GAME REVIEW: The Last Of Us Part II

All The Promises At Sundown

- This review will remain spoiler-free for its first half, but will contain major plot spoilers for The Last of Us Part II following a brief warning halfway through -


The Last of Us Part II / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

In July of 2013, I took home The Last of Us. A day later, I emerged: game completed, but something wasn't right. I'd finished countless games prior to Naughty Dog's PS3 post-apocalyptic survival storyteller, but when the credits rolled on The Last of Us, the sensation that immediately washed over me was not satisfaction, or relief at the completion of its story, but rather something entirely distinct. What I felt when Joel (Troy Baker) and Ellie (Ashley Johnson) came to the end of their journey across America was not a feeling of success, nor 'mission complete', but of loss - and an ambiguous end to a narrative that, though I desperately wanted to see continued, I understood as *the* perfect ending to my favourite game of the generation.


'Rescuing' Ellie from a group of freedom fighters, experimenting on her for a potential cure to the world-ending fungal disease, Joel's final decision represented a watershed moment in the history of interactive storytelling. Never before had characters so well-crafted and perfectly portrayed found themselves realised within virtual spaces so convincingly, but best of all, the open-endedness of the game's closing moments made Joel's choice all the more heart-achingly visceral. Its finale, just at the moment Ellie allowed herself to (seemingly) accept the lie that Joel told her, left me happy, but heartbroken. The game knew there were stories to follow and narrative threads to resolve - but what creative director and writer Neil Druckmann identified, was precisely where The Last of Us needed to end; cementing the game as a masterpiece, and its ambiguous ending as doubtlessly among gaming's finest, even now, seven years on.


For nearly a decade the final moments of the game remained indelibly imprinted into my skull, but with the announcement of this year's The Last of Us Part II, I felt hesitant. I had purposefully ignored all mention of the game prior to getting a copy of it in my own hands, blocking keywords on twitter and averting my eyes whenever an advertisement would appear in front of me. I was excited, certainly, but while in the dark about every aspect of the game's plot, a worry continued, because for me there was no need for a sequel. The Last of Us was perfect. Self-contained and complete: definitively standalone.


There stood the main obstacle for Naughty Dog's sequel: how could you return to a game that stood, to this day, so faultless in its narrative execution? How could you destabilise Ellie and Joel's perfectly uncertain conclusion with the concrete definitives that emerge (by necessity) from the writing of a sequel?


In essence, how could Naughty Dog find a story that justified its existence as a sequel to The Last of Us?


Ellie (Ashley Johnson) / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

The Last of Us Part II, outrageously, not only found a story worth rupturing the perfect ambiguities of the original's ending for, but somehow managed to craft a sequel that needed to be told. Four years on from the original game, the continuation of Joel and Ellie's story found itself woven together more masterfully than I could have possibly imagined, marking this latest experience as a triumph of video game storytelling and a benchmark of success to be referenced and compared to from now on.


Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker return, again providing revolutionary performances that are near-impossible to imagine as actually being recorded on mo-cap soundstages and in audio booths far removed from the 1's and 0's that their avatars reside in. The tangibility of each intensely dramatic moment hits as if it were being delivered by the finest dramatists, and that's simply because they are. The talent demonstrated, particularly from the game's lead actors, but also through an ensemble of impressively exceptional secondary characters, animators and writers, proves exactly why Naughty Dog sits at the forefront of storytelling in games. Flashbacks to moments of charming father/daughter dynamics are easily among the game's highlights, but so too are those same flashbacks' streams of potent revelations - heartbreaking but resonant, and utterly necessary additions to the legacies of The Last of Us.


Early in, Joel hands Ellie a guitar. Initially a sweet moment, well-depicted by Troy Baker's phenomenal acting nuances, what emerges is actually a surprisingly competent guitar-playing minigame system and one that was particularly enjoyable to play (being a guitarist myself), strumming and picking at the controller's touchpad and selecting chord shapes with the analogue stick. Unsurprisingly, Naughty Dog are far more clever than to simply offer occasional guitar-playing tangents for the player, with the mechanic actually serving to provide an interesting narrative thread, weaving Joel and Ellie together through music throughout the story. Revolving around the use of Pearl Jam's 2013 song 'Future Days' as a wonderfully selected theme, the music is shared and replicated through both Johnson and Baker's voices, acquiring exquisite meaning in its repetition at various moments of significance throughout the story.


The addition of Shannon Woodward as Ellie's lover Dina is a stunning success, and results in one of the most emotionally delicate and well-realised relationships ever constructed in gaming. The tender understanding exhibited between Woodward and Johnson is rivalled only by the central knot of Joel and Ellie within the game, and from stumbling upon a long-abandoned stoner-utopia, to a collapsing music store, each and every interaction between these two characters is wonderfully managed, and superbly delivered each and every time. In many ways, it is Woodward's influence on the story that maintains the humanity of The Last of Us Part II as an isolated flame of positivity, protection and love in the barren apocalypse of its environments. Her performance as Dina is wonderful, and breathes life into each second she spends around Ellie's arms and crawling with her through tall grass and near-death encounters. The entire sequence that finished off "Seattle Day 1" was extraordinary, and that success has a great deal to do with the masterful performance of Johnson and Woodward together as a duo of considerable charm.


Ellie (Ashley Johnson) and Dina (Shannon Woodward) / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

Graphically, the game goes beyond what was thought possible on its console, much like the first managed in 2013. Just as the magnificent animation of photo-realistic faces demonstrated by the screenshots that I took for this review show, the landscapes of this latest game are realised with an extraordinary artistry from the team at Naughty Dog. With trees piercing through the concrete of once inhabited metropolises, as the player goes about their journey, slowly stalking through broken shop-fronts and long-forsaken subway-station infestations. The scale of the studio's efforts are often incomprehensible. Every room of each building stands distinct, crafted as a string of totally unique environments, all in the service of constructing an immersive universe to inhabit, to which the studio hits a home-run of creative achievement.

Moments of storytelling are crafted with an astonishing attention to detail, but not solely managed through dialogue, or high-budget cinematic sequences. Instead, the player will stumble upon notes and diary entries in the buildings you pillage for supplies. They will see revolutionary messages, scrawled in red paint across ivy-encompassed walls, and the corpses of long-lost souls, communicating their tragic fates entirely through their placement in The Last of Us Part II's spore-infested domain. The game is dark, but it never feels gratuitous in its upsetting content simply for the sake of it, as demonstrated with a Postal 2 or Mortal Kombat for example. Instead, each destructive shotgun shell or bite from a shambling, mushroom-headed zombie feels in service of something, constructing a soul-crushingly grim representation of life in a broken world that seeps through every moment spent within it.

Gustavo Santaolalla's return to provide the soundtrack for the game is welcomed, and excels in living up to his compositions from the game prior, but the music departs noticeably from the soaring highs of the first OST. Moments of bright, emphatic melodies from compositions like 'The Path (A New Beginning)' or the original game's theme are largely absent, traded in for more atmospheric, foreboding and often near-amelodic musical structures. Perhaps reflective of the sequel's darker, revenge-fuelled tone, the inspiring melodies are muddied, dragged through the snow and shattered into pieces, with references to the first game's iconic track 'The Choice' inverted in a darker, parallelised tune within the new soundtrack's exceptional 'Longing', taking the melody from the music that defined the first game, but repurposing it - demonstrating the legacies of Joel's 'choice' and how it has come to overshadow the events of the game that followed it.


Largely a result of the phenomenal sound design led by Robert Krekel, the violence of The Last of Us Part II is harrowing in its authenticity. Weapons fire with ear-shattering explosions, but getting to fire them proves rare, given the scarcity of ammunition in abandoned and overgrown cityscapes. Instead, splattering heads with lead pipes and firefighter axes strikes with upsetting velocity, while enemies cry out the names of their recently brutalised allies. The world that this game inhabits is, to reiterate, dark and actively unpleasant to spend time with, but fundamentally serves as a sensational achievement in tone that feels entirely appropriate for the relentless sorrows of its universe.


Joel (Troy Baker) / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

Rummaging through an impossibly well-detailed realisation of Seattle, Washington on an unshakeable quest for revenge, the game features an impressive refinement of 2013's brutally tactile understanding of survival post-outbreak. Hiding from shuffling, echo-locating zombies and fighting against adaptive and intelligent human adversaries in the cross-fire of a long-waged war between survivors group 'WLF' and the 'Seraphites', a religious movement of spiritual naturalists, the gameplay of this latest project is defined by desperation and visceral encounters. Stumbling into rooms filled with hyper-sensitive zombie ears, this game has you constantly outnumbered, quietly hunting your prey, both undead and soon-dead. From crawling around in wet Pacific Northwestern foliage to smashing open windows to traverse these playgrounds of intense survival horror, the game has you slowly levelling the playing field in unbearable apprehension of that moment where all hell breaks loose.

But, truthfully, it isn't the gameplay that positions The Last of Us Part II as the generationally defining masterpiece I consider it to be. It's excellent, of course, but in terms of shadowy stealth combat, this game does little to outshine the successes of Hideo Kojima's bombastic action sandbox Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain or the A.I. ingenuity of Alien: Isolation. It's an often-cited criticism of Naughty Dog's other flagship series Uncharted that the games could be understood as separated between functional, yet imperfect gameplay and industry-defining cinematic genius, with the games rarely managing to intertwine narrative weight and gameplay in the manner to which projects like thatgamecompany's Journey achieved in 2012. It would be unfair, however, to declare that the gameplay offers nothing to its story or thematic development, just as similar criticisms are often unfair in regards to Uncharted. For every step taken in their characters shoes, the connection between player and protagonist grows ever greater. With each close-call, quiet escape and act of unspeakable brutality, the player intertwines themselves with their virtual counterpart, serving to underpin the empathy that drives the story's most devastating twists and turns. Alongside revolutionary efforts to make the game as accessible and user-friendly as possible for all players, particularly those with disabilities, this is a game that while perhaps not revolutionising how games are played, exceeds magnificently in building an experience that suits the story it wants to tell, and letting as many players as possible feel invited to play.


I can't say much more without getting into the details of why this game stands out as among gaming's finest, so for those of you still yet to play the game, consider this my conclusion. In stories, it is always important to recognise the distinction between what you want, and what you need. The bravest of writers understand that, at times, what is necessary for a narrative can often run in opposition, or even in aggravation of those that are hearing the story. The Last of Us Part II's lead writers Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross have received a great deal of hateful abuse online for the decisions made within their extensions of The Last of Us' mythos, which is (of course) completely unwarranted, but what should be appreciated when looking towards this game and the story hidden inside is that increasingly this project looks to have redefined what is possible in the capabilities of emotional resonance, not only in video games, but in storytelling altogether.


Joel (Troy Baker) and Ellie (Ashley Johnson) / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

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- SPOILER WARNING -

- big, scary spoilers. dead ahead. -

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For fans of the first game, its ending rightfully stands as an unassailably flawless conclusion to its journey across America. From Boston to Salt Lake City, after fifteen hours protecting (and being protected by) your teenage companion from the horrors of the post-apocalypse, players witnessing the slow nurturing of a deep paternal bond between the grizzled Joel, and the young, yet entirely capable, Ellie, saw a connection emerge far beyond anything thought possible within gaming. Fundamentally, the player was, and to some extent still is, Joel, but when learning that the organisation that you had spent the entire game travelling towards in order to deliver Ellie to, announced to Joel that his now-surrogate daughter would need to be killed in order to develop a cure to the game's central pandemic, a rug was pulled out from underneath its players in the most emphatic of ways.


It wasn't a revolutionary story in isolation, but with games, the connection between a player and their virtual avatar offers so much deeper an emotional anchor than any other medium could consider possible. Through some of the most believable characters ever written, when players played The Last of Us, they were Joel and Ellie became your daughter. So, a choice emerged, at least within the imagination of its players: would you have let Ellie die for the chance at a cure, or would you have saved her?


Joel's decision to rescue the unconscious Ellie, at the expense of both a potential cure and the murder of a surgeon prepared to operate upon her, proved an objectively immoral decision, but what complicated it was that it represented a decision that nearly *every* player both consented to, and would've chosen if given the option. Morality mattered, but in a demonstration of total empathy with a character coming desperately close to losing another daughter (just as he did in the game's now iconic prologue) the ending of The Last of Us was bittersweet, but fundamentally one that most of its players felt happy with. The cure didn't matter, Ellie did.


Ellie (Ashley Johnson) / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

When I said I felt hesitation towards a sequel to The Last of Us, this was why. With the unconvincing "ok" of Ashley Johnson, resigned to accepting the lie that drew the curtains on the first game, Joel's story had reached its natural conclusion. The character got what he wanted, and the players did too. What Druckmann and Gross identified however, was that while Joel's story had ended, the consequences of his choice demanded exploration, especially now in a world where a toxic gaming community had placed Joel onto a pedestal - interpreting the character wholeheartedly as a hero and a morally righteous character. Joel had nothing more to give for a story moving forward, but Ellie did.


Joel's murder, horrifyingly beaten to death by a golf club within the first two hours of the game, hit with an undeniable emotional devastation. It is among the most phenomenally well realised cinematic moments I have ever seen in gaming. Though perhaps slightly predictable, given some fairly blatant narrative signposting in the moments leading up to it, the death of Joel came abruptly, delivered with a shockingly callous act of violence from an entirely new character: Abby (played *astonishingly* well by Laura Bailey). Players are introduced to this new face very early on - with the game going as far as to hand the player direct control of this new character without context within its prologue, all while Joel was still very much alive. Suspicions were raised when the opening credits of the game featured Laura Bailey's name alongside the established Johnson and Baker, but it soon became clear that Abby had arrived in Wyoming to hunt down Joel in particular, and so, when cornered by a blizzard and placed obliviously into the clutches of his hunters, Joel's brutally shocking death comes swiftly, happening before the very eyes of an excruciatingly pained Ellie, swearing "I'll fucking kill you" to Abby's WLF allies, before being knocked out and spared by the killers of her 'father'.

The overwhelmingly vitriolic online cacophony that followed this revelation serves only to prove exactly why this game needed to be made. Countless fans of the first game couldn't believe that such a "beloved character" could have been killed off immediately by their brand new game. He was the main character! How could you kill him? Outrage ensued, labelling Druckmann and Gross as storytelling failures, and the game worthless. The entitlement a vocal minority expressed in regards to this game would have been shocking, if it wasn't so common in response to film and video games at present, but when death threats and targeted harassment are being elicited from (just to re-iterate) a video game, the fact that Joel was killed off so early in the game just serves to punctuate the courage of Naughty Dog as a developer, and the storytelling decisions of those involved.


Abby (Laura Bailey) and the WLF / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

What this outrage pointed to, plain and simple, was a total misunderstanding of the ending of the first game, and I am incredibly happy that Naughty Dog managed to find a narrative strand worth pursuing, and stuck to it with commitment and tenacity. As the daughter of the Firefly surgeon that was murdered unflinchingly by Joel (and the player) in order to save Ellie in the first game, Abby's quest for revenge is not only to avenge her father, but to pass a judgement upon the selfish and immoral decision Joel made in Utah that apparently a good portion of the gaming community could not manage independently. Though Abby's connection to the surgeon may not have tied the narrative together astonishingly neatly, certainly identifiable as an afterthought rather than foreshadowed in the first game, her place in the world is justified, and a crucially important addition to this series: demonstrating that the actions within this world are not forgotten by its denizens, and certainly do not receive much forgiveness or reconciliation on a regular basis.


Abby is one of many characters portrayed incredibly well and introduced particularly comfortably into the existing narrative of the game, with other stand out performances from Abby's co-conspirators, and Ellie's hometown companions Jesse (Steven Chang) and Dina proving exceptional additions to the world of The Last of Us, despite Abby's half of the storyline certainly feeling a little more artificial and shoe-horned in when compared to the seamlessness to which Jesse and Dina are introduced alongside recurring performances from Jeffrey Pierce as Tommy, and Ashley Scott as Maria.


If players truly wanted to invest themselves into the violent, unforgiving wasteland of an overgrown, zombie-infested U.S.A., they should understand that no character is safe. No characters are deserving of 'heroic endings' in a story that devoted itself to honest depictions of the sudden immediacy that characterises death. Joel didn't deserve better, because no character deserves anything in The Last of Us - and in terms of sparking a story that needed to be told, nothing could possibly have lit the flame of revenge fiercer than killing off a character so intrinsically tied to the hearts of players as much as murdering the previous game's protagonist.


Jesse (Steven Chang) / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

But, following Ellie's brutal 3 day quest to stalk, torture and murder former Fireflies in order to track down and kill her new, mortal enemy, a realisation should increasingly make itself abundantly clear: this revenge mission is, quite entirely, a hollow desire - something viscerally compelling, but inherently pointless. It will not bring Joel back to life, nor provide solace to Ellie's grief. Reuniting with Tommy and Jesse, who themselves had ventured West to find Joel's killer, a moment of calm pierces through the story, with discussions on Dina's pregnancy offering a reflective moment, convincing Ellie, Jesse and Tommy to return to Jackson, and to abandon her quest for revenge.


Suddenly, Abby re-appears, rupturing the assumed security of a gorgeously modelled abandoned theatre that had served as Ellie and Dina's hideout for the game's nights in Seattle. Abby's re-appearance comes as a jaw-dropping surprise, emerging out of nowhere and proving that the game still had cards up its sleeve (despite the occasional telegraphing of plot twists prior). Most importantly, it showed that the story still had characters left to throw mercilessly on the fire of narrative development. The death of Jesse hits with indescribable weight, gone in an instant just like the countless grunts shot down without fanfare along the player's Cascadian campaign of revenge, and then... fade to black.


The perspective shifts: transported four years into the past, reliving Joel's rescue of Ellie, but now from Abby's point of view, discovering her father, dead by Joel's hand. The flashbacks work to much greater effect in Ellie's side of the story, feeling more earned and desired rather than the motivations of Abby's backstory being introduced to convince the player of the depth and complexities of this new character. At times the frequency of the flashbacks in this second act goes as far as to become tedious and certainly a little jarring despite their necessity for the story's design, but what the transportations to the past absolutely do achieve is found in successfully convincing the player of the wonderful intricacies of Abby's inter-character relationships, and cements the woman as an incrdibly compelling figure for the storyline. Despite her mirrored romance plot with former firefly Owen (Patrick Fugit) never coming close to the successes of Ellie and Dina's, partially due to an occasionally weaker performance from Fugit, often sounding as though his lines were delivered in a completely different room than his love interest, Abby is an exceptional character, and a welcome addition to The Last of Us' stellar cast.


The flipped perspective makes its points about moral subjectivity well, while lacking a little in subtlety, but establishes (what was clearly missed by a great deal of the game's now incredibly angry fans) that what Joel did was ultimately a selfish, and damaging decision made within the fictional space. The Abby/Ellie parallel is obviously clear, and strengthened further through Abby's (admittedly weaker) second half of the narrative. A sub-plot emerges between our antagonist/protagonist with the introduction of a protective friendship with Yara (Victoria Grace) and her brother Lev (Ian Alexander), two teenagers on the run from the hyper-religious Seraphites, with Lev having shaved his head as a defiant announcement of a (religiously prohibited) transgender identity. While it is perhaps criticisable that the narrative only finds room for a trans character in a story where their identity itself becomes their crux of his narrative existence, Lev is another exceptionally three-dimensional and substantial character in the storyline played very, very well by Alexander and actively improves the narrative - despite feeling slightly like a distracting additional conflict in the wider context of the game's multiple story focuses.


Yara (Victoria Grace) and Lev (Ian Alexander) / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

It shouldn't matter that The Last of Us Part II is a story shared almost entirely between the lesbian Ellie and Abby, a woman who's physical form has sparked disbelief from a good portion of the gaming community that seemed to believe women could only be muscular if their body corresponds to that of a gratuitously-chested Chun-Li or Lara Croft. In a world where LGBTQ+ representation in games continues to spark outrage and bigotry though, it should be celebrated that Druckmann and Gross continued their commitment to positive, and considerable representations of different body types and identities - totally corresponding to their desires to make The Last of Us Part II as inclusive and accessible a product as possible.

After the first half of the game has Ellie murdering each of Abby's friends in an effort to track down her location, the second act retells Ellie's 3 days in Seattle, but from the opposing perspective, with the game doing its best (and largely succeeding) to humanise the various people that had met grisly ends at the hands of the player/character. Laura Bailey's performance comes second only to Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker's in the game, while the WLF background characters all certainly have their moments in the spotlight. The second act certainly does lose a little of the first's electric pacing in its relentlessly non-linear structure, constantly flickering to and from different time periods in order to effectively communicate the characterisation of Abby's allies, which is managed well, but still crammed into an *incredibly* tight section of the narrative.


After replaying the three days in Seattle, seeing Abby's friends in the moments before the player murdered them in the first half isn't the most subtle ("ludonarrative dissonance! there are no heroes!"), but following the response to Joel's near-deification, maybe occasional heavy-handedness was almost required in The Last of Us Part II, making sure that the uncomfortable facts of the game's protagonists do not go overlooked. When time comes for the two narrative threads to reunite with one another, they do so explosively, as the players (hopefully) begin to recognise the senseless brutality of Ellie's quest, and the neverending circularity that revenge provokes. The boss fight against Ellie is an excellent comment on the place of the player-character in the world of The Last of Us, where the sheer scale of Ellie's arsenal is made clear to the player. Again, it's something I think most players realised without needing the game to declare it so clearly, but the frightening capabilities of Ellie as an adversary (mimicing the mechanics of the fight against David in the first game) demonstrate precisely how unfairly the world of this series had skewed towards the player, placing the player into the body of a character in the firing line of Ellie's combat advantages, with endless numbers of weapons and traps to be used to weigh the encounter in her favour.

As Abby gains the upper hand, coming close to murdering Dina as revenge for Ellie doing the same to the pregnant Mel (Ashly Burch), with Abby again choosing to spare Ellie in an attempt to break the endless cycle of revenge motivations, an opportunity emerges for Ellie to bury her hatchet. Ellie and Dina return east to Wyoming, but not to Jackson. Building a new life on a farm in an Andrew Wyeth-esque American landscape, Ellie and Dina find themselves in a realm of domestic bliss, mothers to the child of Dina and (the late) Jesse and happy, but the trauma of Joel's death stays put, haunting Ellie still, even after Abby's repeated mercy.

When Tommy reappears, demanding Ellie to honour her promise to avenge Joel and Jesse's deaths, those that criticise the game for not "completing" Ellie's quest for revenge would do well to recognise a reflection of themselves in that desperate visage of a grievously scarred Tommy, unable to see where forgiveness sits, most crucially of all, in the reconciliation of loss. Ellie's decides to leave her new family behind in the pursuit of Abby as a final reassertion of the character's obsessive desire to avenge Joel's death and murder her merciful adversary, as the game's final act shifts into gear.


Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce) / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

The game's final act isn't quite as strong as it's first, or even its second. The introduction of a new location (and a new faction) in Santa Barbara is a refreshing change of pace, but it comes so late into an already-gargantuan game that the pacing suffers. It feels less like the re-ignition of a plot so much as a last crawl towards getting the game finished, which could well have been intentional, but still pulls down the game's flow. Had Abby's second act been refined and edited down somewhat, the narrative might have felt a little less exhausting by the time Ellie reaches the Californian coast - but I'm not one to apply heavy criticism to a game that dedicated itself to an experience of this scale, even if discussions of gaming's crunch crisis continue to surround this game (as all AAA titles seem to be accused of externally nowadays).


Tracking Ellie and Lev down, the final confrontation between the game's two figures, standing in fog-shrouded waters, felt to me as almost a re-interpretation of what Uncharted 4's last conflict was supposed to be. While the latter finished off an exceptional game with a fight that felt slightly contrived and over-melodramatic (even for Uncharted), the ending to The Last of Us Part II is a phenomenal conclusion to a tale that had, to that point, begun to slightly lose steam. Abby's refusal to fight Ellie, having come to terms with letting go of her desire for revenge, is denied by Ashley Johnson's extraordinarily immediate performance of a character desperate to ignite a final fight. It is a true high point for the game, and following a long, drawn out hand-to-hand melee (drawn closer by a more intimate God of War styled camera angle) as Ellie begins drowning Abby in the shallow waters, pushing her down with a bloody hand (having lost two fingers - bitten off by her combatant) the sudden recollection of an entirely new memory shocked me, much as it did Ellie. Releasing Abby and finally breaking the cycle of revenge, that image of Joel, playing the guitar on the porch of his home the night before his murder, was so indescribably perfect in its delivery that I am certain it will live on in me just as long as the first game did too.

Teasing out Joel and Ellie's relationship through the meticulously-crafted vignettes of her flashback scenes, each additional revelation of the collapsing connection between Ellie and Joel is executed without fault. Slowly, the lie Joel maintained at the end of the first game faces its consequences, and throughout the game we begin to comprehend precisely how the two's relationship grew distant, deteriorating under the weight of that choice. Ellie had cut Joel out from her life, finally being told the truth, years later and utterly dismantled by the implications of Joel's selfish actions. Despite this, the connection remained, but what that final memory of Joel brings forward manages to completely re-contextualise the entire weight behind Ellie's loss in the first hours of the game, watching on helplessly as her quasi-father was taken from her.


Returning to her home after sparing Abby in Santa Barbara, Ellie finds the farm abandoned. With Dina and baby J.J. (Joel, Jesse) long gone, all that remains within the house is a room stocked with Ellie's possessions: records, art, and the guitar, gifted to her from Joel. Once again the guitar is picked up to initiate the minigame and to play 'Future Days', but now Ellie is unable to play, having lost her fingers and, consequently, her truest connection to Joel.


The game ends with a return to that image of Joel on his porch, but keeps the camera rolling, revealing that the memory that flickered in front of Ellie's eyes and convinced her to forgive Abby, was of her final reconciliation with Joel. The weight, and the power of Baker and Johnson's final performance is as deserving of tears as any other moment, and as Ellie finally announces her desire to try and forgive her friend, the impact of Joel's death the next day is all the more viscerally devastating. It is a perfect ending to the game, and in all honesty may just prove to be a moment that eclipses the achievements of the first game as the pinnacle of interactive storytelling.

The biggest compliment that can be thrown towards The Last of Us Part II is the length of time to which this game lingered in both my head and my heart - long after its story had ended - occupying my imagination and my emotions with selfish resilience. The criticisms I have are so utterly minuscule in comparison to the scale of Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross' successes in crafting this story, in addition to the performances of every single individual even remotely tied to the production of this work, that any and all criticisms seem near-entirely insignificant in the shadow of what this game has to offer. It has infected me, just like the first did seven years ago, sat on the carpet of my living room in the summer of 2013. This game has seared itself permanently onto me, and I don't imagine it's something I'm going to be coming close to recovering from any time soon. The Last of Us Part II is earth-shattering, heart-breaking, neck-biting and eye-watering. It is a colossal achievement, and it might just be the best game I have ever played.


 

- 10 -

masterpiece

completion time:

20 hours, 18 minutes

 
The Last of Us Part II / 2020 Naughty Dog (Credit: Ben Wheadon)
 

Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales.


Ben Wheadon is editor and founder of Slow Motion Panic Masters. He is a Welsh musician and will be attending the University of Oxford for a masters degree in American literature from October 2020.


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