The Last of Us Part II

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 Druckman 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. Under most circumstances, leaks spoiling major content would cause fans to despair. The emotion these leaks instead inspired was sheer, raw anger – directed at Mr. Druckmann himself. Due to the content of these leaks, many fans swore off buying the game entirely with some going as far as canceling their preordered copy.

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. Coincidences may be unusually common in real life, but there are none to be found when parsing the gameplay of The Last of Us Part II. Indeed, 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 a willingness to stick to what works with the Uncharted series and, for the most part, the same applied to The Last of Us – even in light of its then-small sample size.

However, I have to say that this criticism is a little 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 an 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 tedious, 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, although this didn’t explain why they couldn’t find Joel when he was walking right up to them. Regardless, they were extremely irritating to deal with 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 try to guide Ellie through combat situations as you did 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 exactly 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 enemies 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. The world doesn’t exactly open up, but it does have 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 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 gameplay is competently designed 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 getting 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. Therefore, I can say, as a game, The Last of Us Part II provides a solid experience that would be sure to please horror fans of all stripes – theoretically, at least.

Analyzing the Story

There’s a reason I ended my analysis of the gameplay with those ominous words. There are flaws present in the gameplay, yet they have little to do with the sheer infamy of Mr. Druckmann’s magnum opus. As the product of artist who prided himself in his writing, it stands to reason that if anybody had a problem with Mr. Druckmann’s work, the problems would lie in the scenario he and his team crafted. Therefore, I think it’s only fitting to delve into the story and try to pinpoint exactly how this game managed to be so divisive.

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. Plenty of contemporary projects had significant developments leaked, which often resulted in significantly less revenue for the afflicted parties if the story beats managed to make a significant number of people angry. However, speaking as someone who kept up with these events as they occurred, I can say the backlash against The Last of Us Part II was downright surreal. Going into 2020, Naughty Dog was regarded as one of the best American developers. Neil Druckmann himself was considered one of the all-time greatest writers in the medium. It’s fair to say he and his company were considered the last beacon of hope for artistic integrity in an industry that had spent a majority of the 2010s growing stale, corporate, mechanical, and dishonest.

Nearly all of that goodwill dissipated when those spoilers leaked onto the internet. Overnight, the same people whose fans worshipped the ground they walked on became the butt of countless jokes regarding bad storytelling. Mr. Druckmann himself found his reputation marred, emerging from the backlash a controversial figure in the same league as Rian Johnson, Alex Kurtzman, D.B. Weiss, or, ironically given the influence of City of Thieves on The Last of Us, David Benioff. All four of those creators captured the hearts of critics, yet left audiences divided – a phenomenon that saw itself repeated with The Last of Us Part II.

What was in those leaks that could inspire so much outrage? 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 typically exhibited by a contemporary gaming journalist 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 cretins 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 was a degree of charisma, but that is more a testament to Troy Baker’s acting abilities than it is the strength of Naughty Dog’s writing.

To acknowledge that Joel was in the wrong for what he did is admirable, displaying a level of mature introspection the previous game lacked. It’s a shame, then, that this scene completely and utterly fails on every conceivable level. In fact, the moment is so bad, one could seriously write an entire essay detailing the various, individual ways in which it fails. The most relevant for this analysis is that it is only made possible through a combination of extreme contrivance and immensely out-of-character behavior. When travelling 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.

The biggest problem with this scene is that its execution is extraordinarily lazy. 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.

Those are the primary reasons why the crux of this game’s plot fails from a purely objective standpoint. Subjectively, it doesn’t fare much better. Part of what made it so disappointing to me is that it demonstrated a severe lack of artistic growth on Mr. Druckmann’s part. 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, they make the same, exact mistake – with her father, to boot. 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 before the former lied to her face. What isn’t expanded upon is the inevitable fallout. 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 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 earlier on, 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 actually deteriorated significantly. 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…

[Actual Naughty Dog dialogue]

…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.

[Actual Naughty Dog dialogue]

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.

“I could’ve saved Joel, but then I got high.”

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.

[Actual Naughty Dog imagery]

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.

[Proceeds not to kill any of the trespassers]

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.

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. The worst part is that it could’ve been avoided if Naughty Dog had made one simple change: allowing the player to switch back and forth between these two scenarios at their discretion.

My guess is that Mr. Druckmann and his team 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 the 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 fifteen 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 benefitted 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 allow 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 staying in a lane, and many interesting story 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 in the 2010s. 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. The Last of Us didn’t have this problem because the writers thereof spent all of their energy fleshing out one story. It had its own problems, but there was a definite arc to be found.

This may seem a little contradictive because when reviewing The Last of Us, I likened the experience to someone having assembled a puzzle using pieces from several different boxes. It’s a statement I still stand by because the point of the criticism is that The Last of Us had individually good components that didn’t form anything greater than the sum of its parts. However, The Last of Us Part II takes things to a new low. Now, imagine doing that, but you were only allowed to use the corner pieces from each box, and you’ve got the experience of The Last of Us Part II in a nutshell. While one could potentially create an actual picture using the former method, anyone in the latter situation would be doomed from the word go.

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.

Anyone who thinks humans are the real monsters has clearly never run into this thing.

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 does come 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. Moreover, her campaign isn’t as long as Ellie’s, yet 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.

Absolutely none of this effort works in the game’s favor, and I must point out the backlash could have been avoided had Mr. Druckmann read the writing on the wall. In the exposé carried out by Kotaku, it was revealed that one character underwent several rewrites due to being unanimously hated by playtesters. It was deduced that the character in question is Abby, which would match up with the audience’s antipathy toward her. Personally, if I were confronted with this overwhelming evidence, I would have doubled down on Abby’s negative traits and made her an outright villain because trying to get people to sympathize with her was a lost cause. Simply by killing off Joel, Abby was doomed to become the single most polarizing character Naughty Dog ever created. Trying to make her sympathetic after exhibiting such a scarily sadistic streak isn’t impossible, but, to put it bluntly, it would have required a director far more talented than Mr. Druckmann to pull it off.

Indeed, a large reason why the narrative is so unfocused is entirely because it is spending too much time trying to make Abby and, to a lesser extent, the WLF sympathetic. The manner in which the writers try to accomplish this is even more manipulative than any story beat in the original game. To begin with, to make Abby sympathetic, the writers outright ignored information from the original game’s final act. One optional audio log suggested that the Fireflies had found several people immune to the Cordyceps infection and failed to extract a cure from them. What could have been an interesting, morally grey situation was ruined with this information, which painted the Fireflies as outright evil. Granted, just that they would incapacitate Ellie and try to perform the operation without her consent showcased how irresponsible they were. Then again, that Joel never raises this point in his defense when trying to assure Ellie is equally baffling.

All of this important information is subsequently disregarded by the narrative for the sake of making the original game’s conflict more black-and-white than it was in practice. Considering the ambiguous note upon which the previous game ended, it was only natural that taking a definite stance on the matter would contradict how a large portion of fans felt about it.

That being said, I can see why Mr. Druckmann would want to steer away from Joel’s side. Casting those attempting to find a cure for the disease in a negative light lined up uncomfortably well with prevailing conservative sensibilities at the time. To them, a solution wasn’t worth implementing unless it could save everyone. If one were to beam those conservative values into a person within this universe, they would say looking for a cure is pointless because humans are still killing each other in unrelated conflicts. Even if it only saved 20% of the world’s population in the long run, they would deem it a complete failure because it didn’t help the remaining 80%. To have this conservative mindset imbued in the protagonist of a game whose creators considered themselves progressives likely resulted in a severe amount of cognitive dissonance, so it was only natural Mr. Druckmann ended up siding against Joel.

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; he is only there 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 single most 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.

Subjectively, the encounter fails for an even more obvious reason. 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 parody 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. Abby, with a wicked grin, 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. 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. 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 it 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 single shot to the head or by being torn in half by a mine explosion; 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, 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 desperate situation, 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 basest 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 stands as one of the best-acted scenes 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.

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 pit Nathan Drake against Atoq Navarro in the most contrived action sequence the gaming world had ever known by 2007. 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.

Indeed, 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, lasting for roughly eight hours. 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 effectively 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 forget 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 a display of laziness impressive even by this game’s standards, 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 spectacularly 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 strong 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

Pros:

  • Excellent acting performances
  • Incredible presentation
  • Improved gameplay
  • Cohesive level design
  • Attempts to spin a more complex narrative than predecessor
Cons:

  • Lengthy cutscenes
  • Monotonous gameplay
  • Padded narrative
  • Ruinous divide between story and gameplay
  • Horrible pacing
  • Obnoxious railroading sequences
  • Plot contrivances abound
  • Misbegotten, ham-fisted writing
  • Difficult to get invested in the characters
  • Unlikable leads
  • No onscreen map during nonlinear stages
  • Poor characterization
  • Too reliant on shock value
  • Editing isn’t always good
  • Mashing buttons during cutscenes gets annoying
  • Sloppy endgame

The Last of Us was a game bolstered two major factors. The first is the year in which it was released. Even something as flawed as The Last of Us couldn’t help but look like a masterpiece when its most visible AAA competition consisted of the outright broken Aliens: Colonial Marines or the highly jingoistic, borderline racist Call of Duty: Ghosts. This is to say nothing of the release of Ride to Hell: Retribution, which is frequently and deservedly considered one of the single worst games of the 2010s. Like many horrible works, the last of these games was especially emblematic of the absolute worst trends of its time. While it was universally mocked, I don’t believe it coincidental that it saw its release in the same year as The Last of Us. Both games managed to encapsulate the puerile nihilism of the decade’s zeitgeist, forcing players to control anti-heroes who wouldn’t have felt out of place in a dark-age 1990s comic book. The Last of Us was obviously far more competent in its execution, but they were both products of their time through and through.

The other factor to consider is that in 2013, the medium’s self-confidence was at an all-time low. Game creators, critics, and fans alike were all looking for something to prove to the world the medium’s artistic merits. Roger Ebert’s infamous declaration that video games can never be art may not have been the sole cause of this movement, but it could reasonably be considered the tipping point. From that point onward, games needed to set aside the ostensibly childish fun the medium had defined itself by since its inception and get serious. Games needed to look to films, for they too had once been considered a novelty before the auteurs of old such as Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang, and Orson Welles proved beyond a shadow of a doubt their artistic value.

The sentiments were noble, but following the film industry’s lead wasn’t a good idea in the long term. As the 2010s wore on, films of middling budgets began disappearing from the scene. In their place were films with budgets frequently boasting nine-digit figures. These films were extensively promoted, and their risk-adverse nature usually ensured audiences and critics would leave the theater satisfied with what they saw. If any of them were successes, it was because they had reached just enough people to break even. In 2012, a company called A24 was founded. The films produced or distributed by A24 were generally made on a shoestring budget, yet invariably managed to garner universal critical acclaim – not unlike Miramax before them. Whether or not audiences actually liked these films was irrelevant because A24’s business model did not rely on customer satisfaction. As a result, many auteurs associated with the studio would consistently win over critics, but leave audiences divided.

This is all to say the gaming industry and the film industry were in similar places throughout the 2010s with safe, big-budget AAA productions competing against quieter, independent works overseen by an auteur. However, as the decade ended, there was one major difference between the two mediums. Film critics could be counted on to support their own independent scene – their gaming counterparts, not so much. This was especially jarring considering the extreme zeal game critics had demonstrated for independent efforts at the beginning of the decade in the scene’s early days. Once it became a force that could stand toe-to-toe and even surpass AAA efforts, the zeal vanished without a trace. Conversely, film critics never lost their zeal for independent efforts. This was an extremely mixed blessing because while supporting new talent is highly laudable, the independent filmmakers of the 2010s weren’t even close to independent game developers of the 2010s in terms of talent or creativity. For that matter, they were significantly less talented than the independent filmmakers who preceded them in the 1980s and 1990s. Supporting a scene lacking in ambition caused films to stagnate very quickly.

Film critics also eventually began viewing the divisive reactions caused by their sacred cows not as a sign that they were flawed, but a high-art standard had been achieved. Many of them simply couldn’t reconcile the disconnect and began pushing a damaging narrative that only widened the divide between themselves and their audience. They operated under the belief that an audience loyal to a megaplex system, having subsisted on a diet of soulless products doled out by the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, would naturally react negatively to anything with even the vaguest semblance of quality. Because many of these auteurs attempted to directly appeal to contemporary critical sensibilities, the independent film scene became complacent, risk-adverse, and, from an artistic standpoint, highly conservative – all traits their predecessors would have correctly considered poison. Taking cues from a medium lacking in imagination was therefore not the soundest move. Consumers at the time often only had a choice between bloated, unambitious productions with little substance to them and remarkably thin, rubbernecking passion projects with little substance to them.

That being said, I can see why Naughty Dog thought emulating films was a good idea in the mid-2000s when devising the original Uncharted – the first game they made in their signature, cinematic style. While the 2000s isn’t considered an especially strong decade for cinema, many of the problems that would ruin the film industry’s artistic integrity hadn’t fully manifested by then. On top of that, serious storytelling in video games was a fairly new concept not grasped by AAA developers. This meant problems with jamming non-interactive storytelling techniques into a narrative reliant on direct human feedback weren’t well-known or discussed at the time. Without the benefit of the all-seeing, all-knowing power of hindsight, one can understand how Naughty Dog reached their conclusion.

There was much less of an excuse for using such an outdated approach by 2020. Anyone who had been paying even the slightest bit of attention could tell you that video games taking lessons from films in 2020 would be like an aspiring author hopping into a time machine so they can take lessons from Ayn Rand. This hopeful author would likely produce worse art than if they flailed around randomly on a keyboard. Plus, it’s just generally unwise to draw from a source below your skill level – unless you’re particularly adept at weeding out good ideas from bad art.

“How did this happen?” you may ask. Signs of the American film industry’s weaknesses could be seen as early as the release of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in 2009 – a thoroughly terrible film conceived during a writer’s strike that nonetheless broke numerous box-office records. While a film teaching Hollywood executives that they didn’t have to seek out talented writers dealt a significant blow to the medium, the wide release of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 marked the exact moment the community itself took a turn for the worse. On the eve of its wide release, the marketing team began catfishing single men on Tinder as part of a blatantly unethical viral marketing campaign. The journalists’ explicit approval of this stunt demonstrated that, when given the choice between their readers’ mental well-being and their art, the latter came first every time.

Even worse, anyone attempting to create a bridge between themselves and their audience was frequently accused of trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. By 2020, there was no quicker way to ruin your credibility as a critic than to have a populist streak. This toxic mentality primarily infected American filmmakers and their supporters who worked for major publications, creating further acrimony between themselves and the average theatergoer.

The ramifications of these attitudes were numerous, but the most damaging was that an insufferable brand of films began flooding the market. These films were often politically charged and could not be criticized in any way. Sure, one could theoretically write a negative review of these films and point out objective shortcomings independent of their political stance, but, thanks to the polarization, doing so would be an invitation to getting swarmed on social media – by the ostensible professionals themselves, no less. The most obvious example of this was the release of The Last Jedi in 2017. Those pointing out problems with Rian Johnson’s creative decisions were frequently labelled misogynistic, far-right trolls who couldn’t stand the idea of having strong female characters in their films. This became especially ridiculous when you consider a sizable portion of the detractors were fans of the Alien and Terminator series – both of which feature some of the most iconic female characters in the history of science-fiction. Granted, this was not helped by a vocal minority absolutely living up to that stereotype, causing real psychological harm to people who worked on the film. Even so, it does not to pay to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and if you’re unable to take criticism, you cannot grow as an artist.

How does any of this relate back to The Last of Us Part II? The answer to that question concerns the nature of sequels. Good sequels use previous canon as a springboard to explore new ideas, allowing the franchise to evolve. Token sequels revel in past successes, constantly reminding their audience how great the creators are. Naughty Dog themselves ran the gamut of these kinds of sequels in the Uncharted series. Uncharted 2 followed up the mediocre original, giving the franchise clout it did not previously possess. The series never reached that same peak again because the next two games were content with going through the motions. Only when they decided to break the mold with Uncharted: The Lost Legacy did the series finally offer another unequivocally good experience.

However, The Last of Us Part II is neither a good sequel, nor a token sequel; it’s an outright terrible sequel. After all, if a good sequel builds upon the series’ canon, then it stands to reason a bad sequel seeks to destroy, and that is precisely what The Last of Us Part II is guilty of. It has been argued that The Last of Us is a timeless game. I don’t agree with that at all, yet I can see why fans believe it to be the case if for no other reason than because its sequel is even more dated. The kind of revisionary rhetoric The Last of Us Part II espouses would feel right at home when placed side-by-side with contemporary, critically acclaimed disasters such as The Last Jedi, Terminator: Dark Fate, and Star Trek: Picard. These works seemed hellbent in destroying the past, insisting that the accomplishments of their respective franchises weren’t so great and tried to implement various course-correcting measures when it wasn’t necessary. The approach was comparable to a landlord dragging the tenants of a perfectly functional apartment building outside, demolishing it, and promising the new one will be a significant improvement – and then responding to the inevitable complaints by telling them they don’t know any better.

When content for The Last of Us Part II was leaked in April of 2020, many fans were left wondering how such respected artists could lose the plot – both literally and figuratively. Conflicting reports made the former difficult to determine, but the latter has a far simpler answer: the writing in Naughty Dog games wasn’t too good to begin with. When they pioneered their cinematic game design ethos with Uncharted, Naughty Dog began breeding in several key, persistent weaknesses they never bothered to work on in subsequent releases. They were easier to ignore in the Uncharted series because the games didn’t take themselves too seriously, but this proposition became untenable with The Last of Us. While fans appreciated the serious effort, I propose the tonal shift only succeeded in magnifying the writing staff’s shortcomings. While critics and fans alike found they could overlook these shortcomings, the missteps of The Last of Us Part II are far more obvious and frequent. In other words, if The Last of Us magnified the weaknesses of Naughty Dog’s writing staff, The Last of Us Part II made them unignorable. The emperor was naked once more.

So, the question now becomes “How could such an experience rack up perfect scores across the board?” There are a few things to keep in mind when analyzing the overwhelming praise of this game. While 2013 may have been a horrible year for gaming, 2020 managed to one-up it by being a horrible year for everyone. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all non-essential businesses shut down, and a strict, but necessary policy of social distancing was enforced. Although all artistic mediums suffered to varying degrees, films got the worst of it with nearly every major production being halted immediately. So, while The Last of Us benefitted from having opponents that were either weak or easy to sweep under the rug The Last of Us Part II effectively found itself competing against nothing. It’s easy to win the silver medal in an Olympic event when there is only one other competitor, after all.

One also needs to bear in mind that, even if the pandemic didn’t happen, the American AAA gaming industry was still in a highly unfavorable position going into 2020. They arguably started off the 2010s the most dominant force in the medium – not only from an economic standpoint, but an artistic one as well. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Portal 2, and Batman: Arkham City are but a taste of the most beloved titles the American AAA industry issued in the early 2010s.

By the end of the decade, however, the industry’s reputation had been deeply – and, in many eyes, permanently – sullied by a series of scandals. Greedy publishers preyed on the psychologically vulnerable by pushing loot boxes, several high-profile games such as Anthem and Fallout ’76 had been released in a half-finished state, Blizzard Entertainment took an extremely controversial stance on the Hong Kong protests by banning a supporter from one of their tournaments, and corporations tried to find ways to punish users for posting negative reviews of their products. Regardless of what one’s stances on these events were, one thing was clear – the most ardent enthusiasts’ faith in the American AAA industry had reached its nadir – and the powers that be refused to put down the shovel. I can therefore believe that The Last of Us Part II was propped up on a pedestal solely to make the domestic industry look good after an incredibly miserable showing in the latter half of the 2010s.

If anyone challenged these practices, you could count on either journalists or publishers to blame their own constant failures on their customers’ ostensible toxicity. Indeed, as enthusiasts expressed dissatisfaction with AAA practices, journalists began adopting increasingly anti-consumer attutides. It was sort of like what their cinephile counterparts had been doing, but they reached that spot in the exact opposite way. While film critics were chasing after some nebulous high-art standard, gaming critics straight-up sold out. I will say that selling out isn’t bad in of itself as many people think. Plenty of artists such as The Beatles rose to the higher artistic echelons entirely because they sold out, thereby getting the funds necessary to push their creative canon to exciting, new places.

However, this isn’t what happened with gaming journalism; they sold out in the bad sense of the term by becoming blindly obedient to publishers. When major publishers told them to jump, they were to respond, “How high?” The animated web show Extra Credits is a perfect microcosm of how much journalists had lost their way. The team behind Extra Credits was notable for talking about the artistic quality of games when few others were. Independent voices such as Bob Chipman and Jonathan McIntosh certainly weren’t with the former dismissing them as toys and the latter expressing the belief that they needed to be less fun. The guiding ethos of the Extra Credits team was compromised when they received certain key sponsors. Suddenly, the same show that called Electronic Arts out on their unconscionable marketing tactics began defending loot boxes and demeaning enthusiasts, which culminated in a video imploring their audience to stop normalizing Nazis.

Jack Thompson would have been proud to know that his puerile philosophies infected gaming discourse so thoroughly in the years following his disbarment. Tellingly, when the Extra Credits team received a well-deserved backlash, this is how their PR staff responded.

Are your loyal fans disliking your videos en masse? Just call them bigots! No proof required.

Coinciding with the increasingly sensationalized nature of journalism as a whole, the writing quality of these think pieces plummeted. It was impossible to escape the notion that hopeful journalists were being hired not for their ability to think critically, but because they could generate outrage. As one would expect, these kinds of people are at a significant disadvantage in situations where their opinions are directly challenged or civility leads to the best results.

The fact that many of these journalists were uncomfortably close to the major publishers ensured reviews had less substance to them than an advertising brochure. This made the overwhelmingly positive reviews difficult to take at face value when they overlooked the myriad flaws present in the script.

The result of these developments is that the enthusiasm for new content in many critical circles was completely dead in 2020. The Last of Us Part II was a beneficiary of this severe passion deficit because it downplayed its game traits as much as possible and gave critics exactly what they wanted in the most sterile, calculated manner possible.

-Abby channeling the games journalists of 2020 in this timeline.

The perfect way to demonstrate this lack of passion is to bring up a notoriously memetic social media comment posted by one Jeff Cannata.

Upon finishing The Last of Us Part II, he claimed it was a masterpiece, likening it to Schindler’s List, pejoratively comparing every other game to John Wick. This was highly similar to an equally inane statement issued about The Last of Us that called it gaming’s Citizen Kane moment. The reason it was an inane comparison is because whoever wrote it clearly didn’t comprehend the historical context behind Citizen Kane. Orson Welles’s legendary debut is rightly considered one of the greatest films ever made, but while it is often propped up as a symbol of high art, it achieved its lofty status by gleefully breaking all of the established filmmaking rules at the time. In fact, many of its innovations came about because of ignorance – something Mr. Welles himself admitted.

What makes this achievement laudable is that he directed, produced, starred in, and cowrote the film at the age of twenty-four. This was not lost on the media, as they effected a smear campaign, ensuring the film would flop in the box office. During the subsequent Academy Award ceremony, the audience booed him. Although the smear campaign was started by William Randolph Hearst due to Mr. Welles partially basing the title character off the famed media mogul, it wouldn’t have been as effective if it hadn’t capitalized on several deep-seated insecurities. From the media’s perspective, a young upstart crashed onto the scene, broke all of the rules, and earned critical praise for his efforts. Bearing this in mind, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say Mr. Welles had more in common with the rude, crude, down-to-Earth punk rockers who emerged in the mid-1970s than your stereotypical, pretentious art student. A work as stodgy and conservative as The Last of Us absolutely did not exhibit any of those youthful, do-it-yourself requirements to be considered the medium’s Citizen Kane moment.

I can understand why the comparison was drawn, as Citizen Kane is often used as shorthand for a work of exceptional quality – to the point where even people who have never seen the film use it. However, while calling The Last of Us gaming’s Citizen Kane moment was inaccurate, Mr. Cannata’s declaration managed to be even further off the mark. While it may have seemed like a compliment of the highest order, it was, in reality, Mr. Cannata throwing in the towel and pushing the narrative that games needed to stop being games in order to grow.

Not only that, but the two works really don’t have anything in common with each other at all. Yes, one could argue their tones are similar, but it’s a rookie mistake to assume all works on the same end of the dichotomy that measures seriousness and silliness are identical. To equate the misbegotten, fictional struggle present in The Last of Us Part II with a pensive film depicting the Holocaust was, at best, incredibly ignorant. It is also factually incorrect; thematically, the two works couldn’t be more different. Schindler’s List is about a man choosing to be good in a thoroughly evil environment. The Last of Us Part II insists it’s pointless to even try; humans are scum, and you would be a fool to expect anything better from them or aspire to overcome your own vices. Don’t agree? You’re an idealistic fool doomed to shuffle off this mortal coil at a young age. Both works are bleak, but to assume they are cut from the same cloth is extraordinarily naïve.

The second half of the comparison doesn’t make sense either because, depressive tone notwithstanding, The Last of Us Part II has far more in common with John Wick than most contemporary AAA titles given its revenge-driven narrative and how visceral the violence manages to be. Even then, insinuating those games Mr. Cannata described or The Last of Us Part II itself are in the same league as John Wick would be a grave insult to director Chad Stahelski.

There is a reason I pointed out the release dates of certain games when comparing them to The Last of Us Part II. This is because more than anything, the defining flaw Mr. Druckmann’s work is that it tries to be progressive and forward-looking when, in practice, it was way behind the times, even maintaining its predecessor’s chauvinistic undercurrent. To an even greater extent than its predecessor, The Last of Us Part II spins a narrative that begs its audience to take it seriously when it practicably and ironically comes across as less mature than many contemporary AAA titles. This is clear even when just looking at the game cover. With a nice close-up of Ellie’s grimacing. bloodstained visage, it wouldn’t have looked out of place among the sophomorically edgy comic books lining store shelves throughout the 1990s.

Barely a difference.

The Last of Us itself 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.

Interestingly, much like the degradation of critics, I think the backlash against these film-games can also be traced to 2015. Although Ex Machina indirectly caused critics and filmmakers to drift away from their audience, 2015 also 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 – particularly American ones – 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. If anything, its own blatant disregard for how critics thought stories should be told in this medium made it a far worthier of being considered gaming’s equivalent of Citizen Kane than The Last of Us.

And the best part? Undertale managed to push boundaries and bend the medium to its will without isolating its audience. Sure, there was eventually a backlash against it, but it mostly came about due to overexposure and frustration with the fanbase than genuine distaste for the game. 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. One does not get that impression from The Last of Us Part II. While hailed as a masterpiece upon release, I will never see it as anything other than the last gasp of a dying, irrelevant movement. Rather than elevating the medium, it accidentally made a great case as to why creators desperately needed to reinvent themselves.

While the original game was itself an exceptionally poor fusion of two mediums, The Last of Us Part II is guilty of relishing in the worst excesses of two different scenes simultaneously. It has all of the bloat and nihilism of the average, contemporary AAA game paired with the toothless, intellectually lightweight pretentions guiding the average, contemporary film. If you wanted something to demonstrate exactly what fans found so off-putting about auteur-driven works in the late 2010s, there would be no better choice than to point them in the direction of The Last of Us Part II because it squanders its potential with countless missteps. Consequently, like many critical darlings from around this time, I’m left wondering who the game is actually for. Even many of those singing praises of the original game found The Last of Us Part II to be highly disappointing, so there really isn’t anyone to whom I could easily recommend it. Ironically, I could see people disappointed with the original game finding something in this one, but at the end of the day, it’s still more interested in destroying the past than it is making a case for itself.

The Last of Us Part II claims to warn its players about the pointlessness of revenge. In reality, it serves as an unintentional warning about the pointless of spinning a narrative when you fail to give your audience a reason to care. For a game that tries to win its audience over with its sincerity, The Last of Us Part II seems to openly mock its audience for getting invested. Any emotional investment in the characters will be for naught when the narrative callously kills them off for cheap, manipulative shock value. Hate may have been the intended central motif of this game, but the feeling it inadvertently evokes is love’s true thematic opposite: apathy. If you can’t give a reason for your audience care to about the characters in the work you poured your blood, sweat, and tears into, you have failed in one the worst ways imaginable.

Final Score: 3/10

33 thoughts on “The Last of Us Part II

  1. Very in-depth review. While for me the game probably ends up slightly more favorable by basing on its merits the community has ruined this game for me.

    The Last of Us was already not THAT strong , it made some bold choices and well like you said it had timing on its side! The best thing about part 1 was sharing the experience for me, both the haters of the game as those who love it got so toxic that the thing I liked most about the game vanished for me. With so many scandals from both side, I know I am out of this franchise for good

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! It’s actually my second-longest review at a little over 17,000 words. I will grant fans that, as an actual game, it’s pretty solid and an improvement over the first. I was actually having fun with the game at times, which is more than what can be said of the original. Granted, forcing players to walk on the dotted line to the next event flag absolutely kills the pacing and any semblance of player agency in the ostensibly interactive portions.

      And you’re right; a lot of people were wondering how this game managed to fall so far from the original, but the fact of the matter is that it didn’t have as far to drop as most people think. Almost every single problem people have with The Last of Us Part II wasn’t without precedent. If The Last of Us Part II is guilty of anything, it’s not creating new problems, but exacerbating old ones. Coupled with Mr. Druckmann’s stubborn refusal to accept criticism (notably, he refused to believe that Ludonarrative Dissonance – which is when your gameplay and story don’t match up – is a thing), it was only a matter of time before he helmed a project that turned out this disastrously.

      And, of course, there’s the community, which, until the release of this game, wan’t considered as obnoxious as certain other fandoms out there, but that’s because they were going gaga for something grounded in reality rather than something fantastical like Star Wars. In truth, The Last of Us fans have always had a nasty, dogmatic streak to them similar to that of religious fundamentalists considering how protective they are of their sacred cow. If nothing else, I don’t think the thoroughly toxic attitudes surrounding the game on both sides would have manifested to the extent that it has unless it had been boiling beneath the surface the entire time. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people swore off Naughty Dog for good as a result of these scandals; I know I wouldn’t want to deal with all that drama – or act as enablers to their crunch culture.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pretty sure that’s the biggest review you’ve ever done. Epic stuff! I’ve not played the game yet but it’s proven divisive to put it mildly. Lots of fans are always talk up the narrative like it’s a work of gaming Shakespeare. And the press. I’d have to play the thing before passing comment, really. I need a second hand PS4.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Almost. It’s actually a little bit shorter than my Persona 4 review, but you’re close! I actually had to cut a few lines out because I’d otherwise risk going even more off-topic than I already had. Plus, I didn’t want to give Naughty Dog the pleasure of making a game that’s the subject of my longest review in light of their unethical marketing tactics and inability to take criticism (said inability predates this game by at least four years, so they can’t blame the trolls on that one). That, and I didn’t want my longest review to be negative.

      But otherwise, no, Shakespeare this is not. Say what you want about him, but at least when characters were making bad decisions in Shakespeare’s plays, he was playing off intentionally established flaws. Here, characters make bad (and sometimes good) decisions outside of the player’s control when the plot demands it. Whether they’re smart or incompetent is based solely off of what is needed from them at a given moment. Not only that, but the amount of times the protagonists are saved by some contrivance is unreal. If it wasn’t for the other characters dropping like flies, this may as well have been called Deus Ex Machina: The Game.

      Glad you liked the review! A lot of people compare The Last of Us Part II to The Last Jedi, but I think it has a lot in common with The Rise of Skywalker in that its predecessor is a work that really didn’t set itself up well for having a sequel. It wasn’t impossible, but it certainly didn’t work the way they tried it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Certainly seems a free-for-all on Last of Us II. I generally ignored the mayhem online after its release, but that’s some mighty bickering going on.

        And recently, rather quietly, Undertale celebrated its fifth anniversary. Which reminds me I need to play it again.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s probably for the best. Discussion of this game has been an absolute minefield, though given the increasingly sensationalized nature of game journalism, it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.

          And it has been five years, huh? Feels like forever ago. But yes, replaying Undertale is something I can get behind. Even five years later, it still manages to provide an experience that’s ahead of the curve. Certainly ahead of what Naughty Dog released this year.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think I would have given The Last of Us Part II a rating as low as a 3/10, but I do understand all of your grievances with the game. I appreciate a good narrative that draws on symbolism and repeated themes as much as the next person, but as soon as it becomes blatantly heavy-handed, I lose my patience with it.

    Abby did have the better loadout than Ellie, and her big setpiece moments were ten times more thrilling, making Ellie’s portion of the game seem like an afterthought. But what got me the most was the dogs. The game essentially forces you to annihilate dogs before they’re set upon you as Ellie, but when you gain control of Abby, you can play catch with a pupper and it travels alongside you. That felt too pointed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s fair. I’ve always taken pride in my tough grading scale because I like to make creators earn every single point. I will say that The Last of Us Part II as an actual game is actually pretty solid (minus the patented Naughty Dog event flag meandering, of course). I will also say that it doesn’t commit as large of an error as The Last of Us; the problem is that its mistakes are far more frequent and really weigh the experience down considerably. As it stands, I can recommend other games that give the same highs that don’t have nearly this many issues.

      At least we can agree that heavy-handed storytelling in general is bad, huh? I thought The Last of Us itself was pretty obnoxious, but it has nothing on this game. I’ve never been a fan of that style of storytelling, and it’s a mistake as a critic to assume that it’s good writing. Sure, there are some cases where it does work, but those examples tend to be few and far in between. It’s especially bad when someone writes in a heavy-handed manner only to fail to make a case for their own message.

      I don’t think it’s much question that Abby’s stages are better than Ellie’s. Just the Rat King on its own makes her stages better than Ellie’s. I wasn’t bothered by the dogs because I ended up using the owner’s distraction over their deaths to my advantage to get them immediately afterwards. Even so, it is pretty gratuitous that Abby she gets almost all of the dog-petting moments whereas Ellie is forced to kill a majority of them. It really did feel like the narrative was hammering “ELLIE BAD, ABBY GOOD” into my head throughout the game. I wouldn’t go as far as calling Abby a Mary Sue like many out there because she has way too many flaws and goes through the wringer just as much as Ellie (arguably more so), but I cannot deny the blatant favoritism going on here. Abby is Mr. Druckmann’s favorite character, and it absolutely shows.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And maybe it rankles so much more because I actually think Abby’s character is super intriguing, conceptually. I like the idea of Ellie going head-to-head with a Joel-type character. But that’s where the heavy-handedness gets in the way. I want to like the character, but I don’t want to be forced to want to like the character. Does that make any sense whatsoever??

        I think I would have preferred if the entire game had been played from Abby’s perspective alone. Parallels are interesting and all that, but they do tie a story down to go in one direction.

        That said, I guess I must have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the first game. I liked that story a lot. I would not have given it a 10/10 because it didn’t necessarily wow me on either a narrative or gameplay level, but I liked the tale it told.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree. I don’t think the idea of Abby’s character in of itself is flawed. It’s just the way Mr. Druckmann wrote her ensures that her negative traits stand out more. I can believe that her sections of the game were padded out to make her more likable, but I do get the sense that the game tries to force players to like Abby. Granted, that’s exactly the problem I had with Joel in the original game and to a lesser extent, Nathan Drake in the original Uncharted, so it’s a problem Naughty Dog games have always had. The only difference is that in this particular instance, they pushed their luck too far. It might be because misanthropy is generally considered an acceptable flaw for a sympathetic character to have – sadism, not so much. In any case, there’s a reason I said most of the issues people cite did not actually originate in this game.

          Honestly, I think making the entire game about Abby would’ve been far more effective. She could have been vague about who the person she wanted revenge against was, and it would’ve been interesting if the story panned out the same way, but then she had second thoughts after Joel saved her. Then, if maybe she learned of Joel’s journey with Ellie and realized her own journey with Lev was highly similar, that could have been a powerful moment. But no, the narrative wanted to dish out its story beats as fast as possible (and as lazily as possible), so Abby regrets nothing. Sure, she still has nightmares, but they seem entirely divorced from having killed Joel. It’s meant to show that Abby’s vengeance doesn’t provide her with any closure, but she still doesn’t seem especially remorseful.

          Mr. Druckmann himself said that he and his company are about simple plots and complex characters. I find it’s not an especially great ethos for a game developer because it encourages complacency when it comes to design, and I find even reasonable people who like The Last of Us or Naughty Dog’s games admit they are not innovative. Granted, If I had to choose one, I definitely prefer having complex plots because I think it’s more interesting watching characters react to bizarre situations than having characters with plenty of dimension to them do nothing of interest. But that’s likely my own bias speaking, and I do get the appeal of watching complex characters interact with each other because it can lead to some interesting story beats. Indeed, one of my favorite films of all time is a slice-of-life feature by Yasujirō Ozu called An Autumn Afternoon.

          While I still feel that The Last of Us is deeply flawed, I do think it captured what it was going for more competently than this game. It wasn’t enough to avoid getting a failing grade either, but there was definitely much more focus to it whereas this game just seemed to be the result of jamming whatever idea popped into the writing staff’s minds.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Blogger Recognition Award | Comma Eight Comma One

  5. I fully understand now what you meant before about this game being dire. It sounds like Naughty Dog was trying to have it both ways: create this massive cinematic experience that expresses these ideas about the nature of humanity and revenge while also trying to make the player feel responsible, a part of that cycle of violence.

    Few things in games are more aggravating to me than having one wrench control of a character away from me to do something profoundly stupid and out of character to advance the plot. And we don’t even need the interactive part. You were right to bring up D.B. Weiss and Dan Benioff, because they dumbed down a few characters in Game of Thrones in a similarly uncharacteristic way so they could be killed off. When such things happen, you just stop having any investment in the story or its characters, because what’s the point? Especially if the message ends up being so muddled by the end.

    It’s too bad that so many professional game journalists and reviewers still seem to have this obsession about proving Roger Ebert wrong. Only they’re looking at the surface level. I’d say Toby Fox proved Ebert wrong with Undertale, and quite a few other indie game developers did as well with their own projects that showed real creativity and humanity. They weren’t nihilistic and defeatist, either.

    Not that I think the world is all sunshine and unicorns, very very far from it. But the kind of nihilism you see in some of these critically acclaimed games feels a lot more like some edgy, depressed teen’s take on life and humanity, exactly the kind I had when I was an edgy, depressed teen. Life has a lot more nuance than that, just the kind we see in something like Schindler’s List. And if you really want to do something grim and dark with a rough ending, that can be done well too, but it takes a lot more work and thought as you say.

    Also, you’re spot on about Extra Credits. Some of their old stuff really was insightful and thoughtful, but the selling out would explain at least part of what went wrong with them. I do also remember their take on Persona 5, which I thought was pretty misguided and maybe even involved a willful misunderstanding of one of the characters. I also love how obstinate these guys get when they’re rightly called out. How does actively antagonized your audience help you anyway? Maybe it’s one of those “any publicity is good publicity” things.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Naughty Dog have always been the patron saints of trying to have their cake and eat it, but this game ramped up that tendency (and others) up to eleven. In a better implemented game, I would have felt something during the game’s more visceral moments, but here, I was like “Oh, whoops!” Considering most teams had given up on railroad-shaming by now, their stubborn refusal to get with the times is like watching Poison try to maintain relevance past 1991.

      I heard that was the case with Game of Thrones; it’s a real shame it ended the way it did because it basically has no long-term appeal now. Similarly, there’s no getting around that for all of its artistic pretensions, The Last of Us Part II is a bonafide idiot plot. It really isn’t that much different from your average, badly written horror film in that you really don’t get a gauge as to how competent these characters are because how they act depends entirely on what the plot demands of them at a given moment. Bad horror plots are frustrating enough to watch; being forced into idiocy is downright insulting.

      If they were that willing to prove Mr. Ebert wrong, they would’ve realized evidence for the medium’s artistic merits had existed for at least ten years in the form of Planescape: Torment – and that’s a modest estimate. It really stems from the inability to realize that smart people can have bad opinions. Plus, Undertale basically did everything The Last of Us claimed to do by giving us a narrative that flat-out couldn’t exist in any other medium. Any critic you hear claim that to be true of The Last of Us Part II or the original is lying or misinformed because they could easily be transplanted into a film with minimal changes. Granted, The Last of Us Part II would fare especially poorly given that two hours of its plot is dedicated to a fetch quest.

      And yes, you’re absolutely right. When playing The Last of Us Part II, I could tell it was made by someone who hadn’t mentally aged past the 1990s (or adolescence in general) because it really does come across as the kind of narrative an utterly humorless, über-serious dark-age comic book writer, second-wave black-metal musician, or any other annoying edgelord would pen. Their commentary on human nature is the ultimate form of pointing out problems and not lifting a finger to fix them, so it’s not surprising critics and Naughty Dog would latch onto it so tightly. It’s easier to condemn than it is to create, after all. Not to say it’s impossible to make that work, but it would require a talented writer to pull that off, and Mr. Druckmann isn’t in that league.

      I have to admit I didn’t really follow Extra Credits that much, but their downfall is the stuff of legends. I don’t really condemn the act of selling out by itself, but when you go from being pro-consumer to promoting loot boxes, you’ve sold out in the worst possible way. A lot of people like to believe that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but that can be chalked up to survivorship bias. We know of the instances in which artists such as Black Sabbath and N.W.A. rode their infamy to lofty heights. We don’t tend to hear of the times getting a lot of publicity didn’t work out so well for the subject because that’s where the story ends. Just ask Paul “I wwebsite as on the internet” Christoforo. Or Anita “Save Our Children” Bryant. Or Filip “not at all intentional” Miucin. Or Phil “TWITTER METLDOWN” Fish.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I had to skip most of your review for fear of spoilers, as I’m sure I’m going to give the game a try eventually and want to be largely a blank slate for it, but your list of pros and cons at the end are very interesting to me. A lot of opposing forces there. The acting is great, but the leads are unlikeable and its difficult to get invested in the characters. The levels are cohesive and there’s no onscreen map so they’re presumably somewhat difficult to navigate. Gameplay is improved and monotonous. With all its good points, I couldn’t imagine they would go too far with something else cutting it down.

    And yeah, media journalism as a whole has been on a downward trend. I feel like the internet should be making it better, introducing more variety, have better discussions, whatnot as anything can find an audience if its high enough quality, but it really hasn’t. Well, actually, I suppose in a sense, it has. A lot of mainstream sites and establishments go for, just like you said, the shock pieces, the one-sided controversies, the sort of thing that doesn’t require thought because emotions stand out more in a market of endless noise than does something well-thought. On the other side, though, independent bloggers, video creators, and whatnot have been filling a gap in more balanced and less AAA publisher-sided pieces, although most all of them only maintain a small readership.

    And Extra Credits is a shame now. I used to follow them pretty consistently, and found them to be a very thoughtful and well reasoned series in a market that was trending away from that. And now, they’re a far cry from that state. It seems a completely different series now, that’s just copying its origination.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, that’s understandable. All I can say is that I look forward to seeing what you have to say about the game because I’m sure it’ll give us no shortage of talking points. Hope you end up enjoying the full review then.

      Anyway, I have to admit the feeling you got from the Pros/Cons table was likely the result of me unconsciously hammering out what I feel to be arguably the biggest problem with the game – that its strong points barely amount to anything in the end. The acting performances are top-notch, but they’re in service of such a horribly conceived story. It attempts to spin a morally grey narrative, yet in practice, everyone is an unlikable idiot. The base gameplay is indeed improved, but Naughty Dog attempts to get way too much mileage out of it, making players do the exact same thing for over twenty hours (if you thought Uncharted was bad, wait until you see what this game does). As a game, The Last of Us Part II has a horrible habit of getting in its own way – and that’s not even getting into what’s in those spoiler sections.

      Indeed, The Last of Us Part II actually managed to outpace Ride to Hell: Retribution when it comes to number of entries in the “Cons” list. And I think that’s accurate, as The Last of Us Part II probably has the highest number of problems of any game I’ve ever played. This obviously doesn’t make it the worst thing out there; NES Dragon’s Lair technically had fewer problems, but that is a worse game by several country miles. No, whereas things like NES Dragon’s Liar are crushed by having one or two persistently huge issues, The Last of Us Part II effectively suffers a death by a thousand cuts. Many of the problems within the narrative wouldn’t be so bad if they only happened once or twice, but the problem is that it is constantly making mistakes, which weighs the experience down considerably. Indeed, I was a bit shocked I didn’t have to invoke my “bad endings” rule because the ending, while indeed sloppy, was arguably the least of the game’s problems. It’s difficult to get a gauge when just looking at the scores alone, but I will say that the original game only ended up in the 3/10 tier due to a technicality. This game well and truly deserves to be here.

      And as you may have guessed, the media’s response to the backlash utterly ignores all of these points in favor of painting detractors with broad brush. I think there is a way for media journalism to improve, but there does need to be a near-complete overhaul because whatever the process is for hiring talent and analyzing media these days, it is not working. They’re constantly coming down to bad conclusions based purely on emotion and throwing basic logic out the window. Eventually, the mainstream media is going to push their luck one too many times, and it is when that happens that I think the overhaul will take place. I think that listening to independent bloggers has resulted in far wiser purchasing decisions. For that matter, I’ve found out about games just browsing the internet randomly; I learned of OneShot in particular through fanart.

      Did you end up witnessing Extra Credits’s downfall firsthand? I have to admit I only saw their Uncanny Valley video before hearing of the backlash to their Nazi video years later. It’s a real shame because nobody was taking games that seriously in the early 2010s. To see them essentially become Jack Thompson-lite just like the rest of mainstream gaming criticism must’ve been heartbreaking.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nah, unfortunately (fortunately?) I had stopped watching a bit before they had their big downward drop in quality. No particular reason to stop at the time I did, just life taking me away from it. I do remember back when the videos were good, it was one of the things that made me feel better educated about the craft of the video game medium as a whole, and really helped me appreciate them on another level. But, alas, not anymore.

        That sounds about right, for the major journalism outlets. It’s really bizarre to me that people who’s job is to give subjective opinions get so riled up when other people’s subjective opinions clash with theirs. It’s not like you can be wrong about what you think of these. But you can be wrong about what other people think of them, which leads to these little outbursts. It smacks of insecurity to me, like you’re not brave enough to let your review, your own logic, stand on its own.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sounds like you dodged a bullet. It reminds me of how I stopped watching Channel Awesome a bit before their downfall. A lot of people think the Nazi video is where they fell off, but I would probably say that would be the one that argued that one cannot remove politics from game because “all media is political”. The argumentation was just as bad in that video; the Nazi video just made it more blatent. Kind of like the problems present in The Last of Us Part II, come to think of it.

          It’s like you said earlier; people who stir up drama and generate outrage are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to having their opinions challenged. They’re not especially great on offense given how weak their arguments are, but they’re even worse on defense. And you’re right; it just reeks of insecurity because if they had even the slightest bit of real confidence, they wouldn’t feel the need to discredit the other side. On a more general level, I find it highly ironic that, after a decade of looking down upon fantasy/anime fans as adult-children, the defenders of a highly grounded story would prove to be even more obnoxious. The way it’s defended reminds me a lot of the A24 Stans.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I remember, in the run up to its release, it felt like no game got the sort of fanfare that this one did … then, upon release, it got slated to the extent that, if it were a kid at school, it’s only real friend would have been Fallout 76 😂

    I never bought into the hype train that was The Last of Us and am glad I never bothered in the end to be fair (despite how enjoyable the first one was supposed to have been).

    I get the feeling it would work so much better as a screen adaption or a graphic novel.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The press went all in on a game that, at the end of the day, absolutely did not live up to the hype. Its sequel is pretty bad as well, though. Ooh!

      But anyway, you know you’re in dire straits when your game is getting compared to Fallout ‘76; that’s a great way of putting it. The problem is that the press needed it to be a masterpiece because it played nicely with their sensibilities, and they decided it would be a generation-defining work before it was released. If they were to admit the game’s myriad shortcomings, it would mean getting egg on their face for the overwhelming praise they heaped upon it. I can therefore buy that many critics overlooked said problems for no other reason than to save face.

      I would at least say you’re right about the original game. Almost every single problem with that game’s plot stemmed from the fact that it was, in fact, in a game. Had it been a film or miniseries, most of its issues would’ve been resolved. I still wouldn’t have liked it, and it wouldn’t have been especially original, but it would’ve been way more tolerable. That wouldn’t have worked for this game’s plot; it’s way too scatterbrained to make any sense out of. If this were a TV series, it would’ve been the moment it jumped the shark.

      Like

      • I just feel sorry for Laura Bailey. She was getting all sorts of death threats because of the things a video game character she voiced did … some people just aren’t fit to mix with other human beings. Anyone that can honestly think a voice actress is responsible for the actions of pixels on a screen probably shouldn’t be in the gene pool :/

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question that those people are complete idiots. It doesn’t even make any sense because she, as you say, had nothing to do with the plot turning out as poorly as it did. She did the best she could with the material she was handed, and her acting performances are part of the reason the game isn’t total garbage.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Nep’s Month in Gaming: September 2020 | Nepiki Gaming

  9. Pingback: Month in Review – September – Frostilyte Writes

    • Thank you! Glad you liked it. I knew from the very beginning that Naughty Dog would completely screw the pooch (heh) somewhere down the line by biting off more than they could chew. I just had no idea they’d do it this quickly or this suddenly.

      Believe it or not, I find myself likening this game to Bubsy 3D. Both games tend to be critiqued from the lens that the respective series were good up until the one that caused the bottom to fall out, but that’s not true. Obviously, The Last of Us Part II is a far better game, but like Bubsy 3D, it is, if anything, more guilty of having exacerbated problems the developer has always had than it is causing new problems to manifest. Much like how Bubsy was a series that never had especially strong level design that was made worse in three dimensions, The Last of Us was never an especially cerebral experience, but its sequel is a bonefide idiot plot.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Funny how Naughty Dog loves to tout how they made Crash Bandicoot (such as with that horrendous porn “joke” title), but making something like Crash Bandicoot again seems like the last thing they’d be interested in (though it would probably do them some good). I just got my copy of Crash 4 yesterday, and it’s a lot of fun. It has some perspective issues at times, but I’ll take that over “bigot sandwiches” any day.

        Like you said in your review, making the storyline focused on the fallout of Joel’s lie from the end of the first game, and how it unravels and effects his relationship with Ellie, would have made for an infinitely better (and logical) follow-up. I can think of how that could lead to many better scenarios (Ellie falling out with Joel, Joel subsequently becoming obsessed and mad, eventually devolving into the game’s villain). To just ignore that and explain it away in flashbacks as a side story is insulting to the people who did love the original and were invested in where it was going.

        Also, killing Joel at the start of the game was always going to end in disaster. And then to force the player to take on the role of his killer… how well did Naughty Dog think that was going to go over? At least, like you said, they could have found ways to make playing as Abby work (building up to Joel’s death). But having her kill Joel right out the gate (in such a cold blooded manner, no less), and then expecting the player to empathize with her… that really is Rian Johnson levels of “subverting expectations” at the expense of fans, basic logic, and entertainment.

        I heard about that guy comparing TLoU2 to Schindler’s List, which I find borderline offensive, considering the latter is about a real figure who saved thousands of lives during the holocaust. And as you pointed out, Schindler’s List – though difficult to watch at times – is ultimately about the good of humanity shining through even in the darkest times, with Oskar Schindler defying the nazis to save Jews. It’s the exact opposite of what something like TLoU2 is trying to be.

        I definitely need to revise my review of the first Last of Us, as my opinion of it has changed wildly over the years. I myself am tempted to review TLoU2, but that would mean I would have to play it, and I just don’t think I want to.

        Anyway, great review again.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Nah, that would imply they have actual talent on their team. Interesting how Crash ended up with a more competent developer, huh? At first people were dismayed, but it looks like it worked out for the best in the long run.

          Now, here’s a sense of déjà vu; back when I reviewed The Last Jedi, I was constantly getting better ideas for stories and plot developments in the comments section. Here we are again because you just came up with a far better idea; making Joel the villain of the game would have been amazing. Fans still probably would’ve been upset, but it was a far more logical progression, and I think it could be done without besmirching his character. But no, they made what could have been its own story into what amounts to extra content. What a waste.

          I don’t think it was impossible to pull off, but the odds were massively against them. Even a legitimately talented team of writers would be hard-pressed to do that. Even as someone who didn’t particularly like Joel, I get why fans were so angry over the development given how half-assed his death was. Sure, the scene acts as though it has actual weight behind it, but it’s entirely fake. And making players control Abby after she has gotten her revenge is the exact wrong way to write a character like that. I think we have Rian Johnson to blame for making “subverting expectations” uncool, and this game absolutely cribs from his playbook.

          Game journalists have issued some pretty inane statements in the past, but Mr. Cannata’s takes the inanity to a whole new level. I do like watching professional critics trip over themselves trying to justify why a game that contains the line “Bigot sandwiches” is top-tier writing. I know I wouldn’t want to be in that position; I’ll settle for the far simpler task of explaining why a game that contains the line “I’m the legendary fartmaster” is worthy of a 10/10.

          Hm… Am I to assume that you don’t think the original game has held up so well? A lot of critical reviews of this game operate under the assumption that the original is a timeless masterpiece, but as I pointed out, a majority (if not all of) this game’s worst mistakes had some kind of precedent. These were problems that had been festering in Naughty Dog’s writing and game design for a while, and this marked the moment it all came crashing down. You can only point out your problems without lifting a finger to fix them for so long, after all.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Listening/reading log #12 (September 2020) | Everything is bad for you

  11. Pingback: September 2020 in Summary: Roundabout | Extra Life

  12. For the record, if a homophobe was forced to give me food, especially expensive food, I would eat it gleefully right in front of that person’s face, no apocalypse required.

    Unfortunately, I did not play either The Last of Us’s, as zombie apocalypse games are not really my thing, but whenever one game is so immensely polarizing, I’m instantly wary about it. Of course, I also played Mass Effect 3 and didn’t think it was as bad as everyone said it was, so maybe I just don’t know anything about games. But what I will say is that I don’t appreciate a game punishing you for wanting to play it. I think we talked about this in regards to Spec Ops: The Line, too.

    Anyway, fantastic review as always. I’m also very disappointed with the direction Extra Credits has recently gone. I appreciated their rationality and reason when there seemed to be so little of that in mainstream gaming journalism, but that doesn’t seem to be the focus anymore… It’s concerning that they took that reputation and ran in a different direction with it, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! Glad someone agreed with that. I would totally have done that if I were in Ellie’s shoes, and I would have made sure to have the smuggest grin possible the entire time. I know I said that Mr. Druckmann wrote that scene as though Ellie were a teenager from this world, but it’s far more accurate to say she is written the way a Gen Xer thinks that’s how the young folks nowadays talk because I could never imagine anyone actually saying stuff like that. For whatever reason, today’s writers really don’t know how to write young people. It’s true the world has changed quite a bit since they were teenagers, but they don’t even try.

      And honestly? It’s not worth the effort. Yeah, you’ll probably get people appalled that you didn’t experience “gaming’s Citizen Kane moment”, but the fact of the matter is that The Last of Us wasn’t really that good to begin with. In fact, I gave the original game the exact same grade – the only difference is that the original The Last of Us reached this tier as a result of disqualification whereas The Last of Us Part II truly earned its spot here. It’s all because Mr. Druckmann and company were too complacent with being only slightly better than the average AAA game in terms of storytelling, and their unwillingness to improve cost them big time when they tried and failed to be trailblazers.

      If what I’ve heard is true, Mass Effect 3, if nothing else, can claim to have gameplay improved from that of its two predecessors. The Last of Us doesn’t even have that. Sure, the sequel is technically an improvement, but we’re talking a game of mediocre (or even poor) quality being upgraded to one of adequate quality. There are plenty of other games out there such as Resident Evil 4 and Metal Gear Solid 3 that have the same gameplay highs without the treasure trove of problems this game has. Similarly, there are plenty of video game stories that are far more intellectuality satisfying such as Planescape: Torment, 999, and Virtue’s Last Reward that don’t have nearly as many character inconsistencies.

      I did get a real Spec Ops: The Line feel from this game. It’s not as blatant because the narrative never really breaks the fourth wall, but railroad-shaming is not a narrative design choice that has stood the test of time. Indeed, by 2020, an increasingly common consensus was that the signature scene from Spec Ops: The Line hasn’t aged well, and I’m glad more people are seeing that. We probably have Undertale to thank for kiboshing that storytelling technique once and for all, and Mr. Druckmann’s unwillingness to get with the times just makes him and his company look foolish.

      Glad you liked the review. The problem with Extra Credits now is that they subscribe to the same kind of manufactured progressivism that the mainstream media (most notably, Hollywood) invented. The problem is that it came about because of a disinterested marketing department who thinks that what the kids are into than the activists who actually want to effect positive changes. The result is that certain films from the 1950s come across as far more progressive than 99% of what Hollywood (or anyone following their lead) is doling out now.

      Plus, there’s the fact that it turns out corporations love the anti-audience approach mainstream critics have taken just as much because now they have a legion of Stans with a lot of reach blindly defending everything they do. Naturally, the problem with this is that even people who are on the same side of the political spectrum are turning away from these products; confirmation bias can only get you so far, after all. And I think it says something that nobody in this comments section fits the profile of what Extra Credits (or Mr. Druckmann) have created for the haters, yet nobody has lifted a finger to defend them. I was expecting something of a backlash to this review, yet the only problem anyone had with it was that I gave the game too low of a score (which is fair given that I don’t use a conventional grading scale).

      The Last of Us Part II is definitely a product of that same ignorant, self-centered Hollywood culture, which means even just four months later, it is excruciatingly dated. If they, Hollywood, or Extra Credits wind up fatally hemorrhaging money and goodwill, they will have no one to blame but themselves (not that they wouldn’t go down swinging, of course).

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Damn, man. This is by far the best review of the game out there. I’ve watched countless anti-TLOU Part II reviews on Youtube to see what common points they all had, many never really discussing the very issues I had with this one, but you nailed it. Naughty Dogs should read this post alone to understand why things weren’t unanimous at all with their latest game. Thanks for putting into words every single thing worth mentioning. Actually, what’s your analysis process? Do you take notes while playing in preparation for its review? 😮

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey, thanks! Glad you liked it that much. Bet you never thought you’d never say that about a review that gave this game a 3/10, huh? Then again, I never anticipated that this review would prove so uncontroversial.

      I myself heard out those detractors on YouTube. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of overlap between them and those critical of The Last Jedi, and while they did make mostly cogent points, I could tell there was much more of a conservative bend to their criticisms this time. It wasn’t as obvious when they lambasted The Last Jedi because the lip service to the left in that film ended up forming the weakest story beats, but it was far more difficult to hide when they parsed The Last of Us Part II given the ambiguous note upon which the previous game ended. It still ended up being useful because I was approaching the game as a non-fan, so there were plenty of problems (most notably, Joel’s out-of-character behavior in the moments leading up to his death) I didn’t really catch onto at first. Everyone else was livid or in tears, but I was more like “Yup, should’ve seen that coming”.

      It would be nice if Naughty Dog read this article and took the criticisms to heart, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. You see, they’ve always had difficulties accepting constructive criticism – even as early as Uncharted 4. I intend to elaborate in an editorial I’m typing up, but the long and short of it is that if Mr. Druckmann wasn’t willing to accept criticism when he was on top of the world, he’s going to be less inclined now that his reputation is shot and he’s being bombarded with death threats and racist remarks. It is very unfortunate that he would be subjected to such abysmal treatment, but I must point out that, for various reasons, he is not entirely innocent.

      I was taking notes for this particular review. I usually start by filling in the pros/cons list and work my way from there. It serves as an outline for me and a summary for the reader.

      Like

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