The first Last of Us game is almost universally regarded as one of the greatest games of all time. It is a masterpiece in storytelling, setting a high standard for excellence in how to deliver a raw, emotional and ambitious story through the medium of video gaming. It was no surprise then that the announcement of the game’s sequel — The Last of Us Part II — created a tidal wave of hype and enthusiasm among the gaming community. For over three years leading up to the game’s release, The Last of Us Part II was one of the most anticipated and wanted games, with many gamers excited to find out how Ellie and Joel’s story in the first game would continue.
Looking back, I don’t think anyone would have expected The Last of Us Part II to become one of the most polarizing and controversial video games ever released.
The game does go a different direction than the original and the narrative risks that Naughty Dog decided to take for Part II really struck a nerve with some “diehard” fans of the original. Although most of the game’s plot was kept ambiguous and well under wraps in the game’s early trailers, a leak of a section of the game in late April 2020 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The gameplay in question contained a major plot point that validated Naughty Dog’s intention to move on from some elements that made the original so beloved, outraging a vocal segment of fans.
The Last of Us’ fanbase — and by extension a lot of the gaming community at large — became increasingly more divided following the leaks. It seemed like gamers fell into two diametrically opposed groups at the time, with one side still excited for the game and willing to give it a fair chance and the other side vehemently against the game and everything it stood for. In the month and a half following the leaks until the launch of the game, there was a significant amount of tension and bad blood regarding the game that circulated the web. Displeased fans were openly bashing Part II, posting spoilers (some real, some fake) to ruin the experience for others and harassing and threatening those involved in the production of the game.
The Last of Us Part II was probably one of the most talked about games in May and early June, and nobody even had their hands on it at the time.
Now that the dust has settled a bit, I really do not think that much has changed. The Last of Us Part II was exceptionally well received by critics and praised by many gamers, but that hasn’t changed the minds of some people who still intensely despise the game. For every ounce of praise the game receives, there is an equal amount of hatred. The Metacritic distribution of user scores on the game says it all:
The Last of Us Part II, and the circumstances surrounding its release, is what ultimately prompted me to start writing game reviews. The divisiveness of this game created a lot of noise, and I felt that a more comprehensive analysis of the game was warranted in order to provide my friends and fellow gamers with a perspective on the game that could be trusted.
My review of the Last of Us Part II is divided into two halves, the aspects of the game I liked and the parts that were lackluster and could use improvement. On one side of the spectrum, I believe the game tells a highly nuanced story that covers a lot of topics and themes that aren’t normally explored in video games. It also does an incredibly stellar job at humanizing the characters and their struggles in the game’s post-apocalyptic world. On the flip side, the game has some pacing issues — attributed to some story decisions as well as level design — that diminishes the overall payoff of the story at times and disengages the player.
Before I start, there is one disclaimer that I would like to make. I want to ensure that my thoughts on this game are as spoiler-free as possible, but I do not think that I can meaningfully discuss the elements I want without acknowledging a significant narrative choice that the Naughty Dog team made and wanted to keep as a surprise to players going into the game blind.
There are two primary playable characters in the game — Ellie from the first game, and a new character named Abby. One of the game’s most pivotal moments, which occurs within the first two hours, sparks the game’s central conflict. Abby and her gang commit a reprehensible act of violence that devastates Ellie and her community, prompting Ellie to seek out Abby and her gang to bring them to justice. You start the game as Ellie, and viewing things from her perspective, you despise Abby for what she has done. Partway through, you play a large stretch of the game as Abby. Being able to experience the game from her point of view, which I will elaborate on more in the review, makes these two separate story arcs complement and work together so well.
Humanization of Characters
Coming into this game, I was expecting it to be incredibly dark and bleak throughout. To my surprise, the game was able to strike a decent balance between brutality and sheer violence with more lighthearted moments that effectively highlight the strong bonds between characters. Many sections of the game, where you’re travelling with a companion, removes you from the underlying danger and tension they constantly face as you listen to these characters have personal conversations that shed light on their personalities, what they stand for, etc.
This is particularly true for supporting characters, as these moments ultimately humanize them and give you reasons to care about what happens to them. In the case of Abby’s gang, getting to know each member more intimately changes your perception of them from their first appearance in the game. I think this is a big part of what makes Abby’s part of the game so effective. Although you initially develop a hatred for Abby and her friends, when you play the game from Abby’s perspective you realize that these people are still humans trying to survive in their world and overcome the cards dealt to them.
One member of Abby’s gang that epitomizes Naughty Dog’s “don’t judge a book by its cover” mentality towards developing this group of characters is Mel. Like all members of Abby’s gang, Ellie views all of them as vile, wicked and deserving of justice for their wrongdoings. Without context around these characters, the player is initially led to view Abby’s gang with the same hostility that Ellie harbors. In Abby’s section of the game, you learn that Mel possesses a more pacifist personality and was uncomfortable with the act of violence that Abby committed at the start. Minor spoiler, Mel also makes a huge difference in her community as a medic, saving the lives of the people keeping it safe. These new revelations that shed light on Abby’s gang force you to revisit your initial impression of them and question whether or not you agree with how Ellie perceives them.
Regarding Ellie and Abby, I thought Naughty Dog did a fine job at illustrating the complex motivations and history of each character throughout the game. I admired how the game showed Ellie grappling with the aftermath of the first game, and how it impacted her relationship with Joel. Additionally, Part II probably has one of the most realistic depictions of PTSD I’ve seen in media in the form of Ellie’s lasting trauma from what she goes through in this game. For Abby, I praise how the game examined her sense of morals, illustrating the nuances of human morality and how it is never black and white. Although Abby demonstrates that she can justify violence as an acceptable course of action, she is also troubled by the consequences of failing to prevent it which is a critical element of her larger story arc.
There’s nobody in the right or wrong — the story
The one thing I really like about the Last of Us Part II’s story is that many of the actions that characters undertake are open for debate and the game actively forces you to re-assess your loyalties for each character. Where this is explored prominently is through the interplay between Ellie and Abby’s storylines in the game. Although there are differences between their character arcs, there are also many similarities and the game makes it easy to directly compare and contrast the two.
At the start, you side with Ellie and her thirst for vengeance, but this gradually shifts as you experience more of the game from Abby’s perspective. In many ways, the decisions Abby makes in her section of the game helps redeem her in the eyes of player, and it is soon apparent that she isn’t as cold-blooded as her introduction leads you to believe. Initially, I thought this split narrative structure would be ineffective but in retrospect it does a good job of slowly changing your perception of Abby as her story progresses. In comparing Abby’s heroism in the second half of the game with Ellie’s ruthless quest for revenge in the first half, you start to ask yourself questions — does Ellie ever cross the line in seeking revenge? Does Abby’s storyline make up for the violence act she chose to commit in the beginning? Etc. I really like how this game doesn’t give a clear cut yes or no answer for the various things that happen so you can come to a conclusion yourself and engage with differing views from other players.
Nonetheless, I thought the story had some powerful, emotional moments, and I would like to draw specific attention to the stellar flashback scenes that were interspersed throughout the game. Many of the major flashbacks were heart-wrenching and memorable with what happens in them and how the characters interact with one another. The acting in this game was fantastic and I enjoyed the contrast between Ellie and Abby as their stories both deal with how they reacted differently to the act of violence that set things in motion, which is the common thread that ties everything together.
Although it is just as inconclusive as the first, the ending to Part II offers a thoughtful and gripping conclusion to Ellie and Abby’s story arcs. When the credits rolled in my playthrough, I felt breathless because the ending evoked a rollercoaster of contrasting emotions. The ending of Part II encourages you to empathize with the characters, and in doing so you experience their feelings of sorrow and uncertainty — as well as hope — as they move past the events of the game and contemplate their futures. I felt that the ending did not diminish the time I invested into Ellie and Abby’s sections of the game and make any of these parts feel like it was for nothing, and I liked how the ending subverts the expectations of those expecting a textbook revenge story by capping the game off with a powerful message about forgiveness.
The combat in Part II is fairly consistent with the first game, although I really liked the added emphasis on stealth. The human enemies this game were much more intimidating, although the infected seemed to be less of a threat this time around. The best part is how cathartic and satisfying it is to violently put down enemies in this game, as messed up as that sounds. All the movement and combat mechanics feel super fluid (especially with Ellie’s mobility and speed) and not overly clunky, and atmospherically the battle sequences are quite tense particularly with the music.
I feel like looting in this game feels more rewarding with more places to investigate and loot, but there are some negative implications which I will explain in the ‘Bad’ section of the review.
One final positive worth mentioning — Ellie and Abby have different combat properties, weapons and kits and I’m glad they didn’t make Abby a carbon copy of Ellie and decided to shake things up with how each character plays.
With level design, I will give credit to Naughty Dog for making more ambitious levels to foster greater exploration. However, exploring these levels can sometimes be overwhelming — on a given street, there could be 5–6 buildings that could be looted. The sheer scale of these environments makes it easy to get lost or disoriented, and it is a challenge to keep track of where you’ve already visited as you move forward. It doesn’t help either that sometimes these streets and avenues both branch out and intertwine, which makes navigation almost maze-like.
From a combat perspective, I didn’t find that the open level design added much to combat, at least in normal difficulty. More often than not, you could easily manage fights by camping in one spot rather than running across the map and using the expansiveness of the space to your advantage to get the upper hand on enemies. Perhaps movement matters more in higher difficulties, but I just felt that the overall number and arrangement of enemies didn’t complement the increased size of each level. It would have been better I think to have 1.5 to 2x the number of enemies in each open outside area.
The slow pacing that makes some sections of Part II feel incredibly drawn out is my biggest gripe with the game. These pacing issues stem from (1) the incredibly large set pieces and areas I elaborated on above and (2) parts of the story that just involve getting from point A to point B, which contain few story developments that meaningfully advance the plot.
There are notable stretches in the game where you’re simply travelling (to find someone of importance) and coupled with the level design there are times where you feel like the game is dragging on and you’re not hitting a big milestone as quickly as you expected. In retrospect, this is a weakness of the first few hours of Ellie’s storyline in Seattle, where only a few events of note take place despite the significant amount of ground Ellie covers. Only after these parts do you get to the meat of Ellie’s story where things start to pick up.
Although I have no complaints about environmental storytelling, there were parts within the first halves of Ellie and Abby’s storylines where it was back to back sequences of fighting and looting with limited story revelations and developments. The tedious pacing in these sections is further intensified during parts where your character is alone, as you don’t get any dialogue with a companion. The pacing was better during the second half of each character’s stories (especially Abby’s, the last half was jaw-droppingly amazing) and the flashbacks spread across the story were generally always a welcome treat regardless of what happened before it.
Perhaps the lackluster pacing was exacerbated by a limited variety of environments, which is especially true for first two-thirds of Ellie’s story where much of it consists of traversing through overgrown neighborhoods and downtown streets. To contrast this, the latter hours of Abby’s section featured much greater diversity in the types of places visited, which made this stretch of the game more exhilarating to play.
Ultimately, I feel like this game suffers from one of the main issues with Uncharted 4 which is that some parts of the game felt more long-winded than they needed to be. Although I can see some players liking how the game embraces a slower pace at times, I personally felt that the pacing in these slower stretches made it tougher for me to stay invested in the current objectives of the character I was controlling. In my opinion, the length of Part II could have been condensed by several hours without weakening it.
Some 30–40 hour games don’t feel slow at all (most of the time) because the player experiences and observes something significantly new across each chapter of the game, which makes things constantly feel fresh. Unfortunately, I can’t say I had the same experience during some parts of The Last of Us Part II.
All things considered, I thought the Last of Us Part II was a great game.
Although I have some issues with the game’s level design and pacing, it was not poor enough to detach me from the game completely and certainly didn’t prevent the game from leaving a lasting impression. Part II shines in presenting grounded, multifaceted characters that you can really stand behind and the story grabbed my attention and delivered hard-hitting, raw moments like the original game that I will remember. This game is a master class in subverting expectations, with key events and revelations never failing to keep me constantly surprised (in a good way!) while at the same time not being too confusing or nonsensical. This feeling of not really knowing what will happen next is what keeps you hungry for more. For me, I really like to be moved by the video games I play and the Last of Us Part II ultimately made me feel a whole slew of emotions through its dialogue, gameplay and atmosphere — happiness, intensity, tension, emotional heaviness. The list goes on.
I do think that the first Last of Us had a stronger, more focused narrative that flowed better, but The Last of Us Part II does bring something special to the table even though Naughty Dog approached the story from a whole new direction. I wouldn’t say the game is as generation-defining as its predecessor, but I can’t hesitate in calling this an astounding game that is worth playing and worthy of the praise it has received.