Full spoilers ahead, minor spoilers for the original game.
Who would have thought that one of the most controversial things about 2020 would be a Naughty Dog game! Not I… but here we are. I’m a little late to the party, but this is a meaty experience and I wanted it to settle before I tried to articulate my thoughts on it. Instead of writing a formal review, I’m going to treat this game to a new series which I am creatively calling “My Thoughts On”, designed to be more of a stream of consciousness/discussion-type analysis of the game/movie. Let’s get into it.
I liked the game overall. I’m someone who utterly adores the first Last of Us, and I’d probably go so far as to call it a masterpiece of a video game, but Part II feels like two steps forward, three steps back. Not a bad game overall by any stretch, but it has some pretty big issues, especially when compared to the immense heights of Naughty Dog’s last five or so games. The major improvements are in the gameplay, and the biggest issues come from the story and writing. Let’s start with the positives.
This is maybe Naughty Dog’s most fun game to play post-Drake’s Fortune. In every possible way, this is ND’s biggest and most ambitious title, and one of the biggest steps forward is in the gameplay department. The post-Uncharted gameplay mechanics can be polarizing, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to say The Last of Us Part II’s gameplay lacks depth or is boring.
The stealth aspects are handled greatly, with additions that feel right and don’t add any bloat. Each weapon has its own use and there are an appropriate amount of them to keep combat consistently fresh. On that note, each combat scenario feels entirely unique. There is just enough variety in the enemy types and arenas to where I never got bored.
The third-person shooter gameplay is adequately challenging, and I really liked the expansion to the upgrade and crafting mechanics. I went through the game fairly quickly because I was more interested in experiencing the story than the gameplay, but I immediately wanted to replay the game on a harder difficulty just to soak in the genuinely engaging gameplay even more.
So, gameplay good. Story… so-so.
My main issues with the game’s story lay with the fact that I felt as though certain decisions felt illogical, and that I felt like the big story decisions came from a cynical place rather than an artistic one. For instance (SUPER SPOILER!!!!1!!), perhaps the game’s most controversial decision, the death of Joel. One could write a novel (or better yet, a textbook) on this subject. Maybe they wanted to subvert expectations a la The Last Jedi, maybe they just wanted to do something utterly shocking, or perhaps it was an earnest attempt to show how brutal and uncaring this world is, but that’s not the vibe I got.
Cynicism vs. Art
To me, it feels as though Druckmann wanted to do something shocking for the sake of doing it. They didn’t want to give us the story we wanted, and that’s perfectly fine; they probably would have received way more criticism if this was just another adventure involving Joel and Ellie moving from point A to point B. A more conventional story would have placed Joel’s death at the end of the second act of the story, or at the very very end. I’m fine with breaking conventions, but that isn’t what I felt was the case here.
It felt like they went from a top-down approach – as though Druckmann asked himself “what’s the most ‘The Last of Us‘-esque thing we could do in the sequel?” and went with the first thing that popped into his head. I got some real “college film student” vibes from some of the creative choices, and that’s not a good thing. I also found it quite surprising, given that I felt his previous work at Naughty Dog was exceptional. It could be that he was given more creative freedom with this game than he ever had. That’s speculation, but not terribly uncommon in the world of narrative features.
Decisions aside, I also just had trouble connecting with the story and the characters.
Joel and Ellie in the original game were fairly complex characters that you liked. I didn’t find Ellie particularly likable or sympathetic in this game. Perhaps that was the writer’s intention, but it didn’t make for a narrative I was able to relate to or care about. At the same time, we have a new character’s story to experience, who takes up about as much of the game as your time with Ellie does, and while. This was a controversial choice, but I think it was a cool idea that could have been great had the characters been more interesting.
This was a simple revenge story, and not much else. This is contrasted with the original, which was rich in its themes, most of which didn’t carry over. Even the big moment at the end of the first game was barely expanded upon. This was perhaps my biggest disappointment with Part II’s story – that it didn’t really continue the story of a game/series known for its interesting story. It continued the character drama, sure, but at the expense of its narrative.
“What I Wanted vs. What I Got”
As far as I can tell, the more logical (and indeed, interesting) story would have dealt with Ellie and Joel’s relationship after Ellie was informed of what Joel did at the end of the first game. We get a morsel of this story, but it’s brushed aside in favor of a fairly generic revenge story. Most aspects of where Joel and Ellie’s relationship went after the events of the first game are reduced to flashbacks. The game thinks it has more depth than it does given that we are given considerable attention to the person our beloved Ellie is seeking revenge on, but it doesn’t quite work the way it wants to. This might sound like a case of “what I wanted vs. what I got”, but I think it goes a little deeper than that.
I didn’t just find the creative choices made unsatisfying, I also found them somewhat incongruent with the elements given attention to in the original game, resulting in certain story elements feeling contradictory to me. I didn’t write them all down, but there are quite a few head-scratchers. For brevity, I’ll discuss the most glaring and egregious – why are we not talking about the cure for the virus?
Partway through the story, we learn that Ellie is fully aware of what Joel did at the end of the original game. This is a huge revelation that should have had far-reaching repercussions, especially given how important it was to Ellie. There are clearly scores of groups scattered around the country. Are they absolutely sure that the Fireflies were the only people on the planet with scientists and doctors capable of discovering the cure? This isn’t even discussed once in the entire story, and I find that perplexing.
One thing I did appreciate was the restraint in terms of violence. From the promotional materials leading up to the game, I thought it was going to be a lot gorier than it ended up being. It’s not exactly Viva Piñata, but it’s not particularly excessive. Tonally, the game felt darker than the original, which is fine given the harrowing beginning of its story.
That said, I will say that certain aspects felt somewhat schlockier than the original, such as the big super-infected that Abby has to fight partway through her story, which felt more like something stripped right out of a Resident Evil game than anything from the original. I also didn’t like the Take On Me part. It felt like an Ashley Johnson music video. Kinda took me out of it.
Jeez, I really cut into the story a lot, didn’t I? The truth is, it was far from terrible, but it felt somewhat generic to me and not particularly satisfying compared to the standard set by the first game. I felt mildly compelled to see the story to its conclusion, but not much beyond that. That in mind, the crazy people acting as though this game was going to bring the apocalypse couldn’t be more off-base.
If I had to give the game an average score, it’d probably be in the range of a 7 or 8 out of 10. I’m not going to think too hard on it as this isn’t a formal review, but it’d be somewhere in there. Far from bad, but not the experience I was expecting after all this time. If you enjoyed the first game, I would still recommend checking this one out, if only to appreciate the incredible strides made in the gameplay.
What did you think of The Last of Us Part II? Let me know in the comments! What am I wrong about? Tell me that, too! Until next time.
P.S. Cut it out with the deus ex machinas, Druckmann! One or two to illustrate how dangerous of a situation our characters are in is fine, but you really overdid it this time. By like the eighth one I was stunned.