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The Last of Us Part II

Platform(s): PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: June 19, 2020


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In-Depth PS4 Review - 'The Last of Us: Part II'

by Redmond Carolipio on July 3, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

The Last of Us Part II is a sequel to the action/adventure series set a few years after the original, revolving around Ellie as main character instead of Joel.

Buy The Last of Us Part II

SPOILER WARNING: This piece contains analysis of some major plot points and events within The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II. If you want to avoid seeing that and wish to see a spoiler-free take from us, check out Chris Barnes' review. Thank you for reading!

No one ever truly "wins" in a revenge tale. You've probably encountered several proverbs about revenge quoted in movies, TV or books, like the one about how "revenge is a dish best served cold" or that "before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves."

However, it's hellfire fury that fuels the brand of vengeance seen in The Last of Us: Part II, and after a little more than two playthroughs, I'm still left with the realization that two graves aren't enough for both the people in this game and myself as a player on a physical and spiritual level. The people at Naughty Dog have crafted something that gradually stacks 100-pound plates of tragic emotion onto the backs of players and asks them to carry that weight over the course of roughly 20 hours. It is a brutal, suffocating and visceral piece that leaves you exhausted at the end.

If blood vengeance is the main narrative string tangled throughout this experience, then ugly violence is the glue. For better and worse, Naughty Dog has also built an art piece on death, forcing players to visually confront the physical and mental consequences of the act of killing.

It's one death in particular that sets this tale in motion, and that's where our analysis starts.

Story (AKA We need to talk about Joel)

After having gamers fall in love with the story of Joel and Ellie's journey in the first game, director Neil Druckmann and the Naughty Dog crew waste little time in taking some massive risks in the storytelling and character-building for The Last of Us: Part II. Some of those chances deal with Ellie's evolution into a gay, 18- or 19-year-old skilled survivor of the diseased apocalypse who forges a budding relationship with Dina, a new character who ultimately serves as Ellie's beacon of light. Their interaction and chemistry throughout Ellie's quest was one of my favorite parts of playing.

However, I can't go any further without mentioning the galactic chances the story takes with Joel, who starts the game by dishing the truth of the first game's final moments to Tommy: How he took Ellie from the Fireflies resistance group, "saving" her from a surgery process that would have killed her but also made use of her immunity to create a vaccine that would have practically cured humanity of the terrifying, monster-spawning disease that had closed its fist around the world. Then, to top it all off, he lies to Ellie about it afterward. As Tommy digests this for the first time, all he can muster in response is, "That's … a lot."

I remember playing through that rescue scene in the first game, yelling "Noooo!" as Joel burst into the makeshift hospital room and killed the lead surgeon standing in front of him. I wondered where something like this would fall for Joel on the karmic scale.

He finally pays his price in the first hour or so in The Last of Us: Part II, and his reckoning comes in the form of Abby, a new character who you actually get to play as earlier in the game as a way for Naughty Dog to start bleeding in another perspective. It's a subtle introduction when you first step into her boots, but you immediately get the feeling that something is up with Abby and that she holds significant importance to the overall story arc. She fights off and eludes Infected all over the place en route to scoping out the Jackson, Wyoming, camp community where Joel, Ellie and many other characters live. While running from trouble, she even runs into Tommy and Joel, who rescue her. In return, they work together to outrun an infected horde, finding safety with Abby's group of friends who are seeking refuge in an abandoned mansion.

This leads to the galvanizing event in The Last of Us: Part II and one of two galactic gambles Naughty Dog could make in its story: Joel — and this is actually hard to write, even now — is betrayed, shot in the leg, held down and beaten to full, blood-squirting-from-his-smashed-skull death in front of Ellie at the hands of Abby. It is a horrifying and sickening scene to watch and will likely toss players into a brief emotional tornado.

There's a moment you can see and feel the trouble for Joel brewing: When Joel is introduced to the rest of Abby's friends at the mansion, they stop what they're doing and start looking around. They recognize the name. Joel even mentions it. That's when Abby blasts him in the leg with a shotgun and reveals her emotions on her face as she spits out the deep, vengeful hate she feels toward him. Ellie eventually makes her way there, only to be taken down and made to watch Joel's last moments. They are gruesome and unceremonious, with Ellie pleading for Joel to get up and Abby landing one fatal deathblow with the golf club she's been smashing into Joel for quite some time. He gets in no last words, only maybe a small look at Ellie with the eye that wasn't on the bashed side of his face.

I didn't scream and yell or cry when it happened. I was just left stunned. Maybe I cursed. My ears were ringing with shock, much like Ellie's, but not ringing to the point where I couldn't hear Ellie's anguished cries. In a decision that certainly comes back to haunt her, Abby decides to let Ellie and Tommy live, her personal vendetta settled.

A move like this does a few things for me: It definitively separates the heart and soul of this game from its predecessor, which took exceptional care in building the Joel and Ellie relationship. With Joel so violently torn away, the player is forced to rebuild from scratch and watch Ellie transform into a single-minded avatar of vengeance, a personal journey that can be a little painful to watch. Joel's death also opens the door for more characters to sweep through Ellie's life. One of the more memorable ones is Dina, Ellie's extremely capable would-be girlfriend who accompanies Ellie on her revenge tour to Seattle, where Abby and her friends are based. We find they are part of an army called the Washington Liberation Front, known as the W.L.F., or Wolves.

I found Ellie's three-day odyssey through Seattle rich with moments that developed her character and others. I loved her enlightening banter with Dina as they explored each ruined environment, especially inside an abandoned synagogue. This is where we hear about Dina's Jewish heritage, which as history would tell you, is a heritage built on survival.

To perhaps prevent people from walking off a cliff and away from all this misery, the story also features playable flashbacks that focus on key points in Ellie and Joel's life since the events of the first game. For anyone reeling from Joel's death and finding themselves needing just a little fix of that Joel and Ellie energy, these can be a tonic. I won't go through them all, but the most impactful one that brought some tears to my eyes (and still will, if I saw it again) is when Joel takes 14-year-old Ellie to an abandoned museum for her birthday. It's a surprise, and it's the most inner light anyone has ever seen between the two of them. We learn about Ellie's love, knowledge and excitement over dinosaurs, climbing the giant one outside and bellowing, "I'm on a m-----f------ dinosaur!!" before jumping off into a pool of water.

Then she finds the floor on space travel, yet another thing she's apparently into, perhaps even more than the dinosaurs. There is a moment of pure joy Joel and Ellie share in a life-size replica of the innards of a shuttle cockpit that elicits a feeling that almost can't be described with justice: Ellie sits in the cockpit with a space helmet on, Joel sits next to her and hands her an actual cassette tape. Ellie fires it up — and it's audio of a shuttle launch countdown. Ellie hangs back, listens to the countdown, closes her eyes, and we get to see her imagination start to run free. She's a kid with a dream, and it's beautiful. When the countdown and launch ends and she returns to reality, Joel asks her, "Did I do OK?" It's just one scene, but it's a small triumph of visuals, directing and storytelling that won't be easy to replicate.

Each conversation, each piece of lore you read, each scribbled entry into Ellie's journal adds color and depth to the person she is, which is why it can occasionally be an abrupt reminder of her mission when she states her willingness to torture and kill her enemies, Arya Stark-style, on the way to discover Abby's location. As she tells one of her targets, dying of infection, "I can make it quick, or I can make it much, much worse."

It's when Ellie and Abby finally meet again on the third day of Ellie's Seattle trip where the game throws you the second epic story curveball: You play the next half of the game in Abby's shoes, recounting her own three-day journey in Seattle up to the point that she faces Ellie again, along with flashbacks of her own that build her story and perspective, along with the stories and development of her friends. Her path almost runs parallel to Ellie's in a variety of ways, and we learn that she has a very, very justified reason for wanting Joel dead, and given the earlier mention of the consequences of death and Joel's choices in the past, you can probably make a solid guess as to what that reason is.

I'm still somewhat torn on this because while I understand the narrative decision to add a different point of view and balance to the overall tale, it's still a tectonic shift from all the momentum I had built up with Ellie. Now I'm being asked to invest in someone I don't "know" and who killed half of a character duo that a lot of people really loved. It's a heavy lift, and if you do that, Abby's story had better be worth it. In some ways, it is.

Abby's point of view sort of bursts the bubble of a world that we've really only seen through Ellie's eyes. We learn more about how the rest of the world has changed, what happened to the Fireflies after Ellie was taken, the splinter groups that formed as a result, as well as another group called the Seraphites, a cult built around the teachings of a martyred prophet. Apparently, Seattle's human-on-human conflict since the outbreak revolved around a war between the W.L.F. and the cultists, derisively referred to by the Wolves as "Scars." Through Abby and some of her missions, you learn more about the Seraphites and their perspective, especially when a pair of young outcast Seraphites save Abby from certain death and one of them teams up with Abby for a few outings, the most memorable being a trip across a "sky bridge" that the Seraphites built to evade the ground forces of the Wolves.

Abby's story is less about survival and more about her coming to grips with what happened with Joel and what's happening within her own circle of people, which includes some awkward love-triangle stuff and some conflict among what she wants, what her W.L.F. compatriots want, her personal encounter with the Seraphites and the eventual crossing once again into Ellie's path. Abby and her circle come across as regular, even likeable, people who are in the middle of their own journey that just happens to crash, harshly, into someone else's.

That said, I think Abby probably had one scene too many. A lot of her emotional story takes place in flashbacks at an old aquarium, with her then-boyfriend Owen, who honestly (and by Abby's own playful admission) is kind of a dork. It was at one of these scenes where I felt that things were starting to drag, to the point where I flipped past a couple of these cinematics during my second playthrough. There's also a desperation-charged sex scene between them that I didn't think was necessary near the end. I'm no prude — I already get that they have a rocky, baggage-filled but passionate connection. I'm not sure I needed the sight of Abby getting bent over to reinforce it.

I tend to look at Abby in a similar light of the Killmonger character from "Black Panther" — another person who had every justifiable right to be angry at what's happened and levels blame in the right direction. However, he (and the movie) were able to take a lot less time in getting us to see his point.

Stepping back and looking at the whole story arc, it's really two separate, time-jumping tales of two women connected through ultimate loss and pain: Ellie lives with being the former "chosen one" who could have saved humanity and didn't get the chance, while Abby was directly tied to the people who could have altered the future and was robbed of everything. Each confrontation between them is memorable on its own merits. One features a brilliant twist that will almost give you a strange sense of pride on how Ellie has grown as a fighter, another is a pure quien-es-mas-macho fistic battle that's long and exhausting, evoking memories of the Solid Snake vs. Liquid Ocelot fight in Metal Gear Solid 4.

That fight, however, comes at the end of a final chapter that felt a little tacked-on, as if the game wasn't content leaving a few bows untied. It did, however, serve as a release valve for all the other times I might have felt bad for killing people who just had conversations about their son or were walking with an attack dog they had just played ball with.

At the end, we're left to take stock of what any of the characters gained from anyone through all this, and it's probably too much. There is one final, heavy flashback scene we see of Joel and Ellie that seems to carry a greater, very human message. It's about forgiveness, and its impact might depend on how many graves one is willing to dig to right a wrong.

Gameplay/other elements

One dirty little secret about The Last of Us universe (Lastiverse?) is that it doesn't always play as well as it looks. The schemes certainly work, but a part of me could feel a bit of formulaic rhythm as I progressed: explore, group confrontation, explore, occasional puzzle, etc. The game digs in with the occasional jump-scare/fight where button-mashing is necessary, but that happened too many times for it to have much lasting power into the 15th hour. One thing I loved is the introduction of ropes and cables as a puzzle and physics mechanism, where you have to discover creative angles to pull and toss said ropes over certain spots to make your way through some areas either for a shot at extra goods or for progression through an area.

It took me a few awkward encounters to deal with how to best use the d-pad to switch weapons and items, as well as pushing R2 to reload. In battle, the characters can feel a little stiff. I could have used some kind of button-triggered covering mechanism for better fight flow, but the listening system helped to compensate for that, especially when Ellie and Abby were able to upgrade their weapons. I generally enjoyed finding the workbenches to upgrade my gear (the clickety gun and tool sounds were perfect), but I noticed some odd inconsistencies in other areas.

For instance, why do I need supplements to gain the ability to hold my breath while aiming when I'm automatically doing it whenever I swim underwater? Can't you just call it "focus"? Also, why does Abby, who is clearly a trained soldier and has the arms and physique of a UFC middleweight, not carry a melee weapon, even a combat knife? Yes, she can build shivs, but why does it have to come to that, especially when Ellie carries a knife and takes less time to stealth-kill opponents? Instead, Abby rear-naked chokes everyone with her super arms, which seems terribly inefficient. There are nitpicks to be sure, but they're noticeable after a while, even in the detailed and exquisite world Naughty Dog that has built for these adventures.

This will probably stand up as one of the best-looking PS4 games in the entire library. Every set piece in Seattle, even destroyed, draws you in to explore it for supplies and to reflect on a world that used to exist. Signs of a bustling pre-outbreak existence pockmark the journey, from torn-out tattoo shops to banners for a comics convention. There's a cute exchange with Ellie and Dina in a bookstore that has all of its Pride decorations up, with Dina, in her youthful naiveté, asking, "What's with all the rainbows?"

The Last of Us: Part II, for both its triumphs and flaws, is a body of work that should be required playing for anyone who wants to have an opinion on video games as art. It made me laugh, cry, yell in panic, curse in anger and connect with aspects of humanity in different ways. It will take you places where you don't want to go but leave you, ultimately, different than when it found you. I'm not sure there's a higher calling for a game.

Score: 9.2/10

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