By John Finnegan |
Despite being an avid gamer, I don't normally review games on this blog. However, the fact that a month after completing the most hyped game of the year, it still hasn't left my thoughts, I felt that a blog post review might be just the thing to help me process my experience of playing this masterpiece.
First, it should be noted that I absolutely adore the original The Last of Us game. I bought it on its release in 2013 and have put more hours into the game than possibly any game of the PS4 generation (in part because of the stellar Remastered edition from 2014). I also think that Left Behind, the DLC add-on chapter is an incredible epilogue to what I consider to be an already perfect game. And I don't use that word lightly. I do believe that The Last of Us is a perfect game. It's masterfully written and directed by Neil Druckmann, features the most believable performances I've ever come across, even to this day, in a video game, and it's gameplay mechanics and exploratory value is a perfect accompaniment to that story. The Last of Us is about desperation to survive, no matter what the costs and the survivalist mechanics of the game (scavenging every cabinet and desk drawer for parts and ammunition to achieve that goal) is the perfect manifestation of that thematic struggle.
It's a game that didn't need a sequel and, for seven years, fans such as myself waited with trepidation as to the direction the story would be taken in. I had confidence in Druckmann and Naughty Dog (the company behind the game) that they wouldn't let us down, but one can never be certain and so my experience of delving into The Last of Us Part 2 was fraught with nerves. But now that the dust has settled on my time with the game, I am glad to be able to say that, not only do I feel that it lives up to the standard of the original, it surpasses it with ease.
From this point on, this review will contain spoilers for the game.
The Last of Us Part 2 follows returning character, Ellie, now driven by revenge after newcomer Abby brutally murders original protagonist, Joel at the beginning of the story. From there, Ellie sets out to Seattle to track down Abby and blackens her soul as she perpetuates a cycle of violence started in the original game.
By now it should be clear to anyone that I loved everything about the game; how polished it looks and how smooth it plays. The stealth and action are intuitive and natural and the world is designed in such a way that it perfectly complements our abilities as Ellie or Abby. The addition of seemingly minor skillset upgrades, such as the ability to jump, crawl or slide through narrow spaces in walls might not seem innovative in 2020 but they are suitable for what these games are. I never accepted the criticism that the shooting or movement mechanics were poor in the original game. Yes, they aren't as smooth and streamlined as other third-person action games, but they were appropriate for the characters that we were playing as. The characters of Joel and Ellie are not action heroes like in other games franchises. They are not expert marksmen or martial artists. If the gameplay felt gritty at times, it's because that's who these characters were. Back to Part 2, it makes sense then to include the ability to crawl and scurry through structures with a nimbleness that only a 19-year-old like Ellie or Abby could do.
The environments are, as usual, incredibly well designed and realised. I completely believe that if I went to Seattle, I'd find myself in these same streets or buildings. I've always said that one of the real strengths of The Last of Us was the way in which the backstory of the world was communicated to you through minor details in the world, such as a date on a calendar or a piece of graffiti on a wall. It gives you a lot of information but not so much that the credibility of the world starts to fall apart. This is a problem with many open-world games nowadays - the more you explore, the more cracks in the narrative that appear. As a progression based linear game, Part 1 never suffered from this and, despite Part 2 having far more open-world style mechanisms, it too never risks unravelling the dark but beautifully compelling world that the developers have crafted for us.
Once again, the design of the game is, first and foremost, to give dimension to the characters of the story. I recall in the first game, the music store and the arcade machine in the bar in Bill's Town and how they served as a wonderful way for Joel and Ellie to bond after their initial struggle to escape Boston. This new chapter of the story also provides a host of bonding opportunities through environment exploration.
The best example of this comes in a free-roaming section early on as Ellie and her love interest Dina arrive in downtown Seattle on horseback. The player has the chance to actively explore different aspects of the open space and, in doing so, get to know Dina, a character we otherwise have spent little time with. This is a smart move by Druckmann and his team and draws parallels to the free-roaming sections of both Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and Uncharted: Lost Legacy.
Through flashbacks, we also get to see Joel and Ellie bonding after the events of the first game. In my playthrough, I initially felt these were unnecessary and broke the pace of the game. However, in hindsight, I now appreciate how essential these moments are in helping us to understand the journey that Ellie goes on. I'm going to chalk that initial resistance up to my desire to get back to the main journey at hand - which I think only speaks to how great the present-day sequences of the game are.
The biggest talking point of the game is the fact that, halfway through the story, we step into the shoes of Abby, the woman responsible for Ellie's journey of revenge. This was, arguably, the most controversial creative choice by the designers in this game. I do understand the resistance of some fans to take on the role of Abby for, what feels like almost half the game. We didn't wait 7 years to play as this person after all, despite the fact that Abby is a deeply complex and fascinating character in their own right.
My initial reaction to this choice, particularly after clocking up 10 hours by their side, was one of exhaustion. As a screenwriter, I know it doesn't require that much commitment to a character in order to show us their point of view. If the goal was to make us empathise with Abby's horrific actions at the beginning of the story, then a simple cut scene and some well-placed exposition or backstory would have sufficed. I could cite various movies, for example, that have done this. I was wrong, however.
As the story progressed to its gripping and emotionally draining (in all the best ways) conclusion, it became clear to me why a 10 hour + positioning with Abby was so essential...
It's important to note that Ellie's journey is almost identical to the original; in the first game, Joel loses a daughter, takes his anger out on the world and then finds a surrogate daughter in the form of Ellie, only to tarnish the relationship by making a selfish decision at the end.
In Part 2, Ellie loses her surrogate father, takes her anger out on the world and then gains a surrogate family in the form of Dina and a child, which saves her. Yes, she makes a selfish decision which tarnishes this relationship, but her quest to find and kill Abby in Santa Barbara (where Abby is being held captive) is interrupted when she rescues Abby from certain death, spares her life and, in turn, breaks the cycle of violence which started with the death of Joel's daughter at the beginning of Part 1, 25 years prior.
This is why Abby is so instrumental to the story and why it is crucial that so much time is spent exploring their own redemption arc. We need to care about Abby so that we will want Ellie to save them in the end - because we care about Ellie more. Abby isn't simply an indulgent device to explore the other side of Joel's actions in the first game. It's to galvanise the player with Ellie so that we will want her to spare Abby. It's not enough for the writers to simply have Ellie spare her life. We as the players, who have accompanied Ellie on this revenge quest, must want to leave the past behind as well.
At the end of the story, Ellie is seen returning to her farmhouse, now abandoned. She plays her guitar and reflects on her final encounter with Joel before his death. There is an attempt at forgiveness, a positive outcome in all this negativity. Not a happy outcome, just a positive one. And then we see her emerge from the farmhouse and walk away - presumably to find Dina or, possibly on to the next adventure. Whatever the case, the cycle is now broken.
This is why I think this game is a masterpiece. It's the most ambitious and detailed exploration of the darkest aspects of our human nature. It's a continuation of the ideas presented in the first game, only this time, that interrogation of violence is not just confined to the exploration of the world but it's embedded into the DNA of the narrative structure itself.
It's a story that could only be told in a video game, a boast that not many games can make. And it's a game that we could not have found anywhere else in the meantime. It was worth the wait.
John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247