Pre-Review Banter: I basically haven’t written anything since COVID-19 ruined the world and my brain, and because of that I largely have forgotten how words work. So for this review I enlisted the help of Funkhouser regular and zombie-licker Blake Vickers. His comments are prefixed with the initials “BV,” and mine are initialed “APB” (the P stands for “Party” or “Part-II,” depending on which of my passports you look at).
APB: 2013’s The Last of Us was released on the Playstation 3 and seemed to, through even the eyes of someone who is not much of a gamer, break the game industry. Many games have examined the relationship between the player and the character of the game’s story, but The Last of Us’s experiment in forcing the players to commit mass murder of doctors trying to save humanity was such an advancement of game’s attempts to “put the player in the character’s” shoes — and it worked. I remember playing the game for the first time at my friend Will’s house years after it came out and being prompted to shoot at the innocent nurses by Ellie’s side and just staring at Will with the controller frozen in my hand, asking him if I was really supposed to murder them. He assured me I was, and like Danny DeVito, I started blastin’. It was horrifying and shocking, but the game made me understand why Joel was doing it and I didn’t agree with it, but several hours’ worth of game play made me get it.
BV: Our mutual friend Will was a big advocate in having us play the first game. I was a little hesitant. I thought it just looked like a video game version of The Walking Dead. God, I was so wrong. I didn’t end up playing until the remastered version came out for the PS4. I came to love the game for its simplicity, gameplay and heart. It moved the medium forward and set the standard for the many story-based games to be released over the last couple of years. The Last of Us is essentially a road story, pairing the brutal and cold-blooded Joel with free-spirited and youthful Ellie on a journey through the ruins of the post-apocalyptic United States. It’s predictable as all get out but perfectly executed. You get to watch the two of them grow into this beautifully realized father-daughter relationship over the course of the game. Like Adrian said, it ends with Joel dooming humanity for Ellie’s sake. He would rather let the world burn down than see it without his “baby girl”. Unlike Adrian, I blew those wailing, innocent doctors to paste without a second of hesitation. The final moment of the game is ambiguous and perfect. Ellie and Joel head to live in a community with Joel’s brother, Ellie asks Joel what happened at the hospital and he lies to her. We get a close-up on her face. Cut to black. I love it. In fact, I had no interest in playing the sequel when it was announced. I didn’t see anywhere else for the story to go.
APB: The ending is pretty damn intense, and it raises a lot more questions than it answers. I was more than down to see the sequel because I knew that the developers at Naughty Dog would not shy away from taking Joel’s decision to its obvious, brutal conclusion. Basically any action game asks you to gun down people like they were carnival-game targets and you don’t really think about it because the game doesn’t ask you to — The Last of Us plays on that by asking you to gun down the good guys, and I had hopes that The Last of Us Part II would hold its protagonist responsible for his killings in a way that basically no other action media* does with its violent heros. (*The sort of exception to this, of course, is Taken 2, where the main leader of the trafficking organization that kidnapped Liam Neeson’s daughter looks over the corpses of all of his dead family members — who are also traffickers and do not deserve mourning, lest ye construe my words — that Neeson slaughtered. It is an awesome ten minutes that sets up a total flip of the hero-mindlessly-slays-henchmen dynamic, and then the movie does absolutely nothing with it. Shame.)
BV: Hey, I think Taken 2 is actually pretty underrated. Liam pushes the bad guy’s head into a coat rack.
BV: The first thought that went through my head when they announced a sequel was “so I guess Joel is gonna die horribly”. I was right, but man, that was hard to watch. With Joel’s actions at the end of the first game, there really wasn’t any other way this one could have gone. Didn’t make it any easier to watch the most loveable and folksy mass murderer in video games get bludgeoned to death. Watching Ellie’s reaction was even worse, granted, that reaction is the driving force of the entire game. Abby, Joel’s killer, is the daughter of one of the surgeons killed by Joel, leads a group into Jackson for vengeance.
APB: It really is the obvious thing to kill Joel, and it is incredibly ballsy to make that the inciting action of the game, rather than it being a second act ending after a game where you have to find a hostaged Joel or whatever. Of course, his death was one of the many things that neckbeards pounded their keyboards in rage over, but just works. And where the last game made you kill people as Joel and made you understand his reasoning, you also — or at least I also — immediately get why Abby murders Joel, even before you get to play as her.
BV: Those opening hours are really something to behold. Like, I totally get why Joel had to eat it. Not only for the plot but for Abby’s development too. As much as I liked Joel, if he had killed my dad I would wanna Negan him too. The aftermath of his death was incredibly difficult to play through. Going through Joel’s house almost brought me to tears, it was probably my favorite moment in the entire story. Just seeing all of these details of what he was up to in his final days, be it making wood carvings of Texas-y things or putting guitars together really brought home Ellie’s grief. There’s a moment when she smells Joel’s jacket that just wrecked me.
BV: Part II is essentially two separate campaigns played back to back and bookended by an extended prologue and epilogue. The first, and much stronger of those two campaigns sees the player take control of Ellie as she hunts down Abby and her friends. Tonally speaking, they’re completely different. Ellie’s story is a bleak and dehumanizing revenge story that forces the players to do some pretty heinous things. Abby’s story is a set-piece driven actioner that sees her become the guardian over the teenage Lev and Yara. The campaigns take place over three bloody days in the ruins of Seattle.
APB: Ellie’s campaign is definitely the easiest to fall into. We’re already familiar with her as a character, and we literally just watched her closest thing to a father figure get clubbed in the skull. Her story is straightforward: she is on a mission to track down Abby and her gang of militant terrorists (or, as a freshmen in a philosophy class would retort, her gang of “freedom fighters”), named the WLF or Wolves,” and exact revenge on not just Abby, but each and every single person that was with Abby when Joel was killed. This where the earlier idea about consequences and mindless killing comes more into play. The prologue exposes us at least somewhat to Abby’s friends, and even though they don’t at first get a lot of screentime, there is that little tinge of guilt you get when you knock off her pals one by one until you get to Abby herself. Once Abby and Ellie finally come face to face, the game drastically cuts three days back in time, and you play those same three days through Abby’s perspective.
BV: Playing as Ellie, the game feels right at home in the survival horror genre. Ammo is as scarce as Ellie’s health bar, so you have to adapt a stealthy playstyle. Crawl around through the bushes and knife someone, leave a bomb on the body and wait for one of his friends to set it off. You feel devious playing as Ellie, it’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed her section of the game more. Abby on the other hand, is a Huge Jackedman levels of jacked. I mean, really, she’s shredded. And her playstyle is reflected in that. There is no sneaking around with Abby. You’re far better off just charging headfirst into any situation and punching everything to death. She plays remarkably similar to Joel in the first game. Ellie’s campaign is like Resident Evil with mushroom zombies. Abby’s campaign is like Uncharted with mushroom zombies.
APB: The Abby section of the game really loses me. I never really thought about what chaos would ensue if you gave the Incredible Hulk a machine gun and a crossbow, so it was fun to find that out in Abby’s campaign. But for me, her story feels far more detached than it should. You spend more time Abby’s friends when you kill them as Ellie, and it is really hard to play as Abby and be in her shoes as she finds out one by one of each of her friends’ deaths, but I don’t think the game gives you as much cuddly-pal time as it should. Abby instead spends most of her time with Lev and Yara, two young girls who grew up with the Seraphites, a cult that the WLF has been at war with for ages. The two sisters save Abby’s life, and Abby decides to help them escape their cult without being murdered. It is a nice tale about Abby learning to see her “enemies” as people, but generally it feels like a huge sidequest. Perhaps if the game alternated perspectives more often rather than having two definitive halves I’d be more at peace. But the game really wants me to feel bad about killing people, and I largely do, but man it gets exhausting for the game to be continuously telling me I’m a bad person for doing what it wants me to.
BV: Abby’s story just goes on for so damn long. And Adrain hits it right on the gaping crater in Joel’s head with his description of her campaign. It just feels so detached from the main narrative that it becomes an absolute slog to play through. Yes, it has some of the coolest boss fights and setpieces in recent memory, but Lev and Yara are the only part of the Abby story that kept me invested.
BV: I know that revenge is bad, and that the game wants me to think there are not clear cut good guys nor bad guys in this story. The problem is that there are some pretty clear cut bad guys in the story. The people that make up the WLF and most of the members of Abby’s personal friend group that the game wants you to feel sorry for are incredibly unlikable. Hell, at one point one of Abby’s friends casually mentions how the WLF gunned down a group of Seraphite children. As Ellie, you’re forced into making some soul-crushing choices, the game then turns around and wags its finger at the player when they take control of Abby. “Bet you feel bad about that now, you psycho,” this video game says to me in my imagination. It just feels like cheap writing. That’s not to say I didn’t like Abby herself or the kids she gets paired up with. She’s become one of my favorite parts of the game. It just seems a little disingenuous whenever you have to spend your time as Ellie butchering dogs and torturing people to death while Abby rescues an abused transgender youth while brawling through the coolest set-pieces in recent memory.
APB: I think that it is interesting to think about the way the game is toying with the discrepancy between player’s emotions and character’s actions, and that the player has to force the character to do things they don’t agree with. And sometimes it is very effective. Overall, though, I think it is a neat idea stretched over a game doubly as long as it needs to be, and the end product for me is just a redundant ride. In theory, I would like a rollercoaster that is all loops, but when I actually got that I am sure I would be underwhelmed. That is about where I am at with this game.
BV: I loved this game. And the hate that it’s getting online is absolutely ridiculous. But to say that it’s flawless would be misleading. It needs to be cut down by about 5-10 hours. And the whole “the bad guys are people too” schtick would be much more effective if you cut back and forth between Ellie and Abby. Asking the player to jump over and play straight through half of the game as Abby is just a little much and kills any pacing in the story. That said, I applaud Naughty Dog for taking so many risks with an AAA game. Those risks don’t always pay off, but games like The Last of Us II push the medium forward. The climax of the game puts the player back in control of Ellie just in time for a gruesome final battle with Abby. It’s a riveting and absolutely gnarly spectacle that was incredibly difficult to watch. Despite the river of bad blood these young women held against each other, I didn’t want them to fight. This game made me feel complex emotions that are hard to describe. For all of The Last of Us II’s flaws, I’ll always remember it for that.
APB: I’ll remember it for the cute baby Ellie and her girlfriend Dina have together. I don’t even like babies, but JJ is adorable.