Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II follow.
There’s a point in The Last of Us Part II where Ellie needs a woman to provide her with information about Abby, the person she’s been pursuing across the city of Seattle. The woman is choking on spores in a hallway and will be dead in a matter of hours, but she tells Ellie she won’t give up her friend.
Ellie says, “I can make it quick, or I can make it so much worse.”
A metal pipe is clenched in Ellie’s hand, but the woman is defiant. At this point, the camera cuts to Ellie’s face — anger flashes in her eyes, her breathing intensifies, she grits her teeth. The game prompts the player to press Square. When the player pushes the button, Ellie strikes the woman with the pipe. The prompt to press Square returns, and so the player again pushes the button. Ellie strikes the woman a second time with the pipe. Ellie’s face is splattered with the woman’s blood, and the Square button prompt returns once more. The player presses the button, Ellie swings the pipe, a scream, and the game cuts to black.
It’s a violent, terrible way to die, and it’s a violent, terrible way to kill someone. Even in a video game.
And I didn’t want to press Square. There are many points in this game where I don’t want to do what Ellie is doing. Ellie does terrible things to every person she encounters in this game, including her friends, but especially her enemies.
Sequels are rarely what we want. We think we want a part two, but as is so often the case, the sequel is a disappointment. And we’re partially to blame for that disappointment: we spend months and years speculating and envisioning all the ways we want that sequel to play out, the character arcs, the settings, the major and minor story points. But in The Last of Us Part II, game developer Naughty Dog takes Ellie into such a grim and cruel place that I struggled to find anything redeeming about the character or story by the end of the game. This wasn’t the version of Ellie I wanted to spend my nights and weekends with, and I’m upset by this terrible journey Ellie’s been on and everything that’s been taken from her.
This was not the same girl from just four years ago who I traveled across the country with, stopping to hear bad jokes and watching her watch grazing giraffes in awe and wonder. In the final flashback of the game, of the night prior to the inciting incident, Ellie tells Joel that she wished he hadn’t saved her in that Salt Lake City hospital, so that a vaccine could be developed and her life — and death — could have purpose. Days later she leaves for Seattle to enact revenge. Ellie’s blind rage is a character flaw so great that it devours the character and everything good along with it. If anything, Ellie’s character arc changes from a girl with depth and desires and feelings and needs into an undeveloped comic book villain from the 60’s, just another cookie-cutter bad guy. The problem with the main character in a video game being a cookie-cutter bad guy is it makes for a boring video game main character.
I want to mention that The Last of Us, the first game in the — series? — is almost certainly my favorite game of all time. Variations of Mario Kart, Tetris, Katamari, and of course, Earthbound, round out my "favorite games" list but if I was forced to order them, The Last of Us is first or second, every time. So when I finally had the chance to re-join my old friends Ellie, Joel, and Tommy, and meet many of their new friends, I was there at midnight. I didn't know what to expect, I didn't read reviews, I avoided social media, and I entered the game without any preconceived notions on what was to come. When I finally put the controller down a week later, I immediately began replaying the game. Both times I reached the end, I felt confused by Ellie's actions, and I couldn't reconcile the actions of this woman whom I'd spent so much time with but, seemingly now, barely understood.
Working through this game was a slog; the game felt tedious and overly long. The constant gray skies and rain didn’t help the exhaustion (Seattle is depicted as a gray and soggy place). Part of that exhaustion is replaying the game as Abby, Ellie’s new antagonist. Abby could be likable if not for her own story of revenge (take a number). The player assumes control of Abby immediately after she kills Ellie’s friend, and it is a jarring and difficult transition. It took me a long time to get to a point where I found a type of forgiveness for Abby. But Naughty Dog builds Abby on a worn out formula, and while the game likes to remind the player that Abby is a layered and flawed character, it never gives the player an opportunity to decide that for themselves. Even less is learned about her stereotypical friends, who come off as nauseatingly charming right from the start and are cannon fodder for Ellie’s rampage. They help to reveal nothing about Abby, and then they die. Abby’s companion through most of Part II is Lev, and I feel like we get a better idea of who he is on their journey together than any other NPC. I was honestly moved by his story, his loss, and his bravery. But Lev isn’t driven by revenge, his motivation in the beginning is love. It’s a stark and refreshing contrast to Abby’s cold blooded golf club torture and murder. I wonder if she ever tells Lev about the cabin in Wyoming, and I wonder how he’d react. Someone tell me when the Lev DLC is coming. (It’s not?! What’s the matter, Naughty Dog, you guys just don’t like money?)
By the time the player is back in control of Ellie, for the extended epilogue of an already too long game, Ellie’s setting out to slaughter more dudes. Again, these are the actions of someone I just don’t recognize, and the only reason I can find for Ellie to set off again is to keep the game going. By the time Ellie can finally confront Abby, they’re both weak and nearly dead. And here’s the final spoiler of the game, so last warning — Ellie doesn’t kill Abby. Ellie has killed dozens of people by now — militia and cultists and biker dudes — to get to Abby, but she can’t take just one more life. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the situation. With Abby nearly dead, after tracking her up and down the West Coast, fighting off monsters and Infected, Ellie just lets her go. For the final, final epilogue in the game, Ellie returns home only to realize that she’s lost everything.
While the ending of the first game left players with many questions and interpretations, it provided closure for Joel, and by extension, the player. During the final hike together, Joel talks openly about his daughter with Ellie for the first time. It’s taken Joel twenty years, but he’s finally starting to heal from that unthinkable night in Texas. But Part II just keeps taking things from Ellie. She never gets the chance to come to terms with her loss, or her grief, or her PTSD attacks, and because of that I don’t think the player gets that chance, either. It’s a tough ending that doesn’t sit well with me. While I have no doubt a Part III will try to wrap up these loose feelings, I don’t think it’s good storytelling to force your audience to wait six years for closure.
Technically, gameplay hasn’t changed at all from the original, with enemy encounters feeling mostly reused from the previous game. Crouch, sneak, press Triangle. You either enjoy it or you don’t. I enjoy the scavenging and being forced to try different tactics to conserve ammo or use weapons I’m not particularly fond of using, but there’s not a lot of variety in the setups. Some dudes are patrolling an area, usually one will walk out of sight of the others, you send an arrow into his head, rinse and repeat. Ellie and Abby are visually different and use a slightly different set of weapons, but the tactics and techniques you learn for Ellie are identical for Abby. Even Mario and Luigi have different run and jump styles in most Mario Bros. games, so I’m disappointed the women’s physics are essentially a copy and paste job. Sometimes the stealth system was a little persnickety when it comes to hiding from enemies, and I found the dogs highly unpredictable and buggy. Hopefully future patches can iron out these little illusion-breakers.
Visually, there’s nothing wrong with this game. Cutscenes are rendered beautifully and the detail of the models — even on an eight year old console — are some of the best I’ve seen on the PS4. Eyes look wet and life-like, and faces carry so much expression that it’s easy to see actors Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey in their performances of Ellie and Abby, respectively. And I don’t want to gloss over the performances: from the voice acting to the motion capture to the animation and modeling, the artistry on display here is extraordinary. I grew up playing with pixels and I’m now walking along roads with actual living, breathing people — or at least my brain wants to believe these collections of polygons and audio files are real people. It’s funny how real Ellie and Joel and Tommy and Abby and Lev and Sarah are (or were) to me, and ironically it’s this attention to realism, the performances from this amazing cast and animators, that make me care so much about Ellie that I find the story in this game so damn polarizing.
The Last of Us Part II is a tedious and abrasive story of revenge. The game is a visually stunning masterpiece but lacks all the heart and soul of the original. While Ellie’s actions often feel as if they’re needed simply to keep the game’s plot moving, there’s no atonement or return home for either Ellie or Abby, and the journey of the hero is left unfulfilled. This story takes everything from Ellie and leaves the player with less. It’s not just a sequel I didn’t want to play, it’s also a bad sequel.