Please be aware this article includes spoilers. Following on from the critically acclaimed father-daughter dynamic of the original, The Last of Us Part II brings that budding relationship between Ellie and Joel to the next level as it dives further into the complexity of their relationship and the post-apocalyptic world as it tries to recover and leave behind the necessary barbarity of survival.
Many a critique has coined this game as too “woke” for its own good in its attempt to encourage and foster a greater understanding of the real world whether that be sexuality, female body hair, gender identity, sexism, race, legalisation of cannabis but most importantly that people make mistakes and that there are repercussions for your actions. The hardest thing to swallow about this concept however is that while there has been 5 years since the events of the original, the decisions made by the returning cast feel like a contradiction of who we met all those years ago. You could chalk this up to the change in lifestyle as settlements have begun to arise and the surviving populace are happier and therefore more trusting… but the fact remains, you can’t just erase years of survivor related trauma that would almost definitely have created some habitual suspicion for strangers. I’m talking about Joel.
The game splits the story across Ellie and newcomer Abby’s 3-day stint in Seattle as they struggle with grief and the fallout of their decisions that led to this point – peppering in flashbacks of what’s been going on in the 5-year gap at the end of each day. The problem with following Ellie’s 3-day trip and then jumping straight into Abby’s afterwards is that if you (like me) did not like Abby it felt like more of a punishment. I simply didn’t care about her and less so as I learned more. The crutch of her story arc lies in the loneliness/degradation of her friendships and figurative adoption of an exiled child from a rival faction (The Seraphites) who refused to adhere to the female expectations of his tribe which strikes too similar to how Joel and Ellie came to be. I would have preferred if the game yo-yoed between the protagonists after each day but understandably with the addition of flashbacks this narrative would have made for a convoluted story.
Developers have gone on record that they designed the game to be brutal – that they wanted you to not enjoy the combat. It had to feel as visceral and unsettling as possible to convey Ellie’s blind rage and Abby’s imposing and incredible brute strength. Enemies can literally beg for their lives as you stare down the barrel of a gun and scream for their dead friends or lovers. It’s a unique attention to detail that not many games have done and further solidifies the games story as one of many… we are simply following Ellie’s specifically and now Abby’s.
Throughout the game you will loot, scavenge and upgrade your weapons with the returning workbench dotted around the map, a nice little attention to detail here is that with each upgrade your gun will take on a new appearance as longer barrels, clips and scopes are attached and you will find a LOT of them to upgrade. The game forces you to exhaust and swap out each gun as it doubles down on the scarcity of ammo and resources for molotovs, health kits and special ammo in the post-apocalypse. It simply won’t let you create too much of one item too quickly especially on higher difficulties, so be sure to use your consumables sparingly and only when you can fully capitalise on their use e.g., setting a group of enemies on fire or using the full healing value of the health kits.
Graphically speaking it is a wonder and the overall detail to character models, facial expressions and environment exemplifies Naughty Dog as one of the video game industry super powers and yet because of how enthralling the story is, (while I didn’t agree with how certain events came to be) the thematic and synaesthetic use of colour represents the journey in a way that makes you look at the game as more of a theatre production or movie; where the supporting cast are there to provide the reactive content and events - feeding the lead characters with opportunity to explore their inner turmoil and understand themselves better. I wasn’t able to appreciate much of its graphical prowess until subsequent playthroughs – I forgot I was playing a game.
The Last of Us Part II has seemingly intentionally divided the fans with this hard hitting story, it has caused a massive uprising since its release and has led to widescale social media and criminal abuse of the lead director Neil Druckmann and Abby’s voice actor Laura Bailey, it’s an unfortunate problem that should never have escalated in the way it did, it comes with creating a beloved cast of characters and trying to tell a story that imposes an ironic moral lesson about consequence but the outcry sets a precedent for understanding that we do not own the stories we enjoy and despite our own investments in these characters, we shouldn’t resort to abuse and must find better ways to communicate with each other.
In respect to Joel’s murder while justified, I couldn’t help but cry. It felt like my own father dying and as the game progressed, flashbacks of the events that led up to Ellie’s dismissal of Joel’s presence in her life made the tears flow that much worse. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” as they say. It’s an incredibly difficult pill to swallow for many but for me I struggle to understand how his death happened – that hardened smuggler that has spent decades of his life not trusting in others and running down hunters as they fake injury and plead for help. His callous approach to other humans cannot possibly be unlearned? When he pulls Abby from under that fence away from the literal hundreds of infected that were chasing her… it feels like a massive risk he would never have taken, let alone following her back to her camp. Why is it that suddenly he is so trusting?
Abby also goes on to imply that she regrets her decision to kill Joel (or maybe it’s regret for her fractured relationships that came from her short-sighted vengeance) as she talks to her new companion Lev about why she chooses to help the Seraphite exile with the phrase “To lighten the load” which I immediately took problem with. Abby much like Ellie is incredibly impulsive and fuelled by emotion but where they differ is that Ellie is liked by her friends who choose to stand by her of their own free will whereas Abby almost exclusively and knowingly jeopardises all of her friends at every attempt to do whatever she wants. Her ex-boyfriend deserts the morally grey W.L.F. after growing tired of the killing that comes from civil war with the neighbouring Seraphites. She runs after him at the cost of her friends being brutally interrogated for her whereabouts by their extremist leader including the heavily pregnant Mel (Who I adored as the only one who really reflected my own thoughts about Abby.) Upon finding him she proceeds to start a passionate one-night affair despite the awareness of Mel’s pregnancy and Owen’s relationship to her and their plans to run away. Perhaps it was simply to get it out of their system but it all feels rather immoral even with the flashbacks of their budding relationship. Instead of being held accountable for her mistakes and apologising to the people she’s hurt, she tries to make up for them with other people instead. Abby in my eyes is a dangerous character that struggles to distinguish between what she wants and what is right. Her redemption is to essentially adopt Lev and start a new life free of her dark past but it feels like with her there is a sense of selfish altruism - including keeping Lev close. To put it into perspective with the real world she would be seen as a toxic person. I hope that being free from the tyranny of the W.L.F. and as she psychologically begins to heal that there is opportunity for Abby to follow a more benevolent path. She was designed after all to divide opinion and everyone deserves a second chance.
In spite of this what really shines through is the intimacy between characters, platonically or not. The game focuses on making these characters more human by providing the platform and narrative devices to portray the more human behaviours involved in the stages of grief, love and a lack of belonging that resonates strongly with the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies; magnifying the character’s desire for companionship and family. Despite how I feel about Abby and the events that facilitate the story. The Last of Us Part II is a fantastic game and is a testament to how video games have evolved as a storytelling medium that leads to award winning acting and writing.