So, I have played the long awaited sequel to Naughty Dog’s magisterial slice of harrowing character-driven survival horror The Last of Us, which I rhapsodised about back in 2013. Looking back, a lot of what I said about that game – the great character work and performances, the stunning detail of the setting, the wince-inducing violence and the gruelling darkness of the whole thing – more or less holds true for this one. I liked it a lot. Possibly not quite as much as the first, for reasons I will go into, but still, a lot.
I feel it has much in common with Red Dead Redemption 2. Both keenly anticipated sequels to hugely successful, important and beloved forebears, both lavished with an immensity of money and man hours. But where RDR 2 is the state of the art in open world, sprawling narrative, The Last of Us 2 is the current pinnacle of Naughty Dog’s more cinematic, ‘on rails’, story-focussed style.
As with the first game, emphasis is very much on character and atmosphere rather than gameplay per se. It’s survival horror in essence so you always feel pretty scared and vulnerable, with the odds long and the resources limited. There are certainly guns but ammunition is rare and the gunplay cumbersome and risky so sneaking around and knifing the enemy, or occasionally blowing them up with improvised explosives, is usually preferred. Still, stuff goes wrong, frequently, and encounters often end up in crunchingly brutal hand to hand exchanges with knife, bat, forehead or teeth.
There’s one early digression into a more open-worldy section but it’s slightly oddly never repeated, and most of the game – as the previous one did – moves through a succession of quite limited areas and encounters occasionally punctuated by conversations, flashbacks, and some awesomely intense cinematic action sequences. Naughty Dog have always been great at this, and some of these ones – a ride in an out of control car attacked by paramilitaries, a hand to hand fight with an axe-wielding giant, an unspeakable monstrosity in a hospital basement – left me with my jaw hanging open and the pad dangling from my hands. I’d have to pause and take a little walk to calm down.
I couldn’t play it for more than an hour or two at a time, which is rare for me. I’m not sure you could really call it ‘fun’. It is dark, dark, very dark, extremely, at times wince-inducingly violent, and dark. There is brutal main-character death and splatterpunk savagery. It is gruelling and harrowing. I was harrowed and gruelled. And you know me, that is my bag.
But was it all perfect? Well, I gotta talk about the story, now, so there will be SPOILERS.
They made the bold decision – and I applaud bold decisions, on the whole, even when they don’t entirely work – to essentially split the game in half. For the first half we follow Ellie on an increasingly bloody and destructive quest for vengeance. In the second half we switch to Abby, the target of said vengeance, and see some of the same events from her perspective. There were times when this was effective, times when it was frustrating. Abby’s story had some awesome set pieces but in the end my sympathy stayed much more with Ellie and in the second half I found myself – not bored – but sometimes not desperate to pick up the pad.
In the first game, the story seemed to flow absolutely naturally from the characters and the situation, right up to Joel’s brilliantly challenging and thought-provoking final decision to save Ellie whatever the price (which becomes the engine for the second game). In the second, well, less so. You sometimes feel that the writers have their thumb on the scales in service of points to be made. Would these people really do this thing? I dunno… That was particularly true of Abby’s half of the story.
The intent was obviously to humanise the antagonists and make you question you own actions etc, and there were times when that really worked, when you’d see the awful intersections between the two stories coming and think – oh god, this is going to be bad – and feel for the characters involved to a degree that is truly rare in gaming. But there were also times when they spooned the sentiment on a little thick. Oh no! That dog Ellie so thoughtlessly killed is actually a really good doggy! SHE HAD A CHEW TOY. The lady doth protest too much, methinks… And, in Abby’s sections particularly, the decisions felt all over the place. In saving one person she’d put others in danger in a way that didn’t seem very believable. The story, and the authorial intent, if you will, to wedge her onto a path towards redemption to contrast with Ellie’s path towards revenge, was pulling the characters around by the nose so that they could not convince as people and earn the emotional payoffs. Apologies for the pretentiousness. Imagine me saying it while spotlit on a stage in a tweed jacket with elbow patches. But, you know. Abby committed to heroically saving these two kids from the other side of a war, but then in order to do so turned on her own side and started dropping bodies all over the place. Did THOSE people not have chew toys? WHAT ABOUT THEIR CHEW TOYS, ABBY?
To go back to the comparison with Red Dead Redemption 2 – I felt that game was majestic in many ways but its attempts to do something profound were fatally hamstrung by the dated and disposable gameplay in which you’d gun down thousands of anonymous banditos without a backward glance. The Last of Us 2 also tries to be profound, and is much more successful, because the violence is much more costly and impactful, with a real sense of heft, damage and visceral peril, but there was still a certain dissonance there. After the steadily building, patient opening I was expecting plenty of face-offs with the infected, but violent encounters with other humans to be rare and horrible. When Ellie carved up her first human patrol I was a bit bemused. I mean it was perfectly effective from a gameplay perspective, but from an emotional one it was deflating. On the one hand the game worked almost too hard to say – ‘these people that you have made your enemies are just people too, with their hopes and dreams and complexities, and killing them is, like, bad,’ but on the other it would then serve up half a dozen goons and invite you to knife their asses with extreme prejudice and SHIT look at the physics on that arterial spurt! I can see Ellie’s face in the blood puddle!
There’s definitely an argument that while the first game just let its characters do the talking, this one got a wee bit carried away with its own artistic mission. On the macro, story-level, there were mis-steps, though far from fatal ones. But on the micro, behaviour-level, it’s a fucking masterpiece.
The dialogue was, at times, great. Patient, understated, full of inferences and things not said, and the way they’d fill in blanks in flashback, put things in slightly different context right up to the end, was really clever. Some of the best parts of the game were where you were just watching these patient interactions, full of solemn weight and touches of humanity. The performances, and the capture of those performances, were brilliant. The characters didn’t just have their own style, believable hair and configurations of freckles they had their own whole body language, and one that would develop as the game developed. Ellie was all coiled spring sinewy menace. Abby was tank-like chunky purpose. The sound design was amazing. First game I ever played through headphones (partly because of the ridiculous amount of noise my PS4 was creating the whole time) and the music, the footsteps, the horrible rattling of the infected, right down to Abby’s scared breathing whenever she got close to a long drop, created an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension at times.
The attention to detail, in every area. Every upgrade to every gun has its own lavish animation with accompanying sound effects. The way the characters change over time, get torn and blood-stained, bruised and beaten up externally as they go through the emotional wringer. Just as an example, after Abby’s been tied up at one point she has noticeable ligature marks on her wrists. Ellie’s face changes in a meticulously believable way as she goes from child to teenager to young woman. Abby’s body changes, from this preppy young athlete in flashback, to this iron-pumping bruiser in the present. She is a rare (dare one say unique) video game heroine who really looks like she could punch your head off. When she reappears at the very end, horribly and almost unrecognisably withered, it’s genuinely shocking. You don’t need to know what’s happened. You can just see it, instantly. Ellie sees it too, and the desire for righteous vengeance just drains straight out of her. The sickening final fight, in which you have to beat up this ravaged, shivering ghost, was where the game’s sometimes rather cumbersome efforts to get you to sympathise with both sides of the story really paid off. The conclusion, though it didn’t quite reach the thought-provoking heights of the first game, still offered a welcome glimpse of bittersweet redemption after wading through a sea of gruelling darkness.
Maybe this game is an object lesson in how big things are made of little things. It’s the detail, and the scrupulous attention to the detail, that elevates it. The sound design, and the meticulous work on the settings, and the precision of the characters’ reactions and behaviour. It makes what is relatively straightforward and unoriginal gameplay tense and involving. It fills what could be a dour and repetitive setting with meaning and atmosphere. It elevates what might at times be a slightly clunky and manipulative story so that it still produces moments of real warmth, fear, and high drama.
29 comments so far
I find it very intriguing to read a master storyteller’s feedback on a story told in the context of a video game. Oft times I think folks don’t believe that a video game can carry a story like a novel, but I find it more than often does. Your perspective is refreshing. I was disappointed that they couldn’t work the word ‘quim’ into the game a single time.
Nice review and I’m inclined to agree with most of your points.
I felt the stories of Abby & Ellie should have been interwoven more, played mostly chronologically. For me, the tension the game tries to build on Abby’s side, we know the outcome already because we’ve seen Ellie’s side. Alice the dog dies, Owen doesn’t go to Santa Barbara etc. I felt if it had been told mostly in order that tension would have been more effective.
About to finish my second play through this evening. Still feeling the same but otherwise an excellent game.
Looking forward to the new book in September!
Superb game, masterful in all respects, no use of the word ‘quim’, 3/10.
Yeah, I wondered a lot about why they chose not to intercut, and I think they wanted to centre you totally on Ellie, then centre you totally on Abby, so your sympathies could be pulled all one way then all the other. You did lose surprise this way but you gained context and a sort of dread of what you knew was inevitably coming. I did think it was an odd decision to have that little bit of Abby right at the start, though, cause it sort of spoiled the surprise, in a way. If it had been me I think I would’ve started with Joel, then handed off to Ellie, then only come to Abby much later.
Hm, my thought that it maybe would have worked better, if you played those flashbacks not as flashbacks. Everything in the order it happened and with the characters switching. Abby with her Dad, Ellie and Joel in the museum, Abby early in Seattle and so on and so forth.
That way i would have been able to get to know Abby. Joel would have come across more as a real character in this and his death would have been more than just shock value, to send Ellie on her path. I for once wasnt able to sympathise with Abby throughout the whole game, because that was the first thing we saw her doing. I tried to sympathise with her, but i found myself jumping off of buildings every now and then.
And the amount of deaths this game is just brushing by, is way too much for my taste. Jesse, Manny, Yara, Isaac, and i dont know if i am forgetting someone, all just get killed and then immediatly forgotten. (Remember Sam and Henry, David or Tess from the first one? They played those deaths out, with everyone involved reacting to it.)
I have to agree, I was all the time on the side of Ellie, even when I felt sympathy for Abbys journey at the very end. I did feel like they tried to make you feel like the baddie after killing dogs as Ellie went on the downward spiral, but ultimately for me, Ellie’s revenge quest carried the weight of Joels decision from the first game to save her, even as she felt betrayed by that.
While you’re on the topic of games, I recently decided to give VR a shot after seeing all the accolades Half Life: Alyx got. I never really had a desire to play VR games as I felt they would just be worse versions of regular ones offset by the gimmick. The ways that Alyx makes use of the technology to make it feel like a great game, not just a great VR game, were a welcome surprise. While you’re on the topic of video games I was curious if you’ve delved into any VR games or had any desire to?
Great game! Loved the review.
Off topic: If first law ever gets made into movies, the dream director – Tarantino!
If he ever wrote fantasy he would write Red Country or maybe Heroes.
I loved the game. I did get emotionally fatigued playing it, which only helped the impact.
The one thing that was totally ignored by the characters…. what would Joel have wanted them to do? Most probably not go to Seattle.
Dunno about that idea, honestly – would’ve been very minimal action in the early phases, right…?
Only used a VR headset once and it was interesting but kinda disorienting and made me feel a bit sick…
I daresay he’d have said let it go, but in the first game he totally ignored everyone else’s wishes and did whatever worked for him.
I’m halfway through and love the storytelling. It makes me feel sad for people who don’t play video games, because they are missing out on some of these incredible storytelling experiences simply because they don’t approve of the medium. I’m also experiencing what you mentioned about not feeling super motivated to start playing again after you switch to playing as Abby. I’m not really sure why, but after the switch in character perspective I’ve sort of lost interest…
Thanks for responding to my message. I appreciate it.
I agree that if they were going to totally immerse you with one character for a period of play they shouldn’t have had the switching in Jackson at the beginning.
Have a great lockdown lifted weekend.
For me the characters in this game never came across as nuanced or meaningful like the characters of the first game. I still vividly remember Bill, Tess, Sam, Henry, David and how they all felt human, some uncomfortably so. I feel like that quality of writing was lost here.
It tried to do too much and I feel like in the process it lost a lot of what made the first game so special for me. When a character exits early on, I felt like what I loved about the first game, the quite introspection, the slow organic development of character and themes, all….died with that character. I honestly don’t mind the way they did it. I just wish the new characters were able to fill in those shoes left behind.
I was especially disappointed at how little Ellie and Dina’s relationship was developed. I don’t believe someone who just starts a relationship would decide to go on a murder rampage. But even then, I was disappointed because these were the guys who wrote relationships so well. Joel and Ellie, Nate and Elena, I was really hoping an LGBT couple would finally get that quality of writing here, but the game doesn’t care about those things. I understand that given the situation developing that relationship wouldn’t feel as necessary. I was wondering did you find the new characters just as good?
Btw, agreed with most of your criticisms and praise btw. Did you by any chance think of Best Served Cold while you were playing this? I was constantly thinking about your book as I was reading it side by side with the game. Shivers=Tommy, Monza=Ellie/Abby, Fosca=Owen, etc. Not a copy of course but couldn’t help but notice. Great book btw. Nearly done with it.
Sure, they would need to tweak the scenes a bit to give them some action (except the Museum, that was perfect). In my little imaginated story they would leave the big reveal of Abby being the daugher of the doctor for later. The death of Joel would happen in the midpoint of the story, alongside the reveal of who Abby really is.
Since TLOU1 is my favourite game of all time (my “The blade itself” of video games, so to speak), i am really disappointed, that i dont like the sequel… (unlike with “The blade itself”, i loved every sequel of that little book)
Yeah, Abby popped less as a character and her interactions felt a bit engineered to make us sympathetic for her. I did warm to her though. And there were some brilliant sequences in her section of the game.
Funnily enough I was reading this morning that originally they’d planned to play as Abby for the first chunk of the game, she gets involved with Joel and the rest through various adventures, THEN she reveals who she is and kills Joel, THEN we switch to Ellie. So it seems like this little bit of Abby very early on is sort of left over from that earlier model. The same was true of that open world-y section in Seattle – they’d originally planned for the whole game to be based around these more open world-esque hubs, but abandoned it.
Interesting – I haven’t played the first game since 2013 and I’ll be honest – Ellie and Joel remain very real in my mind but anyone else has kinda faded. In the second game I thought the character work was really good on Ellie’s side, especially Dina and their relationship, actually, I thought that was one of the best things in the game from a character viewpoint. My take on it was that they’d been friends for years and kinda had the hots for each other for some time which was maybe why Dina’s relationship with Jessie had come apart in any case. I actually liked Jessie quite a lot as well – he had this weary tone in relation to Ellie and Dina as though he’d always known exactly what was going on. The characters on Abby’s side were a lot less compelling for me – they had less space to just exist in their own right, I think. Lev especially was really important as Abby’s whole motivation for change and didn’t come across very vividly for me. Thinking about it now, as the story progresses, there’s a neat symmetry in that Abby becomes Joel (the killer seeking redemption through the surrogate child), Ellie becomes Abby (the child corrupted by revenge), and Lev becomes Ellie (the surrogate child). For me Lev was somewhat the weak link in that chain. Not awfully weak, mind you, but just not as strong as the others. If I’d felt that bond between Abby and Lev the way I felt the one between Joel and Ellie it would’ve strengthened the whole thing even more.
Excellent review. I broadly agree but I must say that some of the twists made me, quite frankly, roll my eyes. In particular – SPOILER INCOMING – when Ellie discovered that one of her victims was pregnant. It was a case of, “Of course she’s pregnant, of course the game had to go there…..”
I have also found myself scratching my head at some of the criticism it has received, in particular the ending: “So I’ve spent 25 hours on a revenge mission and at the end the character decides against actually taking revenge?!” Well, yeah, that is exactly the point of the story, isn’t it? It reminded me of the criticism of the ending of Jamie Lannister’s story in Game of Thrones, with people lamenting that all his character growth was for nothing as he ended up in Cersei’s arms as they met their end together. Well, yes, that is an entirely appropriate ending for him – sad, tragic, but also completely plausible.
I must disagree with your criticism of RDR2 though – I found that a much more profound and worthwhile story and journey than this one. And the gameplay resulted in some of the most empowering moments I’ve ever experienced in gaming – namely the John Marston rampages in the epilogue. Absolutely epic, and done with so much style.
As an aside, you mentioned that your PS4 is making noise – just yesterday, after mine being in an identical situation, I opened it up and cleaned it with compressed air and cotton buds. It is now virtually silent. Well worth the twenty minutes it took to do the job (and the 5 days it took for the cans of air to arrive in the post).
dont want to turn this comment section into a place of back and forth debate, so this is propably my last one here.
It was foreshadowed that Mel is pregnant. One of the characters in Abbys group says it before they kill Joel. But funnily enough, it is the only time in the whole game, that Mel does wear clothes that hide the fact. What a coincidence. Anyway, why does that suddenly takes out the floor from under Ellie, if she literally killed like 50+ women before she reaches that point, who all could have been pregnant. Killing is all fun and good, as long as it doesnt happen in a cutscene i guess.
Joel just stumbling across Abby and then walking into her group of armed strangers, like a sheep into a wolf den is another one of those coincidences for example (and heaaaaavily out of character in my mind).
I like Abby as a concept. But they overdid it so much with forcing us to like her. Look here, she rescues zebras, and she plays with dogs (which you murdered as Ellie a few hours playtime before), and she has a sex scene (very rare in Sony games), and she endlessly supports all her friends and everybody in the wlf likes her. It was a tad bit much, to be honest, at least for me. And if the premise of the game crumbles like a house of cards, if you cant get yourself to empathise with the pov of 50% of the playtime… its just a shame.
In the last game, the story was basically Joel and Ellie go from A to B. What made it such a masterpiece was the characters and how they grew due to each others company and hardships. Nothing of that reaches into this one, except the wonderful museum scene, which was unfortunately just a flashback. The few characters i grew to like, get unceremoniously killed and immediatly forgotten, like Jesse. Shot in the head and never mentioned again. Same with Manny, though i admittedly was not exactly rooting for him.
And in the end Ellie redeems herself by not killing Abby. True, but for this to be a bittersweet ending, i think there should have been a “but she got x”. She didnt get her revenge, and she got nothing in return. She ended up alone (her greatest fear, as stated in the first one), cant play the guitar anymore (severed of her last connection to Joel) and wanders off into the unknown, broken and defeated. I truly dont know how to think of a more devastating ending.
Sorry for the longer text, needed to get that out somehow.
This game definitely tried to do a great deal more with the story than is typical for the medium, and I applaud that. Ludonarrative dissonance is probably more of an issue the higher the quality of the writing, particularly when it is a triple A non-fantasy game like TLOU2 that needs to bring in nine figure sums cover production costs leads to an action style game in a way. Actually, I felt that Red Dead 2 fell just short in this regard for me, within its own limitations at least. Missions where you massacre a whole town with Micah and the other one where you kill something like 100 Union soldiers really pushed the suspension of disbelief a bit too hard.
Loved both games, however!
Cyberpunk 2077, Demon’s Souls remake and Elden Ring on the horizon!
This game comes as close as possible in attempt to marry gameplay to the story, thereby pointing out the unavoidable limitations of the current paradigm. In the end, modern blockbuster gameplay centers on combat, so the scrawny kid with 3 bullets and a knife has to be an unstoppable terminator precisely until the meeting with the arch-nemesis where violence finally turns out to be not the answer. So, they’ve told about as good a story as they could have, but one wonders, will the medium find a way to be able to tell better and more varied ones?
I really enjoyed reading your review and agree with bc everything you said.
There is a game called ‘Styx’ where you play as a fantasy goblin rogue. While you can win hand to hand combat it’s very difficult and best avoided. It’s best to be strategic and traverse your way around the map unseen. I think I would have be preferred this gameplay style for Ellie, whilst the super soldier Abby could have been more combative. The gameplay would have been less repetitive and it was further in grained the POV of the two protagonists.
Thanks for writing your post.
Strangely I found myself as part of Team Abby afterwards!
One tiny detain that I thought had real impact was how every character had a name. As you picked people off, their allies would call out their names. It just reinforced that you’re not picking off random baddies.
I hope for DLC that will explore the Apostate and Scars more.
Love hearing your take on the original and Part II, as well as RDR2.
Will you be picking up a copy of Cyberpunk 2077 when it comes out? Be great to hear your thoughts since it is such a genre shift as well.
Just finished. It’s up in my top three and that’s a hard level to make. Standout for me was when we faced off as Abby against Ellie in the theatre, you got to see how really deadly she could be, and was probably the time I felt most threatened. I actually let Abby pound my face in a few times at the end, while squaring off against her as Ellie just because I thought it was going on the direction where she was going to be taking a lungful of water as consolation prize in the fight. Very rare for a game to make me not double down on winning.
I may have asked this before (can’t remeber), but what do you think happened to Isriun as the end of the ‘Half’ Trilogy?
She was my favourite character by far, so much bitterness and hate, and it was always left a little in the air as to just how well she was being treated in Book 2….
Anyway if you have any ideas as to what happens to her in the end please let me know! It always plays on my mind!
Some people found the choice with Joel early to be unforgivable. I loved it, I thought every choice has a consequence and this is no different. The only thing I find unforgivable is what happened to Lord Marshall Collem West…
Nope. Last of Us Part II was a mess.
A mess which suffers from an idiot plot, the script needing the plot to happen (oh look, Joel and Tommy just happen to chance on a load of people who are all out to kill them), character derailment (the Joel that was ultra cautious of anyone and everyone he met suddenly got his fingers embedded in the idiot ball when Abby turned up and all but spilt his life story to them), more character derailment (Ellie and Dina would not act like a pair of daft high schoolers in the middle of zombie mushroom world when they find the gas mask bong etc. because any propensity for same has been beaten out of them by the harsh world they live in), and cheap manipulation (REEEEEEE you just shot that man’s floofy little doggo, and it was his only frienderino, you heckin monster!)
Then there’s the fact that Abby just knew that the Joel she walloped with a pitching wedge was the same Joel who killed off her father. Even though all she knew was that someone called Joel killed her father. It was kinda implied she’s been serial killing everyone called Joel. And nobody has known about this or noticed this? Really, game? Really?
Then there’s the setting. It is stupid. It’s gone from the very believable dangerous mushroom zombie world of the first game to resolutely “cozy catastrophe.” The mushroom zombies aren’t threats any more, they’re just another sort of mook. In fact, you could replace the genuinely inventive cordyceps antagonists with common or garden George Romero BRRAAAAIIINNNSSSS zombies and nobody would know any different. The only exception to this is Abby’s encounter with the mushroom king which is gloriously gruesome. But, no. Food is plentiful enough for Ellie to reject a sandwich offered in atonement for an act of twattery and for Abby to consume the 5,000+ calories a day that anyone, male or female, would need to get that well built, yet we see none of this infrastructure anywhere in the game other than a stadium under cultivation (which is nowhere near enough land to feed an army the size of the WLF.) It’s like, once again, the script needs the plot to happen. It’s like nobody learned from the criticism of Day of the Triffids.
Also, the dialogue is good? Really? “Bigot sandwiches?” The existence of a character whose sole job is to sneer at Ellie for being gay and then vanish completely? And she then refuses to eat his apology sandwich because of it? This is another example of high school drama tier writing. Ellie would have had to grow up a lot since the first game and as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Blood Diamond put it, “no room for apartheid in the trenches.” Similarly, no room for homophobia in mushroom zombie world. So why make such a song and dance about it, hm?
The upshot of all this is that it’s a game that shows its 7 years of development hell with bad management that led to repeated and endless crunch. There are bits here and there that feel like artefacts of a previous rewrite. Much like The Last Jedi, and Game of Thrones series 8, it eschews canon and internal consistency in favour of SuBvERtINg eXPecTaTIOnS.
But the biggest strike against it is this. If you watch the Critical Drinker’s review of it on YT, he says that the main question he had is, is this a sequel that needed to happen. And the answer is pretty much no.
But then what do I know, I’m probably just an -ist and a -phobe according to the howling fanboys in GARME JURNALIZM who lined up to taste Neil Druckmann’s shoe leather.
Video games are an art-form rife with amazing storytelling, you just have to look in the right places (the mainstream AAA stuff ain’t it).
Hey Joe! Catching up on some tv while social distancing here in NY and started watching Friday Night Lights specifically because I remembered reading your glowing review of it several years ago. You were right. It’s the cat’s pajamas! I will read this article one day but I haven’t gotten around to playing Last of Us 2 yet. Soon. Soon.
Regarding VR, try Oculus 2, and have someone experienced in VR to be your guide. You will most probably not get sick. Good luck 🙂
I messed up the name – I meant Oculus Quest 2.