Clearing the Backlog – The Last of Us Part II
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II might have launched last year to critical acclaim, and plenty of in-depth critique, but I purposefully left it to one side. I didn’t want to rush into what I knew would be an emotionally draining game, especially not in the middle of a global pandemic. I did eventually make a start on it towards the end of 2020, with my PlayStation 4 straining at the seams to run the game.
A house move later and an upgrade to running TLoU2 on a PlayStation 5, and I finally found the time, and mental energy, to finish it. And what a roller coaster ride of a game it is.
What follows will include major spoilers, so please don’t read on if you intend to play this afresh.
Naughty Dog have a style with their narrative led games. Uncharted 4 took the studio to new heights, and Drake’s adventure featured in my Year in Games retrospective for 2016. I commented in that piece that, “The storytelling was leaps and bounds beyond anything I’d seen from these guys before, handily aided by judicious use of flashbacks and some exquisite scenes between Nate and Elena, a few of which were utterly heartbreaking.” In some ways you can copy and paste that text and replace the names with Ellie and Joel, Ellie and Dina, or Abby and Lev.
Unlike Uncharted 4, while many of the scenes experienced in TLoU2 were technically exceptional, quite often they were so unrelentingly grim. For large parts of my time with Ellie’s half of the game, I wasn’t having fun. That’s not to say I didn’t want to continue playing, more that the sense of foreboding dragged my mood down. Whether a game needs to be fun to play to be good is something I explored originally as a 20-year old, and my arguments from many years ago still apply.
While I might not have emotionally enjoyed the tale being told, I can’t deny that Naughty Dog crafted a very good game. It’s a shame, then, that it falls into The Walking Dead habit of portraying everything as an existential nightmare without any hope of people escaping their cycles of violence and revenge.
The trouble I found with Ellie’s part of the story was that she doesn’t seem to grow as a person. She wants revenge for the murder of Joel, and is seemingly incapable of stopping to look at the relationship she has with Dina. While Ellie might have felt betrayed when Dina revealed she was pregnant with Jesse’s child, I felt an impending sense of doom when Ellie left to finish her revenge tour.
The role Joel’s brother, Tommy, plays in driving Ellie forward can’t be ignored. He is perhaps the biggest villain in the piece as he uses Ellie’s love for Joel to try and achieve his own goals. When he appears in the closing chapters to ask Ellie to get the revenge his is on longer physically capable of enacting, I hated him more than any other character in a game.
Despite that sense of impending doom and darkness in Ellie’s present day story, the flashbacks to better days with Joel are heart-warming. They brought a tear to my eye. My favourite moment of the game is a flashback where Joel takes Ellie to a museum for her birthday. The museum serves to show the love and affection that was felt between these two in a time before their relationship fell apart.
Dinosaurs are unquestionably awesome, and Ellie’s sense of awe at seeing models of these magnificent beasts in the museum mirrored my feelings of seeing Dippy the diplodocus in Cardiff. In a moment of welcome humour, I couldn’t resist posing hats on the heads of every dinosaur in the museum and taking numerous snaps.
Further through the museum Ellie and Joel come across a space exhibit. While Ellie enthusiastically tells Joel about the smaller displays, it emerges that Joel was keeping the true birthday present secret. A capsule that went to space and is charred by re-entry sits at the heart of the exhibit. In ordinary times you wouldn’t be able to get close enough to touch a capsule like this, let alone get inside. But in a ruined world, Ellie is able to try out an astronaut’s helmet and step inside. Here she imagines she’s launching into space inside the capsule, with me living my dreams through Ellie’s experience.
These flashbacks serve to show why Ellie is so emotionally hellbent on revenge against those who took part in Joel’s murder. But like I found myself asking the TV when I used to bother with The Walking Dead, why can’t people talk and find less horrific ways of dealing with what are undoubtedly troubling emotions? For once, I want a post-apocalyptic game where not everyone is at each other’s throats.
Surprisingly, it was Abby’s journey which I felt more comfortable playing. This was despite the cliff-hanger ending to the first half of the game, where you know Abby will be staring down the barrel of her gun at Ellie.
You get to see the world the Washington Liberation Front (the Wolves) live in, and while it has some very serious proto-fascist militaristic tendencies, there are glimpses of everyday folk enjoying their lives. The Wolves are stuck in a war with the Seraphite’s, with the world around Abby leading towards a final almighty battle between these two factions. While I still found myself questioning why these two factions don’t grow up and talk to each other to find a way to co-exist, the war has a more personal element to it, a personal element that allowed me to actually enjoy Abby’s journey.
The difference is that Abby goes on a journey of growth when she finds Lev and his sister Yara, two characters who have been ostracised by their faction after embracing his gender identity. The bond that forms between Abby and Lev feels genuine and earned, with Abby showing no problem calling Lev by his name, not questioning his deadname. The rights and wrongs of the portrayal of Lev as a trans character isn’t one I’m qualified to delve into, but I appreciated the tale being told and the bond that forms between Abby and Lev.
There are other layers to Abby, namely her conflicted feels for her ex, Owen, and his now pregnant girlfriend Mel. There is history here, with Owen and Mel having been involved in the murder of Joel, and their feelings of guilt for having been involved in that with Abby laid to bare. I feared at one point that Abby would try to join Owen and Mel on their planned journey to find the Fireflies, knowing that the relationship history and guilt interlinked with the three wouldn’t end well.
Ultimately, Abby shows her growth as a person and affection towards Lev and Yara by rejecting Owen’s invitation to journey with him. It might have been a rushed story of personal growth, but it was good enough to get me rooting for Abby and understanding why she hunts down Ellie after finding the bodies of Owen and Mel.
Their fight in Seattle is one of the weakest action moments in the whole game, and I feared that ultimately Abby was going to kill Ellie. Fortunately, Lev persuades Abby to find it in her heart to let her hate, and Ellie, go.
I was content for the game to have ended after this fight, with both surviving and leaving the door open for new stories for both characters. I was even more content for it to end with the false epilogue when Ellie and Dina have a happy life at their farm as they raise and care for Jesse’s baby.
Instead, Naughty Dog repeated their tale of revenge and unrelenting horror thanks to Tommy’s return to the fray. The Rattlers that Ellie encounters in the end-game are the worst of the worst, keeping prisoners as slaves, and using infected as guard dogs. They are without a doubt the most heinous faction in the game, and as Ellie learns more about their ways, I was hoping that she would find capacity in her heart to forgive.
Upon finding Abby and Lev strung up and left to die at the beach, I sincerely hoped that Ellie would show some compassion for her once bitter enemy. I felt disgust, but sadly wasn’t surprised, when Ellie instigates another fight with Abby. It was a moment and fight that wasn’t needed, leaving me with a sour taste in my mouth and thankful to Lev for calling things to an end.
I’d love to see more of Abby and Lev’s journey to find the Fireflies but without some major repair to Ellie’s character I won’t be clamouring to see more of her story.