A truly great game is a game you will get mad at for different reasons. The most important reason being that it does push you out of your comfort zone, forces you to question your views or even biases. So, yeah, I got mad at The Last Of Us Part II a lot. And mostly for the right reasons.
Before I detail those, be warned, there WILL BE MAJOR SPOILERS for both The Last of Us and The Last Of Us Part II. Read at your own risk.
What made The Last Of Us a great game?
The Last Of Us was one of the very first games I played on my brand-new PS4 back in 2014 and it was also the first game with survival horror-elements I had ever played. Meaning everything was fresh and new to me. Also, the story remains one of the best told to this date. I think everyone who played the game can agree to that. But what was it about?
There was a quest, certainly, and a very noble one: to save humankind. That said quest was given to smuggler Joel Miller, introduced to us as a loving father in the prologue, at the very beginning of a pandemic that would change the world forever. 20 years later, said pandemic as well as the constant fight to survive have turned Joel into a man capable of extreme violence. I tried to justify his trust-issues, lack of empathy and cruelty with the losses he suffered, with the war for survival in a world devoid of civilization, where the people you can rely on are few indeed.
But he does come to trust in and care for his streetwise, capable live cargo Ellie, a girl who is immune against the sickness turning infected people into miserable, mindless zombies.
The chemistry between Ellie (Ashley Johnson) and Joel (Troy Baker) is incredible, as well as their growing relationship, that has Joel claim Ellie as his surrogate daughter over time. Their banter and their caring for each other is endearing and engaging all at once. It was what motivated me to step into yet another dark, crumbling building filled with horrors, Infected and human alike, time and time again.
But by the end, I knew Joel for what he truly is. The game does not have a big bad villain. Because you are playing him.
The Last of US Part II deals with the consequences of who Joel is and what Ellie has become. True, there are sequences in the game that are a reminder of the levity of some of the first game and I adored those. But this sequel is much, much darker.
The story centers on Ellie and her journey, but you will play not only her character, but that of Abby, too. Abby is a new character, though her ties to Ellie and Joel are made clear in the very beginning.
Four years have passed since the events of the last game and cleaning out Infected has become a routine job for the settlers of rural Jackson. You will be on horseback or on foot, discovering wintery forests, abandoned farmsteads, broken skylines, beaches and dark underground warrens. One of the charms of this game is the sense of wonder and discovery shared with the characters, who were mostly born after the outbreak and have no connection to the world as it once was. Which is why one of them calls an Aquarium a zoo for fish. Yep, you do get to smile and laugh once in a while.
As for enemies, there certainly are plenty. The Infected are numerous, though I sometimes wondered how they survive without human sustenance, and there are two new types (I think), called Stalkers and Shamblers. Shamblers are especially awful, as they are basically Bloaters with the ability to spew corrosive clouds that will burn your skin and kill you if you are exposed for too long.
There are, of course, human enemies, too, and they are extremely terrifying, since they are much more intelligent than the mindless zombies and hunt methodically. Two of the human enemy factions you will come to know and understand better through actual characters, while the last one remains without true background and appears to be just evil, which I thought a let-down.
Then there are all the little details and clues which you find in the abandoned houses of Seattle, hinting at happiness and tragedy alike. I found those very intriguing in the first game already and it is interesting, how different characters react.
Enough said, though, all of this will make you feel like a survivor yourself. And I love it.
The musical score
The predecessor was rightly lauded for its reduced yet emotional musical score and the sequel also shines in that regard. Guitars play an important part in Ellie’s storyline and I shall forever cherish her interpretation of A-ha’s 80s hit “Take on me”.
Combat and arsenal
The Last of Us Part II does leave you a choice: play it stealthily or as an opportunist. That’s right, if you play carefully and methodically, you can avoid NPCs and unnecessary bloodshed unless the game forces you into combat for the sake of the story. Which happens often enough, mind you. Sneaking from cover to cover and using diversions will help you stay alive in any case. Sometimes, it is best to just run.
While Infected are deadly in close combat and will require you to dodge a lot and use ranged weapons and explosives, human opponents will mostly use ranged weapons, except for the heavies, which are pretty badass in close quarters combat.
Your arsenal will feature rifles, pumpguns, shotguns, pistols and revolvers, heavy melee weapons and shivs, explosives, diversions and the always useful medpacks. Yet, ammo and supplies for crafting are scarce, especially when playing on higher difficulties, which adds another terrifying dimension to the already tense enemy encounters. Gathering supplies is an essential part of the game experience and I think it’s brillant because in this setting, you will certainly feel that you really need to gather all you can find to survive.
Speaking of terrifying: I do not play horror games. So, to me, sneaking through an infested building bottom to top or vice versa is always a harrowing experience, leaving me with clenched teeth, shallow breathing and sweaty palms. The most terrifying experience, though, had to be the Ground Zero-mission while playing as Abby, where you find yourself all alone in the dark…
Both Ellie and Abby, the two playable characters, can develop certain skills, though both will be able to unlock slightly different ones. To expand your skill set, all you have to do is read magazines. Fun, right? Said skills will for example enable you to craft things faster, which is a must, since you will often have to do that on the fly, literally with enemies breathing down your neck while you are at it.
The central conflict or What happens to scary monsters, in the end?
This is a quote from another of my favorite games, Dishonored, by the way. I had to think about that a lot while playing The Last of Us Part II. The Last of Us Part II is, I think, about vengeance as much as it is about redemption. Overall, though, it is about relationships. And monsters.
The most terrifying monsters of The Last of Us as well as The Last of Us Part II are the human ones. And what we learned in The Last of Us – what Ellie learns from Joel – is that you got to do what needs to be done to survive. Even if that means turning into a monster yourself. Yet is there a chance to redeem oneself, once one has become that monster?
To understand what is happening, one has to remember one thing: Time has passed.
Four years, to be exact. Four years in which Joel and Ellie have settled comfortably into a community, are safe and seemingly happy. Ellie is in love, Joel loves having Ellie by his side and things are looking good. Yet, while Ellie desires nothing more than to spread her wings and give meaning to her life, Joel has let his guard down a little too much, maybe. Out in the wilderness, saving a life means something, everyone is in it together. But Abby, the woman he and his brother Tommy come across, knows Joel for the monster he is. So she kills him. And so he does not get a chance at redemption.
The question that remains is this: Does vengeance satisfy the need for justice?
The Last Of Us Part II tries to find an answer to that question, by following first Ellie on her quest for vengeance and then Abby on her road to redemption.
Ellie and Abby or How to break the cycle of violence
At first glance, Ellie and Abby have similar backgrounds. But, through flashbacks, we learn the differences soon enough. Both are, if you will, their father’s daughter. And while Abby gets to absolve her father of his guilt, Ellie does not get that chance. Abby takes it from her by taking away Joel. To Ellie, Abby therefore becomes the monster she needs to kill, in order to make peace with Joel’s actions in the past.
Her quest, then, leads her to Seattle. Together with friends Dina and later Jesse, she spends three harrowing days in that beautiful, decaying city infested with Infected and clashing factions, tracking down informants in search for her elusive prey. At first, Dina is with her, but later on, Ellie is on her own.
A series of unfortunate events leads to the deaths of almost all of Abby’s close friends. Ellie does not plan on killing them. She only wants Abby dead, but takes any means necessary to achieve her goal. Playing as Ellie you can feel her mounting frustration, the doubts beginning to creep in, and long after I finished the game I came to understand that the hollow promise that is vengeance does nothing to ease her grief. Her story, to me, was pointless, her quest stupid. Which I had a hard time coping with. Because I expected a different one.
And then, very abruptly, you step into Abby’s shoes. Abby, the monster Ellie has sworn to kill.
As Abby, brought to life by Laura Bailey, you spend the same three days in Seattle. What begins as a peaceful outing of three friends and a dog turns into a complicated web of relationships. There is Owen, Abby’s former lover, Manny, a trusted friend, Mel, Owen’s current girlfriend, and Nora, both medical personnel of the Washington Liberation Front, WLF for short. Through flashbacks, you are given a lot of background on Abby, but her story becomes so much better when it is allowed to flow without disruptions. So, hang in there, It will get better. Promise.
Playing as Abby, I felt much more comfortable than playing as Ellie, who appears both merciless and indifferent at times. This was the story I wanted to play. I did not want Ellie to seemingly become the villain. But then, as mentioned before, discomfort is good, in a game. Characters evolve and change. Looking closely, you will find that Ellie is not evil. Neither is Abby.
While Ellie has a hard time coping with her grief, her growing frustration, Abby’s loyalty and integrity lead her on the adventure you expected to play as Ellie, because it has both meaning (saving a life or two) and an evolving relationship as Abby befriends siblings Yara and Lev. She is especially taken with Lev, and by the end of the game Lev has become the most important person in her life. The one she gives up her old life for, to start something new.
Why I got mad at the game
As mentioned, there are good and bad reasons for getting mad at a game. Let me get the bad ones off my chest first.
1. It is predictable
Up until I played The Last Of Us, I had played roughly twenty games in total and each one was different. By the time I played The Last Of Us Part II, I had played many, many more and watched countless movies. I therefore got mad at every unnecessary cliché, lame dialogue or predictable jump scare. More than once I walked into a room, looked around and thought to myself “Oh, well, looks like I will be ambushed, once I am finished here and try to leave. Yet again.” Or else “It has been some time since the last ambush / last jump scare. Guess what I will be finding behind that door back there?” Or “This is obviously a trap”. And being proven right every time.
2. Trying too hard to draw parallels
So, yes, there are similarities in Ellie’s and Abby’s stories, and one of them is pregnancy. The first one was so very obvious and stupid. Woman gets pregnant, she becomes a burden and needs to be protected. Of course. Also, jealousy, because the baby is someone else’s. Because women are always jealous, right? Well. Yes. That triggered me.
3. Gameplay at times is annoying
Yes, you can jump over this railing, but no, no, no, not that one. Yes, you can climb up that cupboard but that hut over there, same height, you cannot use to get up there. Use your senses to spot enemies to circumvent them. But, hey, this very scary underground parking garage where you know a monster is lurking, guess what? You will not detect anything at all because we want to scare you. Which is also predictable, by the way, and I hated it. Very, very much.
4. Flashbacks are confusing
While the flashbacks featuring Ellie and Joel build on one another, Abby’s do not. You jump back years, months, back to the same year as before but not the present, and I actually lost track of what point in time I found myself at, actually. Also, these flashbacks are so action-packed, as much as the rest of the game, that I had a hard time even remembering Ellie’s journey by the time you switched back to her character. That particular jump in time was so confusing that at first I did not even know whether or not this was actually supposed to be real or just Ellie’s imagination. Truth be told, I sometimes got so annoyed I did something different while the dialogue meandered on, so I may have missed some things.
Speaking of annoying, there is also a good reason for getting mad at the game, that is about annoyance, or, rather, frustration.
5. You will be as frustrated as Ellie
While in Seattle, Ellie is following several leads in the hopes of finding Abby. But whenever she finds someone who could answer her questions, they are either dead, are accidentally killed by her before they can reveal any information, or she simply is just minutes too late and Abby has already left again. We will later track Abby’s progress while Ellie is hunting her, which is pretty awesome, but I, for one, got pretty sick of chasing shadows. Until I realised that this was what Ellie must be feeling: frustration. What a revelation!
6. I expected a different story
I admit that I did not agree with where the story was taking Ellie. She was seemingly turning into the person Joel had been, lacking both empathy and mercy. It is, actually, Mel’s death that elicits the first human reaction from her, and though for the wrong reason (pregnancy), it was a turning point. Shortly after followed the switch to Abby – though Abby’s appearance was also so predictable – and while I first howled out loud when the words “Seattle, Day One” appeared on the screen, again, I soon got invested in Abby’s story.
7. You cannot step back and just observe
I had played two pretty excellent games before I started playing The Last Of Us Part II and maybe it was a mistake playing it so soon after. Truth is that I did not want to get invested that deeply in the story, especially since I remember very well how the ending of The Last Of Us made me feel. (I haven’t been able to play it again because of that, actually). So I got mad at the game because you simply cannot not get invested in those characters. Ellie and Dina are just the cutest couple and I so wanted for them to be happy. I did not care much for Joel’s death but the flashbacks featuring both him and Ellie just had me tearing up with remembering their great story, while I watched their relationship break apart at the same time. So many emotions! You really have to go with it, let the character take over. If you manage that, it will be a brilliant experience.
Playing as Abby instead of Ellie helped too. I loved how she helped Yara out then returned to Yara and Lev to protect them. How she brought them into her circle of friends. And that twist with the sniper? My mind was blown! I really liked Abby’s story. And Laura Bailey is brilliant as Abby.
8. The ending
There is no ending. Which is why I got mad. While the last exchange between Ellie and Joel explains so much, I wonder where she is going. To find Abby and attempt to find forgiveness? Or in search of her family for the same reason? In any case, I did not stay mad for long.
The Last of Us Part II will challenge you in terms of stealth and combat as well as your perception of justice and evil. Does Joel deserve what he gets? As explained in the beginning, I had no reason to mourn his passing. Which made it hard for me to grieve with Ellie. And she takes her sweet long time until she finally manages to remember him any other way than what Abby left of him. But what a sweet memory it is! I loved that.
Is Ellie’s loss greater than Abby’s? Would things have been different if Joel had fully confessed his actions back at the hospital to his surrogate daughter? Of that, I am not certain. I know I was horrified by his killing spree in order to save Ellie and I remember how mad I was that there was no choice but to kill the doctors and Marlene. Ellie wanted her life to have a meaning, even if it meant death for her. She was willing to make that sacrifice, be the hero. In the end, what is she left with? Nothing but memories. And, maybe, forgiveness. Some other time.
I loved the all-female main cast. Ellie is a badass, Abby even more so, and Maria was my hero back when we first met her in the first game. I do not care too much for Dina, but, well, you cannot care for everyone, right? Yara and Lev’s story is heart-breaking and I loved that Abby took Lev on as family. She becomes, one might argue, what Joel could have been.
A truly great game is a game you will get mad at for different reasons. The most important reason being that is does push you out of your comfort zone, forces you to question your views or even biases. The Last Of Us Part II does that a lot. While I could have done without Abby’s flashbacks, I still think it is a hell of a ride and definitely worth playing.
Take your time, go with the flow, become the character.
Until then, keep on playing!