The Last of Us is a world full of awful people who do awful things, and its sequel is more of that awfulness enhanced by new technologies and graphics and a design ethos that only a studio like Naughty Dog can come up with. It is a pathos of brutality upped to the Nth degree with a story about the cycle of violence and the trail of revenge. It is a game that says killing people is bad and makes you feel bad for killing said people even though those people are awful. You should feel awful too, because video games.
For me, as pompous as this sequel tries to be, I can’t help but feel detached from it. It’s a feeling I had while playing it and still have after I’ve completed it. While it’s a beautifully rendered game and its gameplay is top notch with amazing enemy takedowns and use of equipment and axes to the faces of said awful people, the narrative disconnect is so heavily apparent more so in this title than any of Naughty Dog’s previous outings that I often found myself scratching my head at many character choices made within this title. Whereas the first game was narratively sound with a beginning, middle and an ending that most felt did not warrant a sequel, The Last of Us Part 2 stumbles with its narrative effort, unfortunately weighted down by it’s own story and the pieces it tries to juggle while it handles a tale of revenge, violence cycles, and more across a 20+ hour campaign. That doesn’t make it a bad or awful game as there is still a lot to like within this title; however, it presents The Last of Us 2 as a subtly disappointing venture into a world with familiar characters we’ve grown to appreciate and new ones that just aren’t as likable.
The brutal revenge quest picks up quickly from the events of the first game, embracing “the lie heard around the world” that Joel told Ellie and building off that relationship and seeing where the characters have come some 5 years later. The unfortunate thing is that this game prefers to obtuse the information about these characters and jar and confuse you with flashbacks, and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks that the narrative dissonance comes across as poorly done. If the driving force of the game is the relationship between Ellie and Joel, why would this game decide to create gaps in our knowledge of what Ellie knows? We’re supposed to understand her as a character (she’s half of the game) and we’re supposed to at least relate or empathize with her but we can’t because Naughty Dog prefers to twirl its mustache and sip tea in ways that don’t serve the story in a clear and concise manner. It’s purposely done to lie to you because you aren’t a “good guy,” in this story but clearly painted as the villain in someone else’s story. That the game pulls a Metal Gear Solid 2-esque switch about halfway through only adds to the story nonsense as we are then placed in the shoes of Abby, who at this point in the story we’re built to hate, but then it attempts to make us empathize with her as we witness her struggles and relationships and what she endures to get to where she is at in the story and eventually the game’s somber ending.
The ordeal of “two sides of the same coin” isn’t a new one in video games but if we’re trying to understand a single character’s motivations and empathize, it helps to focus on that character for the entire game. The switch only serves to add weight to an already heavy story, bogging it down with unnecessary baggage because the attempt is to make you feel bad for doing bad things from two different perspectives. You cannot give me the capability to defeat an entire army and create a bloodbath and then hang it over my head trying to make me feel a type of way for killing a specific character. This happens on multiple occasions within the story and created a disconnect for me. Why should I feel bad for killing this main story character when I just spent the past minutes or hour annihilating his/her entire party in various brutal manners befitting of a Hostel film? What happens when I’m holding my controller should match what’s happening onscreen and it is this case that The Last of Us Part 2 falters. The narrative is oftentimes disconnected from the play and its most notable when it tries to have you empathize with two awful characters doing awful things to one another and the people around them.
It’s a shame that the game cannot escape its own trappings. It would be ideal for these characters to just exist in the tragic space that is the world of The Last Of Us, and explore them as people simply trying to survive but the game is so adamant in exploring its revenge themes and cyclic violence it almost forgets what we enjoyed about the narrative discourse of the original game. The first Last of Us was willing to tell a painful story dripped with a faint sense of hope about tragic people in a tragic situation and how their bond work to give them both something to fight for. That seems all but forgotten in this game, merely showcased within the games opening hours before the tragedy that befalls Ellie drives her into the downward spiral of “kill All the Things.” The age-old proverb, “when you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves,” is central to the core of the game, but is not told in a fashion becoming of the characters. Naughty Dog is content to perform narrative gymnastics instead of trusting the player to make the decision for themselves, inadvertently lying to us very much in the same way Joel lied to Ellie.
I know it sounds like I’m being overly harsh on the narrative part of this game, and its only because I expected a much better, clearer and more concise ordeal. The playable flashbacks and flashback interludes just served to infuriate me as a watcher and player. In an already long and drawn out game that is perhaps 5-6 hours too long, it is agonizing to see trauma and violence play out for such a long runtime. What I hope to have gathered at this point is not that the narrative is poor, but that the way it is told is poorly done. The Last of Us Part 2 is almost exhausting as it is violent, and it loves to shove it into your face and spit on you while it does so. Thankfully, in the areas that also matter when it comes to video games, the technical mastery and graphical fidelity on display are amongst Naughty Dog and the PlayStation 4’s best.
I’m still amazed at how much the PlayStation 4 can pump out beautiful vistas the way it does. Every first party title has been the benchmark of graphical nuance for Sony’s machine, from Horizon: Zero Dawn’s lush landscape to God of War’s detailed creatures and environments. Naughty Dog first experimented with the PlayStation 4 remastering the original game at the beginning of the PS4’s life, took a homerun swing with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and now lays up the swan song year with one of the most beautifully detailed games I have ever bore witness to. Grass moves in such a way I can almost feel it on my own skin. Sweat, mud and blood all adhere to characters how they would in real life. No detail is spared a shortcut, even down to how characters properly hold their guns. Everything is all given meticulous poignant detail from look to sound. I think the last game that paid this much attention to detail was Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, and if the similar crunch culture between the two developers is anything to go buy, Naughty Dog’s persistent need to be perfect is on full display here with The Last of Us Part 2’s graphical quality. I could spend an entire article complaining about how crunch culture can potentially kill the video game industry, but the folks at Naughty Dog have outdone themselves yet again. It’s hard to imagine this was the studio that made the original Crash Bandicoot some 24-odd years back and here they are giving us a game that is as close to realism as they come.
The best enhancement for me is found within the gameplay of The Last of Us. Ellie is more agile and nimble than Joel and the design of the encounter areas and the shooting mechanics show this off to great detail. There is a better degree of verticality in the game as Ellie can run, climb, slide and even jump over terrain and obstacles. This allows you to approach enemies with a sort of elite viciousness, as Ellie is like a cat with its claws out ready to swipe at the throats of any who oppose her.
If Ellie is the nimble cat, then Abby would be the mad dog with its back up against the wall. The differences between Ellie and Abby are night and day. Abby is obviously a much stronger character to play as, with the same amount of visceral brutality that Ellie displays but with the added benefit of her musculature as she’s been training her whole life to survive in the harsh world that is present within this game. Abby also has a fear of heights, a character trait that leads to some interesting scenarios in the game (my personal fave being a section where you must traverse a skyscraper DOWNWARDS), and some of the game’s best fights and set pieces. I’ve said more than enough regarding the narrative and Abby’s role within the story. She’s a blast to play as, I definitely felt for her in regards to the experiences she went through and undertook, but at the end of the day, her story, much like a lot of this game, can be summed up in the same way Ellie responded to Joel’s swearing by his story: that lonely, enunciated ‘ok.’
The Last of Us Part 2 will no doubt come across as a divisive game. The leaks earlier leading up to its release generated controversy and a lot of disgusting remarks about the nature of the game. Abby was mislabeled as a transgender character; some claimed the leaks showcased the ending (they didn’t) and the general disdain for what Naughty Dog may have delivered us showed through the only way the dark side of the internet knew how. Even the response to the LGBTQ+ issues within the game was met with immature disdain, except for one area involving the correct transgender character, Lev. Lev’s experiences are an incredibly emotional touchpoint within the story, but is unfortunately overshadowed by the games incessant desire to maintain its status quo on violence, revenge and awful people that even some members of the transgender community felt it was poorly done.
Divisiveness aside, The Last of Us Part 2 is a technical marvel and an incredible benchmark game for the PlayStation 4 that it will no doubt be whispered amongst discussions as a contender for Game of the Year despite the mixed reception. While I personally enjoyed the game, it was definitely a trying and arduous effort to sit through and ultimately a slight dissatisfaction with the story and how it was told. It was a game made difficult to sit through because of the weight of its subject matter. In the context of an awful world filled with awful people and the way the game ends, however, that may have been Naughty Dog’s point after all.