What do you think about The Last of Us? Is it the best narrative-driven video game in recent years? Or does it only exist as an idol for the PlayStation fanbase to worship? Personally, I have an inconsistent relationship with it.
It’s not a game I think about when considering my all-time favourites. I don’t place it on a metaphorical pedestal, and yet, it completely engrosses me whenever I do play it. I would argue that few modern games boast the same cinematic qualities as those by Naughty Dog.
Games like Uncharted and The Last of Us make you feel like you’re playing a movie. They make you relate to the characters, believe in their predicament and act out based on their ideologies. For all you know, they’re real people.
The Last of Us Part 2 continues this tradition. Despite some shortcomings, it raises the bar for cinematography and storytelling in video games. It conveys that any actions you perform, any decisions you make, can lead to dire consequences for you and those around you.
The Last of Us
It’s a story about ordinary people living ordinary lives.
Ordinary, until a deadly virus turns most of the population into vicious monsters. The Last of Us sets the tone early when Joel, a single father, loses his only daughter and his will to live. Who do you take vengeance on?
On the infected? On the soldiers who oppress the common folk? Joel does what most of us would do after losing a loved one: for years, he drowns his sorrow in a bottle.
The world has changed and Joel now works as a smuggler alongside his partner, Tess. Marlene, the leader of the rebel group known as the Fireflies, promises them a handsome reward for smuggling something across the country.
That “something” is a teenage girl, Ellie. She’s immune to the infection and her antibodies could save humanity, assuming anyone escorts her to the Fireflies HQ. Though with hesitation, Joel accepts the assignment.
They don’t see eye to eye initially. After losing his daughter, Joel lacks almost any sympathy for humanity and Ellie constantly displays her rebellious teenage spirit. Joel sees her as a burden, albeit one that pays well.
But eventually, through adversity, they develop a strong bond. Joel finds someone who fills the void after the passing of his daughter. Similarly, being an orphan, Ellie finds a father-figure, someone to look up to and learn from.
On their journey across the desolate states of America, they experience the destruction imposed by the virus. They witness the darkest misdeeds by the remaining humans, but also the fleeting yet still present beauty of nature.
They reach St. Mary’s Hospital where doctors can develop a vaccine, but there’s a twist. The procedure will kill Ellie. Joel objects to no avail. He never outright says it, but his eyes speak without words: he’s not losing his daughter again.
Joel goes on a merciless rampage throughout the hospital, killing every Firefly in his path, even the doctors. He grasps Ellie and escapes, before encountering Marlene who still attempts to negotiate. But Joel has made up his mind.
“You’d just come after her”
With these words, Joel shoots her and leaves with Ellie.
The Last of Us leaves you with an ambivalent question to ponder. Would you sacrifice someone you love to save the world? Or would you abandon mankind in order to save someone who means the world to you?
The Last of Us Part 2
Given its impactful ending, I don’t think The Last of Us needed a sequel. It concludes on the perfect note and Joel must live with whatever decisions he made. The Last of Us Part 2 explores the consequences of said decisions.
Years later, Ellie and Joel have settled down in Jacksonville alongside Joel’s brother Tommy and his wife Maria. It’s a bustling community, all things considered, like something straight out of The Walking Dead.
With its many denizens, housing, social and industrial services, such as taverns and smithies, Jacksonville seems to maintain the integral characteristics of the old world.
Ellie has turned into a young adult and develops an intimate relationship with her friend, Dina. Joel has aged, but remains as overly protective of Ellie as ever. Life in Jacksonville seems relatively peaceful and routine.
Meanwhile, part of the WLF (Washington Liberation Front) crew spearhead by Abby is searching for Joel. Abby seems to bear a strong grudge against him for yet unknown reasons.
Their paths cross and Abby murders Joel right in front of Ellie, inciting further events. As much as I like Joel’s story development, I’m of the opinion that characters should be vulnerable in whatever world they inhabit.
If there’s no struggle in their lives, if they always come out on top, you stop believing in their authenticity. In this case, Joel’s prior actions have led to consequences and he pays the price. However, Ellie isn’t okay with the cost.
To its credit, The Last of Us Part 2 nails the various stages of grief. Initial feelings of emptiness and despair are quickly replaced by a burning desire to take revenge.
Ellie mourns Joel’s passing; she reminisces, examines his belongings, smells his clothes. Unlike Joel in the first game, she knows who to take vengeance on and sets out to exact it.
Ellie’s “to-do list” includes Abby and anyone who stood in the same room and watched the light in Joel’s eyes dwindle.
Each consecutive target that Ellie ticks off her list makes her increasingly remorseless. She grows from the first game’s innocent girl — who barely knew how to handle a gun — into a fierce killing machine, eager to end anyone.
Understandably, Joel remains unplayable throughout The Last of Us Part 2, but heart-wrenching flashbacks portray how his relationship with Ellie flourished. Joel has taken to reading Savage Starlight, Ellie’s favourite comic.
He also taught her how to swim and play the guitar, as promised. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, like with any relationship, but these glimpses at Ellie’s memories make you relate to her growing bloodlust.
One such flashback also showcases Tommy’s exceptional sniping skills cleverly foreshadowing events in Abby’s segment. Tommy acts out separately from Ellie and you’ll occasionally come across the remnants of his deeds.
Meanwhile, Dina accompanies Ellie on her vengeful quest; they frequently converse and joke around. When they drop into a temple-like building while exploring Seattle, Dina immediately remarks that it must be a synagogue.
Answering Ellie’s question of how she could tell so quickly, Dina, being a Jewish girl, wittily says:
“I didn’t burst into flames right now”
The Last of Us Part 2 constantly transitions between contrasting emotions. At times, you’re enjoying a leisurely stroll through sun-bathed woods, listening to an enticing conversation or collecting superhero cards for Ellie’s collection. But at any moment, you could get ambushed by a horde of the infected in a flooded parking lot.
Much like its predecessor, The Last of Us Part 2 remains mostly linear by design. Often, you’ll explore the confines of a single location, such as a news station or a hospital.
That said, the game does open up on several instances, particularly when visiting Downtown Seattle. In this instance, the game becomes more akin to open-world games and allows you to explore at your own leisure.
Many locations are optional, but visiting them leads to some of the most memorable moments in the game.
For example, I found a crumbling bank building. The main hall was mostly intact and filled with the infected. After disposing of them, I cracked the code and got into the main vault. Once again, Ellie and Dina joked about having all this money were it not for the world turning to shit.
But there was more than money inside the vault…
A dead robber lay across the entrance, clutching a pump shotgun similar to the one used by Nathan Drake in Uncharted. But that’s not all. One of the safety deposit boxes contained a ring with an engraving “Sic Parvis Magna”. That’s the same ring that Drake wears around his neck.
Moreover, a letter between the robbers details their raid just as the virus hit. It even mentions their initials: L, K, N and B.
N? As in Nathan? That made me wonder, could the dead robber be Drake? Does The Last of Us Part 2 somehow share its universe with Uncharted? Or is it simply a clever nod to Naughty Dog’s other noteworthy franchise?
Nonetheless, with a shiny new pump shotgun in my arsenal, I moved on. Soon enough, I stumbled upon a cosy coffee shop, Ruston Coffee, and relaxed. I got enthralled by the conversation about coffee between Ellie and Dina. They couldn’t understand why Joel enjoyed it so much.
But then I went to the bathroom in the back. Suddenly, an infected rushed out from one of the stalls. I wasn’t ready and it took me by surprise. I hesitated to draw my gun and by the time I could, the infected was already too close.
I retreated, but it managed to scratch me up. Dina shot her, the infected staggered and gave me an opening. I closed the distance and smashed her head in with my hammer.
In hindsight, I was never in danger. Ellie was at full health with a loaded revolver and Dina could cover my back. But this instance taught me to never let my guard down.
Halfway through the game, Abby’s story covers the events from her perspective. When Joel killed the lead doctor at St. Mary’s Hospital all those years ago, he also killed her father.
Abby’s story introduces you to her childhood and the close relationship she had with her father, Gerald. She’s not quite the cold-hearted killer portrayed in the game’s introduction and later segments emphasize it further.
Her story also introduces Abby’s friends — Manny, Mel and Owen — all of whom were present during Joel’s execution.
Manny is a ladies man who constantly boasts about the number of women he bedded. He’s presented as a charismatic and garrulous character who also takes care of his ailing father, which gives him a more sensitive side.
Mel plays an integral part in the WLF community; she’s medically trained and tends to the wounded. She’s saving lives yet has no qualms about standing and watching while another man is being clubbed to death.
Finally, there’s Owen, Abby’s life-long friend and the only one I could sympathize with. He understands Abby’s grief and supports her. But at the same time, he seems to have doubts about whether or not revenge would give her peace.
Owen brings a degree of rationale and common sense into any exchange; he’s the voice of reason. Owen talked others out of killing Ellie and Tommy as well. Sadly, he meets the same fate as everyone else.
Some of them get detailed backstories, while others, like Jordan and Nora, barely get any screen time. That goes for my favourite, Whitney, a WLF member you’ll occasionally encounter playing Hotline Miami on the PS Vita.
The Last of Us Part 2 attempts to humanize many of these characters by showcasing the regular lives they lead. But after tracking them down as Ellie, I no longer cared.
It wasn’t Manny, the funny guy that beds numerous women; it was Manny, the bastard that spat on Joel’s corpse. When Tommy sniped him in the face, I cheered the former on.
It wasn’t the seemingly friendly and sound-minded Nora. It was Nora, the bitch who knocked Tommy out so Abby could whack away at Joel undisturbed.
While playing as Abby, I kept thinking that the narrative could’ve been more impactful if told the other way around. Introduce us to Abby and her crew first. Show us that they’re regular people leading regular lives, not monsters.
Instead, the game portrays them as monsters from the start and then expects you to forgive their heinous acts.
Having said that, Abby’s campaign includes some of my favourite chapters in the game. Particularly a lengthy story-arc involving a religious cult known as the Scars.
Even while wandering the streets of Seattle as Ellie, you’ll frequently come across propaganda posters, leaflets and notes left by the group’s brain-washed members.
In fact, you’ll first encounter these cultists as Ellie in the most nerve-wracking combat sequence. Scars wear hooded capes and communicate only by whistling, summoning an additional layer of mystery and dread around them.
Despite identical gameplay mechanics, both protagonists handle differently, especially when it comes to stealth and hand-to-hand combat.
Ellie uses her signature switchblade to stealth-kill most enemies. If you sneak up on an unsuspecting foe, Ellie grabs them and gives you the option to slit their throat. Do that and they helplessly struggle against your grasp.
Pan the camera around and you’ll notice their eyes roll back. Ellie clenches her teeth while her victim gargles on their own blood as a fountain bursts out of their artery. It’s worth noting that The Last of Us Part 2 is much more explicit than its predecessor. Ellie seems to savour every kill and gets covered in blood, should you opt for violence.
In particular, explosives, such as proximity bombs, usually turn their prey into mince or blow the torso in half.
On the contrary, Abby uses physical strength to her advantage. She punches like a tank when faced head-on and snaps an enemy’s neck when approaching from stealth. No wonder friends call her Abs.
The Last of Us Part 2 introduces several new enemies. They move wisely, especially when alerted. Stalkers hide in dark corners and skitter along the floor, while the typical runners attack in numbers in order to overwhelm you.
Shamblers move with heft and resemble the much more formidable Bloaters. They take quite a few bullets to down and release a cloud of toxic gas if you get close.
Clickers are blind due to the growth across their face, but even the faintest sound will alert them to your presence.
At one point, Ellie and Dina escape into a subway, with WLF hot on their heels. The subway is full of clickers as well, so I threw a bottle in the direction of WLF to attract the clickers and hid in the nearby train car.
Chaos, screams, gunshots and the sound of flesh being torn apart ensued. Minutes later, no one was left standing and I could safely proceed without firing a single shot.
Human enemies call out to each other and attempt to flank you. They communicate your last known location and occasionally employ dogs to sniff you out. Canines follow your scent wherever you go, so you must constantly move from cover to cover. Going prone, hiding in tall grass or under trucks, allows you to avoid most direct confrontations.
The Last of Us Part 2 favours stealth, so crafting a makeshift silencer or upgrading the bow should be your top priority.
You’ll occasionally come across workbenches that allow you to upgrade weapons with previously collected resources.
Resources are scarce, especially on higher difficulties, which makes obtaining an upgrade all the more satisfying. Once you interact with a workbench and initiate an upgrade, your character unloads the clip and places the firearm on top.
It reminded me of how Artyom upgrades his weapons in Metro Exodus. Each weapon has several upgrade slots and each one improves that weapon’s attributes and aesthetics.
Upgrades range from those that simply improve a weapon’s stats to those that significantly alter its behaviour. For instance, extending the barrel on Joel’s revolver (which Ellie now wields) increases its damage.
Adding burst fire to Abby’s semi-auto rifle allows you to shoot in 3-round bursts with a single pull of the trigger. Disposing of resilient targets becomes much easier.
Similarly, attaching a scope to either Ellie’s rifle or Abby’s crossbow allows you to pick off targets at a distance. And vantage points throughout the game give ample opportunity to take advantage of this upgrade.
Some of them may not seem like much initially, but even the smallest upgrade makes a weapon substantially stronger.
Suddenly, bullets pack a greater punch and previously underperforming weapons take down the infected with ease.
Was it Worth it?
The Last of Us Part 2 looks superb, but most of its visual appeal stems from the little details.
From details like how characters interact with each other and the environment. Grime and blood builds up on a character’s clothes. Glass panes shatter into tiny pieces if you throw a brick at one.
Characters squint and turn away if you shine a bright flashlight in their face (sorry, Dina).
Abby’s fear of heights comes through whenever you point the camera at the abyss. She starts to breathe heavily and becomes visibly distressed. Point the camera away and she goes back to her usual self. A mundane vulnerability like this adds to the immersion and the character’s believability.
But for all of its visual accolades, The Last of Us Part 2 wavers in the narrative department. Not because of the story, but because of how farcical it eventually becomes.
Abby takes revenge on Joel for killing the Fireflies and her father. Makes sense, right? Enraged, Ellie goes after Abby’s crew, murdering everyone she cares about. Still credible.
At this point, the story should lead into some sort of a climactic conclusion, don’t you think?
Now, Abby goes after Ellie and her friends, yet somehow spares her life, again. But instead of appreciating a new lease on life, Ellie tracks Abby across the country for another chance at killing her. It’s convoluted and implausible.
By the time you reach the game’s final showdown, any emotional impact has long worn off.
After so much bloodshed, so many deaths, the game still doesn’t reward you with a meaningful payoff. It doesn’t leave you with a “What would you do?” question; it leaves you with a sense of emptiness and disappointment.
That aside, The Last of Us Part 2 is among the best games on the PlayStation 4. Its revenge story falls significantly short of the original’s meaningful tale of loss, human relationship and difficult decisions.
But it improves upon everything else — from combat to visuals — and I can’t wait to experience it again.