The Last of Us Part II (2020)REVIEW

When life’s only major goal, pastime and pursuit is survival there can be no truly “healthy” due process for reversing deeply affecting trauma that isn’t self-directed. There are one thousand idealistic exceptions to this and yet they represent a miniscule percentage of what actually occurs within human capacity, especially in the most perpetually dark and violent corners of the world. Your community, society, co-dependent spirituality and ability to communicate freely within those social dependencies is the major factor in succeeding beyond perpetual traumatic violence and further victimization. I am living proof of this, having survived very close to heinous and barbaric murder as a young child and needing a young lifetime to process and recover. What keeps a victim’s children from resorting to violent, well deserved, revenge if not well-honed personal spiritual control? Engagement with community and beloved kin certainly helps. When we arrive four years beyond the events of The Last of Us (2013) in the independent town of Jackson, Wyoming a complex web of foreshadowing cannot interrupt the feeling of home, safety, community and warmth away from the cold winter months as the introverted co-protagonist from the first game, Ellie, is experiencing a most appropriate coming-of-age alienation within a community that is ultimately willing to squash prejudice against her sexuality for the greater good. The puzzle pieces for sustained mental peace are yet disparate for the young woman as we eventually learn she has found out on her own that in 2034 her abrupt and unconscious exit from a hospital seeking a cure for the Cordyceps Brain Infection (within her disease resistant cerebellum) was her caretaker/smuggler Joel‘s attempt to save her life. The mountain of grief of not curing this disease, not trading her life for millions of others, doesn’t yet sink in as virtuous because developer Naughty Dog ensures that Ellie has reached this point as a character we’ve always understood as spirited, naïve and well-meaning. The challenge, and perhaps the major success of the story we are told across the next ~24 hours of third-person stalk-and-shoot/talk-and-loot gameplay arrives within the roughest edges hewn upon this virtuosity, the path forward is ruthless but not void of self-doubt. — The joy of The Last of Us Part II is largely held in the thought that a quiet epiphany can clear away the ugliness of hatred’s obsession, what clouds the protagonist against her own happiness will surely pass beyond dire consequence.

Setting out with Ellie and Dina.

The road to truth in life is paved via trying experiences and in the post-apocalyptic United States of the late 2030’s every step beyond the safety of community feels weighed with brutal consequence. In fact, so much consequence is served for every action in The Last of Us Part II that it will prove maddening for young men and women who’re used to power fantasy escapism in video games. Yes, you can be a ruthless head-shot happy killer, a sneaky plains ninja who’ll choke out anything short of a Bloater in size but, as with the previous game you’ll soon realize simply running through combat encounters to their exits (excepting 2-3 key encounters where it is impossible) doesn’t influence the greater narrative. Combat is in place to busy the mind with violence, tactical choices, fearsome enemies and intoxicating sound design yet the story will have its moment of punishment no matter how much havoc you create in retribution. Shoot a patrol in the head and his partner screams his name, in fact every human enemy has a name that is grieved for just one split second as you snuff them out. This becomes numbing within a narrative that is presenting consequence for violence and, without belaboring the point, the events of this game do a fine job of correcting some of the cognitive dissonance of many Naughty Dog titles wherein a mass murder acts without heroic justification beyond self-defense. In this sense The Last of Us was a feature movie that was bogged down by gratuitous, repetitive violence and The Last of Us Part II is a mini-series where that violence is still trademark but now affects the mental and physical health of the protagonist. As always, I won’t detail the entire plot of the game but I will inevitably “spoil” the game’s major story arc throughout this review. Don’t mind it too much, I knew how this game ended months before I finished it and it does not at all lessen the impact of the experience. If anything, knowing the ending allowed less time wondering what was next and more time feeling the incredible voice/motion-captured performances of the rather large cast.

When I finished The Last of Us back in 2013 something felt intensely wrong about it’s conclusion despite understanding Joel’s need to save Ellie (whom he clearly sees as a surrogate daughter figure) from her unknowing death, which would have provided a cure for the pandemic brain infection that’d turned folks into increasingly grotesque horrors the more they festered. As I killed everyone in the hospital using all of the awesome combat tricks I’d learned along the way there was no pause to think that killing the doctor presiding over Ellie’s surgery would become a pivotal moment to spark the dual revenge story arc of the game’s sequel. By all means, I feel like Naughty Dog might’ve originally intended to let the first game be a standalone thing because next to no deeper foreshadowing was provided. It turns out that surgeon had a daughter named Abby, who was about a year older than Ellie when this happened and well, she finally gets her revenge by mercilessly killing Joel in what ends up being the most restlessly brutal setup for a video game I’ve encountered this generation. Just as Ellie is triggered by the traumatic sight of Joel’s death throughout The Last of Us 2 so did this scene trigger a major seizure of grief within me, feeling my own trauma so close to this scene. It still rang as true as physical pain as the game realistically triggered this trauma throughout the playthrough, every flash of his dead face hurt. So, I’ve internalized this story in my own way which should appear as a major divide between my own life experience and many of the entitled children who’d review bombed and continued to surge hatred towards this game for its depiction of normative lesbianism: This is a game about trauma, violent revenge, and the cyclical nature of a life lived via cruel retribution. Why so many folks chose to focus negative energy on the plot’s superfluous layer of characterized sexuality is beyond me, it clearly intends to add one more layer of self-conscious being to an already introverted character (Ellie) and does not represent a war against hilariously strenuous (and despicably religious) thoughts on human sexuality. The idyllic hope here is that in post-apocalyptic Seattle, twenty years from now, women will feel free to eat puss to their fill as they fight to survive.

Didn’t take enough screenshots during the playthrough…

Abby and the rest of their crew become the natural focus of Ellie’s revenge for most of the game which takes place in the span of three days (separated into acts, more or less) spent crossing Seattle south to northwest, wherein the manhunt for the folks who killed Joel reprises the main gameplay loop of the first game. Two folks doing a bit more assisted parkour and very light environmental puzzle-solving than previous, and a bit less run-and-gun combat. Gone are the dry arcade shooter “enemy closet” encounters a la Uncharted 3 that’d plagued The Last of Us and instead we’re given a number of medium-sized arenas to address a finite number of enemies within. When the difficulty is low this is still thrilling enough for the sake of moderately limited resources and exciting, aggressive enemies but at higher difficulty it becomes a puzzle of resources and health management too brutal to enjoy for my taste. Climbing, shooting, clearing out buildings of enemies infected with the Cordyceps Brain Infection, crafting, collecting trash (er, resources), and following leads on where to go next makes for a satisfying start as Ellie and her (relatively) new girlfriend Dina set out to avenge Joel and find Joel’s brother Tommy. I chose to drop the combat difficulty quickly, wanting to try out the shooting with fewer limits after having disliked my largely stealth playthrough of the first game nearly a decade ago. This only highlighted how little had truly changed in terms of actual combat options and actions despite this sequel coming a full console generation later, they’ve had to stick to realistic (enough) situations and methods of combat and this makes for a very dry set of quasi-stealth and quasi-Rambo encounters spanning a 20+ hour story driven game. Naughty Dog have never done a great job with third person shooting mechanics, no doubt their insistence upon jerky “realistic” character movement and horrendously imprecise auto-aiming made even the lowest difficulty a slog to get through. I went casual for the sake of enjoying the story on my first playthrough and nothing about it made me want to challenge myself further on New Game+, unfortunately. The bummer is that well, the game keeps on going with this “exploration, combat, exploration, dungeon boss, story break” loop even when it has run out of reasons to do so. It just keeps going well beyond its true third act.

After Ellie kills Abby’s entire crew over the course of three days in Seattle they have a scuffle where the father of Dina’s baby is shot point blank in the head and… cut away to Abby waking up three days earlier in the Washington Liberation Front compound, embroiled in a latent love triangle and an uncivil war with a religious cult “the Seraphites” as we assume control. In fact this isn’t the first time we’ve controlled this muscular 20 year old woman, we take her out scouting for Joel in the early scenes of the game and these actions make it clear we should hate her early on as she is crass, often disloyal for the sake of her own needs, and driven by vengeance. As we will soon find out, Abby must reach her epiphany away from the cycle of violence in an entirely different way and I think this is actually the weakest point of communication between the story and the viewer. Abby lives daily life for combat, a militaristic hero whom everyone somehow knows for her distinct survival traits, and this doesn’t start to shed away until she’s killed the protagonist of the last game and Rambo’d her way through downtown Seattle towards the marina where we’re given some tender backstory for her former lover and his connection with their time as Fireflies, a rebellion sect from the first game which had called for Ellie to be smuggled by Joel to the hospital where Abby’s dad was killed to save Ell… Look, at this point it doesn’t matter. She has sex with her ex and it changes something in her, he still wants to be with her despite having impregnated someone else. So, of course she goes and tries to save some fleeing children who saved her life from the Seraphites on her way to see him. Why? Being loved after her revenge or, being able to accept a long-standing love after her revenge provides this epiphany where life is once again valuable. The two young adults, one of whom is sentenced to death for cutting his hair (signifying personal transition from female to male), she saves are the saving grace of this Abby detour, which lasts the full three days and overlaps with some additional sections of Ellie gameplay before we take Ellie’s side at the very end of the game. Why focus so much on describing the story? Because point blank, story is really all this game has to carry its ass across the full 20+ hours of the experience. It all gets a bit wordy and blurry from here, bear with me.

Abby’s section of the game is long enough that she gets her own semi-unique crafting and skill trees.

We’ve been provided enough sympathy for Abby to no longer hate her by the end but there is little reason to “get” her beyond all of the things we know but Ellie doesn’t know. As we take control of Ellie she appears as much a brute as Abby did without that insight gained as she attempts to exact revenge, two more times. At one point the game forces the player (as Abby) to sneak in stealth and use bricks-to-the-face to stun Ellie while she stalks us with a shotgun. This showcases how furious and immature Ellie appears by contrast alongside highlighting how useless and slow stealth combat is. Again, even on the lowest difficulty a full stealth playthrough is an obnoxious chore. After having been affected by the game personally, cheerleading its balanced focus on exploration, combat and powerful cut-scenes I’d suddenly found myself entirely tired out by its pressing on. The violence only intensifies, just as The Last of Us did in its final moments, but the impact of the story only grows increasingly tepid when Abby must go chase one of the rescued children back to their island commune in the Puget sound. This whole section is strikingly beautiful yet killing off one of the children (and the leader of the WLF) in the process means we’ve funneled the main characters towards the least interesting trope possible. They’re left with nothing, the resilient Seraphite child, Lev, and Abby are family for their shared goal of survival in spite of brutal circumstance and… This is so long after Abby’s epiphany against revenge and hatred that it feels like an extended chance to flog her character for the sake of still meeting Ellie at the end. Both protagonists will eventually fight as beaten and bloodied corpses, their most beloved having been killed off by the other (or by their departed beloved in the past) but it is no climax. Ellie forces the issue Abby ultimately relents, then Ellie ultimately relents. Right there, that was enough and that is where Ellie takes control of her self after what feels like an eternity of learning to live with herself. The epiphany itself comes late and without fanfare but it arrives and this will become more profound in reflection. What it takes to satisfy revenge, an eye for an eye, versus what it takes to relent and move on should be stirring to those affected by or recovering from the consequences of wanton violence.

Well, despite saying I wouldn’t detail the whole plot I’d certainly gotten there for the sake of explaining why The Last of Us Part II is a “good” and well above average game via its story but the experience doesn’t yet exemplify any new found “greatness” within video game storytelling. The bar couldn’t be higher in terms of the actors and the writing yet the trouble comes with extending the story without restraint for the medium, as if it were a book or a mini-series (yes, one is reportedly in development via HBO). Ellie cannot have piece of mind until she’s abandoned her family with Dina, “the flashbacks won’t stop” until she has given Abby killin’ one more go… This is such a bland Clint Eastwood-ism that doesn’t fit the reasonable character we’d gotten to know in her youth. There can be no twanging Leone stand-off, there can be no cartoonish shift into stylish action a la Tarantino… Nothing here is so heroic or empowered as we reach the final duel, everyone is fucked and at fault. The conclusion is necessary and satisfyingly nigh nihilistic but could’ve come sooner and without Abby’s side-story needing to be so time intensive. The only major nitpick is that the death of Yara (Lev’s sister) still feels absolutely pointless, an extra cruel choice made for the sake of the impending gameplay section. Of course I’ve not gone into the seamless console performance of the game, short load times, sharp framerate, the stunning graphics and largely natural animation in hand, much less the smart level design (however linear it may be) and the nice enough balance of weapon and resource placement. But a lot of those details are frankly just stupid video game shit shoved into a moving fit for TV story.

Low difficulty, moderate collectable focus. ~24 hours.

So, how to rate an average gameplay experience alongside a stunning audio-visual package with a stellar knack for storytelling? The excesses of The Last of Us Part II are what push it into above average territory, that it manages to be an over the top action game full of difficult combat sequences is not much of a feat but that we’ve gotten a sequel to a game that didn’t need one and it turned out to be even more human and more character driven than anything the developer has done before is a considerable feat. It isn’t a masterpiece and couldn’t be the video game of the year for my own tastes for its story alone but, it is a story rooted in valuable classic parable. An eye for an eye leaves all blind and wandering alone, waiting to die. If you’d like to see the game in action I streamed gameplay videos on YouTube through Day 3 with Ellie, with the start of Abby’s first flashback included: Part I, Part II, Part II.5, Part III, Part IV.

Rating: 7 out of 10.
PLATFORM:Playstation 4 Pro
GENRE:Third Person Action/Adventure,
Third Person Shooter,
Semi-Open World
RELEASE DATE:June 19th, 2020

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