Coming fresh off of its Game of the Year win at the 2020 Game Awards, I was able to complete The Last of Us Part II spoiler free and yeah, it was glorious. I was beyond excited to play this game for two reasons. Firstly, because the original game is obviously a masterwork and one of my favorite games, even if I experienced it far beyond its release date. Secondly, there seemed to be some “controversy” surrounding the game, and while I steered clear to avoid any possible spoilers, my use of quotation marks is intentional. Because from what I can gather, those “controversial” elements of the game seem to be the product of angry bigots, so I wanted to join in on the fans of this game dunking on those “critics”. But this piece won’t be an article about them. Instead, this article will just be a celebration of an absolute masterwork of a video game, and a breathtaking example at just how easily the medium can rival film. Just as a heads up, even though this game has been out for some time, I assume the awards it received will garner some new players, so just as a precaution, this article WILL feature spoilers. I would highly encourage you to go and experience all the twists, turns, and emotional gut punches this game has to offer on your own before reading any further!
I can’t speak for every player out there, but if I were a betting man, I would place my money on Ellie being a crowd favorite of the preceding game. Troy Baker’s Joel is terrific, but Ashley Johnson’s Ellie seems to be the soul of these stories. In this sequel, Ellie has the spotlight, and deservedly so because she is absolutely badass. Five years have passed since we last saw Ellie, and in that time, she has grown into even more of a survivor and a fighter, but hasn’t lost any of the charm that made her such a joy to interact with in the first game. And while the preceding game absolutely gives depth to both Joel and Ellie, it feels like this sequel really dives headfirst into the complexities of the world, and how it affects the characters we interact with, whether playable or not. The tragic chain of events that set off the plot of The Last of Us Part II seem like a complete antithesis to the original game, while also sharing some strikingly tragic similarities. If the core themes of the first game were hope and companionship, the sequel seems like it gives bleakness and loss free reign over the player. That being said, a variety of meaningful and deeply impactful relationships are present throughout this game, making the moments of utter hopelessness that much more terrifying. For Ellie would be at a great loss without those family and friends that surround her, and luckily, they all have more than a few moments to show they aren’t just side characters. Instead, they’re characters that have a lasting impact on how the player experiences the story, and this gets taken to the most extreme lengths in a moment that left my jaw on the floor.
In a pivotal moment about halfway through the game, although it feels like a climactic finale, Naughty Dog pulled a move that was so bold I could not believe what was happening. After hours of hunting down the mysterious Abby in the name of vengeance, Naughty Dog throws the player into the character of Abby. It’s rare that a story can recontextualize itself so sneakily, yet perfectly, even if it hasn’t concluded yet. It’s an absolutely brilliant move to make the game that much more complex, and a simple revenge tale now becomes a multi-faceted mosaic, where the lines between protagonist and antagonist become essentially non-existent. From a gameplay perspective, I will admit, it was a bit jarring to lose all the weapons and style I grew accustomed to. However, that feeling quickly passes due to the incredible storytelling mechanic, but also, the game is just too much fun. This “reset” works due to Abby’s storyline being a bit more action-oriented, so her weaponry and the play style actually feels different enough to rework how you have approached the game thus far. In the hands of lesser games, it feels like a move that wouldn’t work, but somehow, Naughty Dog pulled it off in a multitude of ways.
While playing as Abby certainly has a whole games worth of jaw dropping moments and intense sequences, this is still very much Ellie’s story. And another shining example of the carefully crafted storytelling of this game lies in the parallels shown throughout. Ellie is shown to be far more brutal in this game than Joel was in the preceding game, and understandably so. The game begins with an incredibly vicious act, and Ellie’s quest for revenge seems to eat away at her at every moment, breaking her body and mind along the way. Yet somehow, this game is able to completely strip away the vengeance for moments of pure serenity and love. The quieter moments of Dina and Ellie sharing an embrace, or a simple look of longing can remove all the horrors seen throughout the overrun Seattle presented in the game. On top of that, there’s the moments of playing guitar that serve to remind you why this journey was taken in the first place. It’s just another example of The Last of Us Part II being able to split the world into two very distinct halves. As Abby’s father says, light shines brightest in the dark. The sparse moments of hope in this game are far and few in between, but they really do emphasize that these characters we love are just trying to survive day to day; and these tiny moments make it worth it.
As the game starts wrapping up its threads, there’s an impending sense of dread. All the narrative choices made throughout the story lead to a feeling that I can’t say I’ve ever experienced while playing a game. There’s a specific moment that any other game would have you feeling overjoyed for completing, but the sense of emptiness is so visceral, and most importantly, intentional. The narrative makes the sole goal of the entire game feel impossible to carry out and feel just, so the sense of bleakness comes back harder than ever. It’s genuinely marvelous storytelling, and it fundamentally works on every level. The very final moments of this game are as soul-crushing as its predecessor, but I would argue this ending is far more nuanced and complex. In a world where unnecessary sequels and franchises are spewed out of existing IP’s, it feels rare to have a story that is so respectful to its predecessor, while also greatly expanding upon the world that has been built and simultaneously telling a fresh story. And if none of that sells you enough, there’s a very important factor to mention that has nothing to do with storytelling. This game is just pure, unadulterated fun.
As far as game design, this game is just breathtakingly enjoyable. It’s fairly simple in the grand scheme of things. You scavenge for parts and weapons, you fight infected, and you occasionally get caught in the middle of a war brewing between a guerilla army and a cult. Yet somehow, The Last of Us Part II genuinely feels fresh every time you interact with other enemies. Never have I played a game where I feel so consistently underprepared for any battle, and that’s not because I was lacking in any weapons or ammunition. This game just has a way of presenting a clear feeling of dread any time you’re in the line of fire from whatever enemies may be ahead of you. Every single interaction with an enemy feels genuine, and it makes every decision feel weighted, as opposed to the usual run and gun approach in other games. On top of that, the environment is both beautiful and lush with hidden gems to be discovered. Nothing is more fulfilling to me than finding every little note I can, and not just for safe combinations and hidden caches of resources. Hearing, or reading rather, what happened throughout the locale is something special. The notes are usually goodbyes, or apologies, and it just does a phenomenal job at detailing just how quickly the world fell apart around these people. As is the case with the rest of this game, there are very few instances of these notes presenting any shred of hope. It’s organic world building, and it’s done exceptionally well.
All in all, this game is a crowning achievement. Building off of what made the original game so beloved, The Last of Us Part II takes its place as a defining game of the generation, and all the praise for its storytelling is not just hype. It’s as nuanced as any other medium out there, and each cinematic feels as if you’re watching cinema quality moments. As the credits rolled, I felt a true sense of longing. It’s that feeling you get when saying goodbye to a story that completely enraptured you. In any medium, the stories that stick with you and linger are the absolute greats, and this story is one that will surely sit with me long after I have stopped playing it. A defining example of how to craft a quality story and wrap it in brilliant gameplay, this is as good as games can get. I personally thought FF7: Remake was going to win Game of The Year due to the nostalgia it had going for it, but The Last of Us Part II taking it proves one thing. No matter what, you can never deny the makings of an incredible story, and Ellie’s and Abby’s stories both deserve equal praise and acclaim.