cocktails or set up traps for them. On the other hand, if Ellie does get their attention, you better be good at thinking on your feet, because there is no going back.
Anyone who read my review of The Last of Us may find this general summary of the gameplay suspiciously familiar. You wouldn’t be alone; when this game was released, certain fans criticized Mr. Druckmann and his team for recycling their ideas. It’s not an entirely unfair criticism. Naughty Dog had proven an uwillingness to take risks with the Uncharted series and, for the most part, the same applied to the original The Last of Us.
However, I have to say that this particular criticism was overblown. Although Naughty Dog didn’t stray far from what they knew, the gameplay of The Last of Us Part II does manage to be a marked improvement over that of the original. One of the biggest problems I had with original game concerned a particular type of infected called a clicker. These creatures made playing the game extremely irritating, as they possessed the ability to kill Joel instantly if they grabbed him. The idea was that, due to their blindness and superhuman hearing, you had to be quiet around them. Supposedly, they were meant to evoke a bat finding its way around using echolocation, which is not how that works, as it didn’t explain why they couldn’t find Joel when he was walking right up to them. Regardless, they made for irksome foes because the player inevitably encountered many situations in which it was impossible to be quiet around them. You would be doing just fine fighting an infected horde until you accidentally bumped into a clicker, thus forcing you back to the last checkpoint. Joel could later expend shivs to fatally stab the clickers grabbing him. However, this took the form of a quick-time event, meaning you could still get caught off-guard and miss the window when fighting a swarm.
The Last of Us Part II fixes this by making clickers far more manageable. While they can still kill Ellie in a single attack, she, unlike Joel, has her trusty switchblade at her disposal. As it has infinite uses, you do not have to worry about having one at a given time in order to take them down. Even better, killing them doesn’t alert other clickers, so as long as Ellie doesn’t get their attention through other means, she can take them down one by one. This is greatly appreciated because while The Last of Us Part II does retain Naughty Dog’s signature trial-and-error design ethos, they did successfully lend a sense of fair play to the proceedings. All it took was one simple fix. In the original game, this was so bad, it ruined the suspension of disbelief, making Joel come across as clairvoyant. Here, what Ellie has to survive never quite reaches that level because most situations allow her and, by extension, you to parse a situation before plunging headfirst into things.
In fact, if you approach conflicts the same way playing as Ellie as you did with Joel, you will likely lead her straight to her death. This is because Ellie, while a hardened survivor in her own right, isn’t as durable as Joel. This can be observed as you attempt to upgrade her combat performance. Unlike Joel, she can only upgrade her health once, and despite being proficient with her switchblade, doesn’t handle herself well in melee combat.
Instead, you are greatly encouraged to pick off enemies from a distance when playing as Ellie. The environments in which Ellie finds herself often have tall grass. Going prone in tall grass allows her to hide from enemies. As a sufficiently loud sound will immediately alert enemies to Ellie’s presence, you will often find yourself guiding her in and out of cover, taking advantage of the chaos to catch them off guard. Later on in the game, you gain the ability to craft pistol silencers to make these covert kills that much easier to pull off. You can also have Ellie toss explosives and plant proximity mines to take out enemies. Although it doesn’t exactly sound subtle, you can take solace in that the forces you face lack the organization of any real-world militia due to the post-apocalyptic setting rendering basic logistics a luxury. In other words, you can count on your explosions not to trigger an alert phase like in Metal Gear.
Although this too sounds like retreading old ground, I find myself giving credit to Mr. Druckmann and his team because the crafting system has been significantly improved. In the original game, I would find myself with an excess of sugar because they could only be used to create smoke bombs. Because you couldn’t use non-lethal methods to take out enemies, smoke bombs were essentially useless. On my first playthrough of The Last of Us, I used them exactly once to help Joel evade a sniper. No other situations in which they could be useful presented themselves. Alternatively, they had plenty of applicability, but because a non-lethal explosive doesn’t make an especially great case for itself in a game that forces the player character to kill everyone, I wound up resolving them all through sheer brute force.
No, in The Last of Us Part II, I actually found a use for most of what Ellie can craft. As the game progressed, I would try out weapons I hadn’t originally used only to be impressed with how effective they turned out to be. The proximity mines in particular are great for taking out enemies in one fell swoop without alerting any stragglers to Ellie’s position. The only real exception were the stun bombs, which didn’t see much use much like the smoke bombs before them. An improvised flashbang does sound handy, but in most cases, Molotov cocktails get the job done faster. However, I don’t think they were useless; they just didn’t find a way into my playing style. You can even upgrade them later to dispense smoke, which I think was a smart move because it ensures they’re not overly situational.
These are all nice touches, but I feel the most significant improvement The Last of Us Part II brings to the table would be its level design. Ellie’s journey eventually brings her to the city of Seattle, which is currently in the midst of a civil war between two factions: the WLF (Washington Liberation Front) and the Seraphites. The WLF is composed of ex-Fireflies who previously rebelled against FEDRA. They succeeded in driving away FEDRA out of Seattle but at the cost of imposing a tyrannical rule over the city. Standing opposite them are the Seraphites. They are a religious cult operating under a Luddite code that rejects the old world’s technology. Naturally, this doesn’t stop them from using said technology when sticking to the code becomes a little too inconvenient.
One of the biggest problems with The Last of Us was that, much like Uncharted 3 before it, its level design had a very stream-of-consciousness vibe to it. None of the areas were fleshed out especially well, coming across as a little more than mundane areas with a zombie apocalypse flavor. I appreciate that was the point, but it came at the cost of making the stages rather forgettable.
This isn’t a problem with The Last of Us Part II. Thanks to the game primarily taking place in Seattle, the level design is significantly more cohesive. Because of this, the world has a grander feeling to it once you’ve seen everything the narrative has to throw at you. In this regard, I find myself likening the level design to that of Metal Gear Solid 3 or Resident Evil 4 in how its protagonist is made to wander a linear path through a large world. This allows the world to constantly build on itself, making the experience of exploring it that much more memorable.
While I do think the gameplay of The Last of Us Part II is an improvement to the point of actually being fun at times, it still possesses a distinct lack of polish characteristic of Naughty Dog’s output. One of the biggest problems I had sneaking around as Ellie was that she lacked a consistent means of diverting an enemy’s attention. I would often find myself in situations in which I needed the enemy to turn around, but most of the time, I had nothing I could use to make them look away. Ellie can do this by hurling a brick or bottle onto the field. As she can only hold one of either item at a time, this method is not reliable.
This is especially glaring when you consider Metal Gear Solid 2, a game that predates The Last of Us Part II by nineteen years, allowed players to throw empty gun magazines to divert an enemy’s attention. The protagonist of that game was indeed allowed to hold much more than one. Granted, Ellie doesn’t exactly possess Raiden’s uncannily large carrying capacity, but if the designers wanted to keep things realistic, they could have allowed her to throw rocks or debris from the ruined buildings instead. Many installments within the Far Cry franchise afforded their protagonists an infinite supply of rocks to throw for that exact purpose. The desire to keep things grounded in The Last of Us Part II fall flat when you realize Ellie can hold three Molotov cocktails, but only one empty bottle. It doesn’t make sense for the developers to cite realism when the limitations they impose are so arbitrary.
I feel it is also worth mentioning that just the act of exploring the game can get annoying as well. Early on, you are presented with something rather uncharacteristic for a Naughty Dog game – an open-world stage. It did have a precedent in The Lost Legacy, but because The Last of Us Part II is a much longer game, it encompasses a significantly smaller portion of the experience. It may seem kind of pointless considering the rest of the game encourages looking around for supplies when it is completely linear as well, but I find it does add to the experience. Not only are there many unique items to find such as a second gun holster, you can trigger several optional cutscenes to gain further insight into Ellie’s character. It’s a nice change of pace given what little impact player choices have on the average Naughty Dog game.
While I admire the team wanting to deviate from their usual design ethos, they didn’t quite grasp the basic necessities required to make this variety of gameplay work. To be fair, Ellie does carry a map and marks points of interest off accordingly once she has found everything. The problem is that the map doesn’t display onscreen in a miniaturized form during gameplay. If you want to look at the map, you must hold down the touchpad for a few seconds. If you simply press the touchpad, Ellie begins rummaging through her backpack instead. This resulted in me mixing up the two actions several times.
The miniature map is an incredibly basic feature that has been around since at least 1998 with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, so why The Last of Us Part II couldn’t implement it in 2020, I do not know. It could have been to preserve the trademark minimalistic interface, but there comes a point when you need to realize your ideas aren’t going to work in every situation. Admittedly, a miniature map wouldn’t be necessary for a majority of the experience, but seeing a team that claimed to be on the bleeding edge of game design and interactive storytelling make such a rudimentary error was shocking.
One significant point in this section’s favor is that it clearly marks where the plot will be advanced. Sadly, the rest of the game isn’t always so forthcoming with this information. When you are playing this game, don’t be surprised if you’re checking out a door or set piece only to have contrivances throw Ellie headfirst into the next story beat. If this happens, you generally can’t go back to the previous section to find what you missed, as the game automatically saves between major story beats. It is possible to manually save and reload if you get blindsided by the game railroading Ellie, but this shouldn’t have been necessary.
Admittedly, there are plenty of good games that feature several points of no return. The difference between successful examples and The Last of Us Part II concerns player agency. The Last of Us Part II is not designed in a way that encourages the player to save on their own due to frequently saving automatically. This is because, with one significant exception, it is a strictly linear experience. If it placed a larger emphasis on exploration, players would be more likely to save on their own because that degree of freedom puts the onus on them to make their own decisions. With how it is presented, The Last of Us Part II makes every significant decision for the player while also punishing them for not thinking for themselves. Strictly speaking, it’s not possible to make the game unwinnable, but missing out on significant upgrades because the one spot on the map designed to advance the plot isn’t labeled clearly enough can make surviving much harder than it needs to be.
Despite all of these minor issues, I still think The Last of Us Part II is a well-designed game overall. Combat has this very cutthroat feeling to it that makes surviving the various situations exciting in a way the previous game couldn’t match. You do get the sense that one false step will result in Ellie’s death. It’s a little more forgiving than it appears because you can lose enemies if you’re being swarmed, so you’re not punished too much for your mistakes. Even so, it’s not a method you can rely on, and I think the staff did a reasonably good job balancing the survival aspects without dipping into what made the original game a tedious slog.
Analyzing the Story
To say there was outrage when the plot of The Last of Us Part II leaked onto the internet in April of 2020 would be a grand understatement. What was in those leaks that could inspire so much anger? The answer can be summed up in two words: Joel dies.
And unlike every other instance of Joel dying in The Last of Us, this one doesn’t result in the player getting sent back to the most recent checkpoint. No, the killer, possessing the ability to remove plot armor from former protagonists, is playing for keeps. As it would take an extreme amount of deliberate, self-imposed blindness to assume enthusiasts were purely upset about Joel dying, there is obviously much more to the backlash than that.
Naughty Dog, knowingly or not, had placed themselves in a no-win situation regarding Joel’s survival. This is because up until The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog had been fiercely protective of their leads – even if killing them off would have made for a richer story. They never exactly created anything as unpredictable as the original Modern Warfare; even in the incredibly bleak The Last of Us, you could count on the characters you control to survive to the end. To be fair, The Last of Us did throw a slight curveball by killing off Sarah – the very first character you assume of, but this was highly ineffective due to her conspicuous absence from the cover art. As there is a young girl on the cover situated in the foreground who isn’t Sarah, the logical conclusion to draw is that she would be killed off for cheap, easy pathos.
On the other hand, the idea of Joel dying also didn’t have much of a potential to be surprising either. As The Last of Us managed to exhibit a much more nihilistic edge than anything Naughty Dog had created before, the most obvious way to escalate things would have been to kill off Joel. The only other option would be to kill off Ellie, which only run the risk of retreading old ground – something Naughty Dog wasn’t entirely interested in doing for The Last of Us Part II. Plus, Joel’s character had already been explored whereas Ellie has an arc to explore if she becomes the new protagonist. In short, either Joel dies, which would be unsurprising because it was the only logical thing to do with his character or he survives, which would be unsurprising given Naughty Dog’s track record when it comes to protecting their protagonists.
Joel meets his untimely end at the hands of Abby – the secondary character the player assumes control of in the opening. It turns out that Abby was the daughter of the surgeon Joel killed in the climax of The Last of Us. Since then, she joined the WLF and has been doggedly pursuing Joel ever since that day. When she finally gets the opportunity, she wastes no time shooting his kneecap off with a shotgun. To ensure his pain lasts as long as possible, she has her friend, Mel, tourniquet Joel’s leg and proceeds to mercilessly beat him with a golf club.
Now, I will play the devil’s advocate for a moment and assert that killing off Joel was the single most self-aware moment in Naughty Dog’s canon thus far. Before this moment, Naughty Dog games were written in a way that assumed the audience would be on the player character’s side – for good and for ill. This proposition fell flat on its face as early as 2007 with the release of the original Uncharted, prompting the writing staff to make protagonist Nathan Drake more altruistic in subsequent installments. The Last of Us was thus a nasty relapse into old habits when Joel effectively squandered humanity’s chance of developing a cure for the Cordyceps infection for an entirely selfish reason.
The narrative tried to justify it by subtly implying that Joel had given up on humanity. To that, I counter misanthropes are generally very difficult to make likable, being boring hypocrites at the best of times and insufferable, deluded jerks at the worst of times. Although many people consider him one of the greatest protagonists in the medium’s history, I personally chalk that up to confirmation bias. His general philosophies fit in a little too well with those of the average self-proclaimed intellectual at the time, so I can envision him getting a free pass based off that alone. His only real advantage over other video game protagonists is that he was vaguely charismatic, but that is more a testament to Troy Baker’s acting abilities than it is the strength of Mr. Druckmann’s writing. To acknowledge that Joel was in the wrong is admirable, displaying a level of mature introspection the previous game lacked. It’s a shame, then, that the actual execution of this scene leaves a lot to be desired.
The primary issue is that this sequence is only made possible through a combination of extreme contrivance and immensely out-of-character behavior. When traveling to Jackson, Abby finds herself accosted by several infected before Joel and his brother, Tommy, swoop in to save her. The two of them proceed to the mansion in which Abby and her comrades are staying whereupon the two of them introduce themselves by name. Once the group hears Joel’s name, Abby wastes no time exacting her revenge.
Mr. Druckmann and his writing staff needed Ellie, Dina, and their friend, Jesse, to leave for Seattle to chase after Abby so their story could begin in earnest. For that, Joel had to die, and they made it happen in the fewest steps possible. Abby was about to die to a horde of infected before Joel and Tommy appeared out of the blue to save her. There was absolutely no buildup to this development. Abby only had a vague idea as to Joel’s location, and through circumstances out of both parties’ control, the two were brought together. As it turns out, Joel and Tommy were patrolling the area for the infected, but this horde turned out to be especially unruly, which is why they end up taking Abby up on her offer. Conveniently, it happens to be in a place far enough away from Jackson proper that Abby can murder Joel and make a clean getaway. Audiences can accept a coincidence or two when it comes to moving a plot along. When there is a long string of coincidences outright required to pull off certain plot developments, such as the death of a beloved character, for instance, don’t be surprised if your otherwise-enraptured audience suddenly begins leaving you in droves.
One of the most common criticisms of this scene is that Joel tells Abby and her friends his name. It does make sense that the lines would rub people the wrong way. However, the reality is that the circumstances leading up to Joel’s death are worse than the memes made them out to be. It is when they are fending off the infected horde that Tommy inexplicably introduces himself and Joel. It would therefore give Abby a perfect reason to suggest hiding out in the abandoned mansion where she and her fellow WLF members are hiding. The universe essentially handed Abby everything she needed to exact her revenge on a silver platter; even her eventual victim helps her see it through.
More to the point, I simply cannot buy that Joel or Tommy would blindly trust Abby when, in the previous game, the former was primarily characterized by his ruthless pragmatism. Joel met many people on his journey to Salt Lake City, and he was extremely wary of all of them – even when they ultimately meant him no harm. The same man who identified several ambushes in the previous game blindly follows a stranger’s lead and stands stupidly in the middle of her comrades with his guard down. If his decision-making is this poor, one wonders how he managed to last nearly a quarter of a century in such an oppressive world.
Defenders suggested that settling down in Jackson has caused him to become complacent, but any evidence pointing toward such a possibility is circumstantial at best. Nothing in the narrative suggests Joel is beginning to lose his touch. In fact, that Tommy later journeys to Seattle on his own and manages to leave an impressively large pile of bodies in his wake suggests the exact opposite to be true. Someone that effective in combat would want a partner who can keep up with them.
Finally, and in true Naughty Dog fashion, this scene clashes horribly with the game mechanics. Ellie manages to arrive at the mansion as Abby is beating Joel with the golf club. She opens the door only to be restrained by Abby’s friends. One of them, Owen, orders Abby to deliver the coup de grâce before the residents of Jackson can retaliate. Ellie pleads Joel to get up, but he is too far gone to even respond. One last time, the silver club comes down upon his head. The grey matter caking the club’s head confirms to the audience – and Ellie – that he is dead.
When Ellie approaches the door leading to the room in which Abby is torturing Joel, she doesn’t even make an attempt to be stealthy. She opens the door and wanders in blindly, allowing Abby’s friends to subdue her within seconds. If she had even the slightest bit of intelligence, she would have taken Joel’s screams of pain as a sign that she needed to proceed with caution. Like the act of killing off Joel itself, the writers needed Ellie to witness Abby’s delivering the death blow in order to motivate her for the rest of the game. In both instances, they knew what they needed to accomplish, but didn’t put any thought into the steps required to get there.
Worst of all, in order for this scene to pan out as it does in the game, the developers needed to tie the player’s hands behind their back. As soon as you guide Ellie to the door, the narrative essentially slaps the controller out of your hands as she makes the bad decision for you. If you yourself took Joel’s cries of agony as a sign to be cautious, too bad – the narrative doesn’t care. Abby and her cohorts lie just beyond that door, yet you are barred from simply tossing a Molotov cocktail in there for no adequality explained reason. To say nothing of the countless instances throughout the game in which Listen Mode conveniently doesn’t work so Ellie can get roped into a mandatory encounter.
Even if one were to defend this choice by pointing out that Ellie wouldn’t want to risk harming Joel, the justification falls apart when you realize other options are rendered invalid. You can’t simply fire a bullet into the door to draw out the WLF members. Almost all of the other enemies in the game react to gunfire, but these ones are inexplicably deaf for this single scene. Considering that they have come to Jackson in order to kill Joel, it is highly unlikely they would let their guard down so easily. Not that it matters because their own bad decision-making is outdone by Joel and Ellie’s, allowing the mission to go off without a hitch.
When I reviewed The Last of Us, I remarked that the writers were in too much of a hurry to kill off Sarah for the purposes of fueling Joel’s backstory. In The Last of Us Part II, the writers make the same, exact mistake – with Joel himself, no less. By killing off Joel so early and so anticlimactically, the team wastes a serious amount of interesting story beats.
“But, wait!” you may interject. “Wasn’t Joel’s story already fleshed out in The Last of Us?” That’s entirely true, but the thing to bear in mind is the original game only fully fleshed out Joel and Ellie’s relationship up until the moment the former lied to the latter’s face. As this development would have a serious impact on their relationship, the writers’ unwillingness to explore the fallout is appalling. To be completely fair, The Last of Us Part II does try to address this problem by having Ellie reminisce about Joel. These scenes are generally the least controversial, as they directly draw the energy from the first game. Although they are some of the better conceived scenes in the game, they have a bad habit of interrupting the main plot. These flashbacks occur throughout the game, causing countless pacing issues in what is already intended to be a slow-burn experience. When Ellie does learn the truth about what Joel did, she severs ties from him.
This honestly is an interesting enough plot to have been its own game, but because we’re only shown these developments in brief snippets, the through line is too fragmented to make any sense out of. Even in the present, the nature of Joel and Ellie’s relationship in the moments leading up to the former’s death is unclear. The final flashback, which is shown at the very end of the game, implies she is beginning to forgive him, yet in a scene set chronologically later, she strongly hinted that she wanted nothing to do with him. It’s as though whether they’re on good or bad terms depends on how much information is revealed to the audience, which makes parsing it diegetically impossible.
While the manner in which Joel’s death is handled would suggest a clear case of creative stagnation on Naughty Dog’s part, attempting to seriously analyze the rest of story reveals they had deteriorated in key aspects. I don’t think Naughty Dog’s first attempt at mature storytelling turned out as well as most people believe. Its overcompensating nature made it unintentionally sophomoric. However, I will admit it did stand out when compared to other series tagged with the “Mature” rating such as Grand Theft Auto or God of War. Whereas those games were only mature in the most nominal sense of the term, The Last of Us actually tried to distance itself from the guiding zeitgeist of American AAA productions. Even if it didn’t turn out so well, the effort was admirable. If nothing else, I can appreciate said efforts in hindsight because whatever pretenses of maturity the original game possessed are nowhere to be found in its sequel.
First of all, the general characterization present within The Last of Us Part II doesn’t convey the sense any of these people have been living in a damned, survivalists’ world for over twenty years. On some level, this makes sense. Joel was a more melancholic figure than Ellie because he had to mourn a destroyed world. Ellie and a majority of this game’s cast, having been born after or shortly before the outbreak, don’t – and arguably can’t – comprehend the sheer enormity of that horrible day. She may lament she never got to see the world in its prime, but hers is still a lens lacking that context. In fact, I actually like the witty back-and-forth banter between Ellie and Dina because it brings of level of energy the series didn’t previously have.
It would not make sense if, for example, Mr. Druckmann wrote Ellie as though she were a teenager from this world……except that is exactly what happens. For context, Ellie had been dancing with her girlfriend, Dina, one night. This caused Seth, an older man, to make a homophobic remark. He apologizes some time later and offers Ellie steak sandwiches. Ellie doesn’t thank Seth for the sandwiches, instead passing them off to Jesse, calling them “bigot sandwiches”.
This line was universally mocked among those who weren’t singing praises of the game. It is such a horribly written scene that it’s incredible it ever made it past the drafting phase. It simply does not make any sense why Ellie would reject the sandwiches. It would be fine had she been in a contemporary setting where steak sandwiches are relatively easy to procure. As it stands, her rejection of the sandwiches betrays a lack of basic pragmatism one would need to survive more than one hour in this world. If she were feeling especially petty, it would make far more sense for Ellie to rub it in Seth’s face that he, a homophobe, was forced to hand over steak sandwiches to a lesbian – and proceed to eat them in front of his face. As it stands, her behavior in this context makes no sense.
Then again, historically speaking, Naughty Dog games were never for the thinkers in the audience. The Uncharted series was always about spectacle and incredible visual effects over substantive gameplay whereas The Last of Us clearly valued emotions over logic as indicated by its misbegotten world building. In many of those cases, it was easy to ignore the logical deficiencies in favor of appreciating what the narratives did well. The Last of Us Part II marked the moment when Naughty Dog’s sensibilities became untenable.
This is because not a single character in The Last of Us Part II seems to be capable of making a rational decision. A rookie mistake when writing a story with a cynical tone is to justify the characters’ bad choices by claiming they are human. While humans do indeed make mistakes, they tend to be as a result of bad information, mental blind spots, bias, insanity, or some other explanatory factor. Humans generally don’t make bad decisions for no reason at all.
Similarly, when writing fiction, you must make sure both the good and bad decisions made by each member of the cast are consistent with their character. You can’t just have characters suddenly become clueless dolts and claim to err is human after the fact, yet that is precisely what The Last of Us Part II is guilty of. Whether or not the characters are capable of making rational decisions depends entirely on what the plot demands of them for a specific moment.
For example, the infamous scene where Abby beats Joel to death requires Ellie to not reach him in time. Rather than just being the result of bad timing, Ellie and Dina stumble upon a secret stash of weed and pornographic videos.Rather than take the weed back with them to Jackson, Ellie and Dina decide it’s a great idea to smoke it right there and then. Keep in mind that in order to reach this spot, they needed to cut a bloody path through a horde of infected. Smoking weed in the middle of the wilderness is a bad idea in a world not infested with zombies. Therefore, the only reason this doesn’t result in their painful death is because the plot absolves them of any consequences – outside of failing to save Joel, that is.
This scene along with the one starring the bigot sandwiches demonstrate a distinct lack of maturity, which is confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt shortly after Ellie reaches Seattle. There, she can potentially happen upon what a WLF soldier crudely scrawled while on duty.Again, I can expect a teenager from our world drawing something like this, but not a worldly WLF soldier. Considering the original game tried to distance itself from the common AAA brand of nominal maturity, seeing the company regress like this was highly disappointing.
In the interest of fairness, I will say it’s not just the main characters who make irrational decisions. Ellie and Dina find themselves captured by the WLF shorty upon arrival. Instead of neutralizing the clear threats, the soldiers opt to tie the two of them up. Unsurprisingly, the two manage to cut their binds and make an escape. After the fact, Dina asks Ellie why they didn’t just kill them there. As one would expect from a Naughty Dog game, the writers draw attention to this serious problem only to dismiss it offhandedly. This was still rather jarring because they usually made jokes out of these situations. Here, they didn’t even try, and there is no internal logic guiding these characters.In fact, one of the soldiers involved in this sequence was previously injured by Ellie and therefore had every reason to believe she did not come to Seattle with good intentions. Yet, for no other reason than because the plot would snap like a twig if he didn’t, he abandons all pretenses of pragmatism and spares Ellie for a long enough time for her and Dina to kill him and his comrade.
From there, Ellie proceeds to get revenge on every single one of Abby’s friends. This reaches its horrifying conclusion on the third day when she confronts Owen and Mel. She attempts to ascertain Abby’s location from their testimony, but this goes awry when Owen attacks her. After fatally wounding Owen, Mel attempts to get the upper hand over Ellie. This results in Ellie stabbing Mel in the throat. With his last breath, Owen tells Ellie that Mel was pregnant. Ellie has just killed their unborn child.
This was meant to be seen as the moment where Ellie’s quest for revenge officially crosses the line, but I found it difficult to care. While it is unquestionably tragic, how the scene plays out depends entirely on neither Mel nor Owen deciding to mention the pregnancy until it was too late. Considering she is pregnant with his child, that both would stay silent in a life-or-death situation is completely ridiculous. This may have some justification in that they only see Ellie as a psychopathic murderer who has killed off many WLF soldiers. Only we, the audience, know she is capable of being rational – or at least as rational as one can get in this game. The problem is that, just like the writers, they don’t even try, and Mel is the one who attacks Ellie – not the other way around. She was willing to risk her child to kill Ellie, and they paid the price for her bad decision-making.
I also find the scene to be painfully behind the times. Throughout the 2010s, American AAA developers had what could only be described as a passive-aggressive relationship with their audience. It was increasingly common for stories to railroad protagonists into committing heinous acts only for the narrative to thrust all of the blame onto the player themselves. This scene fails for the exact same reason: you can’t shame your audience for wanting to see how the story will advance. The alternative to killing Mel is to watch her stab Ellie to death. Because this isn’t the outcome the narrative desires, it’s treated as a standard Game Over, and you’re sent back to that moment until you comply.
By 2020, most developers began to realize this practice of what I sometimes call “railroad-shaming” as bad storytelling. It’s not a good idea to make players feel like war criminals for the act of wanting to complete the game they paid $60 for. That Naughty Dog, a company hailed as trailblazers in interactive storytelling, would fail to research this matter proves they didn’t deserve such a distinction.
The worst part is that the resulting fallout is only made possible through the characters’ continued lack of common sense. Ellie is just about ready to leave Seattle, having reunited with Tommy, Jesse, and Dina when Abby storms onto the scene. An enraged Abby shoots Jesse in the head and attacks Ellie. While it seems like yet another instance of Naughty Dog teleporting their characters around offscreen when the plot calls for them, you eventually learn that the team attempted to cover this contrivance. In doing so, they succeeded in making the plot even dumber.
It turns out Abby found Ellie because the latter left her map behind, allowing the vengeful WLF soldier to find their hideout – an abandoned theater. As Ellie and Dina were prudent enough to block the door to the theater, Abby had to find some other way inside. Her method of ingress turns out to be the fire escape. While I can buy that Ellie was not in a sound enough state of mind to catch this potential security risk after killing Mel, it does not explain why none of them noticed it at any point beforehand. Dina herself spent a majority of her stay in Seattle in the theater due to entering the first stages of pregnancy – the father being Jesse.
The smart thing to do would have been to remove the ladder, thus making the fire escape impossible to access. If that wasn’t an option, Ellie could have placed a proximity mine on the fire escape. That way, the noise would alert them to intruders – assuming the explosion didn’t rout them all. If you decide to do that yourself, your efforts will be wasted when the mine vanishes into the ether as soon as Abby infiltrates the theater. It is standard for characters in a horror film to have no common sense, but to force the player to go along with these bad decisions makes the narrative that much more frustrating.
This moment also marks what is perhaps the single most controversial element of the game. After a sudden fade to black, the narrative forces the player to assume control of Abby for the next three chapters. It starts off on the same day as Ellie’s arrival, and from there, you work your way back to the climax. The game’s pacing was already erratic due to the frequent flashbacks, but this causes it to drop dead. By the end, you’ll realize The Last of Us Part II manages to defy the basic three-act structure by having one first act, two second acts, and three third acts.
My guess as to why Mr. Druckmann and his team sent players back in time is that they wanted Abby’s role as the deuteragonist to be a surprise after building her up to be the main antagonist for the entirety of Ellie’s campaign. If that was their intent, then making Abby playable in the first act rendered said effort pointless. Granted, Abby does not have the ability to improve her stats in the first act – not unlike Ellie when she was playable in The Last of Us. This could fool savvy people into believing Abby is only playable in the first act, but it’s easy to call their bluff.
The worst part about this is that there was such a simple way to solve the problem: allow players to choose which character to follow. Treasure of the Rudras, a game made by Square in 1996, featured four different protagonists going on their separate journeys. Not unlike The Last of Us Part II, all of these stories took place over the same sixteen days. While this sounds even more repetitive than having to follow two characters over the course of three days, there is one key difference that allowed Treasure of the Rudras to work: you had complete control over who to follow. You could switch between three of the protagonists until the endgame, wherein you took control of the fourth.
The other thing to take away from this comparison is that the scenarios in Treasure of the Rudras actively built off each other. Although they would have made for great standalone experiences, they benefited from being in the same narrative. You would experience what seemed like a random event only to later learn that another character caused it to happen. The four characters would also meet at various points, allowing them to help each other out or exchange information if needed. Now, to be completely fair, Treasure of the Rudras was not released outside of Japan by 2020, but many games that had a similarly structured plot such as Sonic Adventure 2 or Zero Time Dilemma were.
It’s important to know because there is no excuse at all for The Last of Us Part II failing to grasp this concept. Barring one exception that’s easy to miss, Abby’s story doesn’t directly intersect with Ellie’s until the climax. Even then, the extent of their interactions begins and ends with fighting. This means you’re essentially playing an entirely different game that happens to take place at the same time. Naughty Dog games starting with Uncharted were notorious for depriving players of agency, but this is where their inability to afford them any kind of leeway blew up in their face.
What we ultimately get is a narrative whose pacing somehow manages to be glacial and lightning fast at the exact same time. It has a lot of problems committing to a plot thread, and many potentially interesting beats get tossed out the window as a direct result. Ellie and Dina’s relationship is particularly intriguing because LGBT portrayals in AAA games were extremely rare – even by 2020. All of this goodwill is wasted when the narrative ends up benching Dina for a majority of the experience. Similarly, Abby being saved by Joel could have led to an interesting internal conflict for the former. Her subsequent killing of Joel thus makes her come across as an unlikable ingrate. For all of its faults, The Last of Us avoided this particular issue because the writers thereof spent all of their energy fleshing out one story. It still didn’t work, but there was more focus in that narrative.
If it’s one thing I will give these chapters credit for, it’s that Abby does not play like Ellie. Having trained her body for many years, she is far more capable in a direct confrontation than Ellie. Like Joel, she can upgrade her health twice and craft shivs. She doesn’t have Ellie’s switchblade, so she needs to craft shivs to kill clickers stealthily. In exchange, she can save herself from a clicker’s grasp if she has at least one shiv. It is not treated like a quicktime event, so fending off a clicker with a shiv on hand is as easy as repelling a standard infected. As a result of these changes, her gameplay is a bit more action-oriented, though you still don’t want to expend ammunition carelessly.
She even gets a boss fight in the form of Seattle’s patient zero. Dubbed the Rat King, this monster is a grotesque fusion of infected human bodies. It’s frightening, exciting, and pushes your knowledge of the game to its absolute limits. It almost out-of-character that the encounter is legitimately challenging. A typical Naughty Dog boss fight involved the developers breaking as many of their established rules as possible to ensure it is resolved in the flashiest, least practical method possible.
However, as strange as it may sound, this praise ties into yet another significant problem with the narrative. Mr. Druckmann stated in interviews that Abby was his favorite character and, to be perfectly frank, it shows. Like Nadine Ross before her, she comes uncomfortably close to reading like a bad, self-insert fanfiction character. Much like a bad, self-insert fanfiction character, she is introduced by easily beating up the series’ established protagonist. While her campaign isn’t as long as Ellie’s, she gets a superior weapon loadout, the only boss fight that doesn’t break the rules of the game, and even a greater degree of character development.
Unfortunately, a large reason why the story is so unfocused is because it spends too much time trying to make Abby sympathetic, which was always going to be an uphill battle given how she is introduced. In Mr. Schreier’s exposé, it was revealed that one specific character underwent several rewrites due to being unanimously hated by playtesters. Readers inferred that the character in question was Abby, which would match up with her polarized reception upon the game’s release. While trying to make her sympathetic after exhibiting such a scarily sadistic streak isn’t impossible, it would require Mr. Druckmann and his team to have been far more nuanced than they were. This was simply not a luxury afforded by contemporary AAA development, as even the simplest rewrites can nullify weeks’ or even entire months’ worth of work and send everything back to square one.
It doesn’t help that in their attempts to make Abby’s motivations understandable, the writers outright ignored information from the original game’s final act. One audio log you can find in the endgame area suggested that the Fireflies had found several people immune to the Cordyceps infection and failed to extract a cure from them. It’s as though the writers knew many people would object to Joel’s actions in the final act, so they tossed in the audio log to soften the blow.
Personally, while I do think this information was the only thing that made Joel’s actions even remotely sympathetic, the writers shouldn’t have made such an important story beat optional, as it causes several narrative problems. After all, if Joel found the audio log, he wouldn’t have needed to lie to Ellie in the first place. Then again, just that the Fireflies would incapacitate Ellie and try to perform the operation without her consent showcased how irresponsible they were, though bafflingly, Joel never raises this point in his defense either.
In hindsight, the audio log comes across as something that the writers would not have included if they had known The Last of Us was going to have a sequel. As a standalone effort, they tried to have their cake and eat it; Joel’s actions were selfish, yet retroactively justified thanks to information he may or may not have discovered during his raid. If they had foreseen this sequel, it would have made far more sense for them to simply let Joel cross moral boundaries at that time and then explore the consequences of his actions here. Indeed, with the way these events are depicted in The Last of Us Part II, anyone who never played the original would be forgiven for believing Joel attacked the Fireflies unprovoked, and saved Ellie for selfish reasons.
Another problem is that, because the previous game ended on a rather ambiguous note, taking a more definitive stance on the matter was always going to contradict how a large portion of fans felt about it. In contrast to the fans’ outrage, I actually find myself giving Mr. Druckmann a lot of credit for steering away from Joel’s side. Critics in 2013 praised The Last of Us for its ostensibly progressive bent, but it still forces players to gun down a group of people who, dubious moral scruples aside, want to eradicate a disease that has been the bane of humankind’s existence for the past twenty years. It is very easy to interpret such a narrative as an anti-intellectual or anti-progress allegory. To have the protagonist of a game preserve a deeply flawed status quo and even entertain the idea that he made the right call in doing so likely resulted in a subconscious form of cognitive dissonance among the otherwise progressive-minded Naughty Dog staff. Therefore, as progressives, giving Joel his just deserts was the most logical thing for them to do.
There’s also the fact that, thanks to forces beyond anyone’s control, the original game’s final act had aged very poorly by the time its sequel was released. While critics had nothing but praise for The Last of Us when it was released in 2013, I’m certain nearly all of them would have dropped it like a hot potato had it seen its debut in a post-COVID world. Between the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in 2020, you would have immense difficulties making a game wherein the protagonist, a white man with a Southern drawl, guns down a woman of color leading a faction trying to find a cure for the world’s worst disease and not have it come across as far-right, anti-vaccination propaganda. Far from any potential proponents praising the game for its moral ambiguity, it would have instead been derided for both paying lip service to baseless conspiracy theories and being racially insensitive. Obviously, Mr. Druckmann and his team couldn’t have anticipated any of this because a majority of the writing for both games took place in the 2010s, but going the direction they did allowed them to serendipitously nip a major problem in the bud.
However, traces of the old, out-of-touch Naughty Dog still remain in this game. Along her journey, Abby befriends two rogue Seraphites: a boy named Lev and a girl named Yara. Lev is eventually revealed to be a transgender boy. Although the game was welcomed with open arms by the LGBT community, he managed to be a point of contention among them. To be fair, he is given a very sympathetic backstory, yet the LGBT community drew umbrage from the narrative due to many of his former comrades deadnaming him. Calling a transgender person by their former name is a grievous insult, yet it is constantly used to demonstrate how tolerant Abby is of him.
It is meant to be a source of irony in how, after spending years hunting Joel, Abby essentially undergoes the exact same arc. It doesn’t work because the irony is lost on Abby herself; only we, the audience, can appreciate this parallel. Not having her realize that she and Joel aren’t so different was a wasted opportunity. More pressingly, it’s impossible to escape the notion that Lev doesn’t exist as a character in his own right, but rather for the sake of making Abby, a character the writers knew would be polarizing, more sympathetic. It doesn’t help that even those who didn’t like Joel have a good reason to hate Abby. After all, she killed off Jesse – the only likable character in the game.
It gets worse when the plot finally finishes trudging back to Abby and Ellie’s confrontation and forces players to fight as the former against the latter. Yes, after spending the entire original game protecting her, Ellie becomes a boss fight. After demonstrating that they are capable of programming an actual boss fight, Naughty Dog falls back into old patterns with Ellie. It is a bit more understandable than most cases, as killing Ellie with a single headshot would end the story prematurely, so Naughty Dog saw fit to take Abby’s weapons beforehand. This time, it is accomplished by having Abby’s backpack get snagged on a loose board of a burning building, which is even lazier than their usual method of making the antagonists hold the protagonists at gunpoint.
The encounter itself is an ironic, eerie parallel to Ellie’s encounter with David in The Last of Us in that you’re essentially playing a deadly game of hide-and-seek. Not coincidentally, it fails for the exact same reason. In yet another instance of Naughty Dog forgetting what the purpose of a health bar is, Ellie breaks the rules of the game in that charging her head-on will cause her to kill Abby instantly. Just like your average Naughty Dog boss fight, the encounter is resolved when the narrative says so. The lack of agency is bad enough when it disallows players from experiencing the story as they see fit. It’s especially bad here when it actively sabotages the gameplay.
After having protected Ellie as Joel in the original game, players weren’t too thrilled with the idea of fighting her. Granted, the Ellie in The Last of Us Part II is a barely recognizable facsimile of her former self, but there is enough goodwill that forcing players to fight her as a controversial character would still rub many of them the wrong way.
Abby especially doesn’t help her case when she threatens to kill Dina. Unlike Owen or Mel, Ellie pleads Abby not to kill Dina by informing her she is pregnant. Bearing a wicked grin, Abby replies, “Good”. Only when Lev begs her to stop does Abby finally relent. If Mr. Druckmann wanted players to sympathize with Abby, this moment undoes all of that effort. While Ellie killing Mel was an act of self-defense she immediately regretted, Abby has no problems killing a pregnant woman just to make her enemy suffer. In fairness, Abby did not actually see Ellie kill Mel, so she didn’t know of her enemy’s subsequent nervous breakdown. For all she knows, Ellie could have reveled in the act. One could also argue she wasn’t in a sound state of mind at the time, but it still doesn’t make her character any more endearing. This encounter would have ended far more tragically had it not been for Lev’s timely intervention.
Mr. Druckmann’s attempts to humanize the WLF generally don’t work either. When you’re fighting them as Ellie, you hear the survivors call the names of the fallen. However, this attempt at immersion is difficult to take seriously because the game is obviously pulling random names out of a hat. Throughout the course of the game, I ended up killing at least two Milas, two Jorges, and three Mateos. If that wasn’t enough, the people calling out the names all used the same exact inflection. It doesn’t matter if they died from a gunshot wound or by being blown up with a campy, Rambo-style exploding arrow; they all react the exact same way.
Things don’t get much better when you’re playing as Abby, however. This is because, like everyone else in the game, the WLF are certifiable incompetents. Clearing Mel for active duty despite her pregnancy is the first indication they aren’t playing with a full deck. I could see that working if it was intended to be a commentary of the WLF’s sheer desperation, but when you walk around the base as Abby, you can plainly see they are not short-staffed. They are ultimately needed for their leader’s even foolhardier plans.
The leader of the WLF is a man named Isaac. Although he does respect Abby for her battle prowess, he quickly reveals himself to be the single most depraved person in the entire game. He too cannot make a good decision to save his life. He had been planning an attack on the Seraphites’ encampment to wipe them all out for some time. However, they wind up losing many members to Ellie, Dina, Tommy, and Jesse. To make matters worse, the two people he picked to lead the attack end up going missing. Rather than call off the attack and try again at a better opportunity, he carries it out without delay. This action results in his own death at Yara’s hands, and consequently, the dissolution of his army.
If it’s one last field in which Naughty Dog had regressed, it would be their handling of death. Whenever a character died in The Last of Us, you felt it. Sarah’s death scene in particular contains some of the best acting in the history of the medium. Conversely, The Last of Us Part II is shockingly callous when it comes to death. When Jesse dies, the scene quickly focuses to Abby and Ellie’s confrontation. Outside of a journal entry and a passing mention, he is never brought up again.
Similarly, Isaac is such an important figure to Abby, yet he comes across as an absolute monster who doesn’t even see the Seraphites as human. Notably, when Lev hides behind Abby, Isaac asks “[What is] that behind you?” rather than “Who?” It doesn’t feel as though he was written that way on purpose, but rather because he lacks depth. Furthermore, the scene in which he gets shot by Yara is so poorly edited, I initially assumed he was killed by an offscreen sniper. By changing the people your characters interact with so often, you don’t really get a chance to grow attached to any of them. It’s probably for the best because characters die at the drop of a hat as soon as the narrative decides they are no longer of any use.
Discussing the Ending
Naughty Dog’s games had always been critical darlings, yet starting with the original Uncharted, they began to breed a curious weakness. Critics and fans alike praised them for their attention to detail when crafting environments, but I feel these tendencies, more often than not, ended up being their undoing – particularly once they began working with increasingly advanced hardware. Suddenly, the same company that could reliably create a new franchise with each console generation struggled to get anything done in the PlayStation 4 era. Given the extreme and frankly unethical crunch culture Naughty Dog imposed upon their team to craft these beautiful environments, I can believe that by the end of a given project, they completely burned themselves out and just wanted them to be over with. How did this manifest in their games? By ensuring they couldn’t stick the landing to save their lives.
This weakness manifested itself as early as the original Uncharted, which pitted Nathan Drake against Atoq Navarro in what was, at the time, the most contrived action sequence in the history of gaming. Subsequent efforts didn’t fare much better with the final stages of Uncharted 2 boasting subpar design, Uncharted 3 truncating its narrative, and Uncharted 4 reintroducing the much-hated quick-time events from the first game after the team seemingly learned their lesson. The final act of The Last of Us managed to suffer on all fronts, featuring story beats sabotaging Mr. Druckmann’s intents and fast-paced, action-oriented gameplay that the engine wasn’t meant to handle.
It is very telling that between the six Naughty Dog console games released between 2007 and 2017, only one managed to stick the landing gracefully – Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Not coincidentally, it also happened to be the shortest game in the series. It was the only time Naughty Dog had a proper gauge as to how much mileage they could get out of their ideas. Whereas the numbered Uncharted installments packed three hours of material into a fifteen-hour experience, The Lost Legacy never overstayed its welcome. It was compact, featured a charismatic lead, and knew when to end before getting monotonous.
One of the very few things I will grant The Last of Us is that I don’t think the writers thereof were guilty of stretching the material too thin. Whereas the Uncharted games were like watching films whose director didn’t know what the word “cut” meant, The Last of Us came across as a miniseries. Taking place over the course of a year, Joel and Ellie’s journey was dynamic enough that its length felt justified. The reason all of this bears mentioning is because, while The Last of Us understood how long it could explore a given story beat, The Last of Us Part II marks yet another relapse into old patterns.
After her confrontation with Abby in the theater, Ellie returns to Jackson with Dina. Dina gives birth to her child, and the three of them appear to be living a nice life on a farm. Unfortunately, Ellie is still suffering from PTSD due to having witnessed Joel’s death. With prompting from Tommy, who inexplicably survived getting shot in the head by Abby, Ellie sets out once again – this time to Santa Barbara, California. Dina’s unsympathetic response to Ellie’s desire is highly strange given that her child’s father is Jesse. She does mention him briefly, but it’s such a quick line, it feels like a last-minute addition – as though the writers completely forgot about him themselves and added it in the final stages of development.
In Santa Barbara, Abby and Lev quickly find themselves captured by a faction called the Rattlers. The scene where they get captured is pretty laughable, as they get punched out by a rotund man with a grey biker beard who doesn’t even look like he is in the right game. This section of the game isn’t nearly as fleshed out as Seattle, so the Rattlers come across as generic bad guys.
The level design is admittedly great because, for some reason, the Rattlers keep the infected chained up throughout their compound, allowing you to set them loose on their owners. Ellie even gets her hands on a silenced submachine gun, though it’s not especially useful due to how quickly the ammunition runs out.
Ellie eventually fights her way to where Abby and Lev are being held. Despite the fact that she could end the conflict with a single shot to the head, Ellie elects to set her free. She then changes her mind and provokes Abby into fighting her by threatening Lev. In the single greatest display of laziness this game has to offer, the narrative doesn’t even try to justify why it needs to be a fistfight; Ellie just places her backpack in a boat and evidently forgets about it immediately afterwards. If she wanted to get revenge so badly, she could’ve taken out a pistol and shot Abby in the head while she had her back turned. Instead, she draws things out as long as possible.
After another violent fight that culminates with Abby biting off two of Ellie’s fingers, the latter changes her mind again decides to let both of them go. Trying to figure out why Ellie would finally forgive Abby is extremely confusing. These bad decisions and needlessly dramatic moments are all supposed to be in service to a message warning about the dangers of revenge. The theme is hammered into the audience’s heads constantly – especially in the final act. In the end, Abby’s thirst for revenge causes her friends to die and she is left without a faction of her own. Meanwhile, Ellie never abandons her quest for revenge, and loses all of her friends and two fingers. To add insult to injury, when she returns to her house, Dina has apparently abandoned her. The writers were deliberately ambiguous regarding Ellie’s final situation. Because ending The Last of Us ambiguously backfired on them as soon as they made its sequel, it instead reinforces the adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.
The problem with how the central theme is handled is that it fails to make a case as to why revenge is actually bad. If anything, the reason the conflict spirals out of control is because Abby fails to tie up all the loose ends. If I were someone hardened by over twenty years surviving in a hostile world and heard another person scream for my death, the only logical course of action would be to remove them. Even if that person only had a 1% chance of finding me, I wouldn’t want to leave anything up to fate if I could help it. Had Abby killed Ellie and Tommy along with Joel and discreetly disposed of the bodies, they could have easily slipped away, and the residents of Jackson would write it off as a tragic accident. In light of this information, the message doesn’t come across as “Revenge is like a drug; it consumes you”, but rather “If you’re going to take revenge, finish the job”. It’s bad enough when writers forgo subtlety and preach to their audience like in an after-school special. It’s even worse when writers adopt such an approach only to fail to make a case for their own message.
Drawing a Conclusion
The Last of Us wasn’t impressive in light of hard-hitting narratives spun by games such as Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors, Virtue’s Last Reward, or Planescape: Torment, but by 2020, Naughty Dog’s Hollywood-inspired approach really began showing its age. I feel the backlash against these film-games can be traced to 2015, which marked the release of Toby Fox’s Undertale. While the game was an instant hit, it caught critics completely off-guard. No one saw it coming, and few outlets were willing to acknowledge its artistic merits. Even the Polygon staff, who had previously praised Gone Home for being a quiet triumph in storytelling, notably failed to write a review of Undertale in 2015 despite perfectly demonstrating the medium’s hitherto untapped potential just as well – if not, more so.
The primary reason why enthusiasts were the ones who had to give Undertale its dues is because, while it stands to this day as a quintessential example of video game storytelling, Mr. Fox’s artistic accomplishment directly contradicted how journalists felt the medium should evolve. Whether it was by incorporating more cutscenes or through the malformed environmental narrative movement, journalists insisted that games needed to take cues from films in order to elevate themselves. Undertale, on the other hand, managed to tell a far more interesting story than anything Naughty Dog had done up until that point, and it did so by primarily drawing inspiration from other video games. The very aspect critics felt the medium needed to excise was exactly what allowed Undertale to deliver its narrative so effectively.
Undertale was one of the best things that happened to the medium because it demonstrated game creators could achieve greatness by marching to the beat of their own drum. I simply do not get that impression from The Last of Us Part II. While hailed as a masterpiece upon release, it accidentally made a great case as to why mainstream creators desperately needed to reinvent themselves.
Now, with everything said and done, one important question remains: is The Last of Us Part II a bad game? Absolutely not. In fact, I would be more likely to argue the game is rather good. I will say it is not the power move critics made it out to be. In fact, when you take away its creator’s artistic aspirations and overreliance on shock value, The Last of Us Part II is a rather basic example of its genre wherein everyone acts like idiots or jerks to ensure the narrative runs smoothly. This kind of writing was tired and passé in horror films by the end of the 1980s, let alone in 2020.
At the same time, it is far from the abject disaster detractors felt it was. Despite the many strikes against it, the game is significant improvement over its predecessor, having much better gameplay and a narrative that, while deeply flawed, has a lot more self-awareness and introspection than the original ever exhibited. There was a legitimate artistic risk being taken with this game, and while it didn’t work nearly as well as contemporary journalists thought, it did successfully elevate the series after its lackluster debut.
Regardless, I find myself in much of the same position assessing The Last of Us Part II as I did the original. Critics collectively decided it was the greatest of all time before they even experienced it themselves. Even if their reasons for praising the game were understandable given the cultural climate at the time, it’s difficult to take their assessment at face value given that they had a vested interest in ignoring its flaws. The only way this premise would have been broken is if the writers found some way to thoroughly offend their sensibilities – something a team as risk-adverse as Naughty Dog’s was never going to do.
The Last of Us Part II does, admittedly, come much closer than the original to living up to its unanimous critical acclaim. The original’s gameplay was, at its absolute best, mediocre, while its sequel is far more balanced and actually fun to play. Nonetheless, like many of Naughty Dog’s games, the experience tends to be good in spite of their trademark cinematic style and not because of it. All in all, there is some artistic merit to this game, but its quixotic nature makes it a somewhat difficult sell for fans and non-fans alike.
Final Score: 6/10