Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Since PPC is not a syndicated publication with legitimate journalistic credentials (yet), I was not afforded the opportunity to play The Last of Us Part 2 before its scheduled release last week. Instead, I used my big boy money to buy it and play it over the weekend. After a 30-hour ordeal, I can declare that the experience of playing TLOU2 is as harrowing as it is satisfying. What follows is my spoiler-free review of one of the most anticipated releases of all time.
Much like its predecessor, TLOU2 begins the player’s journey with an emotional gut punch. Unlike its predecessor, however, it does not follow the initial tragedy with any levity or heartwarming moments of human connection. The Last of Us Part 2 tears your heart out of your chest and rather than slowly rebuilding it, it throws it onto a roaring fire and forces you to watch it burn from the Clockwork Orange chair. You play as Ellie, the rambunctious former sidekick, now bona fide badass huntress as she sets out on a vengeful warpath. From the get-go, the game pulls no punches. This is not a game for the squeamish. If you can tolerate the borderline gratuitous violence, the game provides a powerfully intimate experience. Playing the first game is not necessary, as the events are neatly recapped in the prologue, but developing an emotional attachment to the protagonists is of utmost importance. Otherwise, the game comes across as an exercise in creative masturbation on the part of the developers.
The game has little to say that strays beyond its self-imposed narrative borders. The first game had clearly defined tones of friendship, feminism, and fatherhood against a backdrop of the despair of an apocalyptic landscape. If similar moments exist in this sequel, they are of comparably little consequence. There is no uplifting message, no overarching themes of redemption that stand out from the pile of bodies. The entire campaign is in pursuit of a questionable resolution to what is essentially an illegitimate grievance. The only lesson to be learned at the conclusion of this exhausting endeavor is that killing begets killing, a lazy commentary on… every conflict ever? The game is against killing the way Taken is against human trafficking. Technically true, but that’s not why anyone is doing this. I’ve mentioned Spec Ops: The Line before, and it’s because that game used violence and brutality as real critique of war crimes, echoing the tones of its literary (Heart of Darkness) and film (Apocalypse Now) inspirations. As the progeny of what is as close as can be considered a work of art in the genre of video games, it is mildly disappointing that TLOU2 has so little to offer in the way of cultural commentary.
This is not to say the game does not take risks. Ellie’s sexuality was established in the Left Behind DLC of the first game, and the sequel expands on it by prominently showing her gay romantic relationship, much to the chagrin of the beleaguered fedora community. The game also features a transgender character, persecuted for his identity and forced to go on the run. Fear not weebs, for there is a heterosexual romantic subplot within the story, which in fact features the most graphic sex scene of the entire game. But be warned the chick is, like, super buff. It turns out shapely anime schoolgirls don’t do so well in the apocalypse. Some of these story details were leaked on the internet in April, leading to cries, wails, and whines about the legendary "SJW agenda." Ignore that. The LGBTQ+ themes are, to my best estimation, handled tastefully and reflect the diverse reality of the player base.
To its credit, the game is a testament to the fertility of potential for acting talent in a medium typically thought of as mindless entertainment. Ashley Johnson once again delivers a sublime performance as Ellie, and a large and diverse cast provides a tapestry of memorable characters. The player is afforded numerous opportunities to develop emotional attachments, while adding the constant anxiety of potentially losing them to the cruelty of the world and those who inhabit it. Developer Naughty Dog effectively eschews plot armor and forces the player to internalize the fear of death, not just for Ellie, but for those she cares for. The player is then afforded the opportunity to reckon with the ethical foundation of Ellie’s quest. In what becomes a common mechanic, the game humanizes the “enemy” through the perspective of the antagonist. Ellie’s problematic motives become ever more evident as you begin to see your foes as more than faceless thugs. Armed guards will often call each other by their names and will talk about their personal lives. Their pained screams and panicked expressions accentuate the moral difficulty of dispatching them. As tiring and repetitive as it becomes, the frequent discovery of needless journal notes provide an insight into the daily lives of those you are supposed to see as monsters.
Ultimately, as with Joel’s decision in Salt Lake City years earlier, the player is not given a choice as to Ellie’s actions. She will do what she does, and you will watch helplessly as she takes one life after another and edges ever closer to losing herself. But that is the point, the game is about her, not you. You will walk away feeling incomplete, and you’ll just have to deal with it.
While there are currently no plans to develop a third installment in the series, according to writer and director Neil Druckmann, Ellie’s fate remains ambiguous, and TLOU2 expanded on the lore of the universe enough to speculate on additional games. As with the first game, I am fully satisfied with the series ending as it is, but I would welcome additional content of any kind with open arms.
Joey’s grade: A