Ever get the feeling that you’re not in the majority of a public opinion? I feel like Grimdark Magazine‘s review is going to be this way because the rating I’m giving The Last of Us 2 is an extremely high one. 9 out of 10 and it would be higher if not for the fact that it is being compared to its predecessor. I’m a fan of the gameplay, the visuals, the stories, and the characters. The game is a real gut punch in places but that’s exactly what the developers were going for and they achieve it. I’m going to talk about what I think some of the reviewers have a problem with and why I think it makes the game better (at least to grimdark fans).
One thing to discuss before we begin with is the fact that this is a direct continuation of The Last of Us, which is a bit different than a sequel. Many of the themes, ideas, and storytelling beats depend on you having a familiarity with the first game. If you’re unfamiliar with The Last of Us, you basically shouldn’t play this game. That’s not necessarily the case with many other franchises as nothing really hurts you if you play Uncharted 2 or Dragon Age 2 separately from the first game. If you want to play The Last of Us 2, boot up the original game and play it first. If you don’t care, then I’m going to spoil the hell out of the first game and how it relates to the continuation below.
Do you consider yourself warned?
The ending of The Last of Us is a delicious use of what literature teachers like I used to be call dramatic irony. Joel and Ellie travel across a post-apocalypse Earth overrun with fungus zombies (called cordyceps) to deliver the latter to a group of scientist-terrorists called the Fireflies. Ellie is the sole human immune to the zombie plague and in her brain lies the secret to the cure. The Fireflies then reveal that to make the cure, they must chop up poor 14-year-old Ellie’s brain. Joel, in a fit of paternal instinct, murders all of them and carries Ellie away to a walled town called Jacksonville. It’s one of the best endings of all time and equally one of the most controversial because both sides believe they’re the right side.
Before we continue, I should state I’m with Joel and I hate every one of the Fireflies with a passion reserved for Walder Frey or the Southern Union in Mafia III. If you subscribe to Utilitarianism, then it’s a perfectly valid decision to chop up a little girl to save the world. If you don’t, then they’re a bunch of murderers. A lot of good science fiction has been made from this very premise including Cold Equations and Those Who Walk Away from Omelas. Joel’s act that restores his humanity is the same act that may doom humanity, but I don’t remotely condemn it.
The game picks up immediately after this as Joel does his best to reconnect with Ellie despite the gulf existing between them. Eventually, Joel manages to win her over and they forge a life together as father/daughter. Unfortunately, Joel can’t escape from his actions and he’s eventually tracked down by a girl named Abby (Laura Bailey) along with her friends. They’re here for revenge on the sonofabitch who murdered all the Fireflies. I won’t spoil what happens next but Ellie proceeds on a mission to murder Abby and her friends in a decidedly cyclical act of revenge.
In simple terms, I love this story and it reminds me a lot of the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit. The Last of Us and post-apocalypse stories in general are very often reskinned Westerns. Hell, the title of my second most famous book is Cthulhu Armageddon: A Post-Apocalypse Western. I’m very much a fan of the latter incarnations of the Western like Unforgiven that highlight the hero being barely any better than the quarry they seek. Ellie’s survival in the rough and tumble world of the fallen United States has meant she’s become more like Joel than the child she used to be. I like that as it resonates me a lot with the same sort of themes that I enjoyed in the early seasons of The Walking Dead.
Part of what makes the story work for me is that we do get to follow Abby enough to understand that, essentially, she and Ellie are identical. Both are daddy-loving down-home girls who are forging their lives as best they can in the hellscape they’ve found themselves in. They settle on murdering the people who ruined their families, only to bring holy hell down each other’s lives as more people get involved in their vendetta. If you have any knowledge whatsoever of blood feuds in real life such as the kind that afflicted Sicily, Albania, or other nations then this is true to life. Real life rarely works like John Wick. It’s much more like Taken 2 where you find out that even scumbags have friends, family, and loved ones.
Some reviewers have expressed a disdain for the game’s narrative. They dislike Ellie’s journey from being an adorable innocent (which she never was) to someone who is willing to commit murder to avenge her loved ones. They also dislike the fact that Ellie very consciously chooses revenge over building a life for herself as well as other survivors. There’s also the fact that Ellie is an LGBT+ protagonist, one of the few in modern gaming, who goes through nine different kinds of hell to enact dreadful retribution on those who wronged her. Honestly, I think it’s a credit to Naughty Dog that they gave such a meaty story to not only a woman but a queer one. Arya Stark is beloved because she’s Death’s Chosen, not because she was a sweetie pie. Though she was both now that I think about it.
Gameplaywise, the game is fine. It’s pretty much The Last of Us with the addition of the fact that Ellie can now swim. There’s a bigger focus on mortal enemies than there is on the cordyceps but I’m fine with that. This isn’t a game about the fungus apocalypse but the effects on humanity after the survivors have managed to weather the worst of it. I think humanity will survive without a vaccine but it’s because we’ve become a bunch of hardass brutal survivors. We just need to keep the Ellies and Abbys of the world from killing each other. Visually, the game is gorgeous and a lot of it is just going to be you stopping to look at the “Fallout 4 if it was real” natural beauty.
So, ignore the naysayers and pick this up if you don’t mind a pair of blooded cold-blooded killer gals on a mission to take the other out. I certainly don’t.
Buy The Last of Us 2