(FWI this is a video essay edited down to be a text post. There are also rampant spoilers throughout)
This block of text has been many things. First, it was a review, then it was a critique of other reviews, and now it's kinda everything. I have a lot of thoughts about this game and while this game is divisive, maybe you can at least find something in here you agree with, or maybe I can spark some civil discussion in the comments. While some people are mad about pretty stupid things, I think there is a place for genuine discussion about the failings and successes of The Last of Us Part 2. Similar to how people ignored the actual issues prevalent in the Last Jedi to complain about some bullshit. But we’re not here today to discuss the Last Jedi. We're here to talk about The Last of Us Part 2, but first, I want to talk specifically about how dumb it is that we give our subjective opinion as objective fact and why reviews from critics seem to differ so much from general audiences.
As a S O C I E T Y we have decided on rules that need to be followed to create “good” art. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but usually, you can follow the rules and come up with something at least mediocre. Most of the time we use these rules to critique a medium such as film, or video games in this case, so we can give an objective score to something subjective. I don’t mind the fact that we do this. We need reviews of books and movies to help guide consumers so they don’t waste their time with something they won’t enjoy. Here’s the thing though, people tend to enjoy different things, and while sometimes we agree on what makes something good and what makes something bad, like good writing, acting, gameplay, and story structure, people like to break the rules. And that rule-breaking is usually what creates the true masterpieces. However, you first have to learn the rules before you can break them. Even so, you might end up with an absolute dumpster fire, if you’ve seen any student film ever, or you might end up somewhere in the middle when a bold artistic choice doesn’t fully work.
This is where Last of Us Part 2 falls for me. It has many flaws created by its bold choices, but those choices elevate the game above its flaws. I don’t care about the fact the game breaks a couple of rules that normally, if broken, detracts from the overall experience of the game, such as the pacing, but we’ll get to that. First, I want to discuss why the first game was so loved amongst fans, to help understand why this game is so hated by some of those same fans. For those who don’t know, The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic zombie game set in America 20 years after a zombie virus breaks out. The story follows a smuggler hardened by the outbreak, Joel, escorting a young girl, Ellie, across America to a research facility because of her apparent immunity to the zombie virus. People usually talk about one of two things that engaged them so much. For some, it was the world of The Last of Us and how the people in that world are affected by it, and for others, it was specifically the story of Ellie and Joel that was so captivating with the world merely as a backdrop. I was part of that first group. I loved finding little notes scattered all over the place and seeing the stories of the past. I enjoyed seeing how the factions interacted with each other and how people had evolved to live in such a hostile world. But, for that second group, the ones who saw the Last of Us as the story as Ellie and Joel, this game might not speak to them the same way the first one did. The Last of Us Part 2 is much more focused on the wider story of how people become corrupted by anger and vengeance. That’s not to say the game isn’t focused on characters, but I never found the characters quite as personal or interesting as the first game, save for a few. The game is carried by its focus on themes. It’s a darker tale that reminds me of the quote from the first game. “Remember, when you're lost in the darkness. Look for the light.” In this game, there is almost no light left to be found, and the characters are driven by their desire to take revenge on the people they hold responsible for snuffing out that light. Naughty Dog was much more interested in continuing to expand the story of humanity's inability to forgive and the damage that causes, than in creating Joel and Ellie’s adventure across America part 2. I think this is why reviews of the game from game journalists and normal people differ so much.
General Audience Reception vs Game Critics and Criticism of the Game
General Audiences usually go into a movie or video game to be entertained or experience something compelling. This is a broad generalization of course, but in my experience, most people don’t go into a movie or video game with their analytical glasses on ready to look beneath the surface of entertainment and dissect it’s deeper themes and meanings. This is why I think so many people were upset by Joel’s murder, the fact you play the second half of the game as his murderer, and the “pointless” ending. Because on the surface all these things seemingly detract from the story. Joel’s death appears to negate the point of the first game, Abby’s gameplay section feels misplaced and unwanted, and the ending might make you say “well what was the point?” Games journalists and reviewers on the other hand are trained to look for those deeper themes like the ones prevalent in Last of Us Part 2. The ideas of revenge and forgiveness that permeate the whole game and tie it’s two parts together. Neither of these is the wrong or right way to look at a game. If your enjoyment of the game is ruined by a story choice made by the game that’s perfectly fine. Sometimes I think game critics are infatuated by these deep ideas that they miss the simple stuff on the surface that can make or break a game. However, the difference being, people’s criticism of the game often stems from this idea of feeling robbed of what they wanted, but framed as a criticism of the writing or storytelling of the game. Or any other words, they seem to be framing their review of the game as a critique. In short, a review is simply “I did or didn’t like this because reason,” whereas a critique is a deconstruction of why that reason they gave is so impactful. Nevertheless, in this day and age where it’s so easy for anyone to write or record a review of any type of media, people have started to use the guise of critical analysis when they’re just giving their opinion on the game. Let’s look at some examples:
This image right here is the perfect summation of what most people are mad about with this game. Joel’s death and Abby’s characterization. It seems fitting that we start at the beginning of the game with Joel’s death. So many people are upset over Joel’s death and even if you disagree with Naughty Dog’s choice to kill Joel, it’s explained perfectly fine by the story. Calling it a plot hole or bad writing is simply not the case. People often say that “Joel wouldn’t have trusted them, he wouldn’t have told them his name, he wouldn’t have gone into the place they were staying.” But why not? Joel doesn’t necessarily trust them, but he’s already been driven into their compound by the zombies outside. The group they meet isn’t initially violent, they are hospitable and nice. Tommy is the one who starts the conversation, introducing himself after one of the members of the group introduces herself first. It happens naturally. Now yes, it’s extremely hard to watch as an audience member knowing what is going to happen, but keep in mind Joel and Tommy have none of that knowledge. They are simply approaching the situation as members of a community that wants to help others around them. Secondly, people seem to think that how Joel and Tommy end up in the Lodge with the other group is contrived and unlikely. Joel and Tommy running into Abby on patrol and then having the three of them have to work together to stay alive against a slew of zombies manages to connect the two groups naturally. While yes it is an unlikely situation, it’s explained perfectly fine by the game.
Next, let’s discuss the more subjective second claim made by this reviewer. “Abby was forced down the throat of the player and it is impossible to feel empathy for her.” Now I can’t tell you whether you could or couldn’t empathize with Abby. That’s something you have to decide for yourself by playing the game. However, I do think the game does a good job creating a situation in which you can empathize with Abby. Abby’s whole plotline is about the effect Joel’s murder has on her. She agrees to help Lev and Yara, two siblings that are in danger because she feels regret for what she did. Her character grows past the killer she used to be, but she still pays for her past choices, as all her friends are murdered, she gets kidnapped, crucified, and quite literally becomes a husk of her former self. This of course is my opinion, but do you see what I did? I gave evidence from the game to support my point. Saying “I could not empathize with a character so therefore they are a badly written character” is not the correct way to criticize something.
I guess my point with all of this is I would like to see more thought go into these reviews. You're free to dislike any game for any reason, even if those reasons are laughable, but if you’re going to be saying things like “plot holes” and “bad writing” add some justification. There are plenty of actual problems with this game, if you're going to be writing an “objective” critique of the game at least mention those.
I tried to work in some of my thoughts about the game throughout that section, but it's time to get to the real meat and potatoes and begin discussing the actual gameplay and story of The Last of Us Part 2.
Let’s start with the gameplay first. The gameplay of The Last of Us Part 2 is almost the same as the first game, but honestly, I feel like I’m one of the only people who legitimately enjoyed it all the way through. I fully thought I was going to be sick of it by the end, but I wasn’t. Sneaking around and slowing killing enemies one by one weirdly feels good and bad at the same time. It feels good in the sense it’s fun to plot out how you're going to take people down and then execute on it. There are enough weapons and gadgets to get along in the game, including a bunch of new ones not in the first game, however, the variety is lacking a little bit. I would have liked to maybe see a few more options for taking down enemies, but what we got is fine. On the other hand, though, this game feels brutal. Killing doesn’t feel meaningless in The Last of Us Part 2 in the same way it does in other similar games. Enemies call out each other's names and talk to each other. The death animations are also incredibly graphic and hearing your enemies cry out or choke on their blood as their life slowly leaves them is horrifying in a way that's quite fitting for The Last of Us. The thing that really got me was the dogs. Not only were they a cool feature in the gameplay, even if somewhat forgotten in the second half of the game, but the way they interact with the game world is also harsh to witness as a player. Something about animals seems to connect more to humans than humans do weirdly enough, and the game takes full advantage of that. I think it’s something best witnessed for yourself.
One thing I wasn’t a super big fan of in this game was looking for supplies in empty rooms and cupboards. You cannot have one game series about swinging around on ropes and punching dudes in the face, and then another where you open 6 million storage units and expect both to be just as fun. But I understand that it’s kind of necessary in this game for the survival horror aspect to work so I give it that. Speaking of survival horror, this game nails the horror atmosphere. Some of the level design is just incredibly terrifying. More so in the back half of the game, as you explore an abandoned skyscraper filled with zombies or an outbreak ward deep in a hospital.
Music and Graphics:
Most people have already talked about this but the game looks so good. This game might have the graphics I have ever seen in a game, which is insane considering it is a PlayStation 4 exclusive and doesn’t have the raw processing power of a PC. The only downside to this though, is sometimes the noise coming from the PlayStation is the true horror.
The music is also incredible. The soundtrack from Gustavo Santaolalla and Mac Quayle complement the action going on the game to a tee. Some of the tracks are just so guttural and fit so well into the rest of the game. (Go listen to Eye for an Eye on Spotify if you need an example.)
Here’s the thing. People aren’t debating whether the gameplay, graphics, or music are good. It’s all about the story. As for me, well I quite liked the game. Of course, it has flaws but like I said they didn’t detract enough from the story to ruin it for me. After spending so much time making fun of people for their bad reviews, I’m going to try and explain why I feel the way I do about the story. For me, the main thing this game had to do was justify its existence. I love the way the first game ends. Joel’s inability to lose another daughter causes him to destroy any chance for humanity and then lies about it to Ellie who doesn’t quite believe him, but the game cuts to black before she can start to question him. There are a couple of things to keep in mind about this ending that I feel like a lot of people misunderstood. Joel’s choice to save Ellie is solely based on his selfish inability to lose another daughter. I’ve seen people defend his actions because “the chance the Fireflies make the cure is so small” or “the Fireflies would have just used the cure to hold power over other groups.” Even if these are correct assumptions, it still doesn’t change Joel’s reasoning for doing what he did. He didn’t care about anything except saving Ellie’s life. Joel is not a hero, Joel is an anti-hero, hardened by his time surviving in post-apocalyptic America. He does a bunch of fucked up things throughout the first game, like running down injured people or torturing them for information because he deems it necessary to survive. However, he also has a lot of humanizing moments. That’s the thing about the Last of Us, there are no good or bad characters. There are only humans trying to survive. Making this distinction is incredibly important to be able to empathize with Abby in the back half of the game.
The first two hours of the game are pretty slow and simply exist to build up to Joel’s death and show what life is like in Jackson because there is a 4 year time jump after the end of the first game. This does it’s job fine, but because the first couple hours feel like their own little story that builds to the climax of Joel’s death, but it does feel a little weird to be immediately dropped into Seattle after. Let’s talk briefly about Joel’s death. I think it was handled very well in this game. You’re supposed to hate Abby for killing Joel. They have her kill him in an incredibly brutal way and without any reason (that we know of at that point). It is an emotional event that kicks the game into gear. It’s a shame the energy is kinda lost when you move to Seattle, but we’ll discuss the pacing in a little. His death also feeds into one of the themes that carry through the game. The theme of actions having consciousnesses and how, as the old saying goes, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
Once you get to Seattle, the game begins to build that tension back up as Ellie’s bloodthirsty revenge plot leads her to steamroll through all of Abby’s acquaintances, eventually leading to a confrontation with Abby herself. Then the clock rolls back three days and you do it all again as Abby. At first, I thought the game was going to have you see Ellie’s revenge from the other side, and build understanding and sympathy for Abby as all her friends are murdered. In other words, build a parallel plot structure where both characters are following a similar story but from opposite sides. However, the game says “fuck that” and has Abby’s storyline somewhat disconnected from Ellie’s. They’re stories intersect, but instead of parallel, they are crossed. The real connection between the two girls is the thematic elements. Ellie’s story shows her brutal revenge plot and how her actions lead her to become more and more like Joel to the point where she is losing many of the qualities that connected us to her so strongly in the first game. Abby’s story on the other hand illustrates the emptiness of revenge and she has to reconnect with her humanity by taking care of two siblings she comes across. She never shows regret for Joel’s death, but you can tell how much of an effect his death had on her life. The two storylines are tied together by this idea of the inability to forgive and how damaging that is. Both Abby and Ellie lose people they love because they are unable to let go of their quest for revenge. This is also reflected by the warring factions in the game, the Seraphites and the WLFs. At the end of the day, both groups simply want peace, but because of their inability to work together and forgive past disagreements, a war breaks out. Abby and Ellie have converging stories instead of parallel stories because they are not similar characters. They both have different character arcs about different aspects of revenge because they both need to grow in different ways. Abby’s inclusion in the game is important to the story because it shows us how truly one-sided Ellie’s perspective is and how Joel’s choice at the end of the last game created unforeseen consequences. You see how Joel is responsible for the death of her father and how that action is what drives her to become the ruthless killer she is in this game. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Abby’s story mirrors Joel’s from the first game. You play as someone disconnected from their humanity who starts to reconnect with it by assisting a more naive child. If we had played the first game as Abby and her dad instead of Joel and Ellie and then had the second gameplay out in a very similar way, we would empathize with Abby. It brings us back to the main theme of the last of us, there are no heroes or villains, only people.
My only complaint about the story structure of this game is the pacing. While I think it was important to tell Abby’s story to fully drive home some of the thematic elements of the game, the pacing of the game suffers for it. Having Ellie’s story build up over three days and come to a head, only to then kill all that momentum by going back 3 days to tell Abby’s story kills some of the flow. While Abby’s chapters manage to build that flow back up again at first, it can be quite jarring. Strangely enough, I think this is something best experienced without any knowledge of the game. The plot hitting a brick wall while traveling at full force, was truly shocking because I didn’t know any of the leaks. Before playing the 3 days as Abby, you are first taken back to the end of the first game as Abby and see how it played out for her. I think the writers were willing to risk the pacing of the game, to shock the player into seeing a new perspective. However, for people that already knew of the twist, I feel like a lot of that impact was negated.
But here’s the thing. The game isn’t really about Abby. No matter how much time the game spends humanizing Abby, we still played the first game as Ellie and we are going to connect with her story more. Abby exists to provide the player some perspective on how actions have consequences and the emptiness of revenge. Abby is representative of Ellie if she got her revenge. Abby loses almost everything she cares about because of her selfish choices similar to another character we know of from the previous game… If Ellie killed Abby at the end of the game she would just set herself down this path too. By the end of this game, she and Abby have almost switched places. Abby is able to grow past the person she once was because of Lev. Ellie is consumed by her vengeance and is almost about to make the same mistake Abby did at the very beginning of the game by killing Joel. But she’s finally able to let go of her anger and desire for revenge because she was able to forgive Joel for his choices and she realizes just how similar those two characters have become. Abby never shows regret for killing Joel just as Joel never shows regret for saving Ellie, but Ellie forgives her not because of anything Abby has done, but in spite of it, just as she learned to forgive Joel. And ultimately this is the best thing for Ellie to do. The cycle is no more, and both Ellie and Abby slip away battered and beaten, but not fully broken. While Ellie’s ending is left ambiguous, it seems by leaving the farm she will go after Dina back to Jackson. She leaves Joel’s guitar behind not to forget him but rather to move on. The final shot of her leaving the farm is symbolic of her doing so. Staying at the farm to wallow in despair would be to accept the loneliness, whereas her leaving the farm is to reject it in favor of something better.
While this game isn’t quite as well-paced or constantly entertaining as the first Last of Us, it explores much deeper ideas about the cycle of violence and how forgiveness is the answer to break that cycle. There are few controversial movies or games that I will go to the same length to defend as the Last of Us Part 2. I can’t say I was always enjoying myself when playing this game, but at the end of the day it challenged me to explore the ideas presented by the game even deeper and that is something I will take any day over a perfect, but simplistic story.
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© Post "A little late to the party, but I needed time to fully bake my thoughts on The Last of Us Part 2. Here is my comprehensive breakdown of the controversy, critical vs audience reception, and what the game means to me as a huge fan of the first game." for game Gaming News.
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