Histories of Violence…and Love: A SPOILER review and discussion of The Last of Us part II

 

VICE - Where 'The Last of Us Part 2' Ending Goes Wrong

Image from Vice  (The general expression for those who experience this game, whether they come away from it positively or not. Be. Warned.)

Note: In order to fully encapsulate my thoughts on The Last of Us part II, this review will contain full blown spoilers for the events of the game. I will not,however, be spoiling the conclusion of the game as I believe that is something that should be left to one’s own personal viewing and takeaway. Play the game or watch a playthrough online to see the ending.

No other game I can think of in perhaps my entire life has made me feel the way that The Last of Us Part II has. It is an outstanding masterpiece in terms of gameplay,graphics and story integration, much like its 2013 predecessor.

Unlike its predecessor, a sizable portion of the playerbase do not feel the same way as me. Many hate it, think it goes too far in terms of darkness, heavy subject matter, narrative direction and it may be a long time until a common consensus of this game is really established.

Yes, The Last of Us part II is much darker and much sadder than the already dark original. But one thing that I didn’t find Part II to be was depressing, making me apathetic towards the plight of those who’re your friends and enemies. I was fascinated, arrested by what Naughty Dog has accomplished with a follow-up seven or so years in the making.

I should mention my thoughts on the original game’s consequential ending  and prior to the game’s 2017 announcement on what I thought a second Last of Us should be.

I did not think it should’ve been a continuation of Joel and Ellie’s story from the first. The ambiguous, bittersweet conclusion to the original seemed the right note to conclude the surrogate father-daughter relationship on, letting the player fill in what came next.

At the end of the first Last of Us, after a grueling cross-country trip of survival in a beautiful yet brutal post-apocalyptic America, Joel and Ellie arrive in Salt Lake City. They’ve come to present a survival group called the Fireflies with the possible cure to the Cordyceps fungal virus which has ruined the world. It has made most of humanity into a particularly creepy brand of infected, called “clickers”, relying on their ears to catch their prey.

Ellie is seemingly the only immune person to the virus and Joel was tasked by his dying smuggler partner Tess to take her to where the Fireflies are and create a cure that will give humanity perhaps a fighting chance for a better future.

Overtime, the jaded, gruff, middle-aged survivor comes to see Ellie as a surrogate daughter, to replace the loss of his daughter Sarah at the beginning of the outbreak. Ellie returns the favor in affection, learning to survive, and when need be, allowing the other’s hair down and appreciate what good in life is still possible.

An accident shortly before reaching the hospital in Salt Lake knocks Ellie unconscious and is thus unable to learn that yes, a cure for the virus is possible. But at the cost of her life. Joel learns the harsh truth but cannot accept losing his best source of hope left in the world.

He proceeds to kill his way to the operating room, slay the lead doctor and take Ellie’s sedated body out of there, killing the leader of the Fireflies along the way so they won’t go looking for her.

Even more egregiously, he lies to Ellie to what transpired at the hospital, claiming there were other immune subjects and yet no cure was possible. In the iconic final scene of The Last of Us, just as the duo return to their new home in Jackson, Wyoming, Ellie asks Joel again if he was indeed telling the truth about Salt Lake. To her face, Joel swears he did.

For my part before the sequel’s announcement, what I wanted was to take the open-ended nature of the series’ title and use it as a means to tell a different set of characters’ story of survival in the post-outbreak world.

A new protagonist or two, and with it new themes and ideas that could be tackled. I was even thinking of it being maybe a love story between the two playables.

Instead, Naughty Dog gambled on continuing the story of Joel and Ellie to whatever end and the response while with near universal praise from critics is severely divided everywhere else. 

It wasn’t just the darker tone and violence that has turned off many more people, it is the circumstances and actions that predicate Part II’s purpose. Naughty Dog directly addresses what Joel did at the end of the first game and how you ultimately felt about his decision may go a long way in how you feel about Part II. You will now know why I feel this had to be a spoiler review.

This is perhaps well known by now, but within the first several hours, Joel, the playable protagonist of the majority of the original, is dead. At the hands of a furiously vengeful woman with a golf club.

This woman is named Abby and based on my cautious listening in on the grapevine is either the most hated or at least most divisive aspect of a contested sequel.

When it came to Abby’s brutal, drawn out execution of Joel, I did feel angry but less so on Joel’s behalf. I knew what Joel had did was wrong. He killed people that were less trying to kill him and more protect humanity’s hope for the future. He killed the person that could’ve given that better future who is revealed later on to be Abby’s father.

He not only lied to Ellie about all that but robbed her of her agency in that matter. A flashback later in the game showcases her heartbreaking reckoning with Joel’s actions and it creates a painful rift leading up to the game’s opening.

So, from my viewpoint, as messy and harsh as Joel’s death was, I can’t bring myself to think that it wasn’t warranted on some level. When Joel died, I was still sad, but more so for Ellie’s sake, as she is forced to witness his end by Abby.

An argument could be made, based on what I’ve willed myself to read from the detractors that it’s not so much these actions in the story that are so wrong for many people, it’s how they’re positioned in the story that acts as screw-up.

For instance, an earlier draft for the game’s story would’ve involved the player controlling Abby at the start and for a lengthy period of time before she does in Joel. We could’ve gotten to know Abby’s purpose earlier on and perhaps would’ve been given better hints as to why she would do what she did.

At the same time, the game opens with Joel recounting to his brother Tommy what he did to save Ellie. The game makes it explicitly clear that this story’s set of dominoes all stem from Joel and it wouldn’t take a genius to guess Abby’s motivation before seeing her come across her dead father in a flashback much later down the road.

It is perhaps how the game segments the time spent as Abby and Ellie respectively and how it affects the pacing is where many seem to have problems with the plot.

Personally, I think the spacing of the time with the two female protagonists is just right for me to get the point that many seem to be missing about what Naughty Dog has been trying to communicate.

The theme that is most commonly expressed as being the leading factor of Part II is the cycle of revenge and that is certainly a factor, but not the only one. It’s also about hate, as director Neil Druckmann stated as it compares to the first one being about love. The first game’s love deals with the surrogate familial relationship between Joel and Ellie.

The hate of Part II is obviously directed most around Abby’s hatred for Joel’s slaughter and Ellie’s hatred for her killing the only real father figure she has, however strained, in a world like the Last of Us. Hatred and fear of the other is also applicable in other areas of the story but it is primarily the primal, understandable rage that fuels the two anti-heroines.

But for me, the redeeming theme of Part II, one that may in time wield, if anything a more begrudging respect for the sequel than outright love, is the theme of perspective.

All the love, hate,fear and behavior of each and every character, big and small, can be factored into their perspectives, where the paths their lives have gone for better or ill.

It comes back to the universal limitation of not being able to walk truly in another’s shoes. That is the reason why you get to play as Abby, Joel’s killer, for a lengthy portion of the game.

She gets as many playable flashbacks as Ellie, as well as her own separate arsenal. Her personality, worldview, flaws and mistakes are all showcased to not necessarily make you like her and hate Ellie, but an attempt to understand her.

I am truly thankful that Naughty Dog doesn’t designate her as the surprise true hero of the game and Ellie the surprise true villain. If there is any real villain or person with the least amount of redeemable traits, it’s a character played by Jeffrey Wright that is not pertinent to the conversation right now. There are no real heroes either, as having them would not fit this world. That would be a real disservice in my eyes.

You are meant, in spite of pre-established bias and emotional dissent, to spend time with characters you might initially hate or as the consensus proves, continue to hate. You are meant to see them as what they are, whether they fit with what you think they should be. To me, and I know I’m not truly alone here, they are real people doing things that I could imagine them doing in the circumstances they are living under.

The outstanding voice performances, perhaps the most consistently good in any game I’ve ever played, for each and every character is the glue that holds the character’s divergent natures together as something that works. Just because they may commit an action you dislike doesn’t make it any less valid.

To frame the general allowance of Ellie and Abby’s play-time, it goes as such. After a short opening where you play as Joel returning to his survivor stronghold, you then spend some time switching between Ellie and Abby, the former living her life as part of a patrol to look out for infected with new girlfriend Dina.

On Abby’s end, she has arrived near Jackson with a group of surviving Fireflies searching for Joel. Eventually, from Ellie’s perspective, you see Joel die by Abby’s hands after she was ironically saved by him from the infected, and thus the cycle truly begins.

There is a “Three Day Cycle” to the time spent in Seattle, where Ellie tracks Abby to. Three days with Ellie, alongside Dina and eventually Jesse, the latter’s ex-boyfriend. Then, once you have completed the series of events with Ellie,you transition to Abby, seeing what she was up with the same amount of time.

Here’s another thing that will get me some disapproval. I came to actually like Abby, in spite of her viciously negative consensus nowadays. I lived her life, saw her side of things, and saw that she had commonalities with Ellie, all without the game mercifully saying out loud, “You know, we’re not so different, you and I.”

I saw how she had her own hangups with her friends and fellow survivors, now part of the Washington Liberation Front of Seattle (W.LF.) or Wolves. How her vengeance has not only rattled her compatriots but even herself but in a much more subtle manner.

It can even be argued that a major relationship she has with what might be my favorite new character of the game can be construed as her finding redemption for killing Joel and having a stronger moral compass than before.

The game is not trying to portray the W.L.F., which is Ellie’s nemesis for much of her time in Seattle, as perfect angels that deserve complete sympathy. As mentioned earlier, they are led by Jeffrey Wright’s Isaac, a brutal torturer and leader who will go to any length to end a war with the Seraphites or “Scars”. They’re a Luddite cult which are revealed to have had pacifist origins that dissipated once their female prophet died.

The members of the W.L.F. are hardened survivors stuck in what is ultimately a pointless war for Seattle. They vary in personality, tonality and the reasons for why they are part of the Front. Abby isn’t entirely sold on the movement she’s part of and that is part of her own conflict, alongside guilt and perhaps a lack of real satisfaction from ending Joel.

This treatment of the W.L.F. as more real than your average enemies in a game, alongside to some extent the Seraphites, is part of what is one of the more “You get it or you don’t” features of Part II. Whether you play as Ellie or Abby, the violence you commit to non-infected opponents is much more disturbing, violent and hard to look at than the original.

Your acts of fighting and killing enemies, especially pronounced with the more revenge-minded arc of Ellie’s journey, are highlighted with unsettling screams of pain and death, gurgles of blood, crying out for another’s passing. Nearly every encounter involving human enemies involves another living foe shouting out the killed’s name.

Some see this as exploitative, to get a rise out of players for what the game is asking them to do. I see it as connective tissue to how the cast in general is treated as human characters, all with stories to tell, whether you like those stories being beside the point.

It, however, can become a rather muted feature as sometimes certain names can be repeated, suggesting there was some randomization in enemy naming. Perhaps it would be more effective for more people if each and every name shouted in grief from your actions was scripted.

The Last of Us part II imbuing humanity and moments of true levity inbetween the killings helps make the disconcerting violence sell much better rather than be just an endless gauntlet of pain and misery. There is pain and misery, but there is moments of joy, positive discovery and humor that did manage to get me on more than one playthrough.

Perhaps the most acclaimed across-the-aisle example of Last of Us part II achieving a needed break from the carnage into the more reflective, beautiful aspects of the series is a flashback featuring Joel and Ellie going on a trip to an overgrown Natural History museum deep in the Wyoming woods.

Never is Joel and Ellie more at ease than at any time in perhaps the series up until this point and is a welcome reminder that Naughty Dog is not truly blinded by the darker impulses they have been accused of. It makes the dark moments even more powerful in my opinion.

As a special birthday gift, Joel lets Ellie run wild with curious energy through the museum, checking out all the dinosaur exhibits, commenting on them, even placing a hat on some of them, including Joel.

There is some sly references to Jurassic Park and Joel’s experience watching those movies before the outbreak. It culminates in reaching the space exploration section where you get to place Ellie in a mock up of the Apollo 11 space capsule, choose an astronaut helmet for her to wear and Joel gifts her a tape recording for her Walkman of the Apollo 11 liftoff, where she visually imagines going into space, a lifelong dream of hers that is impossible.

This is not some cruel twist of the knife for players, it is meant as contrast to what has become of Joel and Ellie in the dark present, a reminder of why Ellie has conviction in finding and killing Abby.

As for Abby, part of her emotional arc is her complicated relationship with her doctor father and whether she showed enough love to him before Joel showed up and her even more complicated history with former boyfriend Owen.

Abby and Owen’s romantic connection is perhaps the one area where I can see the critiques feeling more plausible from the naysayers. I feel less strongly after my second run of the game, but the deal about those two is as such.

Abby and Owen both share in the grief behind Joel’s massacre. Ultimately, their conflicting emotions on how they should move on with their lives splits them up. Owen gets together with Mel, another surviving Firefly and she becomes pregnant.

Abby and Owen still have feelings for each other, and it is left ambiguous how much Owen actually cares for Mel, whether she was something for him to cling to following his breakup with Abby. This tension makes Mel more than a little antagonistic towards Abby. Being part of the group and witness to Joel’s violent end didn’t help matters.

There is a polarizing scene where Owen and Abby make love in the heat of an argument and it is not directed to be exactly sexy. It’s messy, on the spot, with the full understanding of what the two are doing not being right. Naughty Dog treats it as more sad and unfortunate than romantic, in spite of it being surprisingly explicit albeit short.

What ultimately made me care about Abby and make me genuinely fear for her in the latter acts of the game is her growing relationship with two runaway Seraphites. Yara and Lev are an Asian American sister and brother who have fled the island that makes up the Seraphite home base.

The reason being due to Lev shaving his head, which is a big no-no for female members. The problem is that Lev is a transgender boy, who felt uncomfortable in his birth gender. I will not get into whether or not Lev’s portrayal as a representative of transgender characters in popular culture was handled well or not. I am not knowledgeable enough to make an argument.

Unsurprisingly, the handling of Lev as a trans character has become part of the bitter debate over LOU2’s quality. What I can say is that the growing relationship Abby has with the two, especially with Lev, is what gives Abby an arc that made me grow to appreciate her, beyond her understandable motivation for revenge.

Abby, Yara and Lev also act as considerable contrast to Ellie’s own arc. One of Ellie’s redeeming features is that she legitimately cares for other people beyond Joel. She has her charming,believable romance with Dina, a Jewish American woman lightly wrestling being of Jewish background and bisexual.

Despite joining in Ellie’s quest for vengeance, she is more concerned with getting Joel’s vengeful brother Tommy safely back home and if possible reining in the darker angels of who Ellie is. Much to both’s surprise, Dina’s sweet-natured ex Jesse shows up in Seattle to help out and is perhaps the least morally compromised member of the entire cast save for Yara and Lev.

While Abby does what she does out of initial loyalty to the W.L.F’s cause and later on for the protection of her friends, new and old, Ellie’s actions become much less concerned with the needs of her fellows. It becomes clear that she is finding any excuse to keep the hunt going, even as it becomes just as clear that she is endangering the same people she loves.

Eventually, inevitably, the two journeys in Seattle intersect at one hell of a crossroads and the playables are pitted against each other. You are in control of Abby going after Ellie for a set of killings that the latter is actually remorseful for. But there’s no time to explain, no way for the other to see and feel what the other has. In the end, their limited perspective puts them at each other’s throats.

I want to take the time to actually address some things that I did not like or could find some common ground with the detracting perspective on. I don’t want to come across as dismissive of those who didn’t like this game.

For instance, Skill-Up, a you-tuber reviewer who was, to put it lightly, not fond of Last of Us part II, admonished those who hate or pick on those who gave the game high marks and opinions.

He doesn’t go around acting as if his subjective takeaway is the gospel truth on how to view the game and while I obviously don’t gel with his takeaway, I appreciate him understanding that people like me exist and deserve to be heard.

For starters, while the soundtrack is once again great, being co-composed between the original’s amazing Gustavo Santaolalla and Mac Quayle, I don’t think it is a score which has quite as any notable stand out tracks compared to the masterful original’s.

There is some craftiness to the two composers contributions. Like the original, Santaolalla’s tracks convey sadness and love with little darkness. Quayle’s tracks embody the new game’s exploration of hate and revenge.

Some of Quayle’s tracks reminded me vividly of Silent Hill 2’s haunting horror and the tension filled electronic compositions from Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight and Dunkirk scores. Great stuff that helps hone in on the primal-like rush that encapsulated me in those moments of heated, angry violence both protagonists were embroiled in.

Have a listen for one of the more Zimmer-like tracks.

So, yeah, Part II’s score isn’t quite as exceptional as Part I, but it has a purpose and use that is essential to what Naughty Dog is getting at.

I will admit, the pacing at times can be a little exhausting which is ironically, how I felt when I first played the original. However, I remember having really bad sleep deprivation playing it the first time so I wasn’t in the best mind-frame for the game. If anything, the first Last of Us seems kinda short nowadays and I can’t put my finger on why.

It’s not so much for the inclusion of flashbacks which I feel all serve some purpose for both Abby and Ellie but there was maybe a few too many enemy encounters in both infected and human varieties. It could at times detract from the solid sense of momentum it overall has, so maybe a little more cutting away of the violent encounters could have gone a long way.

There is an otherwise amazing set-piece where Abby and one of her friends has to dodge a sniper at a marina. It does have a major’s character’s death yet at the same time it does seem more superfluous than necessary.

In every other regard, I am struggling to think of other gripes I may have with Last of Us part II buried underneath if at all.

In terms of positives not related to the story, graphical showcase is where people are more forgiving to Last of Us part II’s execution. The sentiment surrounding the graphics and utility of the PlayStation 4 has been unanimously praised as far as I can tell.

There is no question that The Last of Us part II is the best looking and performing exclusive on the PS4. Like its 2013 predecessor for the PS3, it is an amazing showcase of what the aging system can do and makes you excited at what Naughty Dog will pull off with the impending release of the PlayStation 5.

You will see a gorgeous, ruinous depiction of Seattle that has truly been taken over by nature in a way no other city thus seen in the Last of Us. Due to the military performing strategic bombings of Seattle to stem the infected, the Pacific has seeped in and made new islands, rivers and roaring rapids curving through and around skyscrapers which also act as eye-candy which may in turn act as visual relief from the horrors you’ve experienced.

The way light bends through trees and buildings, seeing pollen and dust float all around you. Seeing the power of nature through the rainstorms that are very much expected of Seattle and the characters promptly bemoaning it. During a violent storm that happens on the third day in the city, you will see large waves push you under the water, boats forever in dock moving side to side in inelegant rhythm.

The scale of the world in the Last of Us part II is impeccable, seeing well detailed mountains and structures in the distance that wasn’t quite possible a generation prior. It is Naughty’s Dog masterful weaving of the elements with humans, monsters and wildlife which makes it among the most believable game worlds I have ever seen.

Someone complaining about how Last of Us part II looks and sounds would be one of the least earnest complaints thrown at it. Yes, opinion is subjective, but like any Naughty Dog game released since the first Uncharted in 2007, sometimes all you can do is stop and look, and for a little while that’s all you need.

The Last Of Us 2 Walkthrough Part 7: Seattle Day 2 (All ...

Image from Tech Times

In spite of the uglier direction combat has taken, it has considerably improved in increasing the suite of options in desperate combat and hair-raising stealth.

There are more options for silent kills through a bottle silencer for your pistol, a crossbow in Abby’s eventual possession, a silenced submachinegun late in Ellie’s story and perhaps the best realized bow and arrow I can think of in a video game, certainly better than the clumsy one from the first. It’s tracking and consideration of distance and wind resistance does make it satisfying to master.

The AI of enemies,human and monster, is also improved with them considering Ellie and Abby’s actions. They take note when their weapons are dry of ammo and are able to often blunt an approach that’s already been used more than once.

New types of infected ratchet the stress further like the disgusting bloaters which try to take you down with acid attacks and the stalkers which negate one of the most useful tools you have to track your opponents, listening.

Like the original, you hold down a button to “hear” and thus see your enemies’ locations and prepare yourself to either engage or if possible sneak around out of the encounter altogether.

Stalkers however, cannot be tracked with listening, so it is often best to keep your wits about you, have a gun out and either hit them when they strike or run for the exit. Can’t forget that there is one hell of a scary boss encounter that is legitimately horrifying in presentation, speed and its first appearance has reportedly upset players of all stripes in the right way for once. It’s called “The Rat King” to give you an indication you’re in for a rough fight.

Another favorite new addition of mine is the visual overhaul of upgrading your weapons at the workbenches scattered throughout the game. You get to see Ellie and Abby from behind their backs tinker and add to their arsenal in a quick but realistic manner which adds weight to the tools you will be using going forward. Also the sound effects are just fun to listen to.

Overall, as I wrap up what might be one of my lengthiest reviews for a single thing ever, I come across with the hope that many who currently decry the game for what I do believe is genuine grievance come to re-evaluate it. Much like in how just two playthroughs I felt sold on Naughty Dog’s darker but no less important vision for the sequel to one of the most beloved games of all time.

I am sad that not more can see the takeaway of this game as I see it and why I think it ultimately works very well. I’m even saddened. But as my preview for this game brought up, we live in very sad, very angry times with no perceivable light at the end of the tunnel.

Perhaps the rise in anger fuels less willingness to embrace or attempt understanding of the Last of Us part II beyond initial impression or impressions tainted by actual misery and rage.

I cannot forget how the April leaks further soiled the reception. Yes, the leaks did get Joel’s death by Abby correct but it got Abby’s orientation as a trans character wrong due to her having a more muscular than usual depiction for a female person.

It also incorrectly surmised the timeline of events and how they happen, leading to the dead wrong conclusion that Ellie also dies at Abby’s hands.

I won’t spoil the heartbreaking but in my eyes appropriate end to this part of The Last of Us, maybe maybe not the final one. But, understand that leaks are rarely ever a surefire indication of what to expect. They can be right, they can be wrong. The leaks for this game went both ways.

Another surprising factor was that unlike the first game, I can see a narrative follow-up happening, a possible part III, rather than just a third game which Director Druckmann has hinted might be Naughty Dog’s next venture.

Wouldn’t be surprised if the folks at Naughty Dog look at the wide-ranging spectrum of thought surrounding their newest game and adjust their vision for next time accordingly. They might go with my idea of a new game being in the same timeline but separate in character and story from the first two, perhaps to let the more upset aisle feel more open to another game.

Whatever the case, all I ask is that Naughty Dog do take the criticism they’ve gotten constructively but never let go of the conviction in holding to what they did as it did pay off for me. Don’t backpedal, don’t apologize, stand your ground and make clear that what you’ve done  is your own expression of what you thought should be told.

Take the hate, accept anything that you genuinely think could be done better next time and those that hate The Last of Us part II may find begrudging respect in you adhering to your vision. That’s the best that can be expected of any artist.

Make no mistake, The Last of Us part II is a harrowing work of art and being called art is not automatically a mark of perfection, contrary to popular sentiment.

 

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