Warning: the below content will sometimes explore the massive spoiler content of The Last of Us Part II. Only read on if you have finished the game or do not mind being spoiled on certain parts of the game’s story.
The Last of Us Part II has been a very divisive game since elements of its story were leaked to the public. I avoided spoilers and even trailers to go into this game as blind as possible. Ever since those spoilers came out, though, people have been either talking down this game for having a terrible story or praising it as one of the best. I find myself somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
Now that I have gone through the entire experience, I want to take a chance to talk where I think the game succeeds and fails—both on a story standpoint and the game overall. Everything mentioned here is my opinion and mine alone, but they are my observations from my time with the game.
Succeeds at: Being more Last of Us
In terms of gameplay alone, this is as close to the first game as I think possible. Aside from new weapons and additional upgrades, someone could easily mistake this for being the first game. All of the controls are the same, and the objectives in each area are very similar as well. On the one hand, it would be nice to see Naughty Dog try new ideas with the gameplay, but on the other, it is a formula that had success in the first game and returns here. Yes, it is filled with very basic stealth and action mechanics, but they get the job done enough. The main selling point of this game was always the story anyway.
Fails at: It is not another Joel and Ellie adventure
Since the trailer that revealed Joel would have a presence in this game released, I was looking forward to another adventure with both of these beloved characters. Unfortunately, that trailer was a bait-and-switch that swapped Joel out with Ellie’s new friend Jesse. Joel was hunted down and murdered in front of Ellie in the first hour of the game.
After these events, you imagine this to be a tale of revenge for Ellie. While half of the story is that, the other half focuses on Abby, Joel’s killer, and trying to redeem her (we will get more on that in a second). It is disappointing to go into a story expecting to play a full game as Ellie, only to have her locked away from you for somewhere between 8-10 hours. It makes the story feel needlessly lengthy with minimal payoff at any point.
Succeeds at: Another emotional story
As you would expect from Ellie watching Joel die in front of her, this is another emotional tale that, at its best moments, dives deep into their history. Everything from Joel’s surprise museum visit to a museum for Ellie’s birthday, to Ellie learning about the events at the end of the first game, were my favorite moments. Even the final conversation between the two where they decide they will attempt to rebuild their relationship the day before Joel is killed nails home the regret Ellie must be carrying with her.
It is not just Joel that has an impact on Ellie in this game, though. Her love interest Dina is a nice inclusion, although their love can feel rushed during certain moments. You can also tell how Tommy and Ellie have grown closer in the years since the first game and the effect Joel’s death has had on them both. Jesse adds an interesting third wheel dynamic as the recent boyfriend of Dina and is a loyal friend until the end.
Even the half of the game I wasn’t a fan of saw the emotional toil characters like Lev and Yara are dealing with in their unique situation and the tragic sibling love the two of them have for each other, risking their life so Lev can live the life he needs. They go through so much, and their journey, while brief and unresolved, is one of the stronger in the game.
Fails at: About half of the story is unneeded/unwanted
As mentioned before, only about half of The Last of Us Part II focuses on Ellie in her quest for revenge on Joel’s killer. Unfathomably to me, the other half focuses on trying to make the player care for his killer Abby.
The very first moment we are introduced to Abby, she is hunting Joel down, as her father was the doctor Joel killed who was going to operate on Ellie at the end of the first game. The way Naughty Dog delivered the story, though, does not reveal that until long after Joel is killed, a character who we have seen progress and become a father figure to Ellie. When the game shifts to her perspective, we see an aggressive person who prides herself on being better than her peers, only wishes to kill anyone in her way, and has a group of friends that are as undeserving of redemption as her. Seeing her group slowly killed off is supposed to make us feel for her loss, but when we know from the very beginning that these are the bad guys, it is hard to feel anything for them.
Abby does turn a corner and wants to help Lev and Yara, but that only made me care for them, not her. Abby is still an unlikeable character in my mind that never sees her justice. She just happens to get away with whatever she does every time. We wanted to follow Ellie’s journey hunting down Joel’s killers. We got half a game that does that without resolving anything (and goes against Ellie as a character doing what needs to be done), and the other half dedicated to a throwaway redemption arc that is not deserved.
Succeeds at: Gorgeous, creepy environments
The Last of Us Part II is a beautiful game in about every way you can see. The character models are incredibly detailed, the close-up of weapons show their details, and oh my gosh, the environments are a sight to behold. The overgrown buildings, the infected dark rooms, and the overall rainy city of Seattle are all great looking and perfectly convey the apocalyptic state the world is in.
My favorite thing with the world’s design that Naughty Dog pulled off is the storytelling in small areas. Finding notes scattered everywhere and seeing the decomposed bodies of people who lost the fight for survival is harrowing and fits the tone. The only time I have seen it done better is in the Fallout series. Each environment has its own story to tell, and everyone feels worthwhile to seek out and explore.
Fails at: Lackluster side characters (Abby’s story)
Outside of Lev and Yara, most of the side characters are throwaway characters in Abby’s story. Owen can be argued as a deep, interesting character, but virtually anyone affiliated with the wolves are annoying typical military stereotypes. The leader Isaac is the usual general who wants to solve everything with war, Manny is the usual grunt who lives for killing, and Mel is just the girl inserted in the story to give Abby jealousy issues. They never show anything beyond that. They are cardboard-thin characters that never amount to more than when they are introduced.
At least with the characters on Ellie’s side of the story, you see them show varying emotions and interactions with each other. They are much more profound than their counterparts and, for that reason, earn their spot in the story. They argue they joke, they care for each other, and reminisce. All of Abby’s peers have one shtick and never go beyond that.
Succeeds at: Explaining the consequences of the end of the first game
Joel’s actions at the end of the first Last of Us directly impacts almost everything in this story. Seven years ago, we knew Joel wiping out the Fireflies was a big deal outside of him saving Ellie. The sequel shows us the effect that had on Abby, driving her to be obsessed with hunting down Joel, as well as lying to Ellie led to her pushing him away. There were consequences for his actions, and while we did not see them right away in the first game, they lived on into this story.
Fails at: Setting up the future well
While this might not be that big of an issue, we are left with so many questions at the end of The Last of Us Part II. Ellie lets Abby escape for the third time in the game, presumably to find the Fireflies, and Ellie walks into the woods to maybe be on her own and leave her former life behind. Those are guesses because there is no indication of what the plans for either person are going forward and frankly does not make me excited for what a third game in the series could bring. Again, not that big of a deal when looking at Part II on its own, but it leaves the potential for the sequel to focus on Abby, which is not ideal.
Succeeds at: Telling a contained story (for the most part)
Piggybacking on the last “issue,” I am glad to see this game tell a contained story. Ellie’s search for revenge and Abby’s redemption had varying effects on me, but they never stray from those ideas with unneeded filler in the Seattle chapters. Both characters have unique arcs that do not include needless ideas that fail to add to building up the world around them. Even with disappointing side characters, the paths the main characters go on are direct and to the point.
Fails at: Leaving the player satisfied or wanting more
By the time I finished The Last of Us Part II, I was ready to be done with the game for hours. As stated above, I believe Abby’s story was unneeded and a chore to get through. I feel the same way about the final chapter in Santa Barbara. In the last few hours of the game, you will witness multiple places where the story could end, and it just does not. The additional scenes do not add anything that could not have been addressed before in Seattle. The final group you fight through to get to Abby grow the world, but what reason do we have to fight them besides that it keeps Abby in the area for Ellie to find her? It is unneeded padding that makes the game feel more of a slog than anything else at the end.
How do they reward the player with their time spent? With letting Abby go, Ellie not being able to play the song to remind her of Joel anymore, and Dina leaving. Not everything has to have a happy ending, but at least with the first game they presented us with a situation that made us think. Was Joel right to save Ellie? They further push home why he had no regrets for his actions, but there is no situation close to that in this game. Ellie will still go on with her PTSD illusions of Joel dying, and she got no payback, no lessons learned, and no family to return to.
Succeeds at: Not putting too big an emphasis on deaths (outside of Joel and Abby’s dad)
Of course, Joel’s death in the beginning hours of the game is the motivation for Ellie to have this journey, as is Abby’s father’s death to hunt down Joel. Outside of those two, the game does not dwell on the deaths of side characters. Abby hardly mentions her friend’s deaths in the grand scheme of things to the point that it does not affect her outside of the moment. The same thing is true with Ellie and Dina. Jesse is gunned down in front of Ellie, and the only ever mention of Dina’s child’s father is through a journal entry later in the game. They keep the story moving, but at some point, it does help hammer home how throwaway some of these characters are.
Fails at: Building up Abby’s fear
Abby has a genuine fear of heights that is continuously beaten over your head as you play her. Admittedly, this led me to consistently having her fall to her death in multiple parts of the story for my enjoyment. With such an emphasis on her fear, you would think it would pay off for something down the line, but this is only used to let you know she is very scared when crossing a high bridge across buildings. No judgment here for that, I would also be deathly terrified, but the multiple times her fear is brought up is only for that one scene. It is never mentioned again once throughout the game. For as much emphasis, the story puts on Abby being afraid of heights; they throw that idea away when it is not needed anymore.
Succeeds at: A heartbreaking ending
While I am not a fan of the ending, you can feel Ellie’s broken heart as she comes to grips with not being able to play Joel’s song anymore and remembering their final conversation. They had probably been distant from each other for about a year before Ellie was willing to start building up their relationship again. They had just agreed to work on Ellie forgiving Joel for him to be taken from her. That is the most heartbreaking part of the ending to me personally. Yes, Dina has left Ellie, but as Ellie tells her before leaving for Santa Barbara, that is her choice.
Fails at: That ending being fulfilling
This ending does not justify Ellie letting Abby go free. In my opinion, that event goes very much against her character overall and does not pay off the previous 20 hours of cut-scenes and gameplay. Since Abby and Lev are still together, that leaves Naughty Dog room to have a story focused on those two if they want it, but I would have instead had them decide a way for either side story to end. In all fairness, Ellie had no chance against Abby in a straight-up fight between the two, but her giving up when she has won and finally put her motivation for the entire game to the side feels like a slap in the face. There was nothing to fuel this decision; she only imagined Joel for a split second and backs off. That vision should have given her more fuel to finish off Abby, and that’s why I find the ending of The Last of Us Part II disappointing.