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 never 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, 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 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 villain is it makes for a boring main character.
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. 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. Naughty Dog puts too much stock in hollow stereotypes and cheap sympathy to force Abby and her friends to be likable. Despite Abby’s quarter collecting and fear of heights, I don’t learn enough about her to ever form an honest, unbiased opinion of her. The game tells the player Abby is a layered, flawed character, but it never gives the player an opportunity to discover 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.
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. 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 pinned underwater, she just lets her go. Ellie finally returns home only to find she’s lost everything.
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 a 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.
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.
The Last of Us Part II is a story of revenge and pain and anger, but not a very good one. While it’s a visual masterpiece, the gameplay is a decade old, the AI is still dumb, and the encounters become redundant slaughters. Part II‘s story is a trite storytelling formula that’s too tedious, too shallow, and too abrasive. It’s not just a sequel I didn’t want to play; it’s also a bad sequel.