The Last of Us Part II: A Masterpiece With A Personal Impact

I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to realize that I haven’t written a true review of The Last of Us Part II despite having written about the game a few times. I’ve attempted to write a review on other websites before, but they seemed to devolve into me trying to respond to all the criticism of the game more than anything else. And while I want to respond to some reactions this game received in this piece, this review will focus on the merits of the game more than the online discourse.

Ultimately, this review will differ from my other pieces on this blog. I use this blog to talk about things that interest me or to vent when I need to. This game goes beyond something that interests me. It left a pretty major impact on me, and I firmly believe that I am a better person after experiencing this game than I was before playing it. In this review, I’m going to talk about the game’s story, I’m going to talk about the reception the game received, and I’m going to talk about how this game made me a better person. How this game left an impact. I’ll even talk about the criticisms of the game I had because no game is perfect.

Before I begin, I’d like to preempt a common criticism of “being biased” I received after my Ghost of Tsushima review. Yes, my reviews are coming from a place of bias. Not because I have a secret agenda, or that I’m being paid by Naughty Dog, or that I want to see one game fail and another succeed. My reviews are coming from a place of bias because every review ever published comes from a place of bias. I thought this went without saying, but apparently not.

So if you’re reading this, expecting this review to argue from some objective standard that this game is a masterpiece, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I will never apply an objective standard to art because art is subjective, and trying to apply an objective standard to art appears as a sign of being unable to handle a differing opinion, to me at least. If you are someone who dislikes this game, know that I respect your opinion, and I hope that giving my perspective a chance helps you see how someone could like this game, even if you don’t like it.

With all that said, I will split my review up into different sections. I won’t detail every single thing that happens, because the last time I did that, it was so bloated that no one cared to read it. Be on the lookout for a revamped TLOU1 review, by the way. With no further ado, let’s get into my long overdue review of The Last of Us Part II.

Photo Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The first half of the game has a clear aim in mind: the game wants to fuel your rage and get you to despise the people you’re after. The Last of Us Part II starts mostly peacefully. Joel rides off into the sunset after recounting the events of the last game to Tommy. Tommy agrees to take Joel’s secret to the grave with him if he must, establishing the bond these brothers share. Joel fulfills his promise to Ellie from the last game, bringing out the guitar and singing a song. They agree to do guitar lessons, and in that agreement, they agreed to something else: they agree to stay in each other’s lives, to not drift apart. To be a family, in a way.

Four years later, Ellie wakes up. She has friends, a girl she’s crushing on, and a seemingly nice life. It isn’t all perfect, as it’s alluded to that she and Joel aren’t on the best of terms, and there was an incident the night before. We don’t see that incident until much later, but it’s there. Despite that, this settlement seems to live in relative peace, and it’s the closest thing the player has seen to a pre-apocalypse world in this series. However, we know it can’t last, and Naughty Dog knew this too.

We shift to a new, unnamed character. Unlike Ellie, this character doesn’t wake up. She’s jarred out of her sleep because of a nightmare. Her friend has been up for a bit and says he needs to show her something. We come to find out that these characters are Owen and Abby. They’ve been driving south for some time and have “been restless.” Owen shows Abby a view of the Jackson settlement, and they’re here looking for someone. Owen says that everyone will want to abandon the mission once they see the city, but Abby forges on ahead on her own.

For the rest of our time in Jackson, we flip perspectives. We see Ellie, the beloved character from the last game going about her business with Dina, the girl she likes. Then, we switch to Abby, the troubled new character who’s got a grudge against someone in Jackson and is seeking to settle the score. This all culminates in Abby running into Joel and Tommy, who save her from a horde of infected. We realize she was looking for Joel, and our stomach drops. After taking these two back towards her friends and away from the horde, Abby kills Joel in front of an unconscious Tommy and a begging and pleading Ellie.

We then follow Ellie on her journey to Seattle. She spends three days going through and killing anyone in her way to find Abby. We see the ways the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), Abby’s faction, disposed of the FEDRA contingent in the city. We see the brutal executions of these soldiers; we find notes detailing the brutal ways a man named Issac runs the WLF; we see the remnants of the war with FEDRA, and come to find out the group is in another war with the Seraphites, a religious cult in the city. All of this information tells the player, and Ellie, that these people are vicious, and it helps us justify the violence we commit during these three days.

Throughout these three days, we’re constantly reminded of what Abby took away. Ellie’s journal is full of stories of her mental struggles and declining appetite on their way to Seattle. We find out Dina is sick. At the end of Seattle Day 1, we see a flashback to Joel taking Ellie to a museum for her birthday. After finding Jesse, not Tommy, on Seattle Day 2 we see Tommy teaching Ellie to use his rifle and we get another segment of gameplay with Joel. At the end of Day 2, we find out that Ellie knows what Joel did at the end of the last game. These moments bring the feeling of loss to the forefront. We feel the loss of Ellie’s safety in the Jackson community, and we feel the loss of Joel, which fuels our rage even more. Even if we don’t agree with everything Ellie is doing, we’re in her corner, because we feel much of the same emotions she is.

When Ellie, Dina, Tommy, and Jesse are set to leave Seattle, Abby attacks. She kills Jesse, one of Ellie’s best friends, and Dina’s ex. And right as we’re about to see this confrontation come to a head, it cuts to black.

Photo Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The second half of the game has a few different aims it wants to achieve. First, the game wants to re-contextualize the events of the first half of the game. Through this reframing of events, the game wants to challenge you and itself. It wants to challenge you to reflect on the emotions you felt and the biases you hold. The game wants you to examine why you felt this way, and why you hold these biases. It wants you to ask yourself why you were so quick to join Ellie in this rampage, why you are so ready to give her a pass, why you’re so dead-set on killing this character that you don’t even know.

The game wants to challenge itself to present this character to you, removed from the impression they left 10 hours ago, and see if they can get you to change your mindset about them. It doesn’t necessarily want you to come to like or even love this character. It just wants to see if you’re willing to come around and see what the game sees: that this character isn’t any more or less egregious as any other character in this world. That this character isn’t pure evil and deserving of the violent ends of your and Ellie’s rage.

The game shifts to Abby, and we find out more about her. We see she was a Firefly and that she, Owen, and a character named Mel go pretty far back. We find out that her father was a doctor with the Fireflies. Eventually, we’re shown that this man was the man who was to perform the surgery that would have killed Ellie. This is the man that Joel killed to save Ellie. We then shift to Abby killing Joel, and after delivering the killing blow, the camera focuses on her face. Instead of pride, joy, or happiness, we see something else. We see disappointment. We see the face of someone who was waiting for a sense of happiness or peace that never came.

And that’s the first thing the game re-contextualizes. In Ellie’s journal, she writes at one point that Abby’s group traveled to Jackson to torture Joel, because “killing him wasn’t enough.” However, we see that nothing Abby did to Joel wasn’t enough. She thought it would be. Abby thought killing him would be enough. She needed it to be enough, to free her from her nightmares and to give her the peace of mind she needs to move on from her father’s death. But it didn’t bring her any of that, and now she has to live with the guilt of killing a man who saved her life and protected her in the short time they interacted.

Abby has a similar arc to Joel, which has been a point of criticism I’ve seen online. And I agree. However, I don’t think this is a bad thing. If you’re going to recycle something in your game/series, do something with it that goes beyond a simple rehash. Take the WLF hospital, for example. On Seattle Day 2, both Abby and Ellie go to this hospital. However, the way they enter, the parts that they see, and their experiences are different. Ellie swims through a space in the basement whereas Abby walks right in the front door. Ellie has to fight or sneak her way through the building, whereas Abby gets escorted to the part of the hospital she needs to go.

Naughty Dog didn’t simply rehash those hospital assets. You got two unique experiences and two different situations with those assets. And I think you get unique experiences and different perspectives while playing as Abby and Joel, despite them having similar arcs. Beyond those original experiences, they use the similarity of their arcs to challenge your biases towards Joel and against Abby.

She’s part of a faction that indiscriminately kills people of a different faction. He used to be a hunter who indiscriminately killed people for their valuables. He saves a little girl from certain death at the hands of a group she had some ties to. She saves a little boy from certain death at the hands of a group he was born into. Abby kills members of her faction to protect herself and this boy. Joel kills members of the faction he worked with to protect himself and the girl. There are differences here, but they are incredibly similar. And they force you to question yourself. Why are you so willing to give one a pass and not the other? What makes you so dead-set on killing one of these characters in the name of the other? Would the character you’re avenging even want this?

That’s what I love most about Abby’s section of the story. It challenged the biases I had formed and made me reflect on what I was feeling and why I felt it. It made me realize that part of me gave a lot more leeway to Joel and Ellie for their actions because I liked them. I played as them. I saw their pain and witnessed the growth of their relationship. I felt connected to Joel and Ellie, and that bias clouded my judgment. He was becoming a better person! She made him a better person! How could you do this? She had to be a psychopath!

And yet, she isn’t. Abby isn’t a psychopath. I found her to be rather endearing, honestly. This isn’t to excuse her actions. She isn’t absolved of her sins because I like her, in the same way that I had to realize that my love for Ellie and Joel didn’t absolve them of their sins. Abby is flawed, as we see through her cheating with Owen, her willingness to excuse the death of Seraphite children, etc. And yet, we see that she’s not an inherently evil person through her risking of her own life to save Yara and Lev, who saved her life.

She brings Yara and Lev to safety near the end of Day 1 and goes back for them at the start of Day 2. Abby risks her life to find medical supplies to save Yara’s life during Day 2 and even faces her fear of heights to do so. She and Yara sail right into a civil war on Day 3 to find Lev, who went back for his mom. After Yara is killed, Abby risks her life once again to get her and Lev off of the Seraphite island alive. All of this because these two kids saved her life, and gave her the peace of mind she had been seeking. And her decision to do this was no doubt influenced by the knowledge she tortured and killed the last person who saved her life.

Naughty Dog didn’t make me hate Joel or Ellie. They didn’t make Abby my favorite character of all time, as they did with those two. However, they made me question the things I believed and felt about this series. They successfully reframed everything in a way that made me question if there was a right or a wrong party in this situation. And I will not lie. They got me to go from hating Abby with every fibre of my being to honestly liking her and wanting the best for her.

Abby’s three days in Seattle with Owen, Mel, Lev, and Yara come to a head when Abby and Lev find Owen and Mel dead in the aquarium they had been staying at. Lev finds a map that leads them back to the theatre that the Jackson contingent called a temporary home. Now we see the rest of the theatre confrontation through to the conclusion. Abby and Lev incapacitate Tommy, and Abby fights Ellie. It’s a brutal battle that ends with Ellie suffering a broken nose and arm, Dina being knocked unconscious and nearly killed, and Abby stabbed and sliced to bits. It’s a visceral scene, but cooler heads prevail. Abby decides against killing Dina and Ellie and leaves with Lev.

Photo Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Some time passes between the confrontation in Seattle, and we see a farm under warm, beautiful sunlight. Ellie is upstairs, holding Joel’s watch, and is clearly shaking. We hear a child in the distance, and Ellie puts the watch away. Putting on a brave face, Ellie picks the little boy up, and we can now explore the house. We see that Ellie and Dina live here now, raising a child and taking care of a farm. Attentive players may smile a bit, as the two girls talked about wanting to do this back on Seattle Day 1.

And the life seems peaceful until a crash in the barn causes Ellie to experience a PTSD-induced flashback. It quickly becomes clear that while Ellie hasn’t been in Seattle for a while, a part of her never left the war-torn city. There’s a part of her that won’t allow her to move on from what happened in Seattle, or what happened to Joel. She turns to her journal, but it offers no comfort and no escape. Any brief escape she finds causes her to feel guilt, and the thought of talking about Joel makes her feel physically ill.

I’ve written about Ellie’s state of mind on the farm already, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Ellie leaves after Tommy comes with news that Abby and Lev are in Santa Barbara, California. The game has us play with Abby one last time, chasing the rumor that Owen once had to see through, wearing his backpack after losing hers in a blazing inferno. She and Lev find what Owen was looking for: the Fireflies are regrouping in Catalina Island. Before they can find this base, they’re kidnapped by the Rattlers, a slaver group who has taken over Santa Barbara.

Ellie is caught in one of their traps. She’s stabbed by an exposed tree branch. Two Rattlers cut her and a clicker down some time later, and Ellie ends up feeding one of the Rattlers to the clicker. She finds out from the other one that they captured Abby. After getting the location, she kills this Rattler. She fights her way through their camp, killing Rattlers and freeing the captives. One of the captives tells her that Abby is down by the pillars, and is likely already dead. Ellie goes down to the pillars and is shocked. Bodies are tied by hand and feet to be left to roast in the harsh California sun. Some are still alive, others are mere skeletons.

Ellie finds Abby, a shell of her former self, and cuts her down. Abby goes straight to Lev. She says there are boats on the beach, and all three head down. It looks as if Ellie is about to leave, but she has a flashback to Joel’s beaten face, and she can’t. She gets Abby to fight her. Two broken and traumatized women, both shells of their former selves, fight with everything they have left. By the end, Abby is sliced to bits by Ellie’s blade, and Ellie loses two fingers. She tries to drown Abby. Crying, Ellie sees a flash of Joel again, but this time of him smiling and playing his guitar on his porch. Ellie decides to let Abby live. She sails away with Lev, as Ellie sits in the ocean and sobs.

It’s left up to interpretation the main reason Ellie doesn’t kill Abby. And for many people, this didn’t work. For many people, their opinion on this game rested solely on being able to kill Abby. I liked this ending though. I didn’t want these two to fight. When I saw Ellie threaten Lev’s life to get Abby to fight, I knew this wasn’t about any justice for anyone’s death. It isn’t about Joel at this point. Killing Abby isn’t about Joel, and killing her helps no one. It doesn’t bring Joel back, and it isn’t what he would have wanted.

Photo Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The final sequence of the game sees Ellie return to the farm. Some time has passed, how much is unclear. She goes upstairs and finds her art studio with all of her things in it. Ellie sees Joel’s guitar and attempts to play it. She’s unable to play the song Joel taught her, but we see a flashback to the last conversation she had with Joel. It was the night before he was killed. It was the first time she had spoken with him in two years. She says she should have died in the hospital, and he says he would do it again if given the chance. The conversation ends with the two of them agreeing to try and move past the events of the Firefly hospital. The game returns to the present. Ellie puts his guitar down and walks off to the forest as credits roll.

I mentioned that I felt the game wanted to recontextualize a lot of your views and beliefs with Abby’s section of the game. At the end of the game, I think the game wants to attempt to reframe your views one more time. With this final conversation, the game wants your views on Ellie’s motivations to change. While going through the game, I figured Ellie’s main motivation was that she felt an obligation to Joel, even if they weren’t on the greatest terms when he passed. Her journal on Day 3 confirms that she did feel an obligation to him.

With the flashbacks, I thought there was a bit of an element of guilt. She regretted the way her relationship ended, and she regretted that she never attempted to reconcile their differences. This ending made me realize that there was guilt involved, but a lot of her motivation is also love. She loved Joel, just like he loved her, but it was something she never got the chance to say. I believe she believed Joel died without knowing that she loved him. And I think that her remembering this last conversation made her realize he knew. She didn’t have to say it out loud because he already knew.

Where Ellie goes from here is up for interpretation. Maybe she goes back to Jackson, maybe she goes off to another settlement, maybe she goes off on her own. However, that’s the ray of light that she didn’t have before. For the first time, she can choose how she lives her life. She can decide to live how she wants. Her life no longer hinges on a cure, or Joel, or anyone else. Ellie is in control of her destiny.

Photo Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

This game is divisive, and I understand why. The direction this game took is not what many people wanted. It isn’t what I wanted, either. It worked for me, though. And if it didn’t work for you, that’s okay.

Many people will see “masterpiece” and assume that the game is perfect. I am not claiming that this game is perfect at all. Nothing is perfect. However, this game is matched by very few. Everything in this game is so expertly crafted, and they made me feel what it was they wanted to make me feel. It was thought-provoking at every turn, and in the end, all I wanted to do was jump back into the world.

Seeing Ellie go down this dark path after losing Joel was crushing to see. It hurt to see what she couldn’t let Joel’s death go, that his bloody and swollen face haunted her no matter what she did. To see her be unable to function because the only way she felt she could move on was killing the woman that killed Joel was heartbreaking. And seeing her not go through with it, whatever her reasons may be, gave me hope. It made me happy. I hope that she finds peace in the third game if we get one. If there’s any character that deserves it, it's her.

With Abby, it was an enormous risk. First impressions are vastly important. For Naughty Dog to attempt to get the player to come off their hatred, even a little bit, after introducing her as the killer of the first game’s protagonist was an insanely enormous risk. And for me, it worked. I understand if people don’t like Abby, but I found her endearing. Her relationships with Lev and Manny were nice to see. The moment she shares with Owen at the end of Day 2 where she admits she stopped looking for the light was one of my favorite moments of the game. Her dreams that began with reliving her father’s death and ended with seeing him alive were a great way to show her progression in coming to terms with his death. Abby waking up peacefully after the dream with her father alive was something I didn’t catch the first time around, either.

My favorite part of this story is the subtlety. Nothing is spoon-fed to the player. They trust the player to look below the surface, to recognize the subtext, to pick up things in Ellie’s journal, etc. And that takes this story from good to elite in my eyes. I like when a story makes me think about what I saw and piece together things I may not have picked up on the first time around. These little details and subtleties make me want to replay games and make me so much more invested in a story. And I don’t think there is a game studio that masters this quite like Naughty Dog.

There’s so much I can say about this game, and so much that I will probably say at a later date. This game was a masterpiece for me, and the impact it left on me is immeasurable.

Photo Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

This section will be the last section of this piece. And it will cover both games because both games mean so much to me. The impact these games have had on me is twofold.

Back in 2016, I became swept up in the online culture war. The people who had my ear kept telling me about these evil leftist SJWs who were trying to force diversity into my entertainment. Being the fucking idiot I was, I bought into that. Never mind the fact that most of the “go woke go broke” examples these people brought up were pieces of media I never experienced for myself. It sounded right to me, so I bought into it. I bought into it for a lot longer than I should have. And that’s where The Last of Us comes in.

My political beliefs changed a lot after I started college and actually engaged with political theory beyond online discourse. But I still wasn’t all the way there. I still held on to the “go woke go broke” idea, and that’s when I first played The Last of Us Remastered. It came with my PS4, which I bought in February 2020. And I fell in love with the game instantly. However, when I went to look online, many people that I listened to were just complaining about the DLC for being “SJW” or whatever. I played the DLC and saw nothing that screamed “forced diversity.” I watched their videos and saw they were just mad that Ellie kissed another girl.

I stopped watching that type of content after that. I finally saw these people were full of shit and relied on angry people to line their pockets. The leaks to The Last of Us Part II confirmed this. Everyone in that space jumped up to call the game “woke garbage” months before it came out because it was trendy after the leaks came out. They saw a woman with muscles, a same-sex relationship between two women, and rumors of a trans character and assumed the game was pushing a “woke agenda,” whatever that means.

It wasn’t just these two games that got me out of being an anti-SJW. As my political beliefs shifted, I listened to more and more people who would’ve been considered “SJWs” by me a few years ago. And that also helped me escape that mode of thought. I used to think that leftists were trying to force an agenda down my throat, and now I am a leftist. These games started me down that path in a way, and for that, these games mean a lot to me.

I don’t talk about this because I’m proud of the things I used to believe. Hell, after this piece, I’m going to make it my mission to never talk about this again because I’m not proud and I don’t want a medal for getting out of that headspace. I just want to acknowledge the role these games played because I am a better person for having played these games.

Beyond culture war bullshit, I don’t think I’d even be here writing this piece if it wasn’t for these games. I was stuck in this cycle of forcing myself to write about sports because I felt that was all I was good at. It felt like that was all I was passionate about. I would join up with these random sports blogs to give me something to do, even though I was burned out. When I played the first game, I realized that there might be something more than I could do with my writing, but I didn’t quite know how. After playing the second game, I took the initiative.

I changed my major to put myself in a better position to write about video games. Whether that be reviews, or writing at a game studio, I didn’t care. I wanted to write about video games and the stories within them. The first article I wrote that wasn’t a sports article was about this game. It was my first attempt at a pacifist run through the game to see how many enemies it makes you kill. But my focus was still on sports because ultimately the site that I was at was still a sports site.

That’s what led to the creation of this blog. My first article for this blog wasn’t about TLOU, but it wouldn’t have been made if it weren't for these games. I would still be writing at sports blogs that had no future, doing work that didn’t make me happy, all because I felt stuck with no way to go. These games made me passionate about writing again, and I even discovered a newfound desire to write about sports as well. My article looking at coaches the Lions could hire to replace Anthony Lynn is my most viewed article on this blog. And none of that would’ve happened if it wasn’t for these games.

These games made me fall in love with writing again. I discovered a new passion because of them. And I became a much better person because of them. So, no, they’re not perfect. Many people will never see the Last of Us Part II in the same light that I see it. However, to me, it’s a masterpiece, and when I was lost in the darkness, it helped me look for the light.

If you would like to see more articles like this, please consider supporting me with a small donation. You can donate through my ko-fi page. I appreciate all your support!

Featured Photo Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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Tristin McKinstry

Associate Editor for ClutchPoints. San Antonio Brahmas reporter for XFL News Hub. Also worked previously with The Inquisitr.