This review contains comprehensive story and gameplay spoilers.
The Last of Us Part II starts with an image of a motorboat rocking on a dark blue shore. It’s nighttime, and the waters ahead are choppy. We can hear a quiet wind. When I first saw this image, I let it sit there for a bit onscreen, watching the boat wobble, wondering what it might mean for this blockbuster sequel that we’ve all been anticipating for so many years. Would this be the boat that takes you home? Or the one that strands you out at sea? Wherever this little vessel would bring us in the end, I thought, the waters ahead would be rough as hell.
I was right. The sequel to The Last of Us is an outrageously disturbing game, an experience so ridden with traumatic imagery that I shuddered turning on my PS4 again to prepare myself for writing this review. But it’s also a courageous story, an important one, a game that I think anyone who’s ever enjoyed a violent video game should experience for themselves, painful as it may be. The Last of Us Part II (out now on PS4) is not a movie, but I’ll be damned if I’ve seen a more compelling story told onscreen this year—video game, film, or otherwise.
Final warning: huge story details ahead.
Somewhere within the opening hours of The Last of Us Part II, our expectations for this sequel are fractured. The first game was a superhero story—you played as Joel, the gruff, tortured, Western-type hero who used his superpowers as a marksman and face-puncher to save Ellie, his foster daughter, the only known human who’s immune to the zombie virus. In the first act of Part II, Joel, who once seemed invincible to danger, is beaten to death with a golf club. At first it seems reckless on the developers’ part. They just killed off one of the two reasons we love this series! But we soon begin to understand why Joel had to die. For this sequel to exist, for The Last of Us Part II to feel like anything other than a The Last of Us reunion special, the tired story of a violent man and his heroically violent means had to be shattered. It had to become something new.
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When Joel is killed, The Last of Us Part II goes flying in every direction, bringing to the surface new perspectives, new timelines, new characters. All of these threads emanate from one single act of brutality so cruel, so awful, that you’ll wonder how you were ever able to shoot a bad guy in a video game without feeling something before.
Killing off the series’ most violent character, though, doesn’t end up making The Last of Us Part II any less violent. Ellie is now doomed to pay Joel’s life debt; he did save her life in the first game, after all. So this sequel becomes a revenge story, but by no means a traditional one. Joel is killed by Abby, a completely new character to the series. You soon find out that Abby’s father was killed in the first game during one of Joel’s many seemingly heroic murder sprees. So in the intersecting multi-narrative of The Last of Us Part II, Abby, too, finds herself hellbent on revenge. Because of this two-handed structure, you spend much of the game looking at yourself in the mirror. For the first half of it, you play as Ellie, as she tears through Seattle in search of Abby. When she finally finds Abby, the game stops, turns around, and starts over, forcing you to play through the same few days again, but this time as Abby in search of Ellie. The game tethers these two women together like a Chinese finger trap. Every act of violence you make in the first half becomes an act of self-harm in the second.
As you can imagine, this makes the game’s finale, when the two stories finally collide again, thorny as all hell. It’s an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye, until there are no eyes left, and the two women are laid bare, physically emaciated, and scraped pencil-thin. Only when Ellie and Abby are at their weakest do they understand the futility of revenge. Because, of course, these acts of violence have consequences. And boy, do we see them play out in the frightening epilogue.
The Last of Us Part II bears a lot of resemblance to subversive neo-Westerns of the past twenty years. Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada come to mind. Those films are fantastic; they’ve stayed with me for years. But this game will probably have a longer-lasting effect. In The Last of Us Part II, instead of just watching these stories, you’re living them. You control these characters. You make their choices. And as a lot of critics have already pointed out, some of the decisions Ellie and Abby are forced to make—that we are forced to make—are miserable. You’re forced to kill a dog, beat a woman to death with a pipe, and in the harrowing final boss battle, quite literally try to kill yourself.
So of course I don’t assume that The Last of Us Part II will please everyone. It’s not built to please you; good stories never are. But for this sequel to be anywhere near as impactful as its predecessor, it had to say something new. And the message is clearly heard: In video games, we usually sow violence. It’s about time we reap it, too. That’s as deafening a message as I’ve ever seen in a video game before. It’s powerful enough to make you reassess why it is, exactly, that you love violent video games at all.
When the game ends, after the credits roll and you’re rewarded with a trophy notification and the choice to start over with extra resources and a harder difficulty, that image of the boat appears again. But this time, it’s in the sun. And instead of tossing on uncertain waters, it’s sitting firmly on the shore. After all this blood and carnage, all the stabbing, all the tearing of flesh, all the pain, all the bullet storms, we finally get to see some sunlight again. You realize that the game was not about the murky twilight of our past. Not at all. It was about the choice to step away from the shadows of our dads, to leave their failings six feet under the ground, to let the bright light of a new day—a new story—shine on.
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