The question that has been bouncing around my head since the announcement of The Last Of Us Part 2 is: do I think this game needs to be made? Don’t get me wrong, I adored the original, but how could Naughty Dog possibly follow up one of the most compellingstories ever told in a game?
At the end of the original, the protagonist, Joel, had rescued his daughter-figure Ellie, and they settled down in Jackson. The Fireflies militia thought she could’ve been used to make a cure, but needed to kill her to make it happen. The Fireflies were bad and Joel was right to rescue her by any means necessary. Joel was a hero, right?
After completing The Last Of Us Part 2, I realise that isn’t the case. It was never that simple. Joel was never a hero. Neither is Ellie. Neither are the Fireflies. In the world that director Neil Druckmann and Naughty Dog have created, there are no heroes and villains, just differing stories that can intertwine in devastating ways. It’s all just a matter of perspective.
Heads up, this is your last chance to get out before I get into spoiler territory.
The Last of Us Part 2 sets the scene early on, with the brutal torture and death of Joel at the hands of a group of remaining Fireflies, occurring mere hours into the game. This tonal shift is a punch in the guts following a touching scene between Ellie and her new girlfriend, Dina. The emotional juxtaposition between Ellie and Dina getting high and hooking up in an old safe house to seeing Joel’s brutal execution at the hands (well, golf club) of Abby, the Firefly who led Joel into the trap, is truly jarring. This act of violence had been building in the background for some time, the ramifications of Joel’s actions finally catching up with him, but I’m sure he never would’ve imagined the road it would set Ellie down.
She is no longer the feisty and hopeful Ellie we knew and loved. Her world shattered when Abby smashed Joel’s head in with a golf club and she will not rest until she has destroyed her, willing to take down anything that stands in her way. The amount of love, hatred, and complexity Ashley Johnson puts into her role as Ellie makes her journey and struggle that much more tangible.
Ellie’s quest for revenge takes place – for the most part – in a stunning recreation of post-apocalyptic Seattle. It has been years since Outbreak Day and nature has almost fully enveloped the once-thriving city. The attention to detail in every location is something to behold, with small environmental details and letters scattered throughout the world.
Unlike the original that is divided into seasons, The Last Of Us Part 2 takes place over several days. This smaller timescale gives focus to the uncertainty of Ellie’s quest. Not all characters will live to see the next day, and you feel that pressure build as the days pass. Ellie’s story feels like a descent into darkness, and each day ticking over feels like another step into the abyss, reflected in Ellie’s growing violence.
If you have played the original (if you haven’t, you really should!) the gameplay will feel immediately recognisable, but with a few changes due to the new protagonist. Traversal has improved with the addition of a prone mechanic to slide under cracked walls and stay out of sight in long grass, along with a remarkably well-animated rope that allows you to swing and climb higher. And it looks like Jackson may have a YMCA, as Ellie can now swim, meaning the pain of having to find a pallet to float her across a small body of water is now a thing of the past. The animation of these actions is a level above anything I have seen before. The way Ellie transitions between movements is unnervingly lifelike at times, further strengthening the cinematic qualities of the game, especially during combat.
The addition of a dodge-button turns melee combat into a hyper-violent dance and gives you much more opportunity to flee, which you will need to take advantage of. The main faction of enemies, The WLF (or Wolves) will outflank and overwhelm you in no time if given a chance. When alerted to your presence, they’ll work as a team, barking orders and checking corners to hunt you down as a pack (Oh! Wolves! I get it now!). While you could theoretically sneak past all your enemies as you go area to area, I rarely was able to. More often than not I would begin in an area silently taking down each enemy until I would eventually be spotted, triggering an alert and had to resort to my trusty shotgun.
The gunplay in the original was nothing to write home about, and it is the same case here; however, I still believe it lends itself well to the survival aspects of the game. Panic shooting a WLF brute as they charge towards you with a pickaxe only to catch them in the head at the last moment is truly heart pounding. The ever-reliable D-Pad weapon selection system from the original is back too, making swapping between weapons on the fly and crafting consumables a breeze. The combat serves a purpose and feels tight as hell, but is a means to an end, advancing the narrative.
At this point, you may realise I haven’t mentioned the Clickers, as I found they only served as a backdrop to the narrative. That being said, they are still as horrifying as ever. The newest addition to the Clicker family is the Shambler; fleshy tanks of pus, ooze, and noxious fumes that use AOE attacks to keep you moving, and having to deal damage from a distance lest you become a hideously mangled corpse.
The design and audio teams at Naughty Dog deserve all the plaudits for the abject horror I felt every time an Infected tore itself from a fungal growth and tried to snack on my esophagus or the crackling cry of a Clicker that sent shivers up my spine. And let’s not mention the Resident Evil-esque Rat King encounter that occurs late into the game. Gross.
Around the midpoint of the game, just when the gameplay loop feels like it is starting to overstay its welcome, a paradigm shift completely blindsided me. We start back at Seattle: Day 1, now playing as Joel’s murderer and golfing enthusiast, Abby. To be honest, I didn’t want to do it. It felt like a cheap manipulation at first, and I had developed a genuine hatred for the Fireflies, and WLF, and everyone who wasn’t part of ‘Team Jackson’. However, as Abby’s story progressed, I realised she is a woman on a similar path to Ellie – maybe just further along – with her complexities, flaws and strengths. Abby too sought revenge, but now that she had it, it was time to hold tight to those closest, namely her love interest, Owen.
The backstory between Owen and Abby is one of two young people in love, and it is genuinely charming in a ‘will they/won’t they?’ kind of way. The way these two bounce off each other seems so natural and makes you start to forget what they did to Joel. They’re flawed humans living in a garbage fire of a world, trying to make sense of it all. They are Ellie and Dina. I began to really like them.
Mirroring the way Joel took protection of Ellie all those years ago, Abby takes guard of a young brother and sister, Lev and Yara, a fascinating pair of Serpahites, or ‘Scars’ for short. The Scars are another new faction introduced in the game that I found, unfortunately, a little underdeveloped. Their more stealthy methods of combat felt unique, and their whistling is down-right eerie. However, I found they fell into the tropes of ‘religious fanatics’ a little bit too neatly, mainly just acting as a foil to the WLF.
Taking on the WLF and Scars as Abby felt quite different to when playing as Ellie. Abby’s past training as a Firefly means she is much more adept at this form of guerilla combat; making bullets from scrap and using momentum to string together devastating melee blows. A night-time ambush in the forest sees Abby take down Infected with just a hammer; something I doubt Joel or Ellie could even come close to pulling off. It may be my favourite encounter of the entire series. Abby kicks so much ass
Abby’s story gives context to Ellie’s actions in the first half of the game, for better or worse. This is where the dual perspectives take this game to another level. As Ellie, every act of violence I committed in pursuit of Abby felt right – for the most part at least – but to the other side, I was the monster. Abby was never running from Ellie; she was running towards a new family, but like Ellie and Joel before them, Abby too was stuck in this constant cycle of violence and hatred.
When I first started playing as Abby, I didn’t think I would feel anything towards her, but once I reentered the theatre, I honestly can’t tell you who I wanted to walk out alive. The perspective shift gives gravitas to Ellie’s vengeance in ways that genuinely made me squirm. Seeing the ‘human’ – and in one truly agonising case, ‘canine’ – in those I have slaughtered gave me a chilling feeling I still can’t shake. Their confrontation almost hits a deeply disturbing crescendo but ends when one is incapacitated, and the other has had enough.
Ellie’s ceaseless pursuit through Seattle is painful to witness at times, but it’s the moments after you think the storm has passed that hits home the hardest. Watching Ellie give in to her darkest compulsions amid her happy ending, leaving Dina and the new life they had started to build to fight a war that was already over, made me want to climb into my TV and beg her to stop. The final confrontation between Ellie and Abby was emotionally exhausting, pushing me right to the point where I wanted to put the controller down and walk away.
The final scene in which Ellie realises how much she’s lost was truly heartbreaking. Music plays a symbolic part throughout the entire Last of Us series, but at the end of Part 2, it was the notes I couldn’t hear anymore that brought tears to my eyes.
So I return to my opening question: do I think this game needed to be made? The answer is yes. Dripping in blood, hatred, and consequence, Naughty Dog has expanded on the groundwork laid in the predecessor, focusing on the emotional demons of characters we love, rather than those that lurk in the shadows. Despite a few moments where the gameplay stumbled under the weight of the narrative, I found myself constantly in awe of what I was witnessing.
I may not have ‘enjoyed’ my time playing The Last of Us 2, but it certainly is one of the best experiences I have had with a game and a story that will stay with me for years to come.