The Last of Us Part II (Spoiler Review)
Naughty Dog has released The Last of Us Part II on PlayStation 4. Usually, when I write game reviews I do my best to leave out any spoilers. As to avoid potentially ruining a game for players, I typically just discuss my experience with the games I play and highlight likes/dislikes.
With The Last of Us Part II, however, I feel compelled to openly discuss the game, its story, how emotionally raw and gutted it made me feel. I also believe that the only way to explain why this is the perfect game for 2020 is by speaking openly about it.
Without further ado, this is my Spoiler Review of The Last of Us Part II.
[WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US PART II. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.]
A Tale of Two Survivors
I should’ve known. I should’ve expected it. Yet, seven years did not prepare me for the emotional ride The Last of Us Part II would put me on.
The Last of Us Part II takes place four years after the events of the first game, with time jumps sprinkled in throughout to add context. Joel and Ellie are living in Jackson, Wyoming; the place Joel’s brother Tommy was trying to get them to move to in Part I.
The sequel’s story eventually introduces us to Jesse and Dina, two people that Ellie formed significant relationships with in her four years in Jackson, one of which is more romantic in nature (Dina). They set off on patrol routes to check on Joel and Tommy, who hadn’t reported back yet.
Quicker than a hiccup, the game switches and begins following a new character named Abby. Her companions are in a cabin not too far from Jackson tracking down a man, whom I assumed to be Joel. Not knowing what this group calls themselves I also figured that they were Fireflies set to enact revenge against Joel for killing nearly everyone at St. Mary’s Hospital and kidnapping Ellie four years prior. That said, I had my doubts considering it had been four years.
Abby winds up tracking a patrol on foot, alone, during a massive blizzard. As this blizzard ravages Wyoming, a horde of infected attacks Abby. It’s one of the most teeth-gritting moments in the game, as they come at you from all directions and are hard to see coming due to the snow.
Evading the infected, Abby makes it to a lodge where Joel and Tommy are holed up. Together, they help each other fend off infected and run away to Abby’s nearby camp. That’s when the game really begins to spiral out of control. Abby and her people take Joel into custody, torture him, and, after Ellie arrives to save him, kills him with a golf club.
This death hurt so much, because Joel is one of the greatest characters ever created. He was so complicated, yet really so simple. He was Ellie’s family, Ellie’s father (so-to-speak). Sure, he took away the world’s one hope for a cure, but he saved someone he thought of as being his daughter. Now, he’s dead. At the hands of...who? Some woman built like a tank we’ve never met before? Why? Who is she? Oh man, I can’t wait to see how Ellie takes care of her. These were my thoughts at that moment. It was very much a “How dare she kill Joel? What gives her the right?” sort of thing. (Similarly, I learned never to trust trailers as I fully bought into Dina dying and not Joel, based on the masterful editing Naughty Dog delivered in trailers.)
After this tragic, traumatic loss, Ellie was understandably out for blood. Tommy was out for blood. As you can see from my initial thoughts of Joel’s death, I was out for blood. After identifying the murderers as the WLF (Washington Liberation Front), Tommy sneaks out in pursuit of vengeance. Ellie and Dina set off after him to back him up and bring him back home safely.
Seattle allows Ellie and Dina’s relationship to blossom, as the duo show how formidable they are. Together, they take on loads of infected and WLF a.k.a. Wolves (R.I.P. Shimmer the Horse), including members of the group that went to Jackson, before sheltering in a nearby movie theater. I really found myself loving them as a couple. Dina was the sunshine to Ellie’s darkness. She accepted her for who she is and continued to support her long after the events of Seattle.
After their first day in Seattle, Dina winds up revealing that she’s pregnant with Jesse’s child, because they were in a relationship prior to Ellie and Dina getting together. With Dina out of commission, Ellie goes it alone and ends up meeting with Jesse who’s reason for being there is, “My friends can’t get out of their own way.”
While I liked Jesse, I thought it was a bit odd that he suddenly showed up. He had some good character development that got you to understand him a bit better, but he still felt a bit hollow. Just a guy that was there to look good and say nice things. Given the time we had with him, I just found it hard to fully emotionally connect with him more than just a helpful friend and Dina’s baby daddy.
Eventually, the two head back to the theater for the night. While Jesse rests, Ellie gets a lead that a Wolf associated with Abby, named Nora is in a nearby hospital. In a fit of anxiety and feeling like she may be losing Dina with Jesse’s arrival, she decides to go there alone to confront her. On her journey, Ellie takes on a rival group called Seraphites, or Scars. They’re a religious group that worship this unnamed woman they call “The Prophet”. The Seraphites shun technology and believe everyone needs to go back to the old ways of living off the land. After getting past them, Ellie makes her way to the hospital and meets Nora. Their confrontation is insane, raw, and messed up as she tortures Nora, who is already being infected by spores.
It even triggers a monumental memory where Ellie confronts Joel about the events of St. Mary’s and he finally reveals what he did. This was such a heartbreaking encounter, because you could see how hurt both of them were and how betrayed Ellie felt. This memory came after a beautiful one where Joel took her to a Natural History Museum for her birthday, causing the emotional rollercoaster to do loopty-loops in my stomach.
This confrontation leads to one of the most tender, yet technically-complicated moments I’ve ever seen in a video game. Ellie returns to the theater shook by her own actions. Dina takes her to a back room and undresses her, revealing bruises and scars all over her back. Ellie is then comforted by Dina for that night. Just the art of taking off a shirt in a game is profound and a technical marvel. People may not understand the intricacies to pull off such a scene, but it truly is an incredible feat. Kudos to Naughty Dog for pulling that off.
I honestly believed that Day 3 would be where the game ends. Ellie learned that Abby was in an aquarium from Nora and there was a massive storm coming through. It set the scene perfectly for an epic clash in the middle of a typhoon. What I soon realized was that I was really more halfway through The Last of Us Part II.
With Jesse going off to help Tommy, who was being cornered according to reports, Ellie heads off to the aquarium. When she arrives, she’s attacked by a dog, which she takes care of. She then confronts two members of the group that killed Joel and her interrogation about Abby’s whereabouts ends with both Wolves dead, one of which was pregnant. Ellie flees after this realization. She regroups with Tommy, Jesse, and Dina at the theater. Only, they aren’t alone.
Abby holds Tommy at gunpoint, kills Jesse, and looks upon Ellie in disgust, ready to kill her for murdering her friends.
That’s when the game changes again.
Suddenly, we find ourselves in the shoes of Abby from four years prior. She’s a much leaner teenager and seems a bit more carefree than before. Her origin story introduces us to her dad, Dr. Anderson who we come to find out is the one who ran the St. Mary’s outpost and just so happened to be surgeon that was developing the cure for the Fireflies. The same man Joel killed while Ellie was on the table at St. Mary’s.
Suddenly, everything about Abby made sense. Her actions were justified. I really struggled with my emotions when this was revealed. I suddenly wanted to like her, but still couldn’t shake my anger at Joel’s death.
I thought after this scene that the game would jump right back into the conflict between Ellie and Abby and I was so happy to be wrong. The direction of the game changed to follow Abby’s point of view in Seattle Days 1-3 and the memories post-St. Mary’s. In those instances, we were able to see her interact with the friends that Tommy and Ellie would wind up killing and each interaction exposed how good her friends were overall. Yes, they were accessories to murder, but they didn’t all deserve to die. Most of them were even trying to get away to live an easier life away from the conflict between the Wolves and the Scars.
Speaking of Scars, Abby learns that the leader of the Wolves, Isaac, wants to hit the island the Scars live on to end their war once and for all. Abby also discovers that her friend/ex-boyfriend Owen killed another Wolf. To confront him, she heads to the aquarium, where he lives. Only, she gets caught by Scars and almost dies by hanging and having her stomach sliced open. Thankfully, two fleeing Scars save her, though one is severely wounded in the process. Her involvement with Yara(sp?) and Lev are really what made me begin to love Abby.
The story behind Yara and Lev’s rebellion against the Seraphites is based on gender discrimination. Lev, born Lily, is a transgender boy who had always wanted to be a soldier in the Seraphite ranks. Instead, the Elders decreed that he be promised to another to bear children. In an act of defiance, Lev shaves his head like the men, inciting the Seraphites and causing their people to hunt them in an effort to kill them.
The relationship between Abby, Yara, and Lev led to one of the most impactful scenes I’ve ever seen in a game. When Yara is killed by Wolves, Abby betrays Isaac by standing up for Lev. While fleeing the Wolves, Lev, filled with grief, is unwilling to proceed with Abby because the people that killed his sister were “Your People”. To which she responds, “You are my people”. I got literal goosebumps and I immediately wanted to follow this woman’s journey to the ends of the Earth.
That journey would lead her to discover that everyone she had ever loved with the Wolves was dead, including her friend/ex-boyfriend Owen. This brings us back to the theater where Ellie and Abby have an epic encounter. Remarkably, Ellie plays as the boss in this scenario, with the player controlling Abby. She’s a formidable one too, because Abby was shot in the face with a shotgun more times than I’d like to admit.
In any event, I was gritting my teeth through this fight, because I wanted neither to die. Thankfully, just when Abby had the upper hand, Lev was able to bring her back to her senses, causing love to triumph over hate. Ellie, Tommy, and Dina’s lives were spared.
Once again, I thought that’s where the game would end. Yet again, I was wrong. The Last of Us Part II jumped to about a year later. Ellie, Dina, and newborn J.J. have settled down on a beautiful farm, living a nice quiet life. However, Ellie is still haunted by the death of Joel, leading to episodes where she relives that trauma. It’s quite horrifying actually.
Eventually, Tommy visits and has a lead about Abby’s whereabouts. She’s in Santa Barbara tracking down Fireflies. Despite Dina’s rejection of the idea to go, Ellie can’t be talked out of going on another journey. She has to finish what she started.
After, we’re transported to Santa Barbara to see how Abby and Lev are doing. While exploring, they end up finding a Firefly hideout and actually make contact with someone. Upon leaving the hideout, they are ambushed by the Rattlers, yet another gang. They take Abby and Lev into custody.
The game transitions back to Ellie on the hunt in Santa Barbara. After dealing with some Rattlers, she learns that Abby is back at the resort where they keep all of their prisoners/slaves. She then sneaks into the compound, frees some prisoners, and learns that Abby had tried to escape and is at “The Pillars.” In a horrifying scene, we are shown loads of people tied to wooden posts, almost like crucifixes. There, we find an unrecognizable Abby and Lev. The once long-haired muscular badass was reduced to a short-haired slender being after a month with the Rattlers.
Ellie cuts Abby down, who then immediately saves Lev and they head over to some Rattler boats together to escape. Unable to let Joel’s death go, Ellie forces a refusing Abby to fight. Abby complies to save Lev’s life.
It’s a brutal, gritty final fight with both characters mortally-wounded and struggling to keep their feet in the water. My heart hurt with each swing I had to make as Ellie, as I didn’t want Abby to die anymore. They were the same in so many respects— both survivors consumed with avenging those that they had lost, both traumatized by this unforgiving world, victims, yet both warriors.
Ellie, then begins to hold Abby underwater. Defending herself anyway she can, Abby bites off two of Ellie’s fingers. Undeterred, Ellie holds Abby underwater, drowning her. Suddenly, kinder memories of Joel flood her mind and causes Ellie to release Abby and tell her to leave. Abby, without a word, jumps on the boat with an unconscious Lev and flees. Ellie sits in the ocean, crying as the boat sails through the fog.
As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever forget this scene. It was the most powerful, yet tragic moment I’ve ever witnessed in a game, TV Show, movie. The Last of Us Part II is filled with these types of moments that transcend and surpass conventional storytelling.
Even the epilogue when Ellie returns to the home she built with Dina. Now empty, Ellie sits in the only room still adorned with Ellie’s things. She tries to play the guitar that Joel gave her, only the loss of the two fingers makes it nearly impossible.
In essence, her search for vengeance has cost her to lose more than she had ever bargained for. Yet, what her actions showed in her fight with Abby is that what she hasn’t lost is her humanity nor her love for Joel. Although, it seems at the very end, she finally puts him and her past to rest, walking away into the distance. Perhaps back to Jackson, WY to be with Dina or perhaps on another path entirely. Who knows, but the quest for vengeance, the hate and anger she felt is finally over.
I think the biggest takeaway from the end of the story was that it seemed as if everyone had finally found peace. Abby avenged her father, but more importantly found someone to truly care for in Lev. Ellie seemed to move past Joel’s death and the need for vengeance. It seemed as if they realized what truly mattered, at the end of it all, and it wasn’t more bloodshed.
No True Villains, Only Incredible Characters
I went into The Last of Us Part II expecting to see Joel and Ellie’s relationship grow in new dimensions. While that’s exactly what I experienced, I didn’t expect there to be a new crop of characters that I’d find myself rooting for. I especially didn’t think I’d be rooting for Abby after it was all said and done, but that’s exactly what happened.
In fact, I left The Last of Us Part II more concerned about what was next for Abby and Lev than I was for Ellie. Are they going to meet up with the Fireflies they contacted? Were they actually real? Will they go out further West to a different country entirely? If Naughty Dog announced Part 3 or even a spin-off series of those two, I’d be so in.
That’s really the beauty of the two The Last of Us games, though. There really are no true villains. Sure, the infected and brutality can be considered the villains, but there isn’t one specific person you can point to and say, “That’s who my enemy is.”. I thought Abby was going to be that person, but everything changed when I got to know who she is. It’s truly a testament to Naughty Dog’s ability to craft characters and develop them.
Contributing to the uber-relatable characters are the actors that play them. The Last of Us Part I primarily starred Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson as Joel and Ellie. In Part II, both of these incredible actors brought out some of the best acting moments of their career. Literally every single scene with their characters had my chest tightening and tears welling.
In Part II, Ellie was very different. In Part I, Ellie was this corny joke-loving, confident individual. It appears that all changed between the events of St. Mary’s and graduating to adulthood. Even before Joel’s untimely death, Ellie didn’t really joke much and seemed far more unsure of herself than we’d seen previously. It could’ve been that she now felt as if her life didn’t have meaning anymore. That she no longer had a purpose. In Part I, her purpose was to die to become the cure for the world. With Joel ripping that away from her, there seemed to more of a darkness, a resentment inside her festering. It led to her lashing out at Joel seemingly on the regular. It was heartbreaking to see their relationship deteriorate, but it was also understandable considering his actions. Nevertheless, one of the biggest tragedies of The Last of Us Part II is how they never got the opportunity to truly mend fences and Ellie could never let Joel know that she forgave him for his actions. Perhaps, she never did, but we’ll never truly know.
Joining these two for Part II were some equally impressive performances from Laura Bailey (Abby), Shannon Woodward (Dina), Stephen A. Chang (Jesse), Jeffrey Pierce (Tommy), Victoria Grace (Yara), Ian Alexander (Lev), and many more. This entire cast was absolutely sensational.
Another sensational aspect of The Last of Us Part II was the refreshing and progressive way that Naughty Dog included a transgender boy as a prominent character. Lev’s inclusion as a main character is representation the likes of which we haven’t really seen in a video game before. When we have, it wasn’t done as respectfully as it was done here. Furthermore, it educates players who may not understand what it’s like to be transgender or how to interact with someone who is. By saying “he” and “him” because he identifies as a boy was wonderful. Aside from that, Lev was probably one of my favorite characters in the game. He was brave, level headed, and loyal. We need more characters like Lev in games.
The Infected Aren’t the Only Nightmares
Headline aside, Naughty Dog really stepped it up with the Infected in Part II. The Infected from Part I were still formidable and the clickers were downright terrifying. Bloaters were far more difficult to kill, but the introduction of the Shamblers added a nice acidic twist to the game. They weren’t as hard to kill as Bloaters but they had a nasty ability to leave acidic clouds in the air if they got close enough and when they died.
However, the one Infected that downright terrified me was The Rat King. It was just one boss battle, but it may have been one of the scariest boss battles I’ve ever experienced. Being in a dark environment, fighting a colossal, almost unstoppable, grotesque beast with limited ammo that could one-hit kill you was the stuff of nightmares. It’ll be too soon if I never see that again.
Speaking of nightmares, though, The Last of Us Part II explored a more realistic nightmare that some people unfortunately experience on a daily basis. Trauma. As much as it hurt us to watch Joel die, it hurt Ellie far more and seemingly messed up her psyche permanently. After the events of Seattle, we began to see Ellie get flashbacks to Joel’s death. When these trauma-induced flashbacks were triggered, suddenly Ellie would be transported back to that moment, reliving his death over and over again. It was terrifying to watch her suffer like that and then to realize that this is what many people go through each and every day. It’s absolutely tragic.
Perfected Combat Mechanics and Impeccable Sound Design
One of the biggest complaints with The Last of Us Part I was how rough the combat mechanics were. Aiming was almost impossible, at times, and it forced players to take a more slow, methodical, stealthy approach to encounters. Naughty Dog tweaked this for Part II with revamped combat mechanics. These mechanics allow you to go out in a blaze of glory, if you so choose, and finish encounters a lot faster.
Sure, you run out of ammo and your melee weapons break faster, but it makes for a far more exciting experience. Speaking of melee, Naughty Dog incorporated far more verticality in The Last of Us Part II. If timed correctly, you can actually perform takedowns in the air, which is just so much fun.
On a weapons standpoint, I don’t think there was a single weapon I didn’t enjoy playing with. Each and every one was fun, had its purpose, had its own sound, and had upgrades that made sense and actually made the weapons better. Also, the act of upgrading weapons at the workbench was so awesome. Taking apart part of the weapon, cleaning it, etc. I could watch those characters do that for hours on end.
The Last of Us Part II also features some of the best sound design ever made in a video game. The creaks and groans of each dilapidated structure was nerve-wracking. Each time I heard it, I found myself jumping into listening mode to look for the next clicker. When it actually was an Infected, the fear that was instilled within me made me jumpy. However, what really sold me on the sound design was on Seattle Day 3 when the storm blew in.
As of this writing, I’m currently living in South Korea. Fun fact about South Korea, there aren’t many thunderstorms here. While there are a few things I do miss about the states, thunderstorms take the top spot on that list. The Last of Us Part II has such convincing thunder and rain audio that my thirst for a thunderstorm was actually satiated. I was also pretty disappointed when I took off my headphones, only to find that it wasn’t actually storming outside.
Should You Play It?
It’s a beautiful, gritty, tragic, brutal story. One that everyone should experience at least once. It highlights things that are real for everyday people. Things like being LGBTQ+ and the torture of living through trauma. Throughout it all, though, The Last of Us Part II leaves a lasting message that even the darkest of worlds where hate and anguish preside, love still wins.