Our Take: 4.5/5 Stars
“The Last of Us Part II” — a highly anticipated video game sequel — was recently released to the general public on June 19. Cherished by both fans and critics, “The Last of Us” portrayed a growing relationship between two strangers — 28-year-old Joel and 14-year-old Ellie — amidst a zombie-laden post-apocalyptic setting. Despite its fairly generic story, atmosphere and third-person-shooter gameplay, the video game was universally praised, primarily, for its sublime execution of all those combined components. Now, with its release this past week, “The Last of Us Part II” brings much of the same critical acclaim that its predecessor received. But surprisingly, the same cannot be said for its fan-base, a group of people that have waited for seven years.
At a glance, the video game contains everything that made the last game great: a riveting story that is complicated and well executed, the same atmosphere that fans have grown to love and a gameplay mechanic that has been improved upon. Then where does all the hate come from? Is it that the protagonist is a woman? Is it because she is gay? Is it because Joel dies? None of these reasons, despite causing some of the hate, really are the main contributor.
It is the fact that Naughty Dog — the creator of this series — decided to promote a sequel that starred Joel but immediately replaced him, making you play much of the second half as Abby, who is Joel’s killer. The general consensus among fans is that Naughty Dog killed Joel for no reason. Some even consider they did so to promote their social justice values. In the place of logic and reason, these fans resort to anger, posting bad reviews but ignoring the truth of the matter — Naughty Dog killed Joel for a good reason.
“Part II” is a story of revenge. But it is not a story about a revenge plot so much as one about the nature of revenge itself. Despite killing Joel, Abby never seems like a bad person. Usually playing as a character in a videogame warrants a player to view who they are playing as a hero of sorts, but there is something more. Was there a reason behind Joel’s death? Soon players learn of this reason.
In the original, Joel has to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies — a militia group that sprang up in the infection’s aftermath. Ellie’s immunity to the infection, which turns everyone else into zombie-like creatures called The Infected, garners the Fireflies interest, and they want to study her. When delivering Ellie to one of the Fireflies’ hospitals, Joel learns that Ellie will die in the process of discovering a cure. In response he kills everyone, from scores of Firefly army dudes to the doctor preparing for surgery, and “saves” the day.
We realize in “Part II” that the surgeon killed is Abby’s dad. Abby’s motivation for killing Joel is as legitimate as Ellie’s motivation for revenge — both lost a father figure. But then fans complain that in the end, Ellie does not even take the revenge that she spends the whole game seeking, again making Joel’s death pointless.
But here is where fans are missing the point. The game was not about a revenge plot. It was about exploring the nature of revenge — the lengths that characters will go, the morals they will sacrifice and the people they will kill. All of this is left bare, letting players scrutinize motivations, characters and redemption in a fashion remarkable for an “AAA” video game.
That is why Naughty Dog killed Joel: to allow for this reflection. They believed that fans would not cling to the simple veneer of the story and characters but explore the deeper thematic context that they presented in such a rich, untamed fashion. It is unlikely that many of the people leaving abysmal reviews on Metacritic or venting their frustration on Twitter appreciate this.
The animosity around the game could cause a negative expectation — that the game is bad — but most will be pleasantly surprised. Of course, the game is not perfect; no game is. “Part II” has its fair share of gameplay and character imperfections. But what Naughty Dog crafts is more than a game: it is a reflection of humanity.
The story they craft is not meant to be catered for their fans. It is meant to portray the unpredictability of life. The richness of the relationships between well-developed characters is not taken advantage of to build suspense but instead embodied in the actions of mourning protagonists, both of whom have lost fathers. The gameplay is just a perfectly executed add-on that complements what this game is: a masterpiece. As a whole, the game embodies the series’ gritty theme of sacrifice. Ending with Ellie unable to play the guitar, the last memory she has of Joel, “Part II” ends on a powerful note. Revenge is not worth the sacrifice. Ellie was tired, and that is why she didn’t kill Abby.
There are some players who honestly did not enjoy the game. But it is unlikely that the thousands of players tanking its user review scores are warranted in their actions. While the game is indeed sad, it is a raw, unkempt version of reality but not a poorly directed game. It is distressing that fans, who have experienced human struggle, are unable to relate to this.
There is hope, however. “The Last of Us Part II” is the PlayStation 4’s fastest-selling game ever in the United Kingdom, per IGN. For every thousand players that hide behind digital anonymity to degrade it, there are millions of gamers who do not have an issue with its diversity. They appreciate the risk that Naughty Dog has taken and that it is worth $60 despite its 4.1/10 Metacritic user score.