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The Last of Us Part II is a Thematic Predicament That’s Stuffed With Both Spectacular and Pathetic Moments (NO SPOILERS)

The moment I learned that The Last of Us II had found a way to let us play the guitar on our PS4 remotes, I knew that I was bound to relish a handful of new features that Naughty Dog had to offer in their highly anticipated and longly awaited sequel. Acclaimed creative mind and inventor of The Last of Us story Neil Drunckmann has teamed up with newly hired writer Halley Wegryn Gross (known for her ambitious work on the final two episodes of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young and her exceptional story editing in the first season of HBO’s Westworld) to craft the narrative continuation of zombie-apocalypse survivors Joel and Ellie—a duo driven to prosperity by their father/daughter-like bond… or at least, a supposedly indestructible relationship that they think they have.

The first third of The Last of Us Part II is a phenomenal start to the game—in spite of what largely upset fans may tell you otherwise—that combines fresh open-world abilities with a mildly promising premise set-up. At its fault, however, the game from there on out injuriously gets more knotty, spurious, and tiresome as it continues to become self-absorbed in its crowded emotional gimmicks. Even the initially riveting gameplay gets inexcusably repetitive by the end. 

There’s a chapter in the middle of the game involving an abandoned museum. It reminded me of the heart-warming and optimistic sequences from its predecessor, except with a sort of paranoid mindset behind it. Ellie loves Joel like a father and Joel continues to impersonate that role model, but you can tell that Ellie feels as if Joel is holding something serious back. This side part of the narrative calls back to Joel’s greed of wanting to save secrets for his own intrinsic reasons, and if the ending of Part 1 didn’t give it away already, lies can’t keep you safe forever. It’s funny how in a sequel many fans, as you may know, are calling a bonafide disaster, there are still sequences that are genuinely on par with what made the original game such a heart-pumper. But, that’s what Part II essentially is: an unequivocal disaster that’s occasionally seasoned with conflictingly spectacular moments. 

In terms of the new gameplay features that The Last of Us II offers in comparison to its forerunner, there’s a parcel to mention and commend. From snowball fights, prone crawling, dodging, combination unlocking, rope climbing/swinging, the ability to craft silencers, glass breaking, boat riding, and, as I mentioned before, the privilege of playing a guitar, I enjoyed the new additions that the game decided to include. Additionally, the gameplay has gotten slightly more challenging, as the zombies and humans not only tower in numbers from its predecessor, but the game appears to have made our characters even more vulnerable than before, making the task of slaughter seem ever so overwhelming. However, there are new advanced weaponry insertions, such as Ellie’s explosive arrows, that can help you beat the freshly advanced gameplay.

As far as the plot goes, the central gist of The Last of Us Part II is that it’s a standard revenge story told through an unorthodox sequence of events. The game’s messages surrounding the topic seem to sometimes be ambiguous, but a clear construct that it is pushing heavily is a very archetypal one that we’ve seen preached numerous times before in the storytelling industry: the pursuit for vengeance is an endless wormhole of unhappiness and unfulfillment; classic lesson, right? Many survivors are technically justified because everybody is just trying to protect or avenge their family due to the crimes of somebody else. These are such childish and cliché explorations manifested in the heart of The Last of Us Part II when compared to the side thematics explored in Joel and Ellie’s unusual relationship that is told mostly through the past. 

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There’s a noticeable dilemma when Ellie’s flashback pieces of the story are far more interesting than the central story at hand. Obviously, the two and two are mended into similar themes, but when the main course doesn’t appear immensely essential to what we’re learning in the side narrative, it can feel overlong and tedious. The Last of Us Part II is over-bloated with motifs, when in reality, just one about Ellie coming to analyze and question her journey with Joel is enough to satisfy a follow-up to such a near-perfect game. The remaining explorations seem rushed and juvenile in comparison, due to their close proximity among common pop culture work. 

The subplot involving Joel and Ellie’s quarrel, which had the potential to be masterful on its own, is quite hampered back by Ellie’s latest lover, a Calvin Klein version of Glenn from The Walking Dead, two young children from a clan called “Scars,” and primarily by a near carbon copy of Ellie’s own character (Abby)—which is definitely Naughty Dog’s intention for better or worse. Nonetheless, the story can drag due to how transparent, familiar, or coincidental their arcs can be when it comes to the significance of conveying the game’s memorandum. Whether we’re raiding a local Home Depot or having a pretty epic “kind of boss” battle in a hospital, that I won’t spoil, the fun is sometimes countermanded by these half-baked side stories. Not only that, but some of the drama (considerably in the dialogue) appears cooked up from a list of generic lines to alternate someone’s arc. The narrative here really bulks fruitfully when it comes to most of Ellie’s mental journey; others seem exhaustively stretched. 

Whether she’s stacking up on supplies or hoarding collectable trading cards, Ellie seems to, on the surface, be the same old Ellie. Of course, she’s now an adult, so a slight hinge of silliness has sort of drifted away from her persona, but her hobby-interests seem to still be akin. However, as Ellie has grown older and matured, she’s gradually begun to question the promises and stories she’s been hampered at by Joel, banking between whether or not any of them were actually genuine. She’s lost a bit of her brightness that she had qualitatively featured back when she was fourteen. This partially false atmosphere that she begins suspecting from her father-like figure, has not only drifted her away from him, but left her contemplating the meaning of her own life. In the present though, in which this story mainly takes place in, she seems to be focused now on this murderous revenge excavation that slowly leads her into theorizing and possibly pitying the positions that these people she views as enemies may comprehensively be in. This is the asset that had the ability to make The Last of Us Part II masterful in my eyes. Nonetheless, the game never seems to bat a full swing on completing it. It becomes another after-thought in a project full of too many. 

So, in many cases, the game will encourage you to believe Ellie’s perspective as she begins assuming herself as the bad guy rather than this group she so desperately wants to eliminate. Yet, the game chooses to never fall completely through with this transformation, almost as if Ellie has become an anterograde amnesiac that can become hostile at one point and sympathetic during another. Many of the present scenarios the plot puts her through, such as one in particular that takes place in an Aquarium, felt almost too artificial to be true. These adversaries want to come after Joel for the immoral actions that he’s committed in the past, and the game assumes that people don’t already understand that. These deeds to get us to side with the “enemy” are often insufferably needless, as I find it to be more than obvious that Joel has always been in the wrong when it comes to plenty of his actions; it seems pushy to toss fans with stack after stack of guilt when it doesn’t take a genius to realize the criminality behind Joel. Not only that, these situations which are used to provoke consolation for the villains are atrociously written, relying on too many unrealistic McGuffins to produce far too many contrasting emotions within the following main characters. 

Furthermore, if the game’s goal was to get you to side with the “villains” and find hatred to be had in Ellie and Joel, it partially fails due to how odd the plot’s structure is. At one point, the game will show the players something that’ll make them despise the “villains” and then immediately after show you a sequence that attempts to make you love the “villains.” But presenting two polarizing scenarios side by side at such a fast pace is not a convincing way to make us sympathize with a new character just because you now understand the intentions of the act that would make you despise them. Considering we already have attachment for Joel and Ellie, it just seems force-feed and manipulative. Furthermore, it makes your plot and thematic structure extremely visible, which is an easy way to take your viewers out of the game and back into reality. 

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In many ways, I could actually see the game being able to accomplish in making us successfully rooting for the antagonists and reconsidering our devotion to the protagonists Ellie and Joel. However, the methods in which the game uses to do it are almost entirely reliant on exceedingly convenient binaries between Ellie and Abby, and they come off as less genuine and more contrived. They seem implausible as hell, which unfortunately removes a chunk of the realism that had been appropriately established in The Last of Us universe. Plus, as I had just mentioned, the organization of the sequence of events was not done in a very intelligent manner, and actually sabotages what the game is clearly wanting to emote from the audience. 

At the thematic core though, Part II is trying to implore us to understand that, post-apocalyptic world or not, people insight their morality principles in the confines of their family or their people. They don’t, at first glance, contemplate what their opposers may be coming from, and they can sometimes be fixed-minded enough to not recognize that people are just people. Survival just so happens to be the infection that blinds us from seeing that as truth. 

Howbeit, even if this is one of the more gargantuan motifs, among countless others, that Naughty Dog wants us to acknowledge, it’s one that’s so blatantly obvious; therefore, it doesn’t need those extra hours and hours of showing us another side of the equation (AKA, additional character stories) for its audience to get it. “Attachment” may come from the characters we’re taught about over an extended course, but “understanding” and “sympathy” is something that’s easy for us to learn as long as we know a fair amount of background on the individual. We don’t need so much filler (a near 10 hours of it) to extract value from a latter group of individuals; what we need is momentary perspectives to register that people like Abby do devastating things for reasons that we can get behind if simply told. In the end though, this doesn’t just weigh down the story’s credibility, it weighs down the pacing of the game and the patience of its player—something that should be mastered at a balance, especially in lengthy projects such as this.

It must be required to bring up Drunckmann and Gross’s writing, once more, as it kills me to say how devastatingly abysmal it can often be, despite the great pieces of art these two have crafted beforehand. The “only doctor who can…” pony-trick—you’ll know what I’m talking about if you play or have played the game—is by far Neil Drunckan’s WORST writing moment ever! The fact that this “doctor trick” is such a required and detrimental fact to the story, really knocks the credibility off of any plot point that has to do with it, creating an almost domino-like effect in the believability of the tale. There are soooooo many close calls, as well, when it comes to how many times the main characters dodge death; a weakness that you’d usually find buried underneath a copy of any “made for chiefly adventurous fun” Uncharted game. Important characters that relate to the main characters’ lives also happen to be illogically placed into fluky situations that are only there to further the plot’s ambitions.

While I do think Abby had the potential of being an empathetic character, many of her actions appear too contradicting in spite of how much screen time we’re given to develop her as a supposedly conscious individual. The story presents Abby as a pretty complicated character; someone who must choose between some very radical decisions that leave her to abandon or join sides she never could’ve dreamed of taking on; this seems to be why the game wants to give her so much screen-time. Yet, the results never justify her actions, and, in fact, gloss over many of them, causing the gamer to just assume that she is a mysterious persona. But given that the narrative yearns us to care for her, it’s hard to when many of her ambitions seem nonexistent. Additionally, this is a character who is tormented through some pretty harsh encounters, and faces horrific tragedies that are quite personal to her. Be that as it may, the game rarely shows her inciting trauma from it besides maybe in the first act of the story. Onward, however, she rarely cooks up any contemplation, any remorse, or any recollection after she experiences these severe catastrophes in her life. It’s almost as if they had never happened; to me, that is poor character writing.  

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At the end of the day (or in this case like 25-30 whole f*****g hours), I saw mostly light (BUT BARELY) when it comes to this Part II installment, and much of that has to do with the immaculate visual storytelling and gameplay. When we’re in the shoes of Ellie, developing our once mismatched beliefs that originated from her complicated relationship with Joel as we tread along the nonstop path for violence, I find this to be an epic follow-up to its highly beloved predecessor. The game really is a star-crossed situation though, considering how much external, tacked-on rubbish there is in this project. It’s quite glaring that there were major issues putting this game’s narrative together due to just how much information it wants to cram into its totality so it can seem like some “one-up” to its original considering its living up to something that many would consider “flawless.” However, as the cheesy saying goes, “bigger does not always necessarily mean better.” At least… in stories. 

Nevertheless, like I said, The Last of Us Part II is still tolerable. Parts of the conclusion are actually good; as a matter of fact, the final scene of the game is EXCEPTIONALLY good, and it would be even more so if it had bounced off a narrative that was strictly a Joel & Ellie focused chronicle. How we get to that conclusion is frankly the opposite, though. Its situations are so paradoxical to what it wants to say when it comes down to the similarities between Joel and Ellie’s relationship and that of Abby and Ellie’s. It’s curious too, how the game never really clarifies if Ellie understands Abby or if Abby understands Ellie; the account sort of just implies that they have a general gist of each other. The lead-up to the conclusion is truthfully about them trying to improve or find moral good in themselves, and to not really grab sympathy for each other, but to grab sympathy for their own self-persona; they’re looking to finally be that better person—or at least, that’s what the game thinks they want to become despite how many people Ellie and Abby viciously go through in order to situate themselves in these moments. Nonetheless, that relationship is very different to what Joel and Ellie’s bond is made up of. That bond is composed of their deep knowledge of each other. Their layered understanding is what makes them want to keep pushing their connection forward. Ellie has personal sympathy for Joel, and Joel likewise. Ellie and Abby only vaguely know of one another. 

This leads to the game’s final theme, however: forgiveness. Just forgiveness. Nothing to expand on it; nothing to say about it other than “hey, it’s good.” Just the idea of forgiving. The story simply shows an act of forgiveness occurring in two VERY CONTRASTING scenarios and anticipates that its audience will correlate the two as companions of the same mind. Forgiveness, however, is such a universally broad concept that when the story attempts to interweave a couple specific circumstances to present it as one general braid with everything that’s occurred, it only feels vaguely connectable. Is the narrative saying that all types of forgiveness are good, or is it just extremely lazy paralleling? Yet again, another defective motif that perfectly concludes what The Last of Us Part II’s thematics are mainly comprised of. 

As far as praise goes for the visuals, there’s a lot to be said that I couldn’t possibly fit into one article, but I’ll do my best to undergo the highlights. The chapter with the “Scars” that was in the original gameplay trailer from two years ago… quite possibly the most beautiful looking level in a video game, ever? The level towards the end of the game involving a ton of fire—that’s all I’ll say… quite possibly the cleanest looking catastrophe graphics ever put to gaming? I think it’d be pretty conceited to look past how A1 the visual design is in The Last of Us Part II which stomps down on pretty much any other game to come out in the last millennium. And, why of course, is the relationship between Ellie and Joel expanded so ingeniously through life-like and feasible performances. Let’s not forget how AWARD WORTHY the acting and motion capture is in a grand majority of this game; shoutout to Ashley Johnson, Laura Bailey, Troy Baker, and Shannon Woodward for your immaculate performances despite the character gainsayings and cringy dialogue pieces you may have had to deal with. It really is the rest of the qualities in the Last of Us Part II, whether it be the nihilistic procedures that Naughty Dog uses to craft a narrative or the draining extension of its soon-to-be gray runtime, that are drastically inferior to the moving and frankly mature themes explored in the game’s fleshed-out and aptly developed flashback segments; those being the ones in which explore what is needed in allowing relational trust to receive second chances—now, that’s a cohesive motif. 

Overall, with every varying opinion in consideration, it’s a pretty middling follow-up. Now, more importantly, however, it’s time to mark down The Last of Us fanbase as another cancerous cesspool in modern entertainment culture. I haven’t heard this many pathetic arguments against or for something (with many from those who haven’t even played the game yet) since Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi came out. Don’t believe me? Check out Metacritic. Apparently being misogynistic/homophobic, getting upset or happy over things not panning out the way you had envisioned it, and igniting unreasonable petitions are how people argue game opinions now. Smh. Maybe some of the fans deserved this. 

Verdict: C+

“The Last of Us II” is now available to play on Playstation 4.

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