Why The Last of Us Part II fell short

How old is Ellie in The Last of Us Part 2? |Back in June of 2018 when this website was barely getting off the ground I wrote a rather longwinded article about Naughty Dogs post-apocalyptic shooter The Last of Us. Not very long after that a sequel was confirmed to be in development and was going to release sometime in 2020. Fast forward to 2020 and the world is now in shambles. America is on the brink of another civil rights movement and Donald Trump is still somehow president. To top it off the agony that came before the release of The Last of Us Part II was very fitting with the times and was equally as frustrating.

Back in 2017, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier released an article revealing a poor experience a former Naughty Dog employee had with the company. In the article, the employee explained that two years prior they had been sexually harassed by a lead at Naughty Dog and was even bribed by Sony to keep quiet about the experience. Prior to this, he was allegedly fired for speaking about his experience with Sony’s HR team.

Three years later, Jason Schreier would again write a feature on Naughty Dog employees, this time focusing on the time crunch that occurred before the release of The Last of Us Part II. Schreier wrote, “Even in an industry where overtime is ubiquitous, where it’s near-impossible to find a game that isn’t the result of weeks or months of crunch, Naughty Dog stands out.”

According to the article, some employees were pushed to their breaking point while working on finishing The Last of Us Part II. Most of them had to work twelve-hour days, on the weekends, sacrificing family, friends, and their personal lives.

If this wasn’t enough, the game also had one of the most damning leaks in gaming history, only being matched by Valve back during the development of Half-Life 2.

Due to Covid-19 the follow up to The Last of Us was initially delayed indefinitely, missing its original release date of February 21. However, things quickly became muddled after a youtube channel uploaded gameplay and cutscene footage of a near-final build of the game. The cutscenes spoiled very major plot points and twists for the game’s story. The build also included a debug menu full of level names and other data.

The internet of course got a hold of all this information and quickly began judging the game before it had even come out. The pressure from this leak subsequently caused Sony to announce a new June 19 release date for the highly-anticipated title, which was followed up with an official statement from Naughty Dog.

This was the maelstrom that led up to the very complicated official release of The Last of Us Part II. Fans waited seven years to experience the game, sat through several pushbacks, leaks all while being quarantined. And you know what? It wasn’t worth it.

For all of its strengths, The Last of Us Part II has a number of weaknesses that seem to glare at the player from beyond the screen. It’s an abundantly flawed experience with so many twists and turns that forcibly yank the player from all directions as they desperately trudge through its most decrepit depths. I know I’m making it seem like it’s horrible, but it’s not. I think the greatest disappointment with The Last of Us Part II is actually the fact that it’s so unremarkable. It’s mediocre, average, and dare I say uninspired.

I have a lot of feelings toward this game, both negative and positive. So as I’m delivering them please just think about my experience for one moment. I’m not a die-hard fan but I did have expectations. I’m not close-minded, but I did not care for some ideas. I’m neither here nor there about the game to be quite honest. And yet, I still feel the need to talk about it. Because it’s true, I wasn’t content with just a good experience. I truly wanted something greater.

The first two hours of the game were rather boring up until Joel met his demise at the hands of Abby wielding a seven iron. There were a few moments, like when Joel plays the guitar for Ellie that was great to watch. The delivery from both Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson really shines during this moment. The tension and awkwardness between the two characters can be so clearly understood, it’s amazing. This is probably where many people, including myself, said to themselves, “Yeah, this is going to be great.” Then once you’re thrown into the game the tutorial segments for Ellie and Abby are heavily marred by its poor pacing and strange character dialogue.

The dialogue, while playful at times, borders on Netflix original levels of corny. I don’t know who’s choice it was to make every character in the game the most charismatic person in the world who knew exactly what to say one hundred percent of the time, but allow me to be the first to admit; it was a bad idea. This is more noticeable on Ellie’s portion of the game but there are plenty of bad cuts from Abby’s as well. It just surprises me that every character can be so upbeat and quip with each other constantly despite being apart of the most devastating event in human history. Every character has killed and must kill to survive, some like Ellie from an incredibly young age. So how could they be so cheerful and personable all of the time? While I do understand some characters were already born into it and others have possibly gotten used to it already, you’d think during some more serious moments they’d understand when the right time to fool around is.

This wouldn’t be an issue if it was a few characters like Jesse or Dina, who due to their young age may not have become as hardened as say someone like Joel. However, it’s not and affects nearly every character in the story, even characters who have every right to be hard-boiled. This is just scratching the surface of strange out of place dialogue choices the game is littered with. I would say this is most noticeable during the first two hours of the game but I can understand Naughty Dog trying to create a certain atmosphere before deconstructing it. There are points where this does slow down but this was a feature that heavily colorized my initial thoughts on the game itself. While charming at times it just seems rather out of place and sometimes even forced. For a game so heavily reliant on character dialogue it’s incredibly disappointing seeing it done poorly here when its been so easily achieved before by Naughty Dog.

I would say the moments where dialogue really carries its weight is during some of its more indirect moments. You really get a feel for some of the characters based more on their actions and offhanded comments. For instance, after stealth killing a character you’ve subdued Ellie will carelessly drop them to the floor and often cuss at them or make some dark remark. It’s a nice touch and while depending on the playstyle one may find it annoying (she only has so many dialogue options) I liked what it revealed about her character. The same goes for how Ellie would go about opening doors and searching for items. During some sections, she would do so quietly and methodically. Other times it would be haphazard and irregular. It’s one of those things you notice over the course of the game and grow to appreciate over time.

After Joel’s death, the game launches into a three-day structure one focusing on Ellie searching for Abby in Seattle and the second focusing on Abby herself. I must admit its a compelling way to deliver a story and something not many games have explored before. With that being said the execution itself is rather sloppy.

The first day as Ellie while fun at stages ultimately amounts to almost nothing. During this day the player is meant to connect with both Ellie and Dina through their character dialogue and the moments they share together but during this point a lot of the forced conversation between the two quickly becomes apparent. Very few moments feel authentic between the two however there are a few choice bits of dialogue that do make their relationship grow, specifically Dina talking about her Jewish past and her sister.

Day one of Seattle is also what introduces the player to segments, or the main way the game is progressed. Each level is broken up into segments focusing on different set pieces based around two methods of gameplay: exploration or combat. For example, the beginning of day one sets Ellie and Dina on the outskirts of Seattle where they have to explore and solve puzzles. Once they get inside a building it launches into a sneak and combat section. The game is completed almost exclusively through this system and I must say it’s pretty enjoyable. In some ways it makes the game feel a lot less linear than it actually is and that could be really appealing to some players. In other cases, it can also just be an incredibly digestible form of storytelling. It allows the player to move at their own pace and perhaps in some cases add some artificial lengthening. Even if it admittedly doesn’t need that I would still consider it good game design.

While day one is easily the most uneventful day of Ellie’s story that’s not really saying much as there are a fair number of twists and turns it takes before we reach its end.  Toward the conclusion, there are a few choice segments that really make the player feel tense and takes full control over some of the game’s more interesting mechanics. Like during the underground segment where you can pit the clickers against the WLF members trying to hunt you down. The dynamic use of shadows also adds a lot of new interesting layers to sneaking making it much more entertaining.

The day ends in a rather somber conversation between Ellie and Dina that once again fails to make the player care about either of them. Dina, after revealing to Ellie that she is pregnant, jokingly says to Ellie, “Don’t worry, it’s not yours” as tears began welling in her eyes. It’s yet another textbook example of how the dialogue attempting to humanize these characters can really just take me out of the whole experience. I am trying to sympathize with an utterly difficult scene. Both parties feel as if they’ve been betrayed, it’s melodramatic but still dramatic. Don’t take me out of it by using some cheesy one-liner.

Another thing this scene does with or without the player knowing is set up one of the main motifs that will be showing up a lot throughout the game. The theme of duality. At the beginning of the game, Owen reveals to Abby that his partner Mel is pregnant which blindsides her. With this we now in a similar scene under a similar context where two close characters who are also romantically involved revealing that one of them is pregnant. It’s one of the most in your face moments that tries to connect Ellie to Abby. I suppose in some cases it works and in others, it really doesn’t. It’s my belief that this is an attempt to get the player to understand and emphasize with Abby more due to the fact that the player would natrually care about Ellie more since we’ve had a full game to understand her character. However, a lot of it just feels like lazy writing to me. Now keep in mind, this isn’t the only way Druckman and Gross attempt to make Abby a more humanized character. There are a number of flashback sequences that explain some of her past which may or may not be another attempt at creating a link between her and Ellie. However, as a whole duality as a way of making Abby a more fleshed out character truly fails in what it hopes to achieve.

As a way of storytelling, however, it’s not a horrible way to go about things. In many ways, it’s a decent method of driving home some of the finer points the game tries to instill in the player. Namely those about forgiveness and revenge. Does that mean any of those themes are good on their own? Not necessarily. However, the use of duality is an absorbable way of making those ideas more salient. Something I wholeheartedly understand and appreciate about the game. While these aren’t exactly obtuse concepts for the player to understand it makes sense considering the game’s tone and overall presentation. Yes, they’re in your face about it and that isn’t the worst way to go about things. While it may turn off a few video game elitists your core demographic is always going to be the ultimate judge.

Day two begins after a nice flashback sequence between Ellie and Joel. It’s a rather somber moment considering what players experienced earlier and a good example of this game doing storytelling right. I really like this sequence and Joel’s self-referential humor. The sequences afterward traveling through some commercial districts in Seattle has a lot of really nice gameplay moments. I would argue this day is the most gameplay oriented and I really like this too. While the story may fall flat on its face gameplay is truly where The Last of Us Part II shines brightly. Every improvement upon the original mechanics is beautiful. Changes to the crafting and upgrade system make combat seamless. The ability to go prone and hide in the grass makes sneaking significantly more viable than in its previous entry. AI improvements make the world feel much more fleshed out and give some of your enemies more depth. Some may try a direct approach and snuff you out. Others keep to their post to cover blind spots and exits.

Sometimes after killing an enemy another may call out them by name making the world feel much more real. It may even subconsciously cause the player to question their own actions. The game gives you a number of rather unique ways to go about taking down the WLFs and Seraphites ranging from clean and quick to downright cruel and unusual. At time’s it can get pretty ludicrous so small moments that make the player realize exactly what they’re doing are excellent methods of worldbuilding.

Day two ends in Ellie making a solo trip to a WLF hospital to kill Nora. It’s a bittersweet conclusion. Yes, Nora dies and Ellie fulfills one part of her revenge scheme but there’s not much catharsis in doing so. This is a running theme that’s going to continue throughout the rest of the game and for better, or for worse its probably the biggest idea Druckman and Gross were trying to get across. Whether it works or not is really up to the individual player but for what it’s worth I can appreciate the theme for its consistency if anything else. After killing Nora Ellie returns to the hideout bruised, bloody and uncertain. There’s one more flashback sequence before the next day which explains the strained relationship between Joel and Ellie and to be quite honest, despite the fact its well-acted, the whole thing feels incredibly rushed and out of place. The player isn’t given enough time to breathe and absorb the information that’s already been given to them. I believe it would fit much better at the end of day three.

Day three feels arguably the shortest out of all of Ellie’s story but its also packed with the most amount of information and to be honest that can be a little jarring to a lot of players. As a whole, there’s enough gameplay to space out some of the segments but there’s little climax to when Ellie kills Owen and Mel. I suppose that’s probably the point of it but this one, in particular, is meant to make the player feel somewhat guilty. The only issue is that there is really no way of feeling that. Even looking back in retrospect after playing Abby’s section I feel nothing. No, I don’t care that Mel dies with her baby inside of her I have no connection to these characters, there were honestly points where I felt like Mel was written for me not to like her.

Going back to what I said about this game and duality the parallel between Mel and Dina also really meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. Dina was a character I already didn’t like and the same I have already said about Mel. And as if we couldn’t push the bar further on the topic of duality the end of Ellie’s arc leads to Abby’s.

Abby’s three-day struggle begins very similarly to Ellies. The game ingratiates the player into one of the WLF bases drawing a lot of obvious parallels between it and Jackson. For instance, both characters are given food at the beginning of their journey and go through a shooting-based tutorial. There are also a few not so subtle comparisons like how classrooms are presented differently in both sides of the story. As I mentioned previously, I like this I think in cases like these its subtle enough to where it doesn’t completely force-feed the player undeveloped themes and characters.

As a whole, I am not going to go over everything that occurs in Abby’s story because a lot that can be said about Ellie’s arc is what can also be said about Abby. However, that doesn’t mean nothing happens. In fact, Abby’s section for all of its faults is honestly the better half of The Last of Us Part II at least from a gameplay perspective. Abby boasts a better arsenal of weapons, her upgrades are a lot more useful, and the set pieces she encounters are much more memorable than Ellies. In a strange sort of way, it feels like Naughty Dog went out of their way to make you like Abby more than Ellie. Or at the very least make her segments a lot more enjoyable to play. However, in a strangely ironic sense, it also suffers a lot of the same problems that Ellie’s arc does.

In its simplest terms, Abby’s three days are spent borderline recreating the experience of the first game in the series. I know for many people that thought kind of sounds enticing in its own way since it’s a game we all know and love, but allow me to explain how that tried and true formula can be broken down and beaten into a million little pitiful pieces. Abby as a stand-in for Joel and Lev for Ellie on paper is a half-decent idea, both of them are just different enough on the first glace to seem like a compelling duo and they both have a wide range of skill sets that complement each other gameplay and story-wise. Being from rival groups there are already are a lot of tensions prebuilt behind the characters.

This odd couple has every reason not to be together and yet they are, similarly to Joel and Ellie. However, the biggest separation between them and our other odd couple is the fact we have an entire game to understand their relationship. Abby and Lev have just a couple of segments and while they are pretty amazing segments the same can’t be said about how their relationship develops. Abby already being a haphazardly written character with motivations and feelings so run-of-the-mill its sad is not a good foil for Lev. However, out of all the characters that appear in the game one of the few I actually enjoyed at times was Lev. Lev is fragile with a hard exterior, Lev has a complicated but simultaneously mysterious backstory, Lev also has a clear motivation and moral compass which is clearly defined throughout the story. It’s a nice change of pace considering the only interesting thing about Abby is that she has a fear of heights, something you notice only because it directly affects gameplay.

To me, this only makes her parallel story that much more ill-considered, for if it were more competently handled it could have lead to a much more climactic scene at the end of her three-day arc. That’s not to say that her entire story is horrible, there are a few interesting bits of dialogue between Lev and Abby that feel pretty real and don’t suffer the same issues as the conversations between Ellie, Dina, and Jesse. However, when you really break it down there also isn’t a whole lot to chew on. It’s wholly self-contained and honestly quite predictable despite the dramatic irony. The only thing that caught me off guard was this game’s Game of Thrones-like ability to kill off main characters at random times. The only difference being that most characters who die, I really couldn’t care less about.

Even when Ellie and Dina nearly die at the hands of Abby at the end of her segment I really couldn’t care what would happen to any of these characters. At that point I was so done with the game I was just going through motions to finish it. At the most climactic moment where things were actually beginning to clash, it was hard for me to even feel anything. That’s when a story truly fails and that’s probably the biggest travesty here. I knew it wasn’t supposed to be about revenge. That much was clear, but the way they spun it to be about forgiveness was equally as disingenuous. This became even more of an issue during the final moments of the game.

Both Abby and Ellie had a lot to lose over the course of their adventure. The sacrifices that were made while plentiful were never really enough to satisfy any sort of meaning. For such a colorful cast of characters, you’d think one of them would command any sort of feeling but they don’t. Ellie sacrificing her relationship with Dina didn’t matter to me because I didn’t care for it in the first place. Her trauma while relatable ultimately went unappreciated.

Santa Barbra for its nice visuals really feels the last minute and rushed. By that point, the player is so tired from being force-fed a bland story full of featureless characters they’re just trying to finish it and gain something. I knew what the ending was before I finished the game, not because I had looked at spoilers but because everything was so predictable. I can empathize with those who wanted it to go the way it didn’t. Regardless of how you feel about one character over another, there’s a clear pick of who you’d want to see fulfilled and for most players who don’t really care about a richer storyline at this point, this is all you’d really want to see after enduring a 24-hour game. On that front, I can see where a lot of the fans criticism comes from.

The Last of Us Part II is a lot of things and sadly satisfying isn’t exactly one of them. For every beautiful set piece, there’s a dreadful character meant to explore it. For every beautiful performance, there’s a piece of half-baked dialogue. For every breathtaking moment, there’s one wicked eternity. All of this balances out to form an average gaming experience. One that will leave you with your arms crossed, indifferently staring at the screen. I implore those who are fans of the series to give this one a shot regardless of what some amateur critics like myself might say.

It’s always best to judge something with your own eyes than with a set of someone else’s.

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