Just a little disclaimer here right off the bat: this review will have some sections with spoilers, and some without. Most are pretty minor with the exception of Story, which is going to have a Minimal Spoilers section and a Lots of Spoilers section. I’ll put warnings and images so you can skip them if you’d like. The images are there to obscure spoilers and guide people trying to avoid them, so if you see an image, scroll to the next section!
Also also, you might remember from the July Update that friend of mine and actual Story Arc member Jre Best was gonna talk about this game. But he kinda gave up on it, so he said I could go for it if I wanted to. Which I do, so I will.
I went into The Last of Us II expecting not to like it. Not because of gay people and muscular women being in video games, or because of the thing that anyone who knows anything about the game will know. I had heard the game was torture porn, that Neil Druckmann was a tool, that the game was made with thousands of hours of terrible crunch, that it was badly written and that the themes sucked. But then I saw some random gif of the gameplay on Twitter and thought it looked cool, so I bought it anyway. I already knew some of the leaked spoilers for the game, and they seemed not great to me. But despite all this, I gave it a chance. And *gasp* I liked it! So let’s talk about why.
I know this game came out like 6 months ago, but I didn’t actually get it until a fair bit after its original release date, and I also wanted to play it a couple times before really solidifying my thoughts on it. And I also have other stuff to do besides write about video games, as you’ll surely be surprised to hear. To be honest, I was also a little scared of the discourse surrounding it. Anyway. On with the review!
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. This game is absolutely wonderful from a visual and auditory standpoint. I think pretty much anyone can agree on that; there was definitely a slight graphical downgrade in the game itself as opposed to the trailers, but it still looks fantastic. The animation is fluid and satisfying, though the faces look a little uncanny sometimes, the environments are beautiful, the UI is minimalistic and stylized while showing you everything you need to know. The art direction is very nice. I love the muted, yet rich colors used and the abundance of colorful foliage and other natural setpieces. I’m quite fond of Ellie’s fashion sense since I am also a 13 year old girl who’s just discovered My Chemical Romance at heart. I don’t really have much to say about the sound design, but as someone who would like to consider themself a connoisseur of shoe noises in video games, the shoe noises in this game are very pleasing to me. The cinematography and editing of the cutscenes is fantastic. This one which is featured in a trailer is a personal favorite of mine.
It’s spoilery in the sense that it is a scene that you will see in the game that you may want to see first in the game, but it won’t say much of anything about the plot. Also, it’s pretty violent, as most of this game is. The music is a little forgettable, but it gets the job done. The acting is pretty great too. Cons? Abby’s hair kinda sucks, but I’ve never really been much of a braid fan anyway.
In cr1tikal’s review of The Last of Us II, he said there were “no significant changes to the gameplay.” And he might be right from a purely mechanical standpoint; the processes of crafting items and weapons to use are largely the same or similar, and the actual shooting and beating stuff up process is very similar with some quality of life improvements. However, I find this game’s combat to be highly different and much more fun than the first game’s. The A.I. is much smarter; they will actively call out your position to others, they will attempt to flank you, they will use stealth, and they’re pretty hard to sneak up on, spotting you quite quickly and from pretty far away. Granted, I’ve only ever played the game on Hard or higher, so that might have a bit to do with it.
The environment design of the shootouts is fantastic. They generally either take place in open areas with many places to frantically scrounge for supplies, or multi-floored buildings with countless nooks and crannies to shove yourself through in times of need. This is what makes the fights in this game truly fantastic. You can constantly weave through complex and resource-filled playgrounds while murdering people for fun, the favorite pastime of all true gamers. There’s just enough options to allow for all kinds of spontaneous improvisations, and I often found myself pulling through on the verge of death by concocting something straight out of John Wick. It’s an adrenaline filled thrill of a time, and I can’t praise this aspect of the game enough. But I do have one complaint, and probably one that inspired cr1tikal to say later in his review that he found the gameplay boring and a chore to complete. That’s the stealth. Don’t get me wrong, I think the stealth mechanics are fine. But it’s just too easy to hide behind a shelf all day and wait for people to come close enough for you to pick them off. This is sort of incentivized by the game; it almost never starts you off in an alert state, and it’s pretty easy to get enemies to lose track of you.
That’s pretty enjoyable when you’re sneaking around an enemy-filled arena, trying to pick people off before you jump into the fray or lamenting your sore lack of precious resources; but especially for those who played the original Last of Us, (which should be everyone) it often seems like pure stealth is the definitive way to go. However, in my experience, going guns blazing is so much more fun. It’s reminiscent of the Hbomberguy video about Bloodborne, where he talks about how the Dark Souls games and Demon’s Souls condition you to use a shield while dodging is much more fun and engaging. Anyway, my point is, the game wants you to use stealth, but I would recommend you don’t rely on it. Except with the infected, maybe.
Also, the accessibility options are really great! I’m not sure there’s enough space to go through them thoroughly here, but there’s a huge range of tweaks you can make to the game to make it more accessible if you are physically impaired, visually impaired, audibly impaired, or just need a little extra help. It’s a landmark in video game history and more games should follow suit.
This game’s writing was definitely on par with, if not better than the first game’s, though I’ve honestly never really got the “Amazing Writing!!!!” circlejerk around the first one (don’t lynch me). I loved hearing the characters banter back and forth with each other, and their drama takes me straight back to middle school, in a good way. While the first game’s main dynamic is that of a father and daughter, this one mostly features early 20-something peers interacting in much the same way that I would imagine most early 20-somethings do, with a dash of mortal peril and existential morality questioning. This is just personal preference, but I find it much more appealing than Ellie and Joel’s back and forth in the first game. But maybe I just have a distaste for old dads with anger issues. There is more of Ellie and Joel having fun times together, though, if you’re into that. Overall, it’s good. The banter is fun, the drama is at times a little hard to take seriously but realistic and sympathetic, and the actual serious stuff is very well conveyed. That said, there are some things that really do not land when they try to make you feel bad. You may have heard of these already even if you haven’t played the game, but skip to the next section now if you don’t want spoilers (for minor dialogue, not anything plot related).
There are dogs in this game. When you kill them, the owners shout their names. Also, when you kill people, sometimes people shout their names. It’s supposed to make you feel bad but it’s honestly just absolutely hilarious. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say.
The El Jee Bee Tees, With Some Minor Spoilers
This section features some spoilers, but none that go beyond the realms of what flavor of LGBT characters exist in this game and the prominence of their roles. If you want your minority representation to be a surprise, feel free to skip. Tl;dr for those who skipped: it’s pretty decent but worth a trigger warning.
To clarify, this game features only the Els, the Bees, and the Tees, from what I could tell. So sorry if you’re a gay man enthusiast, but there are none to be found here, outside of maybe some chance dialogue or notes I might have missed. The biggest one to talk about here is the lesbian couple who are at the forefront of the game. I found them adorable, and I never noticed any kind of fetishization. There is some sexuality depicted, but definitely not in a creepy way, in my opinion. It felt like it was written by a member of the WLW community, as a member of it myself. As it turns out, it wasn’t; though I can’t speak for consultants and the like. There is a small amount of homophobia and a slur said on screen. I’m not really sure what it adds to the story, and I don’t think it was really necessary at all, especially showing the slur being said, but it’s handled fine and there isn’t any other homophobia in the game. It’s generally considered bad by pretty much everyone around them, which is nice, I suppose. Since I said before there were Bees in this game, I’ll talk about it here too since it’s pretty connected. One of the characters in the lesbian couple is (presumably) bi, but it’s never really explored or mentioned at all other than her having dated a man before the events of the game. I do wish there was some MLM representation, since we don’t really see that much. WLW definitely seems like the “safer” choice in regards to LGBT representation in media, which bothers me. But the representation that’s there is mostly good, and the portrayal of women in general in the game is mostly good. It uses pregnancy for some cheap gotchas a couple times, but I didn’t find it particularly outrageous or misogynistic or anything.
Anyway, on to the Tees. There’s a trans character in this game who plays a pretty major supporting role. He’s a trans boy, which I like a lot because trans men are erased really often in trans communities, trans discourse, and trans representation. All the characters portrayed as good accept his gender, and don’t try to push him on it or pry into it. He also never has to explain his gender to others, which I actually really like. They simply accept it and move on, which is what allies should do. Unfortunately, there is a LOT of deadnaming and misgendering of him done by others. I’m conflicted on it, because on one hand I think it’s important to show the struggles trans people go through, and I think he’s a good character, but also having characters straight up yell his deadname and misgender him repeatedly is just unpleasant and can be really triggering to trans people. I personally wasn’t affected by it to the point where I had a strong emotional reaction or had to stop playing, but I can absolutely see others reaching that point, and there are no trigger warnings for this part of the game. I’m really glad that a huge AAA game features good trans representation, but it is in desperate need of a warning.
The Story, With Minimal Spoilers
Hoo boy. This is where the real fun begins. It’s inevitable there might be spoilers here about the structure of the plot, the themes, and the nature of the narrative, but I’ll try to name as few names as possible. The story will be the last section before the conclusion in this review, so you can skip to the conclusion if you want to remain completely sanitized.
Now, let’s dive into it. The basic gist of Last of Us II’s story is that it explores the nature of violence and morality through the use of a non-chronological structure. It’s basically a commentary on what we see as good and bad, and why. The game also has a big focus on revenge. It focuses on different characters’ responses to their suffering, and how that turns out for them. It’s got a lot of elements of classical Greek tragedies, complete with the fatal flaw and disastrous consequences. I find “revenge is bad” to be a pretty boring and cliche theme, but the really interesting part of this game’s story is its commentary on your perceptions. It relies on you having played the first game and having sympathized with its characters, and plays with that idea wonderfully. Really, the revenge aspect felt like a vehicle for that. Pretty much everyone ever said that this game was so emotional and hard to play and that it’ll jump out of your TV and stab you to death while screaming about how terrible of a person you are and whatever. But honestly, I don’t really agree with that at all. I found the game’s message to be quite hopeful, despite the grim events throughout the plot itself. It says pretty clearly that A.) you are not a bad person for participating in the game’s famed cycles of violence, but also, B.) it is not only possible but in your best interest to escape them, even if it’s hard. Man, it is difficult to talk about this without spoilers. And that leads us to…
The Story, With Lots of Spoilers
As the title suggests, this section is going into full spoiler territory. So skip this bit if you’re not about that.
As I said in the previous section, the most interesting part of this game is how it plays with its narrative in order to comment on the issues it presents. For example, when you first meet Abby, you know almost nothing about her. She’s just a random girl, and before you know it she’s beating Joel to death with a golf club. Understandably, when Ellie watches her father figure get brutally murdered for seemingly no reason, she gets mad. She blames Abby, just like the player would, after spending all of The Last of Us getting to know and probably to like Joel. She demonizes Abby for killing Joel because she has no other context for it. For much of the game, neither does the player. Throughout this section, Ellie gets less and less likeable. After she finds out Dina is pregnant, she just leaves her by herself with almost no care and goes after Abby on her own. When her and Jesse find out Tommy might be in trouble, she refuses to go, saying that “Tommy can take care of himself,” and that “the best way to help Tommy is to go after Abby.” She continues on after Jesse goes to help Tommy. She consistently refuses to apologize to others or admit she was wrong. Even after she finds out the real reason Abby killed Joel, she stubbornly continues on her hunt, saying it doesn’t change anything for her. But I still sympathized with her. I mean, come on, it’s Ellie. She was so good in The Last of Us, and Abby killed Joel, who was basically her dad. She’s got a right to be angry.
But then… Abby. For the first half of the game, a solid 12+ hours, she’s built up to be some evil coward who ruined Ellie’s life. But your second interaction with her as a playable character is her helping animals with her dad. They make jokes, they’re relatable, and it’s fun. Obviously this isn’t enough to flip your entire perception of her, but throughout the game from this point on she’s endearing, kind, interesting, and witty. The highly memorable bridge scene with her and Lev was one of my favorite character interactions of the game. By the time I’d reached the end of my time with her, I found her a much more likeable person than Ellie. The really interesting part is that, at the start of the game, I hated Abby; and for good reason. But once you’ve played through as her, Ellie’s actions stop feeling so justified.
It seems like such an obvious message; that learning someone’s story can put everything they do in a different light. But it’s really true, and a pretty interesting thing to think about in the context of violence and morality. Is there really ever a way to truly define the quality of someone’s character? Is it ever possible to really weigh all of their actions and motivations and come up with a simple explanation of who they are? I’d say personally that Abby is a better person than Ellie, and that what she did was more justified and a morally better action. But that’s just it; it’s up to interpretation. It’s really not possible to squarely say whether someone is good or bad, even if you’ve explored every circumstance that led up to what they’ve done. Some reviewers criticized the game for its non-chronological structure, but it works much better with the structure that it has. It’s playing with the player’s perspective; learning part way through Ellie’s section of the game that she was already aware of what Joel did at the Firefly hospital puts her actions in a completely different light, and lines up well with her becoming progressively less likable throughout the game. If this flashback had been near the start of the game, prior to Joel’s death, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact because you’d already know that Ellie has reason to doubt Joel from the start. You don’t get a full picture until the very end – it’s symbolic of how life works. When Ellie kills Abby’s friends in her section of the game, the audience doesn’t really care about them at all. They’re just randos, and besides that, they were complicit in Joel’s murder. But when you actually meet them in Abby’s section, you get a completely different angle on the context of them as characters. Ellie can’t get this perspective, so to her, what she’s doing is right. That’s the whole idea of The Last of Us Part II; whether something is right or wrong is almost entirely based on perspective.
Which is not to say that it’s wrong to make any judgement at all. Both Abby’s and Ellie’s story give clear judgements. And both judgements are valid. Ellie’s not in the wrong for doing what she did. And neither is Abby. They had their reasons, and those reasons are understandable. To stand in the middle, paralyzed by indecision, would be doing an injustice to both of them. There’s no perfect right answer, and that can seem pretty bleak; no matter what we do, it’s not gonna be the Right Decision. But it’s really more hopeful than that.
When I first played the game, I thought the California section was pointless and didn’t add anything to the plot. But upon revisiting, it actually serves a very important purpose. It shows that the best thing you can do is to try to move on. On the farm, Ellie has it all. Living a simple life with her loving partner and child. But she just can’t escape her past. So she continues to pursue Abby, and ends up inadvertently helping her while losing everything in the process. Which is a really cool symbol, by the way – Ellie focusing all her energy on someone who hurt her isn’t serving her at all; in fact, it’s serving the one who hurt her. It’s not even really entirely Ellie’s fault; she’s got pretty severe PTSD, and she can never stop thinking about Abby and Joel. In an ideal world, she could have moved on and lived happily with her family. As a sufferer of PTSD myself, it’s a constant struggle, but it’s the best way through. She doesn’t owe Abby anything, nor Abby her. It really spoke to me as someone with a similar experience, albeit not quite as dark.
Meanwhile Abby and Lev, who both had terrible things happen to them in Seattle (especially Lev, like, Jesus Christ), have moved on. They’re living their own life in California, and they’re doing fine. They were able to forsake their hurting past and look to the future. That’s what enabled them to get through it all. That’s why I don’t really agree with the whole torture porn thing; it’s definitely true that there is a mountain of fucked up shit that happens in this game, and it’s entirely possible to read it as torture porn, but the message itself is very empathetic and hopeful.
The Last of Us Part II is an entertaining and emotional experience which I very much enjoyed. Obviously I’ve got my problems with it, but for the most part it’s a great time. It is absolutely not the poorly written cliche revenge plot I was led to believe it was. If you’ve gotten a bad impression of it, I implore you to give it a shot. But, I mentioned the crunch in passing earlier. And yeah, it’s true. The game’s development was fraught with it. I’m not really in a position to talk about it much, since I’m not a journalist and I don’t have any sort of contact with Naughty Dog, but you can read about it in these articles: “As Naughty Dog Crunches On The Last Of Us II, Developers Wonder How Much Longer This Approach Can Last” by Jason Schreier on Kotaku, and “Crunch once again in the spotlight after damning report on The Last of Us 2 developer Naughty Dog” by Wesley Yin-Poole on Eurogamer. It’s pretty undeniable that the culture surrounding this game’s production is awful, and I’m certainly hesitant to recommend it for this reason. The Story Arc does not condone piracy, but I don’t think Naughty Dog deserves to get money for this game, especially considering the obscene amounts of it they already have. If you can find it used, go for it. The culture around this sort of thing in the gaming industry absolutely needs to change, and as consumers we don’t really have the opportunity to affect that much, but there are absolutely ways to play this game without supporting Naughty Dog’s terrible practices. I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not wrong to enjoy products that were made under bad conditions. After all, they’re pretty hard to avoid in our society. Just try to be aware of what you’re doing before you purchase this game, or really anything. That’s about all I wanted to talk about here. Have a nice day!
About the Author
I’m scovelme! I like writing analysis essays of stuff, which worked out pretty well for this. I also make music, write fiction, and do martial arts in my free time. I don’t know if I’ll be back on The Story Arc any time soon, but hopefully it’ll happen at some point! Feel free to contact me on my Twitter @scovelmee if you want to for whatever reason.