The following article contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II, The Last of Us, and Game of Thrones. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Content warning: violence, abuse, murder
To say that The Last of Us Part II is the most controversial game of 2020 would be the biggest understatement of the decade. It has divided fans into two groups: people who praise it as a masterpiece that deserves Game of the Year, and people who view the game as insulting SJW propaganda that insults the legacy of the first game. While obviously not a constructive, healthy way to talk about a video game, this showed me that the only way I could truly form my own distinct opinion was if I bought and played the game myself.
The Last of Us Part II is the newest game by Naughty Dog studios. It is a sequel to The Last of Us, which was not only universally praised and winner of several Game of the Year awards in 2013, but also an enormous influence on many games like God of War (2018), The Witcher 3, and Red Dead Redemption 2. With its cult status, it’s easy to understand why its sequel was widely many fans’ most anticipated game of 2020. Throughout all my years of gaming, The Last of Us is the only video game to have ever made me cry. The story was grounded and complex, the script was airtight and solid, the gameplay was simple but fulfilling, and most importantly, the relationship between Joel and Ellie was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in any medium. Naturally, I was excited to play the sequel, even after The Last of Us Part II got review-bombed on Metacritic. Did this sequel justify its existence? Is it a faithful and worthy follow-up to one of the greatest video games of all time?
Right off the bat, from a technical and visual perspective, it is stunning. Not only did the graphics and the environment look photo-realistic, but the actual characters in the game look amazing as well. With a combination of motion-capture technology, modern graphical settings, and powerful performances by the actors, specifically Ashley Johnson as Ellie and Laura Bailey as Abby, the game feels well-realized and lived-in. Additionally, I must commend the gameplay because the combat, gunplay, and stealth in this game are brutal. While the foundation of the gameplay is the same as in the first game, there are new additions to the game mechanics that spice up encounters, such as the ability to crawl in the tall grass to avoid enemy detection, crafting new materials like silencers for pistols and exploding arrows, and enemy dogs that can detect your movement. Whether it be engaging in a full-frontal assault, silently taking them out with my bow and silencer pistol, or using a hit-and-run guerilla style of combat, I could approach any enemy encounter in dozens of ways, all of which felt satisfying.
While a lot of elements of combat from the first game are carried over in the sequel, such as blowing an enemy’s head and/or limbs off with a shotgun, burning a person alive with a Molotov cocktail, or bashing someone’s head with a pipe, a lot of new elements not only made the gameplay feel intense, but in a way, also made me feel guilty. For example, a new addition to this game that I honestly have not seen in any other game is that whenever an enemy finds one of their fallen comrades, rather than exclaiming, “Oh my God, another one is dead, everyone get over here now!”, the enemies say, “Oh my God, it’s Alex, he’s dead!” Essentially, every NPC (non-player character) in this game has a name, and whenever an enemy dies in the game, their name gets called out. Rather than killing nameless enemies, I was killing people with names and personalities. Naughty Dog humanizes the enemies that I kill in the game, and it left me in a guilty, uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, I felt guilty every time an NPC freaked out whenever they saw their fallen partner and screamed out their name, but at the same time, I had no choice but to kill said enemy to progress to the next level.
However, I do have some minor issues with the game mechanics. Firstly, apart from new weapons, tools, and moves, the actual gameplay feels almost identical to that of the first game. While this certainly isn’t a bad thing, I was hoping that the combat would shake things up a little more. While I did appreciate the element of giving all the NPCs names and backstories, if Naughty Dog is going to commit to this level of immersion, then they should have gone all the way by making a unique character model for each NPC. There’s a total of around 10 unique NPC character models, and while I know this is asking a lot from a company, it took me out of the experience when I found two or three dead enemies that had similar faces despite having different names.
The story itself has divided a lot of people. I should clear the huge elephant in the room before analyzing the story: the infamous golf club scene, a scene in the beginning of the game in which a character named Abby kills Joel using golf, of all sports. Besides the ending, this is quite possibly the biggest reason why certain people are turned off by The Last of Us Part II. Many hated the fact that Joel, a character they have grown to love in The Last of Us, is instantly killed off in the beginning of the game. Frankly, I find this backlash and hatred against Abby killing Joel ridiculous.
Now look, I love Joel. He was a damaged, complex antihero who, while violent, did what he did to ensure Ellie’s survival. I may not personally agree with Joel’s decision to doom humanity in favor of saving Ellie, but I understand why he made that decision. As much as I love Joel as a character, it is also worth noting that Joel’s story arc is complete. Joel had an amazing journey that reached its conclusion at the end of the first game, and to play as Joel again in the sequel would feel unnecessary and out of place. Ellie will at some point find out the truth of what happened between Joel and the Fireflies, and so she will have to deal with the repercussions from Joel’s selfish actions.
However, beyond what is established in the previous game, I find this hateful reaction against killing Joel absurd, as if killing off Joel is proof that this sequel betrayed the fanbase of the original game. Why is it that people have issues with Joel dying in The Last of Us Part II, but have no problem with something like Game of Thrones, a show that is famous for killing off important, well-liked characters? Robb Stark was betrayed and killed in a manner similar to that of Joel, and the reason for his death is even pettier than the reason Joel was killed: Walder Frey killed Robb because he was mad that Robb broke his oath to marry one of Frey’s daughters. Robb’s death and Joel’s death are almost identical, yet somehow “The Rains of Castamere” is one of the best Game of Thrones episodes, while The Last of Us Part II feels wasteful to some fans.
Yes, Joel’s death prevents him from having a lot of screen time, but having little screen time does not take away from his importance in this sequel. While Joel’s death is obviously what motivates Ellie to track down and kill Abby and all her friends in Seattle to avenge Joel, his role in the game is much more important than that. This is especially the case when examining the flashback scenes at the end of each day in Seattle when you play as Ellie; the game flashes back to certain events in the past that highlight a specific event that affects the relationship between Ellie and Joel.
During the first flashback, Joel takes Ellie to an abandoned science and natural history museum for her birthday. Ellie is amazed by all the model dinosaurs and rocket ships in the room, all while having the classic Joel-Ellie banter reminiscent of the first game. However, the best part of this flashback comes when Joel and Ellie enter inside a model spaceship and Joel gives Ellie a recording of the Apollo 11 launch, which causes her to close her eyes and imagine flying off into space. The laughs and cute moments they have exploring the museum remind us of the adventure they had in the first game, but they also remind the players just how important Joel is to Ellie and why killing Abby and getting her vengeance means so much for Ellie.
The third flashback is one of the most memorable, in which Ellie returns to the hospital in Salt Lake City where Joel saved her from the brink of death. Ellie finds a recording that reveals what exactly went down between Joel and the Fireflies, and by the time Joel finds her, Ellie had already learned that Joel wasn’t telling the truth to her. In this scene, thanks to Troy Baker’s performance, it’s apparent how disheartened Joel is because while he knows telling the truth will damage their relationship forever, he has to tell her the truth or Ellie, a person he sees as a daughter, will be out of his life forever. Therefore, Joel reluctantly tells her the truth, and this not only causes Ellie to break down, but also tell Joel that he and her are “done.” Not only can Ellie no longer look at Joel in the same way, but she now has to live with the fact that the Fireflies can’t develop a cure and save humanity because of what Joel did.
Additionally, while Joel may be absent from this game, his presence can still be felt in the character of Ellie. In the first game and in her flashback scenes, Ellie was an optimistic teenager who loved telling jokes, making sly comments, and overall, just being a ray of sunshine. It is because of Ellie’s personality that Joel was able to regain his humanity during the first game after having lost his daughter, Sarah. Ellie gave Joel purpose as he starts to adopt some of her traits like making comments about how he’s “getting old,” but it also seems like Ellie has adopted a lot of Joel’s characteristics as well. This is apparent from the beginning when Joel teaches Ellie how to play the guitar, and by the end of the game, Ellie plays the same song that Joel sang to her in the beginning of The Last of Us Part II (“Future Days” by Pearl Jam). Like Joel, Ellie has also become more open in utilizing violence to accomplish her goals, even going so far as using the same torture methods that Joel used in the first game. Even Ellie’s clothes are a bit similar to Joel’s, especially in the epilogue where the players see Ellie wearing a flannel shirt that resembles the kind of shirts Joel would wear. With so many mirrored traits, Ellie has almost become exactly like Joel, but the key term here is “almost.”
While Ellie has certainly adopted a lot of Joel’s characteristics and tries very hard to become like Joel, Ellie is not Joel. While Ellie successfully kills all the people who aided Abby in killing Joel, it becomes obvious that it has become something that Ellie finds discomfort in. Whether it’s beating Nora with a pipe over and over again to force her to reveal where Abby is or killing Mel, a pregnant woman, Ellie is distraught by committing such horrible acts of violence. This is not the case with Joel, since he has no problems with killing others in brutal methods if it means survival.
As if Joel’s death weren’t controversial enough, the game takes it even further by forcing the player to play as Joel’s killer, Abby, in the second half of the game. For some, this was incredibly off-putting. I do think the outrage against playing as Abby, the woman who scored a hole-in-one with Joel’s head, is more warranted and understandable. As much as I defended cowriter Neil Druckmann’s decision to kill off Joel, I was more hesitant of the idea of playing as Abby. On paper, this direction of making you play as the protagonist (Ellie) and the antagonist (Abby) in which you see both characters’ perspectives sounded like a great idea.
I had issues with some of the decisions made for Abby’s story. Firstly, while Ellie’s story of revenge was very straightforward, Abby’s story is more convoluted. Abby is a part of a faction called the Washington Liberation Front (Wolves), which has been involved in a long, drawn-out war with a religious jungle cult called the Seraphites (Scars) that leads to lots of bloody violence and carnage. Like Ellie, Abby has her own flashbacks, and I personally found these flashbacks incredibly annoying and pointless. Admittedly, I did enjoy Abby’s first flashback sequence, as it not only showcased who Abby was before the events of The Last of Us Part II and how she fits into the great Last of Us story. But it also revealed what motivated Abby’s own personal desire for revenge against Joel. In this first flashback, it is revealed that the doctor who was going to perform the surgery on Ellie and Joel later killed is Abby’s father. Abby and her father had a desire to save humanity and bring the world back to what it was, and from Abby’s perspective, Joel not only took away Abby’s father, but that very desire.
I loved this flashback sequence so much that I was really upset with how pointless the following flashback sequences were. They do not really contribute to the overall story of this game, since all that really happens in them is Abby fools around in an aquarium and tries to work out her relationship with Owen, her former boyfriend. The first flashback already showcased already that Abby and Owen love each other despite certain complications, so the fact that they kept exploring this relationship left me incredibly uninterested. The game tries really hard to make me care about this relationship, but I felt so bored by this plotline that even the incredibly explicit sex scene these two characters have left me feeling nothing. So, with all these issues I have with Abby’s story, some of you may think that I hate Abby and that Naughty Dog was wrong to even make her playable.
Eventually, I ended up really liking Abby as a character. The longer I kept playing as Abby, the more she began to grow on me. By the end of Day 3, I was genuinely surprised how much I had grown attached to Abby, and I think my appreciation for this character first grew when she encountered two kids named Yara and Lev, former members of the Seraphites who defected due to Lev shaving his head and choosing to identify as male and Yara aiding Lev’s escape. Abby is forced to work with these kids since all three of them are being hunted down by the Seraphites, and eventually develops a sibling-like bond with Yara and Lev. She views them as children trying to survive in a cruel, unjust world. Lev confesses to Abby that even though his mother has disowned him and tried to kill him at some point, he still wants to convince his mother to run away with him and Yara. Yara shares with Abby that the reason why Lev defected from the Seraphites was because the cult could not accept the fact that Lev identified as male. Not only are moments like these a great example of character building, but their journey brought a level of humanity that I thought was a bit lacking in Ellie’s storyline. Being with Yara and Lev helps Abby regain a sense of humanity, something she lost when she lost her father.
Abby, in a sense, becomes this sequel’s Joel, and I think that, along with Ellie’s own story, is what makes The Last of Us Part II a worthy follow-up to one of the greatest games of all time. Abby and Ellie mirror each other in so many ways, and by choosing to divide the game into two halves, the players can see how much Abby and Ellie are alike. Both Ellie and Abby are hardened killers who witnessed their father figures’ deaths due to the cruel, violent, and unforgiving nature of this post-apocalyptic America and must engage in violence for the survival of themselves and of their loved ones. However, what differentiates Ellie and Abby is that while Ellie’s desire for revenge causes her to continue losing her humanity, Abby’s desire to keep Lev safe and rejoin with the Fireflies causes her to regain her humanity.
Near the game’s conclusion, Ellie finds Abby and Lev crucified on crosses and left to die to the elements. Ellie cuts Abby and Lev down, and while Abby takes Lev to a boat that will take them to a secret Firefly hideout, Ellie refuses to let them go. Abby doesn’t want to fight, but Ellie puts her knife against Lev’s throat and threatens to kill him if she doesn’t fight. This leads to one of the bloodiest, most brutal boss fights I have ever seen in a video game. Ellie is injured from a previous stab wound and Abby has lost all her muscle mass due having gone days without food and water, yet both women hold nothing back as they brutally try to kill each other. Ellie stabs Abby with her knife multiple times, and Abby chews off two of Ellie’s fingers. Ellie eventually gets the edge over Abby as she pins her down and begins to drown her. Ellie puts all her strength into killing Abby once and for all, and right when she is about to finally get her revenge, Ellie has a flashback of Joel sitting on a front porch playing guitar, which causes her to let go of Abby. Ellie breaks down crying and reluctantly lets Abby and Lev go, and while Abby and Lev sail out to find the secret Firefly base. By letting Abby go, this entire story seems like it has become a complete waste of time. What was the point of playing the game if you don’t even get to kill the murderer of one of Naughty Dog’s most beloved characters? Having a flashback of Joel suddenly makes Ellie not want to kill Abby, a woman Ellie has vowed to kill no matter what?
But the game does not end there. After what happened in Santa Barbara, Ellie returns to her ranch only to find the place completely empty. She picks up the guitar and starts playing “Future Days,” the same song that Joel sang to Ellie in the beginning of the game, and once Ellie finishes singing, The Last of Us Part II cuts to its final flashback. Ellie visits Joel’s house for what seems to be the first time for a long while. The two engage in small talk before discussing the main elephant in the room: Joel killing the Firefly doctors and saving Ellie from getting killed. Ellie is still mad at Joel, not just because Joel took away her choice to die for the Fireflies to develop a cure, but also because doing so meant her life would have mattered. Ellie believes that because Joel took that choice away from her, her life doesn’t matter anymore. Joel responds to this by saying, “If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment, I would do it all over again.” Once this flashback ends, Ellie stands up, she leaves the guitar Joel gave her in her drawing/art room, and leaves the house and goes deep into the woods before the game cuts to black.
Like Joel and Ellie, I couldn’t help but tear up by this game’s ending. It was at this moment where I realized that this is not a game about revenge, but about forgiveness. If this sequel was truly about revenge, then the game wouldn’t have made the player play as Abby, the “villain” of this story or have Ellie spare Abby and let her go. When Ellie tells Joel that she wants to try and forgive him, it’s her way of telling Joel that she loves him and that she is touched that she means so much to him. What Joel did to Ellie was selfish, and Ellie has every right to never speak to Joel again, but the fact that she took that huge step in forgiving Joel for what he did shows just how much Joel means to Ellie.
Additionally, the ending of this game is what makes Joel’s death so much more tragic. Ellie and Joel were finally going to rebuild that father-daughter relationship that they once had only for Abby to come in and take it away. With so much violence these characters go through, moments of forgiveness and kindness remind us that goodness and humanity still remain in this cruel, unforgiving world. Ellie choosing to spare Abby is not a cop-out, nor does it mean the entire story was a waste of time. Ellie finally realizes that even if she kills Abby, it will not bring Joel back from the dead. Killing Abby would neither bring Joel back nor would it bring Ellie any kind of fulfillment or sense of purpose, and I think Ellie understands that when she lets Abby go.
Normally, this is where I would end my review, but before I delve deep into my conclusion, I wanted to discuss the final “complaint” some people seem to have about this game: the politics. One of the most common comments I see online is that The Last of Us Part II is “SJW propaganda” or “libcuck bullshit” or “gets woke, gets broke.” Really, I value three qualities in a video game character: compelling personality, compelling backstory, and their fit within the overall story of the game. It’s why I love Ellie so much as a character. She immediately became one of Naughty Dog’s most memorable and influential protagonists, and this is all before The Last of Us downloadable content (DLC) came out in which it revealed that Ellie is a lesbian. All this extra stuff like Ellie being a woman or a lesbian are just character traits that help make her more human, but they are not the sole reason why I love Ellie.
If the game was about LGBTQ+ politics, then Ellie’s central motivation would not be to kill the woman responsible for murdering her adoptive father. If the game was about LGBTQ+ politics, then the second half of the game would have been about Lev instead of Abby. Yes, the game features characters from the LGBTQ+ community, but that’s because, like in real life, people come from different backgrounds and love who they love, so it wouldn’t make sense, even in a zombie game, for all of the humans to just be straight white dudes.
I recognize that this game is not for everyone, and everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinions, but demonizing people who liked this sequel is not a healthy and constructive form of criticism. Sure, I may love a lot of Naughty Dog’s games, but just because I love their games doesn’t mean I’ll automatically love every single one of them. Everyone just needs to remember that in the end, this is just a video game. None of this is real life. It’s all a fantasy. Some people may love it, and some people may hate it, and that is fine. The sooner we can accept that, then the sooner we can move on with our lives and play the next exciting game on the market.