Spoiler Warning: The following post contains massive spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.
It was almost seven years ago when I wrote this after completing The Last of Us:
Joel’s life was filled with nothing but misery and pain for 20 years. Can you blame him for stopping at nothing to keep his final connection to his deceased daughter alive? He kept Ellie alive because he could not live in a world where she no longer drew breath. The experience of empathizing with Joel during his journey across the country and merging with him in that final sequence was harrowing. After the credits rolled, I was thankful I could put down the controller and turn the game off.
And not live in Joel’s world.
Earlier this year, I stepped back into Joel’s world by replaying The Last of Us and then playing The Last of Us: Left Behind for the first time. With The Last of Us Part II coming out, I wanted to refresh my memory about of all the elements of Joel and Ellie’s story that riveted me years ago. The backdrop of a real-life global pandemic made playing through the games unsettling in a new way.
I was curious to learn how the team behind the original game would answer the questions left hanging from the conclusion of The Last of Us. Joel’s lies about The Fireflies not needing Ellie because they’ve already found others with immunity seemed more flimsy this time playing through the game, and Ellie seems fully aware Joel is bullshitting her as the credits in The Last of Us begin.
- How would Ellie discover definitely that Joel lied to her?
- What will Ellie do once she learns that Joel killed The Fireflies to save her life?
- What will happen to the relationship between Ellie and Joel once that reveal takes place?
- Are surviving members of The Fireflies searching for Ellie because they still believe she can provide a cure? Or searching for Joel for revenge?
As I’ve said more than once about the long-rumored Kenobi show, “I don’t care what it’s about. Just give me Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan quieting drinking tea and musing about his past failures with Anakin. Everything else is window dressing; I just need that!” Any sequel to The Last of Us has to focus on the powerful dynamics between Ellie and Joel.
Everything else is window dressing.
Certainly knowing this, the team behind The Last of Us Part II provides a lot of window dressing. The game owes a debt to shows such as Lost, Breaking Bad, The Wire (especially Season 2), and Game of Thrones. The primary moments I was truly invested in as a player are told in flashbacks (Lost). The image on the title screen shows a pivotal scene from the conclusion of the game though you do not realize that until the very end (Breaking Bad). Instead of focusing solely on the characters already established, the game introduces a variety of new characters including devoting a significant amount of playtime as Abby (The Wire). And to top this all off, the player spends hours of time as Abby after we see her brutally murder a prominent character, Joel, quite early in the game (Game of Thrones).
The Last of Us Part II was designed to be disappointing; quite on purpose. As I’ve been in my own state of quarantine since March, I was able to avoid spoilers and still have not reviewed commentary about the game. I am honestly not sure how others have reacted to the sequel. What follows is a bit of a running diary of how I processed the purposeful disappointment that plays out during the experience.
Days of You and Me
It is challenging to convey just how much I was anticipating the next chapter in the lives of Joel and Ellie. The opening of the game gives us an overview of the original game as told by Joel to his brother, Tommy. He describes how he traveled across the country with Ellie and describes how he killed many Fireflies to save Ellie’s life. Watching it, I was surprised Joel shared this information with anyone, though if there is one person in his life that he might trust – it would be Tommy. Plus, it’s a useful summary for players that never went through the original game.
Joel is polishing up a guitar while speaking with Tommy and he eventually walks over to Ellie’s house, which is inside the Jackson, Wyoming compound Tommy resided in during The Last of Us. Joel speaks with Ellie and performs a song on the guitar, which I immediately recognized as Future Days by Pearl Jam. This delighted the hell out of me as I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan, and feeling a sense of alignment with the creative team behind the game further hooked me into the experience. Joel and Ellie share a nice moment as he gives her the guitar and schedules a time the next day to start giving her lessons. The scene fades to black and we return to a knock on the door waking up Ellie four years later.
We are introduced to Jesse as he’s there to summon Ellie for a patrol. During their conversations, we learn that Ellie was kissed by another woman, Dina, the night before and that Jesse previously had a romantic relationship with Dina. For those that played The Last of Us: Left Behind, Ellie’s attraction to women should not be a surprise; she had a romantic relationship with Riley, the girl she was with when she was bitten by infected. Ellie and Jesse walk about town and it’s a startling view compared to the abject misery that’s presented early in The Last of Us. The community looks like a holiday village comes to life complete with greenhouse gardens and festive decorations. Ellie speaks with Maria, Tommy’s partner from the original game and Seth, an older man that apologizes for some unknown infraction the night before. Maria references some difficulties between Ellie and Joel, and Ellie brushes that aside quickly; it makes one more curious about what the status of Ellie and Joel’s relationship is at this time.
Jesse continues walking with Ellie and we meet Dina for the first time as she’s throwing snowballs at children. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Dina comes over to speak to Ellie and they have an awkward conversation about their kiss last night, which is interrupted by the children pegging Ellie with a snowball. This leads to a tutorial of sorts on how to move, aim and fire. At this point, I’m about 20 minutes or so into the game and the primary stressors of The Last of Us seem far removed. Infected seem to be relatively controlled, Joel and Ellie’s relationship is strained – though ongoing – and a semblance of society seems to have returned. The only unsettling thing so far is that Dina reminds me too much of Vinny from Doogie Howser, M.D. I kept waiting for her to go, “You know, Ellie!”
Ellie and Dina mount two horses for their patrol and I’m expecting to control them as they clear out some infected, and here is where The Last of Us Part II starts to zag when I expect it to zig.
Who is Abby?
After the scene with Ellie and Dina fades to black, we meet an unknown woman waking from a nightmare in a well-furnished room with others. We learn that her name is Abby and she converses with a male, Owen, about their search for someone. Owen takes Abby outside away from the building and leads her along a path to an overlook with a view of the Jackson community shown earlier. Abby and Owen get into a disagreement and she explores the mountainside by herself, and the player takes control of her actions. Abby’s survival (and progressing through the game) now depends on the player’s actions, which means getting around infected and attempting to track down her still-unnamed prey.
As the player is trying to figure out who Abby is, the perspective in the game switches back to Ellie and Dina and they have their own run-ins with infected before taking shelter in a basement stocked with cannabis. They get high, flirt, and hook-up. The perspective shifts again back to Abby who is now tracking two sets of horse tracks in the snow. Tension builds as we expect Abby to be on the trail of Ellie and Dina, and she is quickly surrounded by infected.
My first instinct was to fight the infected though it becomes abundantly clear that fighting is not an option; Abby is swarmed by infected from all directions. The only option is to run – and the next 20-30 minutes of the game are probably the most jaw-dropping in terms of spectacle. Abby must sprint and dodge from infected as she attempts to find a refuge. She falls downs hills, jumps onto truck hoods, bounds over trees, and scrambles under a swarm of infected held up by a broken fence before she is rescued by the individuals on those two horses she was tracking – Joel and Tommy. The three of them have to hold off waves of infected in a ski lift lodge before Abby offers shelter with her group. They flee on horseback as another wave of injected run after them, and it fades to black.
We return to Ellie and Dina chatting after their dalliance when Jesse finds them – awkward! Jesse informs them that Joel and Tommy are missing, and they all go in different directions to look for him. The scene fades to black again and we return to Abby, Joel, and Tommy. They arrive on horseback at the compound Abby’s group have set up and a swarm of infected are destroyed with several Molotov cocktails. Upon taking the brothers to her group, Owen argues with Abby about her judgment until Tommy and Joel introduce themselves. The group immediately pivots and Abby shoots Joel in the knee with a shotgun while the other members of her group incapacitate Tommy. She forces another woman to apply a tourniquet to Joel’s leg so she can torture him. After grabbing a golf iron, she informs Joel, “You don’t get to rush this” before taking a full swing at his head.
The scene fades to black and we are back to Ellie. She finds a way to creep into the compound and hears Joel’s grunts and screams. Upon reaching the basement, she quickly spies Joel beaten to within an inch of his life by Abby. Ellie is quickly captured by others and pinned down to the ground, pleading for Joel to get up and with the group to leave Joel alone. A bit of chaos ensues with the group and Owen tells Abby to end it. She delivers a final blow with the golf wedge and various members of the group try to kill Ellie. Owen stops them and Ellie is knocked out. After the scene fades to black, Ellie is revived by Dina and she sees Joel’s dead body lying in the room. The scene fades to black again.
Less than two hours into the game, Joel is dead.
So That Sucked
The most interesting thing going into The Last of Us Part II was how the relationship between Ellie and Joel would develop and/or resolve. His near-immediate and brutal death means that the player is not going to experience that resolution during the course of the game. I took some notes while playing the game and wrote at this point, “They killed Joel? WTF. Robs me of Ellie learning about Joel’s actions. How will that resolve?” The game gives us a scene between Ellie and Tommy and they debate about the course of action; Ellie wants revenge and Tommy does as well though he is concerned about the safety of Jackson. Ellie declares she’s leaving for Seattle the next day as members of Abby’s team had WLF (Washington Liberation Front) patches on their clothing) and we next see her by Joel’s grave. Dina walks with her to Joel’s house and Ellie retrieves some things and then they meet up to Maria who informs them Tommy left overnight to follow the people that killed Joel. Maria allows Ellie and Dina to go after him and seek out their revenge.
While The Last of Us was a story of survival, hope, and potential redemption, The Last of Us Part II is a story of revenge so far. The game zips Ellie and Dina to Seattle where they find an empty and overgrown city. In another frustrating turn of events, the game experiments with some “open-world” concepts as Ellie and Dina must investigate various buildings that are highlighted on a map. Thankfully, this is limited to the early portion of the game, though I became fearful that the game wanted to emulate Skyrim for a few moments. The duo clear out infected in buildings and learn more about different factions that were vying for power in the city including a government agency (FEDRA) and the WLF. Ellie has learned some new tricks since the first game and Lara-Crofts it up by climbing and swinging around on ropes to access sections of a building. She hears some lessons about Judaism from Dina along the way (seriously), and they unlock a path further into the city.
In a game already rife with physical and emotional trauma, Ellie and Dina are subjected to even more as they progress into Seattle. They set of an improvised explosive device while on a horse and Ellie is captured by members of the WLF. Ellie is tied up and about to be executed before Dina kills one of her captures from the roof above; she crashes through a window and is almost chocked to death. Meanwhile, Ellie escapes her bonds and stabs the WLF member (the same guy she knifed in Jackson) multiple times in the throat. The duo have to fight their way out of the building and further into the city, killing WLF patrols along the way.
Their day in Seattle continues with more exploration and near brushes with death from WLF and infected. They end up underground and Ellie and Dina both don masks to protect from spores. They have a fraught encounter with many infected, which results in them fleeing as fast as possible back to ground level. Along the way, Ellie’s mask breaks and Dina questions why Ellie is not sick. She explains again that she is immune to Dina, and I’m thinking perhaps her storyline about immunity will take on greater prominence. At this point, Dina announces that she thinks she is pregnant and the two get into an argument about whether or not Dina is a burden.
Ellie ensures the theater they are in is secure, and eventually finds a guitar. She tunes the guitar and plays a few notes from Pearl Jam’s ‘Future Days’ again. While resting her head on the guitar, the scene shifts THREE YEARS EARLIER to Ellie practicing the guitar in the woods and Joel comes up to her.
Ah, so they’re going to give us the answers about their relationship in flashbacks!
Ellie and Joel enjoy some tender moments exploring a museum before they get split up. Ellie searches through an area of the museum and there is a growing sense of danger in the darkness and around every corner. However, the only scares here are from a few animal statues and a wild boar running loose. Ellie and Joel reunite and the scene concludes with them standing near a Firefly emblem with the word LIARS scrawled underneath. The scene fades and we are back to the present day with Ellie waking in the theater.
Ellie learns that Dina has been listening in to WLF radio communications and she provides Ellie with details about their surroundings. Ellie leave Dina behind in the theater and engages in a day of exploration and murder. A new wrinkle is that WLF has some patrols with dogs, so Ellie also has to kill some dogs along the way. She also has a run in with a nasty guy named Boris that’s graphic. Her search for Tommy continues and she runs into Jesse, and then they promptly proceed to get into another firefight with WLF members. This bit of business concludes with Jesse and Ellie stealing a vehicle and fleeing the scene as infected pour out of every direction. They fall down a cliff into a body of water and then return to the theater to discuss plans with Dina.
The scene fades and we leap back in time TWO YEARS EARLIER as this time Ellie is practicing sniping infected with Tommy. They meet up with Joel and the two of them go on patrol around town, culminating in clearing out a hotel. They have a monumental encounter with a Bloater and find the bodies of two individuals that left Jackson. Ellie confronts Joel about their encounter with the Fireflies back in Utah that closes out the first game. Joel lies to Ellie again and tells her there was no option for a cure. We then fade back to Ellie talking with Dina in the present day.
Ellie continues to roam around and under the city killing infected along the way. She gets above ground again and runs into a park controlled by the Scars, yet another faction in Seattle. She takes them out on her way to a hospital where she believes Abby to be. At one point, she sneaks up on a young woman listening to headphones and murders her; the music the woman was listening to continues to play while Ellie explores the room. It was a rough a brutal moment of realism in a game that simply forces you to kill and kill again. Ellie searches the hospital and another odd musical cue is when Ice Cube’s ‘Today Was a Good Day’ is playing on a radio. She does not find Abby; instead she finds another member of the WLF, Nora. Nora attempts to escape and Ellie chases her down into the basement of the hospital, which is host to many infected. Humans and infected clash and Ellie finishes off the leftover bodies before confronting Nora once again. Nora is horrified because she’s breathing in spores and knows she’s about to die, and she’s dumbfounded that Ellie isn’t showing signs of infection. Nora refuses to give up the location of Abby and reminds Ellie of all the Fireflies that Joel killed; Ellie kills her by smashing a pipe into her head over and over.
Ellie returns to the theater to rest with Jesse and Dina, and Dina consoles her as Ellie talks about making Nora talk. The scene fades and we are back to Saint Mary’s Hospital in Utah, home of the Firefly base from the first game TWO YEARS EARLIER.
Ellie is searching the same corridors Joel walked down to save Ellie years earlier. She finds documents about her diagnostic tests and the surgery the Fireflies planned to perform. She then finds an audio recording from Marlene that details the plans to operate on Ellie to produce a vaccine. When Ellie is back outside the hospital, Joel rides up on horseback like he’s chasing down Ellie after she stayed out too late one night (more on this in a moment). Ellie gives Joel a final opportunity to tell her the truth about what happened with the Fireflies – and Joel explains that an attempt to create a vaccine would have killed her, so he stopped them. Ellie tearfully tells Joel she’ll return to Jackson though their relationship is over.
The designers of the game make you murder scores of people (living and dead) before granting the scene between Ellie and Joel; it’s the answer to a question that has been present since the final moments of the first game. The scene itself is satisfying and so now we know how she found out – by traveling from Jackson, Wyoming to Saint Mary’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. She left a note for Joel, who immediately sets off after her. The best case scenario is Ellie and her horse made the trip in approximately 24 hours; it’s over 260 miles between locations and that’s without dodging infected, hunters and who knows what else out on the roads and in the wild. Joel storming in like she just broke curfew by a few minutes seemed out of place, though this is just a little nitpick.
I’m much more concerned about the carnage the game heaps upon the player. Speaking of which….
Ellie teams up with Jesse for another day of exploration in Seattle; they find the decorations for a comic convention at the convention center, which was a nerdy touch an any moment of levity needs to be cherished during this game. The two of them kill various infected and eventually split up because Jesse wants to help out someone that is likely Tommy and Ellie wants to pursue Abby. She kills more members of the WLF and steals a boat, which has handling on par with the Mako from the original Mass Effect. Ellie then murders a bunch of Scars in their hideout and finally makes it to the aquarium to find two of the WLF members, Owen and Mel, that were present when Joel was killed. She forces them to give up the location of Abby and when they resist, she kills them both. She only realizes that Mel was pregnant after she’s dead. In her shocked state, Ellie leaves the map her and Dina had been using to plot out their plans through Seattle.
Jesse and Tommy catch up to her and they take her back to the theater where she is seen resting with Dina. She leaves Dina to speak with Tommy and Jesse; they are planning their escape from Seattle and Ellie views it as a retreat. She still wants Abby to be dead. As they are bantering, voices are heard from the entrance of the theater. Jesse and Ellie rush to the entrance and burst through a door; Jesse is shot in the face by Abby – who used the map left by Ellie at the aquarium to track her down.
Abby threatens Ellie and tells her to throw her gun away while she points a gun at her and Tommy. Ellie cries out that she knows why Abby killed Joel; because Joel killed everyone to protect her. Abby points her gun and Ellie and the scene fades to black for several seconds.
Part II, Part 2
We return to gameplay as a younger Abby FOUR YEARS EARLIER. She is hiking around with her father in some type of overgrown zoo. Her father finds a zebra trapped in barb wire and Owen joins them to assist in getting the zebra free. They continue walking and the scene opens up to give a view of Saint Mary’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. It becomes clear that Abby’s father is one of the doctors that was planning to operate on Ellie to find a vaccine. Her father is seen discussing the procedure with Marlene and Abby walks into the room as Marlene gives permission to proceed with the surgery.
Flashing forward a bit, we play as Abby walking down the hallway of the hospital Joel walked down in the first game and Ellie walked down a bit earlier in this game. She finds her father dead in the operating room and Owen consoles her. It then moves to the moment before Abby killed Joel and shows her final killing blow again. While the WLF members debate killing Ellie, Abby stops them and yells, “We’re done!”
Then the game goes back to the first day in Seattle – only now the player takes over the actions of Abby. She has a conversation with Manny through some type of facility with families, classrooms and a cafeteria. She moves through the facility and then it opens up to be the football stadium in Seattle where the Seahawks play. Another nifty touch! Abby goes on a patrol run with Manny and Mel and they are ambushed by Scars on horseback. There is a good amount of time path finding and killing infected in a huge hardware store (think Home Depot or Lowe’s). Abby makes it to a WLF compound and speaks with Nora and others including the leader, Issac, who is planning a massive attack against the Scar island.
Owen seems to be in some distress though Issac doesn’t want Abby to go after him; she has other ideas. As she claims to know where Owen is while looking toward the marina, we flashback to THREE YEARS EARLIER as Owen is teasing Abby on a Ferris wheel. Abby has a fear of heights that Owen takes advantage of and they end up touring the aquarium that we already broke into as Ellie. Abby and Owen clearly have a storied relationship as they kiss though Abby is focused on finding Joel.
The game moves back to Abby leaving the WLF compound with Manny. She travels around town at dusk and kills infected and Scars. She is eventually captured by Scars and knocked out with a hammer blow to the head. As Abby loses consciousness, the game moves back FOUR MONTHS EARLIER to the aquarium once again. We get to see Abby and Owen chatting and flirting before Owen challenges Abby to a target-shooting contest. (Sure, why not!) Owen leads Abby upstairs to a festive, holiday-like, lighted-up room and some moonshine when Abby informs Owen she has found a possible location for Joel’s brother. Owen agrees to follow Abby and others to seek out Joel’s brother.
The game moves back to Abby’s story as she is carried by Scars into a camp and hung up. In the moment she is about to be stabbed, another character, Yara, is shown being brought into the camp. She is questioned about the location of “the apostate” and refuses to answer. Yara is held down and her elbow is smashed repeatedly with a hammer before one of her captures takes some arrows in the face and chest. While the Scars are distracted by the incoming arrows, Yara kills one of them with a hatchet and Abby manages to get the large Scar woman into a stranglehold; Yara finishes off the Scar held by Abby with a clawed-hammer blow to the head.
Lev enters the scene as the sharpshooter and Yara instructs Lev to cut down Abby even though Abby is “one of them.” The three of them fight off Stalkers while running through the woods and find some shelter. After getting away from the Stalkers, they are ambushed by the Scar leader that I thought was killed by Yara a few moments earlier; she’s back with her huge warhammer. Abby defeats her and leads Yara and Lev indoors where of course more infected are lurking. Abby carries Yara to safety and attempts to mend her severely broken arm. She then leaves them behind and continues on her path to find Owen – more infected are obstacles during a trip through boats and docks.
Abby reaches the aquarium once again and finds Owen alone in a sailboat. Owen discloses that he couldn’t kill a Scar and that another WLF member, Danny, accused him of being a traitor. Owen killed Danny in the ensuing altercation and now plans to sail to Santa Barbara to find the Fireflies. Owen and Abby get into an argument that quickly transitions into them having angry sex. (I’m not a game designer and complaining about a doggy-style sex scene seems trivial after hours of horrendous violence…. but really? Really?!) The scene (thankfully) fades to Abby running through the halls of Saint Mary’s Hospital only to walk into the ER that is the woods with Yara and Lev hanging dead instead of an operating room. Abby wakes up and decides to go searching for Yara and Lev.
Abby is now on her 2nd Day in Seattle and is going back to find Yara and Lev. She clears a path through numerous Scars (i.e., kills them) and finds Lev hunkered down protecting Yara. Abby carries Yara back to the aquarium to enlist Owen’s help. Mel is back at the aquarium and Abby asks her to save Yara; Mel informs them all Yara has compartment syndrome and the arm has to come off. Abby offers to go back to the hospital to get medical supplies though Mel says that will take too long. Lev offers to escort Abby by high bridges the Scars have built throughout the city, which is more direct and will save many hours.
Abby departs the aquarium with Lev after sharing some tense words with Owen. Lev leads Abby up and up and up to tiny catwalks that span the skyscrapers of Seattle. Abby’s fear of heights interferes with her climbing and she falls off the catwalk with Lev; they both (rather conveniently) crash through a window and into a swimming pool in a building. They now have to descend the floors and fight through many infected including some that break out of nests in the walls. Abby and Lev bond during the descent and end up outside of the WLF-controlled hospital. Abby leaves Lev behind before approaching the hospital alone.
Abby is taken into custody by the WLF members since she’s been AWOL for over a day; Issac isn’t happy with her though Nora shows up and frees her. Nora tells her the only medical supplies left are below in the ICU, which is likely overrun with infected. Abby makes a HARROWING walk to ICU and it becomes clear that something terrible is going to happen down here. The building tension during this segment is well-executed.
A gross infected monstrosity attempts to rip Abby in half and she has to flee. A stressful chase ensues and then Abby has no choice but to face down the Boss in a large area. The Boss absorbs a great deal of damage though eventually dies, allowing Abby to escape the hospital. This fight was punishing, and I had to endure Abby’s face being ripped apart and twisted too many times than I care to admit. Abby gets outside and boards a boat with Lev, and then time flashes ahead to Abby and Lev waiting outside a room inside the aquarium.
Owen comes out and explains that the surgery on Yara was successful. Abby and Owen reflect on how they’ve become mindless killers (I’m summarizing) and agree that Lev and Yara are “only kids.” Abby sees Yara recovering and we flash back again to Abby running through the halls of Saint Mary’s Hospital. This time she reaches the ER and finds her father alive and smiling. She wakes up to start the 3rd Day in Seattle.
Abby runs into Mel and the two of them get into an argument: Mel calls Abby “a piece of shit” and tells her she’s not welcome to join Owen, Yara, Lev and her on the trip to Santa Barbara. Yara interrupts Abby’s fuming to enlist her help to find Lev who is currently hiding somewhere in the aquarium. Their conversation is interrupted by a game of fetch with a dog that goes on for a couple of minutes. (Weird! It’s really bizarre timing.) Yara goes on to explain how Lev would likely be harmed by their mother; Abby mentions that she heard the Scar referring to Lev as Lily. Abby and Yara talk about the traditions of the Lev’s community and how it does not allow for Lev to challenge gender roles.
Lev is seen taking off for the Scar island in a boat and Abby and Yara go after him. Owen attempts to join through Abby tells him to remain with Mel to fix the sailboat. We flash ahead to Abby and Yara leaving the marina. Abby leaves Yara behind when gunshots are heard ahead; Abby scouts ahead and is tackled by Manny. Manny explains that a sniper ahead has killed his entire team. Abby and Manny have to fight off infected while also dodging sniper fire. Manny is eventually shot in the head by the sniper. Abby catches up to the sniper, and it’s Tommy. Yara and Abby clash with Tommy and he falls off the dock into the water below.
Abby and Yara grab a boat and make way for the Scar’s island. Abby and Yara sneak around the village and find Lev’s mother dead. Lev is hiding in the corner of the room and explains that he and his mother got into a fight; Lev killed his mother by accident. The three of them attempt to escape the island and Yara is killed by a member of the WLF who are attacking the island and Issac confronts Abby; Abby shields Lev from Issac and he threatens to kill them both. Right as he’s about to fire his gun, Yara shoots him dead and the WLF return fire to certainly kill her this time. Abby and Lev flee the scene and have to fight through multiple waves of WLF members.
The villages on Scar island are in flames as Abby and Lev murder their way to the coast. They end up in a flaming barn and have to break through the inferno to escape. An enormous Scar with another warhammer knocks out Lev and battles Abby. His face gets sliced open with a blade though he still fights on and we are treated to another gruesome death as Abby has to stab him multiple times in the face with a broken arrow. Lev and Abby find a boat and row away from the island, which is raging with gunshots and uncontrolled fires.
The scene fades again and we pick up the action with Abby rowing up to aquarium back in Seattle. Abby finds the dog, Alice, dead in the hallway and walks deeper into the building to find Mel and Owen murdered. Abby sobs while Lev picks up Ellie’s map that was left behind. Abby stares at the map and then turns to face Lev. The game fades to black and then shows Abby outside of the theater where Ellie is inside.
Abby sneaks inside the theater and finds Tommy. As she is ordering Tommy to get down on the ground, Ellie and Jessie burst into the room. Abby quickly shoots Jessie in the face and Ellie admits Joel killed everyone to save her. Tommy charges Abby and Lev and Abby fight back; Tommy is shot in the head by Abby while Ellie runs away. Abby informs Lev to watch the exit while she chases Ellie through the theater.
Abby is forced into a cat-and-mouse game with Ellie because Ellie will kill Abby with a one-shot strike with a sickle if you get too close to her. This encounter reminded me of tracking down David in The Last of Us – only instead of the player trying to sneak up on and murder a cannibal attempting to rape, kill and eat you, the player is trying to sneak up on Ellie. (Make of that what you will.) Abby finally tracks down Ellie and beats the ever-loving shit out of her. Abby is about to murder Ellie when Dina jumps in and wildly attacks Abby with a knife. Abby easily defends herself with assistance from Lev and is about to kill Dina when Ellie pleads with her to stop. Lev asks for Abby to stop the violence. Ellie and Dina are both severely injured and Abby walks away from them both saying that she never wants to see them again. Abby and Lev walk away and the camera lingers on Dina and Ellie bruised and bleeding out.
The game flashes ahead to a farmhouse in the country. Ellie is holding Joel’s broken watch when a baby crying stirs her into action. She picks up the child from a crib and walks through the house. She slings the baby to her chest and then has to herd some sheep back into a barn. While helping a lone sheep stuck behind some tools in the barn, a shovel falls over and this triggers a flashback to Joel’s murder.
Ellie finds herself back in the building where Joel was killed and unable to reach him. Dina snaps her out of it in the barn and takes the baby away from her. Dina sits down with her and attempts to console Ellie. The scene fades and we are back to a close-up of a dead rabbit Ellie shot while hunting. She walks back to the fenced-in farm and up to the house. Tommy is somehow alive inside; looks like he lost an eye though is still breathing.
I just saw him shot in the face? Okay. (Whatever.)
Tommy sits down Ellie and explains how he got a lead on where to find Abby along the coast of California. Dina does not want Ellie to leave on another quest for revenge. Tommy guilts Ellie into going after Abby and walks out while Dina argues with Tommy for putting pressure on Ellie. Tommy is quite the asshole in this scene, and it is frustrating to spend more time with him than Joel throughout the game. (Who left The Last of Us and thought, “I really want to know what Tommy is up to these days?”) The scene moves ahead to Ellie playing the guitar once again, which opens up another scene from back in Jackson before the game started.
Ellie is at a party and watching Dina dance; Jesse comes up to her and talks about Joel and Dina. Dina grabs Ellie’s hand and leads her out to the dance floor. Dina kisses Ellie in the middle of the dance floor, which sparks a gruff conservative guy, Seth, to break it up and call Dina a “loud-mouthed dyke.” Ellie is having none of that and before any kind of altercation can take off, Joel bursts in the confront Seth. Ellie tells Joes she doesn’t need “his fucking help” and Joel is wounded by the words. Ellie seems troubled as well.
The game flashed back to Ellie packing up some gear in the farmhouse and Dina confronts her about her intentions to go after Abby. Ellie tells Dina she has to finish it because she doesn’t eat or sleep. Dina begs her to stay and Ellie says she can’t. Dina gives probably the most reasonable speech of anyone in the game asking Ellie to stay, and then informs her she’s not going to wait around again. Ellie walks out leaving Dina in tears.
The game shifts back to Abby and Lev searching for Fireflies on a street in California. Abby takes out some infected and they explore some houses along the street. They eventually make find a basement with a radio and various maps. Lev finds a page with frequencies and locations; Abby tries all of the frequencies on the radio until she gets a response. She reaches a man that questions her about her identity as a Firefly. She discloses that she was attached to the Salt Lake facility, which was led by her father.
The man on the radio says there are about 200 Fireflies on Catalina Island. Abby agrees to travel to that location and exits the house with Lev. Armed men and women attack the pair and take them prisoner. The game fades out again, and we pick up with Ellie searching for Abby in California. She finds a list of addresses on Abby’s boat including the street we just saw Abby and Lev get attacked on.
Ellie has to fight through infected while reaching the street. When she finally reaches the street level, she is quickly trapped in a snare and swung up into the air. She bounces off a tree, getting partially impaled by a broken branch – because, sure, why not have even more gruesome violence. (The constant brutalization of Ellie and Abby throughout the game reminded me of the horrific deaths they subjected Lara Croft to in the Tomb Raider reboot years ago. Why is depicting vicious injuries and gruesome deaths of women a genre in games?) Ellie passes out hanging upside down and is cut loose by two of the same guys that earlier attacked Abby and Lev.
Ellie talks some smack to the younger dude and he threatens to feed her to a captured infected. She leans into this and the infected bites the guy, which gives her an opportunity to take his gun and interrogate the leader about where to find Abby. He explains that Abby is in a holding cell in their camp nearby; Ellie is bitten again by the infected and bleeding from her wound. She kills the guy who gave her the information and follows his directions to the resort.
Ellie has to murder her way through waves of a new faction of bad people calling themselves the Rattlers (pretty generic, really). She reaches the resort to find some Clickers chained into a swimming pool (to demonstrate how vile this faction is) and a swarm of enemies with guns and armor. She fights her way further into the resort and clears through even more humans. Ellie finds some prisoners and sets them free; they tell her Abby tried to escape and is “down by the pillars.”
Ellie walks down to a beach and finds Abby strung up to a pillar along with others that are likely dead strung up to pillars. Abby is gaunt and looks to be malnourished and close to death. The entire scene feels like a religious crucifixion. Lev is hanging nearby and Abby lets her down; Abby informs Ellie boats are nearby and carries Lev in that direction. Abby loads Lev into a boat and says she’s not going to fight.
Ellie threatens Lev’s life to instigate Abby to fight. As Ellie with a knife, you fight Abby unarmed in the water like the final brawl between Johnny Utah and Bodhi in Point Break. Ellie plunges a knife into Abby’s shoulder and appears to have the upper hand when Abby fights back; the fight goes on not quite as long as the epic brawl from They Live – though it has that vibe (and it feels too long). Abby bites off two of Ellie’s fingers and they are both a savaged mess.
Ellie is about to drown Abby in the ocean when she has a memory of Joel playing guitar on a porch back in Jackson. Ellie lets Abby go, and Abby wordlessly gets into the boat and floats away with Lev. Ellie is sitting in the water crying and the scene fades to black.
We find Ellie again in front of the farmhouse (sans two fingers) and she finds the house empty. Dina and the baby are gone; Ellie picks up the guitar once more and plays again. The game fades to black and we pick up with Joel playing guitar on the porch on the night of the party in Jackson. Ellie walks over and Joel who explains how he traded likely too much to get some coffee, which he is now drinking. Ellie tells Joel that she had the conservative guy back, Seth, under control and that Joel needs to stop bullying Jesse around; Joel agrees.
Joel asks if Dina is Ellie’s girlfriend and tells Ellie that Dina would be lucky to have her. Ellie calls Joel an “asshole” and tells him that she was supposed to die back at Saint Mary’s (the conclusion of the original The Last of Us). Joel declares that he would save her again if given the opportunity. Ellie remarks that she can never forgive Joel for that action – though she would like to try. An emotional Joel responds, “I’d like that,” and Ellie leaves, “Okay. I’ll see you around.”
We go back to Ellie in the farmhouse with the guitar, which she rests against an open window. She grabs a backpack and the camera zooms toward the window. We see Ellie walking with determination away from the house.
And the credits roll.
A Sequel’s Ambition
I started writing this article months ago soon after completing The Last of Us Part II. As my writing shifted to a running diary of what it was like to play the game, I grew wearisome. Playing through the game once was trying enough; reliving it through writing about the mountain of death and suffering that a player is required to scale in order to obtain any meaningful resolution to questions posed in the original game was too much to bear.
I lost interest in writing about the game. I posted a few tweets about how I found the game purposely disappointing and moved on to other topics. I still haven’t searched around to read or listen to commentary about the game. So I found myself surprised when I saw The Last of Us Part II praised in multiple Game of the Year discussions. It prompted me to finish the article.
The Last of Us Part II delivers some of the most cinematic action sequences I’ve ever played with Abby’s flight from infected on a mountain early in the game being utterly breathtaking in scope and execution. The voice acting is wonderful throughout and the characters are infused with life by the talented actors performing those roles. Perhaps because I replayed the original game and the Left Behind DLC leading up to the release of the sequel, the combat against waves of infected and humans felt repetitive. The ethics for the killing in the first game were mostly anchored to survival and a quest to save humanity. The killing in The Last of Us Part II is about revenge and warring factions or philosophies. It is a punishing experience to play through the game if you have any shred of empathy.
I recently wrote about Hades and how that game does a masterful job of rewarding the player. It delivers quick-paced, satisfying combat and doses of story that are engaging. The Last of Us Part II forces the player to experience countless traumas and kill (and kill again) to get brief slivers of scenes that were setup by the first game. Let’s return to the questions posed by The Last of Us:
- How would Ellie discover definitely that Joel lied to her?
- What will Ellie do once she learns that Joel killed The Fireflies to save her life?
- What will happen to the relationship between Ellie and Joel once that reveal takes place?
- Are surviving members of The Fireflies searching for Ellie because they still believe she can provide a cure? Or search for Joel for revenge?
In order to unlock the answers to these questions, the game relies on misdirection, suspense, and loads of murdering infected and humans to access them. The majority of answers to these questions are told through BRIEF flashbacks or the perspective of new characters. The storytelling approach could be labeled as creative, ambitious or infuriating. Perhaps all three! The intersecting stories and how the paths of Ellie and Abby overlap and collide is interesting in a Pulp Fiction or The Godfather Part II chopped-up timeline sort-of way. Overall, it is not satisfying.
And maybe that’s the point.
In the first game, Ellie was a kid that was in an extraordinary situation. Thrust into a situation she didn’t ask for, she responded by keeping herself and a newfound mentor and father figure, Joel, alive through whatever means necessary. She fought off infected and killed raiders, though she seemed willing to risk her life in order to give humanity a chance to find a vaccine through her immunity.
After witnessing Joel’s death, Ellie is a terrible person throughout the sequel. She risks the lives of many to seek out revenge and kills anyone in her way. She is motivated not by something grand like finding a cure to a worldwide plague; she is motivated by revenge. She simply wants to find the one woman that murdered Joel and kill her. That is her only motivation; her immunity to the infected is barely referenced throughout the length of the game. And when Ellie somehow survives her murdering rampage through Seattle and is given an opportunity to have remorse or learn from past mistakes, she leaves the safety and love of Dina to pursue revenge AGAIN.
We got a deep look in Joel’s psyche in the first game, and he’s mostly absent from the sequel. Instead of spooling out banter and moments between Joel and Ellie during natural gameplay, the scenes that provide some answers to “What happens between Joel and Ellie after The Last of Us concluded?” are delivered after he dies through flashbacks mashed between harrowing action sequences and death. We see Joel mostly as a defeated figure that is steadfast on keeping Ellie safe; he hasn’t really grown or learned anything new before Abby smashes his skull with a golf iron. It’s four years later, the infected crisis persists – and he doesn’t have any second thoughts about “the greater good”?
The story conclusions for Joel and Ellie are dire and sad. As a player that cared about both of these people from the events in the first game, that’s a disappointing outcome. It’s not that I expected a happy ending for both of them, though sitting through 30 hours of carnage to find them both worse off (or dead) compared to the first game is unpleasant.
Which leaves the story of Abby (and by extension, Yara and Lev) – another ambitious wrinkle in the sequel. Forcing players into the perspective of the daughter of a murdered surgeon from the conclusion of the first game is a bold move. It purposely screws up the player’s motives and justifications for violence throughout the game. This culminates in a truly bizarre action sequence when Abby is stalking Ellie in order to kill her. The game does not give the player a choice in this; you have to attack Ellie to proceed.
Abby’s growth throughout the three days in Seattle is noteworthy in that it tries to encourage the player to feel sympathy for her. We are forced to watch her kill Joel in cold blood and then watch her come to terms with her murdering ways as she goes out of her way to save two kids from a rival faction. Your mileage likely varies about how much you buy into her face turn with Yara and Lev. She passes on the chance to kill Ellie even though Ellie killed many of her friends.
As a player, who are you meant to sympathize with? Do you want Ellie to kill Abby? (I didn’t.) Did you want Abby to kill Ellie? (I didn’t want that either). Did you want them to figure out a way to put aside differences and find the Fireflies to see if they could take another shot at a vaccine? (YES! For Christ’s sake! What are we even doing here in this sequel?) Abby’s story concludes with her seeking out the Fireflies with Lev in tow to find some sort of redemption. It’s about the only positive note the game offers, which means the person who murdered Joel has the one possible hopeful moment as the game ends.
Dina and Jesse are two characters that seem like real people. Sadly, Jesse is killed and Dina is abandoned by the person we are supposed to be rooting for, Ellie. Living in middle of nowhere with a flimsy fence seems like a bad idea with infected running loose – not to mention the rest of living humanity that is shown over and over again in these games to be a disgraceful collection of thieves, opportunists and sadists. I hope Dina is back in Jackson taking her child for sled rides with some relatively safe and quiet nights; she deserves it!
So, was The Last of Us Part II incredibly clever and ambitious or completely f**king misguided? My answer continues to hinge on a simple – BOTH. Both is good! Presented with such a unique opportunity to follow-up on a game that expanded the emotional stakes and scale of what was possible in the format, the creators swung mightily for the fences with the sequel. Among narrative choices that warped the player’s experience of what (and when) they were seeing events unfold, the creators challenged gender norms with Abby’s physique and Lev’s transgender identity. They challenged player ambitions and assumptions and force-fed an experience that is unrelentingly cruel.
The Last of Us also exposed the player to countless trauma. There’s the death of Joel’s daughter, the misery of life in quarantine, the brutality of combat against infected and the surviving humans setting aside all norms to get whatever they can, the last stand of Tess, the infection of Sam and subsequent suicide of Henry, the gritty confrontation with cannibals and showdown with David, the conclusion at Saint Mary’s and rescue of Ellie from the Fireflies.
There was a heart to all of it though. A purpose as a player I could talk myself into. Ellie and Joel were victims of circumstance and thrust into action. The game was unsettling and posed questions that were uncomfortable – I was able to endure that.
The paragraphs of trauma and anguish above that describe the sequel lack any sense of a heart. There isn’t a purpose outside of dueling revenge stories. The only character the player gets to control with any shred of positive growth is Abby, and she starts of the game by killing Joel. If the creators of the game want to challenge the audience to reflect on tribalism and change their ways, I applaud that notion, sure. The folks in Jackson, the three factions in Seattle (FEDRA, WLF, Scars), and the (pretty generic really) thugs in Santa Barbara (Rattlers) are all the same – good and bad. They are all doing what they can to survive and protect what is theirs.
The self-centered approach by all factions results in conflict and death, and this plays out repeatedly in the game. Perhaps the creators want the player to put down the controller and think about their own self-centered approach to the surrounding community and the world. Maybe they want the player to consider what factions and tribes they belong to and how those organizations make life more difficult or painful for others?
Maybe that was the goal with this sequel, and that goal is ambitious if not downright righteous.
And maybe the first game was lightning in the bottle while the sequel is 30 hours of misguided murder and trauma porn that likely results in a third entry to the series with even more carnage.
Either way of all the stories the creative team had an opportunity to tell…. it remains disappointing they decided on this one.