‘The Last of Us Part II’ Is a Stunning Disappointment
The hotly anticipated PS4 game is earning rave reviews but fails to live up to the hype.
In 2001, video game developer Hideo Kojima pulled possibly the greatest troll in gaming history. Following the success of his stealth-action game Metal Gear Solid, he decided to switch things up by casting someone other than protagonist Solid Snake in the sequel…but he didn’t tell people he was going to be doing it and actively hid the move by keeping Snake playable in the game’s prologue, which was released on a demo disc for hungry fans. It wasn’t until they got their hands on the final release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty that they learned it would take place from a totally different person’s POV. And hell, you’ve got to respect Kojima’s gumption for pulling the rug out from under his fans like that.
And now the same must be said for Neil Druckmann, creative director and lead writer of the long-awaited The Last of Us Part II, because he has taken that idea and cranked it way past 11.
Like its predecessor, which was released to universal acclaim in 2013, The Last of Us Part II is a swan song for its console. The original was the last big exclusive on the PlayStation 3 before the launch of the PS4, and with the holiday 2020 release for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X drawing ever closer, developer Naughty Dog has sucked the air out of the room for the handful of games that are left to precede them. And its popularity is transcending the medium, as HBO announced in March that they will be adapting the game with Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin—which is something we’ve all got to look forward to whenever production starts back up again.
The Last of Us and its sequel take place in the wake of a global contagion. Anyone who inhales fungal spores or gets bitten by an “infected” will turn, and some particularly unlucky folks will become part mushroom because in 2013, the phrase “global contagion” wasn’t nightmare fuel enough on its own.
The first game follows Joel Miller, a smuggler who is tasked with transporting 14-year-old Ellie across the country; she is immune to the infection, and the people who hired him believe that she is humanity’s one hope at inoculation. It’s brutal and bleak, and features an all-time great ending as Joel chooses to save Ellie’s life over humanity’s future when he learns that Ellie would be killed by the serum-extraction procedure and ends it all—violently. Joel has done some terrible things throughout the game, but that can all be waved away as necessary for survival. This last decision, though, is truly monstrous. And so you are put in an uncomfortable position: you’ve seen (and helped) him through all of the trials and tribulations. You have (virtually) walked hundreds of miles in this man’s shoes. And you are the one who ultimately presses the trigger on the doctor when Joel goes into the operating room and sees Ellie unconscious on the operating table. After all those hours in his head, I understood why Ellie mattered more than everyone.
I also found the idea of sympathizing with a monster far more palatable in 2013 than I do in 2020. The world has changed drastically in that time—much to the game’s detriment. There’s the obvious: It is not Naughty Dog’s fault that the sequel released in the midst of a pandemic, but here we are. And scenes like the one where Ellie is walking around an empty museum and comments on how strange it must have been to see that place full of people laughing and playing feel unpleasantly relevant. But more broadly, The Last of Us Part II wants you to see the world through the eyes of a person you hate.
In its opening hours, you assume control of three different characters. It picks up almost immediately after the events of the first game: you’re still Joel, riding a horse through a beautiful field that reminds you just how far technology has come—especially if you’ve got an HDR television. Then you visit Ellie and show her a guitar. You play a gimmicky mini-game that involves “strumming” the touchpad in the center of the PlayStation 4’s controller. Like the fact that your chest-mounted flashlight will periodically run out of battery until you shake your controller a few times, this sort of interaction-for-the-sake-of-it is more distracting than immersive, and I was never not annoyed to see this strumming nonsense when it came up again during what should have been emotional moments.
We jump four years ahead, and shift over to Ellie. She is talking to a friend at the Jackson, Wyoming, compound where she and Joel live about an awkward encounter she had the night before: a kiss with her friend (and his recent ex) Dina. It seems to be the ultimate example of tell-don’t-show narrative design, but it’s weirder than that, because I have seen the moment in question: two years ago, at Sony’s E3 press conference. Though the game had been announced previously, it was with the cinematic where an older Ellie kisses Dina at a barn dance party that The Last of Us Part II was officially unveiled. And so I heard the characters talking about it, and I wondered what else they had expected me to have seen.
Ellie has a snowball fight with some kids, where we are given a bit of a tutorial in the mechanics we will use to kill hundreds of people over the next twenty-four hours. It’s even more awkward than it sounds. Then she goes on patrol.
And here’s where things get interesting, because we shift over to an entirely new character, disconnected from everyone we’ve seen so far in this game or the first: Abby, a muscular young woman who is out hunting for a man with a group of friends. We aren’t told who or why, but also, having been retold the final minutes of The Last of Us in the opening minutes of Part II, we know. And sure enough, within a few hours Abby will kill Joel Miller while you, as Ellie, are forced to watch.
It’s horrifying—easily one of the most viscerally unpleasant things I have ever seen in a video game—and it’s only just getting started. This is a revenge story, and Ellie and Dina head to Seattle to make the people who did it hurt. I’d read interviews with Druckmann in which he talked about the game’s brutality, and had prepared myself for it. For example, designers watched videos of actual stabbings to make sure their digital ones had the feel of the real thing. That sounds genuinely traumatizing and I hope Naughty Dog provides its developers with adequate mental health services.
So, does The Last of Us Part II use its disturbing imagery to make a broader point about violence? This is ostensibly a game about the “cycle of violence”—how violence begets suffering begets violence, etc.—but it feels like little more than lip service. A scene where two girls in their late teens talk about the first time they had to kill a non-infected person is powerful, but also takes place as they ride a horse on their way to go kill a bunch of non-humans—a thing they don’t actually have to do. Words are all well and good but this is a video game, and it’s about the actual interaction. There, we find a clear dividing line between regular combat and Violence That Means Something.
Violence That Means Something is different. It’s always in a cinematic, though sometimes you’ll be asked to hammer a button to make sure you feel complicit in the carnage. While a single knife wound to the neck is enough to take a regular enemy down, these always take at least two, with lovingly rendered blood sprays covering your character for maximum emotional distress. The writing and performances do plenty of work here to sell the effect, but also: I just hit three people in the chest with a pickaxe—but they didn’t have names, and in The Last of Us, someone’s death only matters if they have a name.
What you expect to be the game’s climax—Ellie and Abby finally coming face to face—is actually its midpoint, and the moment where the rug gets pulled. At this point, you’ve been playing long enough to have beaten the entire first game, and there are all kinds of things that you’re ready to see resolved, but you will not get that for quite a while—because just as things seem ready to explode, we jump back in time. This has happened before, but something’s off: we’re Abby now. And it turns out that we’re going to be Abby for the next ten hours.
This is the gutsiest move in all of big-budget, “AAA” video gaming. Imagine if The Last of Us had begun with Joel dooming humanity and then asked you to play it. That’s effectively what The Last of Us Part II is doing, except with even more baggage. The game forces you to spend an enormous amount of time in control of someone who tortured and then killed a person who feels like your character. It is an act of aggression not toward Joel but you, the player. You have spent hours hunting this person down, feeling increasingly righteous about the decision, and now you must be her, going through the days leading up to this stand-off from the other side.
Done right, this turn would cement The Last of Us Part II’s place as one of the best games of all time. Unfortunately, it’s not. It is predicated on the idea that you will eventually feel sympathy for this person through sheer attrition—that whatever anger you may feel at her for the things you’ve seen her do will eventually fade because, who can hold a grudge for that long? I mean, she reads books and plays fetch with her dog! Monsters: they’re just like us! But no matter how attractive Zac Efron is, I’m not sympathizing with Ted Bundy.
And likewise, I never bought into the idea that Abby was worth caring about—or any of her friends, for that matter. Vague concepts of “humanity” in the context of this digital post-apocalypse don’t carry the weight of a single, well-defined personality. And no one is better defined across these games than Ellie. I like Ellie a lot. I want her to succeed in her mission for that reason alone. This might be a writing issue, that the other characters just weren’t developed enough, but I think it’s more fundamental than that. The Last of Us and its sequel spend dozens of hours making me care about this girl and then drop all that so I can play as a bunch of people who want her dead. I’m not sure that’s a barrier they could have ever overcome.
Shortly after Ellie and Dina arrive in Seattle, we were scavenging shuttered businesses for supplies. One of them was a music store. Off in a side room, Ellie finds a guitar, and after that annoying strumming mini-game returns, she starts playing the first song that Joel had played for her—a song about love and loss. Dina comes in and sits by her, and she begins to play something else: a-ha’s “Take on Me.” Her voice is a little weak and she doesn’t even attempt the high note, but that makes it all the more authentic. This brief moment, where these two young women forget they’re in hostile and unfamiliar territory so many miles away from their friends and families on an unimaginably dangerous mission, is truly beautiful.
When Ellie put the guitar away, I said to no one in particular, “I’m calling it now: that was the best moment of the game.” And while it’s sad that the following eighteen hours would prove me right, I’m glad to have at least had that.