CS Soapbox: Is The Last Of Us Part II A Bad Sequel? (Massive Spoilers)
There’s been a lot of contention online about The Last of Us Part II (available to order now). Critics are praising the gameplay, music, graphics, level of detail, voice acting, and ambitious story—they’re calling it a masterpiece. On the other hand, droves of fans feel the game’s story does not live up to the focus of its predecessor; from confusing character development to a disjointed plot, The Last of Us Part II often feels sanctimonious—an amalgamation of platitudes and subverted expectations for the sake of, well, subversion.
This divide—which of course has become political—is reminiscent of the type of controversy surrounding Star Wars or Game of Thrones. The Last of Us is as beloved an IP as arguably any major franchise across any medium. Many consider The Last of Us to be the greatest video game of all-time not because of the gameplay or graphics but because of its story.
The Last of Us is about Joel and Ellie. Probably the best surrogate father/daughter relationship ever developed in entertainment. A broken smuggler and the young girl who makes his grim world just a little bit brighter. She becomes more than just his mission, she becomes his second chance. Rubbing his watch at the end (given to him by his dead daughter), he tells her “you keep finding something to fight for.” Joel may have condemned humanity, but he saved his world by saving her.
The Last of Us Part II isn’t about Joel and Ellie. We thought it was going to be based on the deceptive/digitally altered trailers featuring the two but it’s not. The Last of Us Part II is about the cycle of revenge and how violence begets violence. Which is fine. The beginning of the game feels great. The prologue is enough to reignite and elicit the investment of any fan of the original. Dare I say, it’s brilliant.
Controlling Ellie in Jackson is an immediate and welcome distraction equatable to visiting two old friends who you have so much to tell. Except you don’t get to talk to one of them because his head gets bashed in with a golf club. Ok. He probably had it coming. Yes. The way Joel dies feels out of character. Maybe he got complacent and negligent living in Jackson (despite 30 or so years being ruthless), but it’s fine. This is Ellie’s tale and we love Ellie. Besides, what else would motivate both Ellie and the player to go on a revenge quest?
In The Last of Us Part II’s second half, you play Abby’s side of the story (over the same 3 days). The woman who tortures and kills Joel because he killed her father (a surgeon) in the first game. While this shift in perspective is “clever,” intending to skew who the player empathizes with and draw parallels, it’s a cringy and manipulative misstep of epic proportions. A. It ruins the pacing of the game. B. It’s hard to enjoy (arguably the best set pieces in the game) ignoring Ellie, Dina, JESSE, and Tommy after 10+ hours and a cliffhanger with them. At this point, you’ve watched Abby murder two main characters. What makes all of this even worse is you have to fight Ellie as Abby. Everyone is a villain, we get it. What the writers wanted to accomplish with Abby could’ve been done with side missions or DLCs.
Playing as Abby (for another 10+ hours) is like focusing on a stormtrooper in the second half of The Empire Strikes Back. A stormtrooper who killed Luke because their friends worked on the Death Star. You could follow them and validate their motives but sidelining characters we loved in A New Hope would have been a mistake. The Kill Bill franchise was able to make Bill likable without force-feeding us copious amounts of POV—Quality over quantity.
Abby’s story could’ve intersected more with things we care about. Does she feel guilt about brutally murdering Joel? Joel did save her life before she teed off on him. An eye for an eye is one thing, but to dismantle Mr. Miller like that? Is that why she goes back for Lev and Yara? Abby doesn’t seem to have remorse. At one point she immediately starts killing fellow WLF/Wolves, people she has known for years, friends (if her interactions at the stadium are any indication). Still, Abby is given a lot to say and to do, which ultimately feels like overcompensation geared towards making us like her as much as Ellie.
In The Last of Us Part II, Ellie doesn’t really say or do much other than mope and kill people. She should’ve gotten some of Abby’s storyline. Yara and Lev were EASILY the most interesting part of Abby’s section of the game. Ellie’s journey with Lev and Yara could’ve curbed her thirst for vengeance and easily elevated the game as a whole. There’s a difference between being ambiguous and being nonsensical. A lot of things about The Last of Us Part II feel nonsensical.
With video games, you have to feel attached to characters for long periods of time. The review bombing happening online isn’t just the result of trolls but the outrage of fans who spent a lot of time with Joel and Ellie 7 years ago and have basically been told to care less about them. The deceptive marketing didn’t help. Abby was barely in the trailers and she is more of a main character than Joel AND Ellie. Why hide that? Her payablity isn’t an essential twist like “I am your father.”They advertised a different game.
Streamers all across Twitch are speed running through Abby’s portion of the game (sometimes dying on purpose) just to get to the ending (I did the same). An ending where Ellie abandons her idyllic life with Dina just to track Abby down. Again. And then she lets Abby go? Ellie kills pretty much everyone else who played a role in Joel’s death (including Abby’s lover and a pregnant woman). Does she let her go because Lev and Abby’s relationship reminds her of Joel? Their last conversation? Forgiveness? Perhaps. Although she threatens Lev’s life minutes before coming to that realization…What about Jesse?
The decision to let Abby live doesn’t pay off. Ellie ends up with nothing just like she would’ve had she killed Abby. But hey, the cycle of violence has ended. Lev won’t be coming after her. Except the cycle of violence hasn’t ended. Ellie will continue to kill for a variety of reasons because she’s in a fucking post-apocalyptic world.
When Rick let Negan live in The Walking Dead it had a larger purpose: to show others there’s another way. What does Ellie’s decision accomplish? The first game dealt with big picture stuff: is what’s left of humanity worth saving? At what cost? The Last of Us Part III might see Lev and Abby join the Fireflies but that means nothing within the context of this game (and Ellie doesn’t know the Fireflies are still around). The Last of Us Part II doesn’t really say anything profound other than revenge/violence/obsession is bad…over and over again (which every human being should already know…especially now).
It would’ve been nice to have Ellie open up to someone about anything. A moment equatable to the “everyone has either died or left me” scene from the first game. Something. All we are really told about Ellie’s headspace comes via nonlinear flashbacks (and some journal entries). A lot of fans feel Joel and Ellie’s flashbacks are the best part of the game; developing the franchise’s main characters the way we thought the entire game would. In one of those flashbacks sequences, Joel talks about Jurassic Park: See, there was a sequel. Wasn’t as good.
It’s ironic that this game is about grief/hate. In the same way that Ellie walks away from the guitar she can no longer play (and the memory of Joel) at the end of the game, fans are walking away from this franchise. The game tells us that no good comes from hating each other; unfortunately, fans are directing their hate towards the people who worked tirelessly instead of just disliking the game or attempting to understand its direction. The Last of Us Part II is just miserable game in an utterly depressing time.
Now is a time when our world is on fire. With overwhelmingly negative user reviews on Metacritic, Google, and IMDB, it’s not a stretch to say people are using The Last of Us Part II as a scapegoat—”finding something [else] to fight [over].” However, we’re allowed to like/dislike something.
Season 8 of Game of Thrones was a marvel production-wise and The Last of Us Part II is amazing in its attention to detail, music, and voice acting. The Last of Us made storytelling in games legitimate. That first game could’ve won Oscars had it been a film. That’s why the sequel’s story is being dissected to death: it’s part of an IP that changed gaming just like Game of Thrones changed television.
The Last of Us Part II feels like a missed opportunity. Its narrative pales in compassion to the first game. Personally, I think The Last of Us Part II is a bad sequel (obviously) but it has its moments. It’s still meticulously-crafted art. In Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time he writes, “Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake.”