The Last of Us Part II – An absolute triumph (except when it isn’t)

Image of Ellie from The Last of Us playing an acoustic guitar in the forest
While my guitar gently weeps

Unlike many, it took me some time to warm to the original The Last of Us game.  Played via the PlayStation 4 remastered version, I was left fairly unimpressed when I first ran through it.  It was mainly the gameplay that never really gelled together for me, with combat encounters feeling like they forced me into direct confrontation when I wanted to stealth and those fights would find me burning through all my limited ammo because of my inability to aim with my thumbs instead of a trusty mouse.  Zombie encounters especially were troublesome, with their twitchy movements and tendency to chew down on Joel as soon as they got near him.  I got through the game, but was regularly frustrated by my inaptitude.  Perhaps as a result of this, I never really got involved with the story and most of it just didn’t stay with me, bar the odd moment (giraffes, of course).  I couldn’t even recall exactly how it ended a few months after finishing.

Knowing that I would no doubt end up playing The Last of Us Part 2, I went back to the first game shortly after switching to the PlayStation 5 and I was completely blown away.  This time round it sunk its teeth into me deeper than a clicker’s bite.  I don’t know if I had just improved in my ability to manipulate virtual people with my thumbs or the PS5 controller is just that much better than the PS4 controller, but the game just clicked in a way that it hadn’t with my first time through.  Perhaps slowing down a bit and really playing like a stealth game made a difference, but I also felt more confident when the shit hit the fan and bullets started flying.  This allowed me to really get involved in Joel and Ellie’s journey and it can’t be denied that this is one of the best relationships in gaming, certainly modern gaming.  Then I moved to the Left Behind DLC, which I never managed to get around to and found that Naughty Dog managed to do an even better job of integrating narrative beats with interaction, as well as pulling together a story that hit the emotional moments perfectly.

I managed to stay clear of much of the noise that accompanied the 2020 release of The Last of Us Part II.  Still, it was hard to avoid the Internet arguments, where it caused equal amounts of admiration as it did consternation for fans of the series.  Critically, it was heralded as ground-breaking and went on to win more game of the year awards than any other game, earning some 300 or so.  Even amongst the media though, some of the narrative choices were questioned.  Unsurprisingly, the audience was also massively divided, with the usual review bombing that just so happens to accompany games that feature female leads and ones that touch upon themes of sexuality and gender.  I’m sure that is just a coincidence though…

An infected creature screeches at Ellie, who is on the ground point a gun at it

Despite this noise, I did stay relative blind going into the game, so managed to go in without too much tainting from all of that drama.  I’ve stayed away from most of that after finishing too, to try to make the following as clean of that as it possibly can be.  I’m going to delve into spoiler elements, but I will save those to end.  The TLDR or spoiler free summary though is that The Last of Us Part II is stunning game in pretty much every regard.  The gameplay is magnificent and feels as brutal as it needs.  Narratively, there are multiple moments during the story where it manages to hit the player in the feels like a truck, just as intends to.  If you managed to form a connection to Joel and Ellie in the first game, but somehow have not delved into Part II than just stop now, get it and play it.  You are going to have a fantastic experience.

But there are some caveats, mostly with the plotting.  So, lets leave those for the moment and delve a bit more into gameplay parts, which are mostly an unequivocal success.  If you have played the first game than you very much know what to expect.  We are once again scavenging through a post-zombie apocalypse USA.  You will spend equal parts of your time navigating through story segments, fighting humans, battling zombies, sneaking through both and rummaging for supplies.  There are also a few puzzle sections, which come with a few added twists this time that are welcome, but also a little underused.

To start of with the fighting sections, these offer a step up from what the first game offered in terms of pacing and feel.   Ellie, who you control for most of the game this time around, has become an exceptional fighter and the game is not shy of letting her show this off in as much graphic detail as possible.  There is a real crunch to the fighting, with you able to effortless switch between taking cover and popping off shots, to dashing in for a quick brutal melee finish.  Enemies feel a little less bullet spongey this time around, with body shots doing a good amount of damage.  It keeps the fighting flowing nicely and allows you to play more aggressively, more in keeping with the narrative that is taking place.  It is helped by some top-notch animation that goes with all this.  You will get used to seeing Ellie grit her teeth as she is choking someone out or stabbing them in the neck.  The combat is also accompanied by perfect use of sound that really pops every time you let off a shot.  This captures the feeling of using a deadly tool fantastically, as the sound of fire drowns everything out.

Left Behind introduced some interesting new dynamics with the combat, most notably sections in which they had you fighting zombies and humans at the same time, often able to use them as a weapon against each other.  Part II brings a little more of that, along with a couple of twists on that very late in the game. It is used sparingly though, perhaps a little too sparingly.  Personally, those are my favourite moments and I would have liked another couple of times where it is used.  Then again, too much of it may have made it less interesting and it is better that it is used a little too infrequently than over used.

Before you get into these big fights though, you are going to likely be attempting to stealth your way through the areas.  Stealth again feels like it has been improved a jot from the original.  The way you do it hasn’t changed much, where you are still sneaking up on people and choking them out, using your listen mode to see through walls and chucking bottles/bricks to distract them.  The sneaking feels a little more viable in the long run though and there are less moments where you just use it to thin the crowds before going loud.  You aren’t going to be able to ghost the whole game or never fire a shot, but it seems that style of play is more catered for this time around.

Ellie is on a raised platform looking down at an area with infected.  She is sneaking and holding a rifle

The zombies are much the same as before, with the same usual mix of normal infected people and clickers making up most of the encounters.  There are a couple of more mutated infected types to encounter, including one large boss fight with an infected enemy, which was surprisingly enjoyable.  The fights are much the same as in the first game though and don’t feel as interesting as the fights with humans.  There are moments where they feel a bit more puzzle like, with you working the optimal way to get through, although they do open up more as the game goes on.

As before, scavenging will let you find crafting material, weapon upgrade tools and pills that you use for upgrading your own character.  This hasn’t changed much from the first game, although the character upgrades feel like they have been expanded a bit more.  You will find magazines dotted around the levels which will open up new upgrade paths for you to take, totalling about 5 or so different areas for Ellie to focus on.  You are likely to be able to upgrade most of these by the end and they aren’t massively game changing, but still offers a little choice for you to focus on different areas.  These are a bit more interesting than the weapon upgrades, which only offers very similar upgrades for each of your weapons.  More ammo, better stability, extra damage and bigger capacity is basically what you will see on all the weapons.  It works fine, but some more interesting attachments or variations would have been welcome.

Where you do see variation though comes a little over a third of the way through the game.  Without giving away too much (I’ll get to spoilers towards the end), you do play as a second character (technically third, if you count some brief sections as Joel).  This character does have a different set of weapons to use, their own unique character upgrades and their own items to craft.  What initially feels like a bit of a disappointment to suddenly lose all your upgrades (I felt so blind with basic listen mode!) does come as a welcome bit of variation.

Ellie and Dina are on horseback in their community, Jackson

It is also here were we run into some problems though, mainly where the narrative is concerned.  I’ll get into details during the spoiler section, but what feels like a second act, doesn’t connect as much as I would have liked with the first act.  It makes the section feel disjointed from the story that had me so engaged through the first 8 or so hours.  The characters that I had grown to care for disappeared and had only minor interactions with what we are going through now.  That isn’t to say that these new characters we are meeting aren’t well drawn and interesting, but it feels an odd choice to distance from the people that we had already spent quite a bit of time with and to go off with this other group.  Tonally it still feels in keeping, but it doesn’t stop this feeling like you are suddenly playing a different game.   If anything, it feels like a disservice to these new characters and you can’t really blame the player for having a bit of resentment to have to spent time with them instead of with the people whose story you are really playing this game for.

It was striking that when I reached the third act of the story and was back with Ellie again, I was right there emotionally engaged once more.  Again, I don’t think that this is necessarily poor writing for these new characters or the stories that are told during that section, ones that are both interesting and important.  We can blame expectations and the disappointment of those not being met.

It is probably also worth noting that the experience for those that didn’t like the first game is likely to be similar with Part II.  As I think I’ve made clear already, not huge amounts has changed with the gameplay between the two.  This is still a linear experience too.  Early on, you are tasked with collecting fuel and are given an open area to explore.  What feels like it might be a new structure for the way the game will play actually just ends up being an anomaly and you are back to mostly corridors and arenas to fight in right afterwards.  Any nod to that section that comes back later on is really just a big corridor rather than anything truly open.   Also, where the first game was tonally bleak, the sequel just delves even deeper into the grim, muddy waters.  As before, there are sparks of joy to be found as people connect with each other, but those connections are destroyed, often repeatedly.  At best, there is a bittersweetness to the tender moments. 

If you don’t want that or you want something that isn’t so focused on the narrative then just stay clear.  If you don’t mind that though and want an emotional rollercoaster then strap in.  It will even make you tear up at A-Ha’s Take On Me.

I want to delve a bit more into the narrative though.  So, if you don’t want any spoilers time to close the tab.


Closeup of Joel.  There is a light shining in from a window behind him

I think it was pretty common knowledge that you would spend most of the time playing this game as Ellie.  I certainly knew that going in and even if I didn’t know the reason why it was pretty obvious what was coming.  Still, that moment that Abby decides to tee off from Joel’s head still manages to shock.  It isn’t so much the action itself, which is repulsively graphic, but a testament of Naughty Dog’s success in creating one of the finest relationships in gaming, even with it being wrapped up in lies and a surrogacy for Joel’s real daughter.

It is because of this that it is no surprise that the finest moments come when we see flashbacks to Joel and Ellie’s life in-between the first game and before he meets his demise.  The birthday trip to the science museum where Ellie gets to meet “motherfucking” dinosaurs and to sit in a space capsule listening to a tape containing a recording of a launch is as beautiful as it is heart-breaking to watch.  It is a moment that I can extol the virtues of and not even need to proceed it with a “for a game” comment, standing shoulder to shoulder to other great moments in genre fiction no matter the medium.  There are many moments dotted throughout just like this.

These moments mostly feature Ellie though.  Connecting to Abby is much harder thing to do and I can only put the blame on the decision to have her brutally murder a character that is so central to the emotional tale this game tells.  It is, of course, very much the point they want to make, where we share Ellie’s desire for revenge, only for the game to tell you off in the second half.

When I reached the final confrontation in Abby’s section and had to battle Ellie, the game had told me plenty to make me understand Abby’s motivation.  I, as the player, did not want to have to fight Ellie though and I’m not sure if the game could have ever pushed me to wanting to see Abby win that fight for any other reason than my desire to push the narrative forward.

There is an often-used term, ludo-narrative dissonance, which is where the narrative in a game contradicts the act of playing the game.  It is a silly phrase, often ridiculed but an often useful one.  Here though, I want to propose a different, equally silly term.  There are moments of ludo-character dissonance in The Last of Us Part 2.  It isn’t an uncommon experience in games, but it felt striking during this particular game, where I was forced to carry out actions that I the player really did not want to perform.  Partly, that is a result of so much good narrative beats throughout, but it is also highlighted how little agency I had as the player.

Abby is seen brandishing a bloody hammer approaching someone who is out of focus

If I felt that ludo-character dissonance during the Abby fight against Ellie, then I felt it even more so during the Ellie fight against Abby that is the real climax of the game.  There was an element of expectations there.  During this final act and the last hunt for Abby, I was convinced that the denouement would be Ellie asking Abby to take her to the Fireflies, to finally make the choice that Joel could not make for her.  Instead, Ellie was much slower on the uptake than we the player is about this tale on the fallacy of revenge and continues to want to kill Abby until they are both lying in a pool of water and each other’s blood, unable to finish the deed.  You are forced to slash Abby with a knife repeatedly and attempt to drown her.  I was willing for Ellie to stop during the sequence, but it was impossible to do that, unless I decided that the end of this tale would be a game over screen.

The true ending is left with some ambiguity.  We don’t know whether Ellie leaves the abandoned farmhouse to meet up with her partner Dina and their child, or if she is going out to find Tommy to reconcile their differences, or to continue to pursue Abby another time, or to hunt for the Fireflies, or to just go over and roam America to find a new home.  We can inject our own agency into that decision if we want, at least until Naughty Dog decide to continue the story.  Besides that, the game does not allow us to really shape the narrative though and it feels a missed opportunity to not let us decide how our Ellie will complete her tale.

But what about Abby?  I’ve spoken mostly about Ellie’s journey and the decision we can and can’t make with her.  What about this other character that we spend well over a third of the game playing as?  It is strange how much her tale feels like it comes from a different game, only intersecting at a few key moments.  The structure of the game shows you replaying the same three days that you experienced during the opening parts from another perspective.  The logical structure would have your actions whilst as Abby interact with the actions that Ellie makes.  At the very least, you would expect that Tommy to play some part in this section, who is supposedly taking out many of the WLF crew.  Instead though, Abby’s journey takes her off in quite a different direction, barely crossing paths with either Ellie or Tommy until she arrives back from rescuing Lev from the island.

Lev is shown looking concerned.  In the background, Yara is clutching her arm

There is nothing particular wrong with the story that is told here and much of it is excellent.  As already said, it is just that it feels as if it is from a different game.  The decision is likely because it wants to show a softer side to Abby, one that makes us feel a connection with her as much as we feel with Ellie, but I personally spent much of the time wondering when we would be getting back to the story I had been spending the first 10 or so hours playing through.

Which is a shame, as there is much to enjoy here.  Abby herself is a great character, demonstrating the complexities that we expect from a Last of Us character.  We also have a lovely story between her and Lev, echoing the relationship between Joel and Ellie.  Her acceptance of who Lev is, without question, is a wonderful thing to see and speaks volumes to Abby’s compassion, despite what we may initially think of her.  I know that there were some complaints about the handling of Lev, but I thought it was understatedly played and done with care (although on this occasion I might add a “for a game” to that).  Lev being a trans-child is important to the plot and to his story, where I’m sure some may have preferred Lev to just be who he is without any consequence and I can completely understand that position, but I still feel the portrayal of the two together is very well done.  I would happily see a game that just focused on their continuing journey together.

There is still that problem with how Abby was introduced though and the game just can’t get away from that.  Perhaps if we had of opened the game playing as Abby, with no knowledge of who her father was or who she was seeking than it perhaps could have worked.  It would have been great to be able to get to know her without that hanging over her head throughout the whole time, an act that just ends up feeling like it forces the writers’ agenda for a “revenge is bad” narrative too much to the fore.  It is clear what they wish to do throughout, judging the player for siding with one brutal murderer, but not another.  I got that this was the narrative from about 5 or so hours into the game and it didn’t feel any more worthwhile at that point than it did at the final 25th hour.

That doesn’t detract from the moments I did absolutely love though.  We have the already mentioned trip to the science museum, there was the moments Ellie would play guitar, the time I played catch with Alice and taught Yara to play too, the time I had a snowball fight, when I completely smashed the target shooting at the aquarium or when Ellie danced with Dina at the barn dance.  These are all touching and brilliant constructed narrative beats that easily outweigh the wider issues.  Overall, this is still a magnificent entry into the franchise and leaves me hoping that Naughty Dog will one day return to this world and continue this story.  Let’s just hope that when they do, I don’t have to say ludo-character dissonance again.

Ellie is with Dina and is smiling.  Dina has her hands on Ellie's shoulders.
A very rare shot of a smile


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