Title: The Last of Us Part II.
RELEASE DATE: 2020.
GENRE(S): ACTION, ADVENTURE, DRAMA.
Director(s): Neil Druckmann, Kurt Margenau & Anthony Newman.
Writer(s): Halley Wegryn Gross & Neil Druckmann.
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla.
Voice Actor(s): Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, Derek Phillips, Jeffrey Pierce, and many more!
My Overall Rating:★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10).
A loss can be deadly. It can strip you of hope within an instant. It can blaze through your consciousness and lead you down a dark path with nowhere else to turn. It can destroy you and turn you into an unrecognizable monster. But how do you do deal with loss? How do you overcome such emotions to move on and reconcile with yourself? To not waste the life you still possess? Some would look into forgiveness. Others will prefer revenge. Following the critically-acclaimed success of The Last of Us, the developers over at Naughty Dog set their eyes upon creating a sequel that has awoken both praise and controversy from fans all around the world. As expected, they’ve decided to deliver a challenging and morally-ambiguous narrative centered around the cycle of violence and its destructive nature.
What is The Last of Us Part II about? Set five years after the events of the first game, the story reveals the new life built in Jackson, Wyoming for Joel and Ellie where countless survivors of a devastating pandemic have now built a peaceful and thriving community. While the two of them go through a rough patch, it is during a patrol mission around their camp to eliminate any Infected that things go south and a tragedy falls upon our heroes. Driven by an unquenchable thirst for revenge, Ellie, with the help of some allies, sets out for Seattle to find closure for a loss she could never truly accept and justice she never got. Throughout her journey, the truth is intermittently and masterfully unveiled as we discover the yearning for truth, the chaotic darkness within us, and the complexity of pain through loss.
Despite my unconditional love for the games developed by Naughty Dog as well as their irrefutable masterpiece that is The Last of Us, I came out of this second game feeling cheated. I avoided all of the trailers following their E3 announcement a couple of years ago, allowing me to be spared of the publicity manipulation that was accomplished (if you’ve played the game, see the trailer below) but the aforementioned manipulation was omnipresent, especially through the narrative structure of this game. This simply made it too difficult to appreciate the story for what it is.
What am I talking about? The major death revealed early in the game to launch this quest for vengeance has a lot of shock value and isn’t a bad move as it remains your primary fuel for the remainder of the story but once you hit the halfway mark of the game, the story forces you to play that one character that you sought to kill, making it near impossible to accept, forgive, or desire any exploration of that character’s background, motive, and personality. At this point in the game, it is basically shooting yourself in the foot to ask of the player to invest themselves in someone that they have simply hated from the very beginning of the game. Exploring the other side of the coin isn’t a bad idea, but the execution here is a devastating blow at the story’s chance to grow on you. The strategy used here to tell this tale of vengeance ultimately made everything you do as a player void of authenticity.
This could’ve worked wonderfully if it simply had been done differently. Maybe if they had made us discover this villain without knowing what they’d do in the end, before making us go on a quest for revenge, there might have been a chance for the narrative to compel the player into further exploring the story and grasp the theme at the heart of this game. Instead, throughout the game, you are forced to kill major side-characters only to destroy a protagonist that you have grown to love with the first game. In the end, there are no choices left in the hands of the player, everything is destined to play out the way it was designed.
And that is the fatal flaw in the story that killed it for me. The complete disregard for player agency. I believe that no matter what game you play or what story is being told, everything you do within a video game should be willing. We should believe that the action we’re doing is logical with the character we’re playing. We should be convinced of clicking the buttons required for the story to progress. In this case, you’re often put in critical story-telling moments that allow none of that for the player. From the absence of choice and unwieldy genuineness to a complete disregard for previously established characterization, this tale of revenge suffers enormously in its ability to tell a story that can be appreciated for its exploration of the cycle of violence.
Although the story remains its most controversial element, the same cannot be said for the rest of this video game. Developer Naughty Dog continues to push the limits of the current generation console with what might be the best visuals, score, motion-capture video game acting, and gameplay of all time. Polishing everything that was already perfect in the first game, they upped their game in this sequel in unimaginable ways. From the moment you enter this world, you are instantly immersed in a post-apocalyptic world where happiness rhymes with survival and danger lurks in the shallow corners of nature and ruins. There isn’t a moment throughout this game where you don’t drool over the meticulous detail put into every inch of this universe.
With what might be some of the best graphics to have ever been created on the PlayStation, you cannot help but feel a sense of awe at the gorgeous environment as your characters squint into the horizon to appreciate those seconds of calm they can find amidst all the chaos and bloodshed. The details are also conveyed through the incredible number of ultra-violent animations that take into context the dynamic environment. These executions are simply not for the faint of heart but will appeal for those who believe that violence is cathartic, especially within a video game. The side-objectives focused around picking up written letters from strangers to discover various sub-plots and around opening safes are also brilliant and allow for additional world-building that helps the player understand the complexity of this post-apocalyptic universe.
And this brings me to the second fatal flaw in this video game. There’s a significant disconnect between the main narrative focused on the revenge tale and the actual gameplay. I believe that everything you do within a game should reflect or be considered in the evolution of your character and, by consequence, the evolution of the story. In this case, the revenge plot suffers immensely in a dual-narrative story that stretches out for countless hours on top of the aforementioned side-objectives that players will likely want to pick up along the way. There’s simply no sense of character development incorporated within the gameplay as players are falsely led to believe in personal growth and introspection through manipulative quick-time events and cutscenes.
Throughout the game, you’re savagely killing people in ways that only a deranged psychopath would have pleasure in doing, yet in the main story, this genocide isn’t reflected in the character. The main character continues to feel things that shouldn’t even be considering that they should’ve been completely desensitized by the numerous deaths executed through their own hands for the past years post-pandemic. Based on the gameplay alone, this character should’ve grown to blindly desire death to others or themselves and not be subject to the numerous moments of regret. Their suffering should’ve been a testament to their loss of hope while the villain should’ve offered us a look at the subtleties of forgiveness. While the game does confusingly explore the cycle of violence through vengeance and redemption, it fails to deliver its message by the end of this adventure.
The Last of Us Part II (2020) is a visually-stunning revenge tale with ingeniously-creative gameplay that, unfortunately, suffers from a controversial narrative structure and a disregard for player agency.